ESPN Doubles Down on Charlotte Facility To Welcome SEC Network

John Stephens has called ESPN’s facility in Charlotte, NC, his home since ESPNU launched in March 2005. During that decade, the associate director of production operations has seen the building blossom before his eyes, but he has never experienced a growth spurt quite like this.

John Stephens, associate director of production operations, SEC Network and ESPNU, has overseen infrastructure at the Charlotte facility since its opening in 2005.

John Stephens, associate director of production operations, SEC Network and ESPNU, has overseen infrastructure at the Charlotte facility since its opening in 2005.

Since renovations and expansions began on the facility in January, ESPN has added two control rooms, three sets, and 2,800 sq. ft. of studio space, all while doubling the capacity of the building’s routing core. It was completed at the end of last month, just in time for a few test runs prior to today’s launch of SEC Network.

“It’s been incredibly fast,” Stephens laughs matter-of-factly.

The new primary control room for SEC Network studio programming was built as an exact replica of the existing ESPNU control room down the hall, with some technological updates. With a Grass Valley Kalypso production switcher at its heart, the room operates the chief SEC Network studio set that is home to SEC Now, the net’s news and information program, which will debut with a three-hour special edition at 6 p.m. ET today.

Expansion of the facility included two new control rooms.

Expansion of the facility included two new control rooms.

A significant difference in the facility’s workflow is wholesale changes in its editing suites. Seven Avid suites have been pulled out and replaced by nine Quantel stations, which work seamlessly with the primary control room’s playout and QEP systems, also supplied by Quantel.

The building’s routing core, designed by Grass Valley, was doubled in size to accommodate the new capacity that came with the SEC Network. It now has a capacity of more than 500 ports.

“We were full before, and now we’ve doubled it and filled it right back up again,” says Stephens. “As a matter of fact, we had to take sources off of it because we added so much to it.”

The expansion also called for a build-out of the facility’s central record, which is actually the only place in the building that has tape machines available. In the past couple of years, ESPNU has digitized nearly all of its 80,000-tape library. Both ESPNU and SEC Network will work fully on file-based workflows, and its asset-management infrastructure is tied via fiber to the ESPN mothership in Bristol.

Two studio sets were added to handle programming, such as the network's flagship news and information show, SEC Now.

Two studio sets were added to handle programming, such as the network’s flagship news and information show, SEC Now.

Now, there is no SEC institution in Charlotte — or the whole state of North Carolina, for that matter — and yet, when ESPN and the SEC announced formation of the SEC Network, the Charlotte facility made sense for its geographic hub.

Approximately 23,400 miles of fiber-optic cable has been laid to connect all 14 SEC campuses and their venues to each other and to the Charlotte facility. That includes the efficient “Bureau Cams”: each institution was required to construct a tiny interview station where a coach or player could be interviewed live by ESPN’s SEC Network talent. That room is fibered to Charlotte, where the feed comes in and the camera at the school can be operated robotically from the secondary SEC control room.