Live From Wimbledon: ESPN Shifts Gears for Expanded Role at U.S. Open

The Wimbledon Tennis Champions came to an end over the weekend, delivering tennis fans and ESPN execs the matchups they wanted, closed the books on a tournament that took a while for story lines to develop, and now allows the entire ESPN tennis production team to turn its full attention to what will be an incredibly busy three months of activities related to the U.S Open Tennis Championship.

“We’ve been playing three dimensional chess between paying attention to Wimbledon and then on July 6 the USTA effectively turned over the Tennis Center from being a construction zone to a broadcast venue operation,” says Jamie Reynolds, ESPN, vice president, event production. “Through May and June the USTA diligently deconstructed and got the hardware out so that we can rolls ours in, dress it properly, and get it ready for start of play on August 31.”

Looking back at Wimbledon, Reynolds says the first week took a while for something to spark the tournament and its storylines.

“We got to Thursday of the opening week and nothing had really taken hold,” he recalls. “But then on Thursday England lost in the women’s World Cup on an own goal so the country was deflated. And then on Friday there was a moment of silence for the victims of the Tunisia terrorist attack. So the host country was going through an emotional roller coaster.

“So to watch everyone on Henman Hill stand in unison for the moment of silence when the 12 o’clock bell rang left us dumbstruck. And then on Friday afternoon Heather Watson took the court against Serena Williams and you could feel the emotional groundswell. It was very dynamic and it was the energized spark that turned everything on.”

The tournament offered a number of amazing matchups, even outside of the final: Serena and Venus Williams played each other and then there were two semifinal matchups, Serena vs. Maria Sharipova and Andy Murray vs. Roger Federer that were storytelling gold.

“Hopefully the tennis gods reward you and this weekend we walked into what we wanted,” adds Reynolds.

The on-the-court stories were complemented by off-the-court coverage from around the grounds that took advantage of new beauty cameras that were placed in key locations.

“The new cameras may change our way of thinking about interacting with the crowds and venue,” says Reynolds. “Part of our challenge is to enhance those shots with on-air personalities that can get into the moment somewhere on the grounds, whether it is St. Mary’s Walk or anywhere else. It’s all about discovery and access and the concern is you don’t want to lose the intimacy of connection. You want to remain close to the players an crowd and nurture that access.”

While the production team at Wimbledon was wrapping up this weekend a technical and production team back in New York City was gearing up for the U.S. Open. This is the first time ever that ESPN finds itself in the roll of host broadcaster as it will be responsible for providing court coverage of 11 TV courts, four of which will use the Hawkeye automated camera system.

“The model we’ve learned is right brain/left brain with the left side thinking how to stay neutral and offer a pure host broadcast signal that also has a little bit of sensibility towards the clients that are being served,” says Reynolds. “We want it to be as robust as anything we would do for our domestic production.”

Before even getting to that step a massive effort is being undertaken by ESPN’s production team and Gearhouse Broadcast as they change the nature of the TV compound that will be home for the ESPN team that will pull in all of the audio and video feeds and create ESPN’s domestic coverage and the host broadcast coverage.

“It will look very different from previous years as it is moving from being truck based to fully flypack based,” says Reynolds. “It will be similar to the same workflow and venue layout as you would experience in Australia at the Australian Open.”

Reynolds says the goal was to take a lot of the experience and interaction that ESPN has had over the years with those who have provided host broadcast coverage: Tennis Australia and Channel Seven for the Australian; the BBC at Wimbledon; the French Federation of Tennis at the French Open; and CBS at the U.S. Open.

“We’ve been observing to see what would work for our system and then composite the best of all of those tournaments,” he says.

Thirty-two production trailers are currently being pulled together in the U.S. Open production compound and then double stacked to form the physical home for the operational space. Over the next two weeks Gearhouse will bring in the hardware (some of which was used for the Australian Open which also relies on flypacks) and then make sure equipment and workflows are fully operational.

And as if that wasn’t enough ESPN also is taking over the production duties for the five weeks of U.S. Open Series tennis matches from the Tennis Channel. The Series includes five weeks of tennis coverage beginning on July 27 in Atlanta and concluding in New Haven, CT and Winston Salem, NC on August 29.

“From May through Sept. 15 we can take advantage of the fact that a lot of our production people are passionate and want to be part of a more consistent tour so we have a broad spectrum of events to keep people tuned up,” adds Reynolds.