Live From the US Open: ESPN Stays Focused on Task at Hand While Eying 2015 Transition

It may be a full two years before ESPN takes over as exclusive rightsholder and world-feed provider of the US Open tennis tournament, but preparations are already well under way. With an 11-year, reportedly $770 million deal to take over the full US Open rights from CBS in 2015, ESPN’s production and operations teams are looking to make the transition as seamless as possible.

ESPN Remote Ops Team: (from left) Chris Strong, technical manager; Mark Kwok, technical manager; Terry Brady, director of operations; Joalin Goff, senior operations producer

ESPN Remote Ops Team: (from left) Chris Strong, technical manager; Mark Kwok, technical manager; Terry Brady, director of operations; Joalin Goff, senior operations producer

“We are very much aware of 2015 and are looking forward to the challenge from a production and operations standpoint,” says Terry Brady, ESPN’s director of operations at the Open. “We have no definitive plan per se, but we are here, and we are evaluating the situation right now. There have definitely been discussions between the operations and production group [about how to produce the Open in 2015], but that is all still to be determined.”

In addition to taking over CBS’s coverage — including the headliner Labor Day weekend and the Men’s and Women’s Semi and Final windows — ESPN will begin producing the world feed previously handled by CBS. Although CBS and ESPN (along with Tennis Channel) have worked hand-in-hand for several years, taking on the world-feed production dramatically transforms ESPN’s presence at the Open.

Jamie Reynolds, VP, event production, ESPN

Jamie Reynolds, VP, event production, ESPN

“I file this under the ‘Be careful what you wish for because you might get it’ moniker,” says Jamie Reynolds, VP, event production, ESPN. “For our majors coverage, we have always enjoyed the benefit of sitting on top of a world-feed operation. When you have that luxury, you get more time to worry about the content, journalistic content, style, branding, and all the ingredients that can differentiate the ESPN show. That’s a wonderful place to be because you don’t have to worry about the nuts and bolts of the world-feed operation. Now all of that will fall on us, which is a quite a tall task.”

Horizontal vs. Vertical Thinking
For now, however, it is very much business as usual for ESPN at the USTA Billie Jean King Tennis Center, televising 100 hours of linear coverage on ESPN and ESPN2 (as well as 400 on ESPN3). As always, the daytime and primetime shows present very different challenges for ESPN.

The ESPN set outside Arthur Ashe Stadium

The ESPN set outside Arthur Ashe Stadium

“From 11 a.m. to 7 p.m., it’s [similar to] whip-around golf coverage in that we are looking around the landscape and looking for the best action. You are thinking horizontally in that you are going from [Courts] 17 to 11 to 13 to Ashe to Armstrong to Grandstand and back again,” says Reynolds. “Then, at [7 p.m.], it becomes vertical thinking, where you have linear playout of the evening with a short pregame, the first match, then ‘tweener’ coverage, then the second match.”

ESPN is once again sharing an abundance of resources with CBS, including F&F’s GTX-16 mobile unit, which serves as the home to the primary linear telecasts on both networks. At the heart of GTX-16 is the newly installed Grass Valley K-Frame Kayenne switcher, which boosts the total available inputs from 96 to 128 and allows for 64 outputs.

“It makes the workflow easier just in the sense that you are not having to use subrouters to move everything around,” says Technical Manager Chris Strong. “The box was built bigger in order to handle 3G, not to [create] more inputs. But [as a result] on the [720p and 1080i HD] shows you get the luxury of having more firepower.”

Cranking Up File-Based Workflows
As has been the case with nearly all the network’s largest shows over the past couple of years, ESPN has boosted its use of file-based workflows between its remote operation and Bristol, CT, headquarters. Events like X Games, the 2012 EUROs and 2013 Confederations Cup, and even Monday Night Football have begun pushing content back and forth over IP with Bristol in order to provide access to more content both on-site and at home.

“Last year, we started introducing [file-based workflows] at the US Open [on a small scale], and now it has come full circle,” says Strong. “Over the last year, it has become more of a staple in what we do on tennis. It allows us to get to archival footage more easily, which allows us to travel less [EVS] XFile drives. It’s a push-and-pull scenario, so they can take clips from us and use it for SportsCenter, or we can go after archival footage that we may want from them that is accessible on the Quantel server in Bristol.”

Spidercam
The Spidercam aerial camera system is back on center court at Arthur Ashe Stadium for its fourth consecutive year serving ESPN. Once again, ESPN has exclusive use of the system but is also providing the feed to the world feed and a handful of international broadcasters.

Roger Federer via Spidercam, a feature of ESPN’s US Open coverage

Roger Federer via Spidercam, a feature of ESPN’s US Open coverage

“Spidercam is back, and we continue to utilize it as a unique asset to the ESPN coverage that we also offer to the world feed and broadcasters,” says Reynolds. “It has become a signature element for us, and we expect that it will continue to be.”

The Death of ‘TV Court’?
Not surprisingly, the USTA and ESPN have big digital plans for 2015 and beyond. The role of ESPN3 and other multiplatform coverage of the Open will continue to grow with non-TV courts (there are currently six “TV courts” at the Tennis Center) likely gaining more exposure in the early rounds. According to ESPN Senior Director of Programming & Acquisitions Jason Bernstein, live streaming coverage of all courts will continue to be available on USOpen.org and other USTA digital outlets via the ESPN-branded video player.

“With the US Open, it was our collective goal with the USTA to retire the term TV court and just have courts where everything can be viewed. We believe that will happen, and it’s a massive driver for us,” says Bernstein. “Tennis is absolutely critical to ESPN3. The fact that the US Open is a two-week event carrying boatloads of live championship content at all hours of the day and night aligns perfectly with our ESPN3 strategy.”

Looking Ahead to 2015
ESPN’s new role at the Open may be less than 24 months away, but its mindset remains very much the status quo. Though folks at ESPN can’t be blamed for keeping a keen eye on 2015.

“There is a lot of monitoring going on, but, in terms of approach this year or any wholesale changes, that is by no means the plan,” says Bernstein. “There won’t be an impact on our business or approach right now, but we are certainly looking at opportunities as to how the event can be showcased a little differently with a new lens in 2015.”