From Michigan Ave. to Lake Michigan: NFL Draft Tech Vendors Take Over Grant Park, Auditorium Theatre

Last week’s NFL Draft in Chicago was just the latest incarnation of what is becoming one of the largest annual live sports productions the industry has to offer. With solid ratings on ESPN and NFL Network and massive crowds (potentially exceeding 300,000) at Draft Town in Grant Park, the Draft was as big as ever this year. Here is a look at some of the army of production-technology vendors and service providers that were on hand to help support ESPN and NFL Media.

AVS, BSI Survive RF Challenges in Chicago
In a city like Chicago, where RF spectrum is already cramped, adding a major event with 300,000 fans complicated matters for RF vendors AVS (Aerial Video Systems) and BSI (Broadcast Sports Inc.). However, both companies overcame the challenges to deliver a variety of wireless and aerial camera systems, as well as RF comms and audio.

The AVS team is providing ESPN with a host of RF camera systems and a fixed-wing aerial shot.

The AVS team at ESPN’s NFL Draft compound (from left): Geoffrey Howe, Tony Vazquez, Mike Tritt, Les Ford, and Tim Farrell.

“Spectrum is very, very tight around here, but, between what ESPN is doing with their RF needs and NFL Network’s RF needs, the spectrum has become especially tight,” BSI lead engineer Reid Ritter said during the Draft. “It took a lot of creative thinking in terms of our receive-site placement and allocation of spectrum to particular elements that are going to be working in particular areas.”

“Chicago’s a challenge because it’s so RF-heavy here with a lot of local stations occupying a lot of local bandwidths,” said AVS Lead Tech Tony Vazquez. “And, for events like this, [cellular providers] bring in their towers, and that makes it even more challenging to allocate bandwidth. But we’ve been here and done that last year, so we’re confident and looking forward to any challenges they might throw our way.”

AVS was on hand with a dedicated RF truck (and six receive sites) for ESPN and supplied the network with two RF Steadicams (Sony HDC-P1Rs) and two Sony HDC-2500 handhelds — all with wide-angle lenses — and delivering all four paths in 1080p for ESPN’s 1080p telecast.

“We’ve been doing 1080p for the past three years, but this is the first event where we’ve actually done multiple cameras in 1080p when we’re also delivering MPEG-4,” said Vazquez. “We have our new link transmitters, which are the most compact and reliable for video quality and control of the data. Since there’s not a lot of 1080p RF equipment out there, it makes it a little more challenging, but we are keeping up with technology and trying to stay one step ahead and giving the client what they want plus more.”

In addition, AVS provided NFL Media’s fixed-wing–aerial shot for NFL Network’s Draft coverage.

BSI was on hand providing RF camera systems and comms for NFL Media.

BSI was on hand providing RF camera systems and comms for NFL Media.

On the NFL Media side, BSI provided eight RF cameras: two Steadicams and three handhelds for the Draft telecast, an RF handheld for the Red Carpet Show and Draft Town area, and two handhelds for NFL Digital Media. In terms of wireless microphones, BSI delivered three MIC 1500 Blue Steel mics for NFL Network’s Draft coverage, another for the Red Carpet Show and Draft Town, and four for NFL Digital Media. BSI also supplied 10 PLs to supplement all those elements and ran it all through three receive sites outside and two inside the theater.

“I just never imagined the Draft would be this big,” said Ritter. “The challenge for us is, the coverage needs to be seamless from inside the auditorium for Days 1 and 2 and outside in [Grant Park]. PLs need to work inside and outside, so we’ve put duplicate PLs on the inside. Coverage as far as the cameras go is seamless because they need to work the outside here in Draft Town or they can work in the theater, going between the two venues.”

Filmwerks Studio Sets Are Home to NFL Network, NFL Digital Media 
NFL Media once again tapped Filmwerks to construct its primary outdoor set at Selection Square in Grant Park. Based on NFL Network’s primary set at Super Bowl Week in San Francisco, the Selection Square set looked out onto Buckingham Fountain and the swaths of fans onsite at Grant Park. The raised 40- x 40-ft. set relied heavily on ModTruss, was surrounded entirely by glass, and featured a four-person desk and five cameras, including a jib.

Filmwerks' David Fioravanti (bottom right) helped lead the company's effort to design and build NFL Networks primary set.

Filmwerks’ David Fioravanti (bottom right) helped lead the company’s effort to design and build NFL Networks’ primary set.

“The Super Bowl structure we created was very successful for them so they wanted to go back to something similar. The main thing we did different here was raise it another 9 ft.,” said Filmwerks Project Manager David Fioravanti. “The key was getting that view with the Chicago cityscape and the [NFL Draft] Ferris wheel and Selection Square and the Fountain all in their shots. So they went up a little bit higher this time, and it really worked out well. The shots are fantastic, especially at night.”

In addition, Filmwerks designed and built The Huddle Social Media Command Center for NFL Digital Media just a few feet away from the primary set in Selection Square. The octagon-shaped structure was significantly larger than it was last year and, for the first time, housed an onsite studio set for NFL Now Live Presented by Courtyard. 

“After last year’s [Draft], [NFL Media] asked us if we could design an octagon, so we were able to create a ModTruss-style octagon and showcased it for the first time at Super Bowl 50,” Fioravanti explained. “It’s a compression-roof–style system so it’s completely open inside. And then we flew an octagon lighting truss inside and flew all their lights. We designed two large porches for them to be able to have mini studio sets as well. So it’s really worked out very well.”

Filmwerks also powered NFL Media’s truck compound and sets, providing dual 500-kW generators for the compound and primary set and 200-kW twin-packs for The Huddle.

ID Powers ESPN’s Compound
Anyone curious about just how much the Draft has grown over the past decade or so need only to ask Illumination Dynamics Operator/Driver Derek Miller, a 13-year veteran of Draft productions.

Illumination Dynamics' Derek Miller on hand at the ESPN compound that his generators are powering.

Illumination Dynamics’ Derek Miller at the ESPN compound that his generators are powering

“My first NFL Draft in 2003 was at The Theater at Madison Square Garden, and it was a 175-kW twinpack powering an A unit, B unit, and an uplink for two days,” he recalled. “It got bigger in 2006, when we moved to the Radio City Music Hall and NFL Network began broadcasting the Draft as well side by side. It’s only gotten bigger each year. Now, coming to Chicago, it has turned a corner to become an event for the entire family of enormous proportion.”

This year, Miller and company powered ESPN’s truck compound and Selection Square studio set with four 300-kW generators running in parallel, three tied together and a fourth for redundancy. ID also provided ESPN with portable generators to operate a jib near Buckingham Fountain in Selection Square, by the Draft Town main entrance, and another working audio near the Red Carpet. In addition, ID provided a 2,000-W generator to power a repeater atop a radio tower.

Supracam Takes Flight in Auditorium Theatre
For the first time at the Draft, NFL Media deployed a two-point aerial system inside the Auditorium Theatre during Days 1 and 2 of the festivities. The Supracam was anchored between stage-right and the top of the theater’s second balcony. The system featured an actively stabilized camera head outfitted with a Canon 4.5mm wide-angle full-servo lens (with 12X zoom) and an integrated fiber system for both power and connectivity (meaning no battery was needed). Though a two-point system, it can be navigated on both the X and Y axis as well as up and down on the Z axis.

The Supracam (seen her to the top right) made its NFL Draft debut on Thursday inside the Auditorium Theatre.

The Supracam (seen here at the top right) made its NFL Draft debut on Thursday inside the Auditorium Theatre.

“This theater is a very small area, but we can give them a big-looking shot out of this camera,” said Supracam President/CEO PJ Bennett. “In previous years, they’ve had to have seat kills for cranes and other robotic cameras, but this system one rigs up in the air.”

The Supracam system requires two operators: a pilot and a camera operator. The pilot controls the system via an iPad interface, while the camera operator has full pan, tilt, roll, zoom, and focus control. The system integrates to the truck via a single fiber.

“The Auditorium Theatre is unique, and it’s a [112-year-old] theater, so it took quite a bit of time for us to work with the theater staff and their engineering group to get approved rigging points,” said Bennet. “There are not that many rigging points in a [112-year-old] theater, but the theater and NFL Network [made] sure that we could find those rigging points.”