Live From the NFL Draft: ESPN Brings First-Class Production to Second City

As the NFL Draft continues to swell into one of the largest-scale one-off events on the annual sports calendar, so too does ESPN’s television production. ESPN is set to deliver more than 30 hours of live Draft programming from Chicago and, in order to do so, has rolled out a massive operation that includes nearly 30 cameras, three studio sets, its quintet of NEP EN-1 Monday Night Football trucks, and a whopping 90,000 feet of fiber to bring it all together. While the scope of ESPN’s Draft show may seem intimidating, the network benefited from last year’s experience.

ESPN's 40x40 set at Selection Square in Grant Park is the home to its breadth of should programming, including NFL Insiders

ESPN’s 40×40-ft. set at Selection Square in Grant Park is the home to its breadth of should programming, including NFL Insiders.

“We did this show for so many years in New York and we had a routine, so last year we didn’t make any major changes to our schedule since there were a lot of unknowns with Draft Town and the overall setup,” says ESPN Senior Operations Director Steve Carter. “But this year, we have modified our schedule to operate a lot more efficiently here in Chicago than last year. We have a better idea of the size and scope this year, as well. Last year, all we saw were drawings, but this year we have a concept of just how large the area actually is in reality. So there aren’t as many surprises this year.”

Taking Over Chicago
In addition to the Draft itself (which will be produced in 1080p for the second consecutive year) at the Auditorium Theatre of Roosevelt University on Thursday and Friday (Rounds 1-3) and Selection Square across the street in Grant Park on Saturday (Rounds 4-7), SportsCenter, NFL Insiders, and NFL Live are all originating from ESPN’s Grant Park studio and Mike & Mike is airing live from Harry Caray’s 7th Inning Stretch and the Chicago Sports Museum at Water Tower Place on Thursday and Friday.

“Our shoulder programming is hugely important for us at the Draft, so it makes sense to have these shows on-site in Grant Park where the excitement is,” says ESPN Coordinating Producer Seth Markman. “The Draft starts at 7:00 p.m. local time Thursday, but, for us, it really starts at 9:00 a.m. with SportsCenter and continues throughout the entire day and into the night. We want people to know that this is a three-day event that we’re going to own from start to finish.”

A Larger Draft Footprint = 17+ Miles of Fiber
The NFL’s expansion of the Draft Town and Selection Square footprint in Grant Park (nearly double the square footage of last year) has resulted in a more spread-out production for both ESPN and NFL Network. Last year, Selection Square, the truck compound, and the bulk of the Draft Town festivities were located near the Michigan Avenue side of Grant Park – just across the street from the Auditorium Theatre. After more than 200,000 people showed up for the Draft last year, however, the the truck compound and Selection Square have been relocated to the Lakeshore Drive side of the park, near Buckingham Fountain – thousands of feet further away from the Theatre.

ESPN Senior Operations Director Steve Carter at the Draft.

ESPN Senior Operations Manager Steve Carter at the Draft.

“The biggest change for us is our trucks have been moved several thousand feet out into Grant Park, so we have to run 10 Tac-12 [fiber cables] into the theater, which is a 6,000-foot run,” says Carter. “With 10 Tac-12’s, that’s 60,000 feet of fiber, and we’ve run over 90,000 of fiber total for this show overall. The shortest route isn’t necessarily always the best route so we’re sort of going outside the perimeter of all the events and then into the theater, so it makes for some insanely long cable runs.”

In addition, ESPN and NFL Network must once again utilize a temporary bridge built above Michigan Avenue to run its cable across – with a second bridge running across Congress Parkway.

Both Sides of Michigan Avenue: The Compound and the Sets
ESPN has erected a 40×40-ft. set at Selection Square looking out onto Buckingham Fountain that serves as the home of its shoulder programming throughout Thursday and Friday and becomes the host set on Saturday.

ESPN's primary NFL Draft set inside the Auditorium Theatre

ESPN’s primary NFL Draft set inside the Auditorium Theatre

Inside the Theatre, ESPN has deployed its primary set (featuring host Chris Berman with analysts Mel Kiper Jr., Jon Gruden, and Louis Riddick) in the same stage-left location as last year along with a secondary position for NFL Insider Adam Schefter and a position near the stage for Suzy Kolber to interview Draftees.

ESPN deployed 27 cameras all throughout the Theatre and the park, including a blimp aerial shot (provided by AVS), two RF SteadiCams and two RF handhelds, three robos (provided by Fletcher), a fixed-wing aerial shot (also provided by AVS), and four jibs (provided by Fully Armed Productions) – two of which are equipped with the virtual graphics/augmented reality system developed by ESPN Visual Technologies. ESPN and NFL Network also share several camera feeds, including the primary podium cam, green room handhelds, and a handful of robos and beauty shots.

ESPN's compound at Grant Park includes all five NEP EN1 mobile units.

ESPN’s compound at Grant Park includes all five NEP EN1 mobile units.

Inside the compound, ESPN is relying on the five-truck NEP EN-1 fleet (four production trucks and a support unit) that serves as home to its Monday Night Football production throughout the season. The primary Draft telecasts are being produced out of the A unit control room, while the D-unit control room is serving ESPN’s shoulder programming throughout the week.

AVS is also on hand with its own mobile unit to support RF operations and the compound is being powered by four 300-kw generators from Illumination Dynamics.

Day 3: From Coast to Coast and Beyond
ESPN is taking in 10 inbound fully routable fiber paths and sending out seven outbound feeds with satellite backup. Throughout the week, ESPN is integrating 20 player live shots and Glowpoint HD videoconferencing feeds from all 32 team sites (including half a dozen ESPN bureau reporters) into its Draft coverage. On Day 3, ESPN will also once again integrate live picks announced from teams’ unique locations throughout the country (or the world, in the case of Jacksonville and Oakland, which will announce picks from London and Mexico City, respectively).

“The biggest thing we took from last year is how great the scene at Day 3 was; it really blew us all away, to be honest with you,” says Markman. “During Day 3, when teams do a lot of picks from their home cities, picks coming in every four to five minutes, so the speed is such that we never cover every pick. But what was enhanced was it was nice getting video from the team cities to break it up a bit. It’s a nice mix on Saturday with that and [our analysts] taking a deep dive into those guys that aren’t household names in the 5th, 6th, and 7th Rounds.”

Preproduction Always Key
ESPN’s massive arsenal of preproduced content includes 400 player highlight packages, 50 player personality bumps (primarily shot at the Combine in February), and 25 specialty technical breakdowns (with analysis from Jon Gruden, Louis Riddick, and Todd McShay).

NEP EN1's A-unit control room is serving as home to ESPN's NFL Draft telecast

NEP EN1’s A-unit control room is serving as home to ESPN’s NFL Draft telecast.

“The player highlight packages are a huge source of pride for us. It’s not just the pure numbers – it’s the quality of those packages,” says Markman. “Jon, Mel, Todd, and Lou have seen all these packages and give us feedback to perfect them. Nothing makes air that our lead producer Brian Ryder hasn’t seen and gone over with the talent. That’s a long process and we scrutinize them to the point where they really aren’t finished until Draft night. We want to make sure that our analysts are comfortable talking over those highlights and describing what they’re doing to our viewers.”