MLB Network Looks To Push MLB Draft Into Mainstream

It may not draw the level of attention garnered by its counterparts in the NFL and NBA, but the MLB First-Year Player Draft is quickly becoming a mainstream television event, thanks to young phenoms like 2009 No. 1 pick Stephen Strasburg and 2010 No. 1 pick Bryce Harper. In its second year televising the Draft, MLB Network worked to add more flare to this year’s production and heavily boosted its battalion of equipment for the event.

“Each year, we strive to make the Draft more appealing to the viewers at home and make it more exciting for those of us who love the sport of baseball — in growing the sport and showing how important [the draft] is,” says Brad Cheney, engineering manager, MLB Network. “Our production group is doing a really great job covering where these guys are coming from and how they got here.”

The Draft was held June 7-9 in Studio 42 of MLB Network headquarters in Secaucus, NJ, meaning that the network had to produce the Draft show while maintaining its MLB Tonight studio in the same facility. During the three-day event (Day 1 on MLB Network, Days 2 and 3 streamed on, MLB Network’s total combined production equipment included 13 cameras, eight EVS systems running concurrently in the building (18 record/28 playback channels), and six Vizrt graphics engines.

In addition, the network brought in HD remote satellite feeds of five of the highest-rated prospects in the Draft from their hometowns, and MLB Advanced Media supplied HD feeds via fiber from 21 teams’ draft war rooms.

Extra Control Room for Extra Cameras
MLB Network rolled out eight cameras for the Draft show and had an additional six in the MLB Tonight studio. Camera positions were as follows: an iso feed focused on the podium (also supplied to the media); a jib and two slash-position cameras at the primary standup featuring MLB Network analysts; a handheld for a remote reporter position on the floor; and an RF camera and additional handheld focused on team executives and MLB guests on the floor.

To facilitate the additional cameras, MLB Network took a secondary control room, usually used on a very limited basis, and transformed it into a full-fledged second control room. This allowed the network to run a full Draft production without disrupting MLB Tonight.

“We were able to install six more cameras, while not taking away from the capabilities of MLB Tonight,” says Cheney. “We were able to do programming from 5 p.m. to 2 a.m. that night non-stop, full-bore. Right now, we share cameras, EVSs, and other things between control rooms, but we built it in a way last offseason that it could handle the growth of shows like the Draft or the post-season.”

Graphics Boost
One of MLB Network’s chief goals for this year’s Draft was expanding its graphics capabilities, upping the total number of Vizrt graphics engines to six. One engine ran each ticker — the MLB Network “Baseline” and the constantly updated Draft ticker — while the other four handled everything from headshots to leaderboards to full-screen graphics. While much of the graphics and animation were assembled in preproduction, last-minute changes often forced the graphics crew to create on the fly.

“Sometimes, you have to roll with the flow,” says Cheney. “For example, Bryce Harper came into the draft as a catcher; he’s played catcher his whole life. But the Washington Nationals picked him as an outfielder because they wanted to get him through the system faster. So we had to change his player card and [other graphics] 30 seconds before we put the image on the air. For those kinds of things, it’s critical to have enough operators and machines to handle that, since you’re changing multiple things at once.”

Highlight Packages
In February, MLB Network began working on individual highlight packages for the top 200 prospects. That is up from 150 in 2009. The production team also made an effort to incorporate more graphic elements into these highlight packages, such as animated baseball cards for all 200 prospects. To enable all this additional content to run smoothly, the network doubled its stock of EVS servers from four to eight.

“We’re starting to expand that a little more,” says Cheney. “We were able to expand what we were doing in terms of production because of the additional EVSs we added on the show and the collaboration between our postproduction and graphics systems. We were able to turn stuff around a lot faster and do a lot more work. “

Gradual Growth
All this hard work seems to have paid off. The first-round coverage drew a 0.24 cable rating (132,000 households), up 35% from last year’s 0.18 (98,000 households). Although this may not compare with the behemoth numbers generated by the NFL Draft (5.47 on ESPN in April), it represents exactly the kind of gradual growth the MLB Network is looking for with the event.

“The Draft [production] is absolutely going to continue to grow next year,” says Cheney. “The show just keeps getting better. It seems like people were happy with the ratings this year, so it only going to keep growing as we move forward.“

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