US Open Q&A: ESPN’s Reynolds on the Tennis Center Makeover, Intel 360 freeD, and That ‘Hum’ Inside Arthur Ashe
ESPN is now in year 2 of an 11-year rights deal with the USTA as the sole domestic-rights holder and host broadcaster at the US Open. With a new roof on Arthur Ashe Stadium, brand-new Grandstand, and wholly rebuilt South Campus, ESPN has put the spotlight on the newly revamped USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in its coverage this year.
SVG caught up with ESPN VP of Production Jamie Reynolds in Flushing to discuss how the renovations have impacted ESPN — especially the much discussed sound inside Arthur Ashe when the roof is closed. In addition, Reynolds addresses the latest tech toys the network has deployed for the Open, the importance of behind-the-scenes access, how ESPN juggles responsibilities as the host broadcaster and domestic-rights holder, and what he’s looking forward to going into week 2 of the tournament.
How have the significant renovations at the National Tennis Center affected ESPN’s production at the Open thus far this year?
Everything that we did coming in this year was to showcase this as the coming-out party for the event. And, when you look at the venue itself from 1964 to 2016 and the transformation that has happened here on this footprint starting with the World’s Fair in 1964, going through the US Open moving from Forest Hills to here in 1978, and then to the [renovations] this year, it’s amazing.
When you look at the roof on Arthur Ashe, the “tiara” is on. We are trying to showcase what that brand-new house is like. This is really their chance to say, “This is the new era for tennis.” And that’s what we try to capture.
In the southwest corner, the Grandstand is a terrific venue. It looks really cool from that position, especially with the sunken nature of that stadium. But it was an unknown for us [leading up to the tournament]. We really couldn’t tweak visually what it looked like or what it sounded like until we got here.
You had that same dynamic on Ashe, which is brilliant inside. We had seen it; we had gone through lighting and rehearsals. We had a sense of how we were going to have to shade the cameras and what it was actually going to look like and capture it, but you don’t really know until you go live.
How has ESPN reacted to the hum and increased noise volume inside Arthur Ashe Stadium when the roof is closed?
It seems to be getting a buzz, no pun intended. The ambient noise gives it a very different texture. The atmosphere is different. We found ourselves over the first couple days deciding whether our mic positions were correct, whether we were actually filtering things properly. The acoustics with the roof [closed] changes the personality and dynamic a bit. So we’re tweaking it every day. We haven’t even been at full capacity of 23,500 yet, but we will, hopefully, this weekend, and that will be even louder.
We want to shape the sound of it as we go, and we’ve already learned a lot. We actually installed a new filter system today with Lawo and taken some of that lower-end base out. So we’re stylizing it, and we’re shaping the detail. It’s a positive and negative. New York is not quite Centre Court at Wimbledon. It’s a whole different fan experience when you come to this thing and watch an event, because a New York crowd is going to converse a lot more; that’s how they watch sporting events. So you want to capture a bit of what that aura is.
How has the Intel 360 freeD replay system evolved, and how are you trying to use it within the ESPN US Open coverage this year?
I think we got smarter in terms of using it, between last year and this year. Intel has more processing power this year, so they’re turning elements over to us faster. The visualization is as robust as it ever has been. We’ve learned to find the right pick-up points and use that 360 spin more efficiently to create better editorial content.
We’ve also got our analysts thinking about what it can do more. They want to see what a point looks like from the back side, but then what’s the followthrough on the front side? We can elegantly make that.
Lastly, we’ve gotten better with running that content through Orad MVP or any of the other telestration devices, so we can start accenting and using pointers as visual cues to help amplify what we’re doing. We’re just getting more robust with it. We only had a 14-day learning curve when we were actually in the moment last year, so we have a lot more experience now this year.
How does the addition of the live press-conference feed on WatchESPN enhance ESPN’s overall coverage and increase behind-the-scenes access for fans?
When you look at the hunger and thirst for news today, the press room can create that engagement in real time. If I can have Andy Murray’s press conference on live on the secondary screen while you’re watching Venus [Williams] in the play right now, you’re getting the best of both worlds. We’re trying to provide a better picture of what happens behind the scenes.
Our next target to go after along those lines will probably be how we can better take advantage of the practice courts. What if we had a chance to put a wireless mic on a coach on the practice court? Those are the little nuances that we’re going to try to gently introduce in the future. We’ve established ourselves on the footprint so to speak; now it’s better conveying the event and showing everyone here that we’re going to do it justice and do it properly.
How does ESPN’s set located at the practice courts help accomplish those goals?
The philosophy behind the sets comes down to the volume of hours we’re charged with producing. That Fountain Plaza area has always been the home base, if you will, for the tournament, and it works well on a Saturday afternoon and in primetime. But, during the 11 a.m.-7 p.m. window, our stars are all out on the practice court. So you want to be embedded, you want to be in that scene. It’s a little bit like having a host position at a driving range prior to tee-off times for golf coverage. Right there, you’ve got Rafa [Nadal] warming up, or you’ve got Serena [Williams] or Venus or Murray just hitting balls two hours before they take the court. That interactivity and awareness of what’s going on conveys being in the moment rather than observing the moment. I think that’s what we’re trying to focus on during the day [windows]. But then, you get to primetime, and you get 23,500 people all waiting to go in Ashe. That’s a pretty great scene; it just generates a lot of enthusiasm for what’s upcoming in primetime. It’s really just a production strategy, and it’s trying to convey immersion during the day and sports theater at night.
What does the RailCam add to the telecasts from Arthur Ashe?
It’s a terrific camera, and it shows that speed of how players are moving back and forth across the baseline. It does show you straight down the line of a ball coming at you and the followthrough as well. It captures a level of intimacy within this venue that you don’t normally see.
From a production perspective, what are the greatest challenges in balancing ESPN’s role as the domestic-rights holder with those of the host broadcaster?
There’s definitely a duality of the mindset; you can see it on the production side of the house, you can see it on the operation side of the house. And you have to build the machine from the core position as host provider to our client, the USTA. At that point, our host operation is a service provider for the USTA, and we are the acquisition group to capture this event and offer it to their clients around the world. So you have to have this agnostic, pure, sensible approach where every court has the same level of skill, the same aptitude, understanding of the game, and the same performance and quality.
Then, you look at the other side, and ESPN always wants to deliver the best possible product. We may have certain iso patterns, perhaps setup or [a little bit different] sequencing of shots so it plays to our editorial strategy for capturing a match.
So you have this duality going. I think we’ve done a good job of creating a baseline on the host side of the equation and bringing a couple of unique, discrete assets, cameras, audio complements [to] enhance different courts when we need to accentuate [for the] host-broadcast operation.
What are you excited about in week 2 of the Open this year?
How deep does Rafa go as we move along? Does [Juan Martin] Del Potro make a run? [Novak] Djokovic has been up and down, but he’s of course going to be in the mix. And Murray is quietly chugging along, but we haven’t seen that spark yet for him. And there is always the Serena story. I think everyone wants to see Serena be successful this year because it would be a nice way to end the season. And you’ve got [Simona] Halep and the rest of the ladies. The great thing is the health and robustness of the sport: any of these great stories are going to be good for the game.