For ESPN, 2010 Marks a Year for Fine-Tuning at U.S. Open

In 2009, ESPN entered its inaugural year of U.S. Open tennis coverage unsure of what to expect. Now, with a year under its collective belt, ESPN’s crew at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center is confident that it has the firepower to get the job done and can spend this year’s tournament fine-tuning its coverage.

“Last year’s mantra was ‘we don’t know what we don’t know,’” says Jamie Reynolds, VP of event productions for ESPN. “It was almost like training for a marathon having never run a marathon. You train and do whatever workouts you can, but you’ve never actually gone out and run the 26 miles. Once we got out there, we ended up finding out that we were actually in even better shape than we had anticipated.”

As a result, much of the production and technical infrastructure for ESPN’s 14 days of 2010 U.S. Open coverage (Aug. 30-Sept. 12) will carry over from 2009. With the exception of two aerial camera systems and what Reynolds calls “a few tweaks and some added horsepower,” ESPN’s 2010 setup will be largely the same as 2009’s.

“We realized after the fact last year that we were stronger, more versatile, and more robust than we had anticipated,” he says. “We learned last year that we definitely had enough hardware and technology on-site, so we get the benefit this year of fine-tuning those assets.”

ESPN Takes to the Sky
The most obvious addition to ESPN’s artillery this year will be two aerial camera systems: a two-point FlyCam system from This Side Up Productions and a four-point SpiderCam system.

ESPN will deploy the FlyCam system to capture the atmosphere outside Arthur Ashe Stadium. It will fly over the food court and the fountains area to provide a sense of the size and scope of the crowd and activities taking place throughout the day.

The FlyCam system is the same setup used by ESPN for coverage of The Masters Par-3 golf tournament and the Skier X and Boarder X competitions in the Winter X Games.

The 2010 U.S. Open will mark the first time that SpiderCam has been on hand for a major. Produced in Germany, the SpiderCam system is similar to the SkyCam systems often used for football coverage and has been used during the ATP World Tour Masters 1000 series tournaments but never for a major. The four-point system will be flown over Arthur Ashe Stadium and used primarily during breaks in the action.

“For this first year, our hope is to use it for warmups, walk-ons, changeovers, awards ceremonies, etc.,” says Reynolds. “We will start introducing that angle to this event and gradually start exploring ways to work with it as a coverage asset, as both a live and replay application.”

“Some of the players have seen it action and have been okay with its flight pattern,” he explains. “It’s low noise with a very focused and targeted aerial flight path that we can utilize with some confidence. We’ve established a communal agreement with the USTA, the referees, and the tournament directors to protect the action so it’s not a distraction to the play.”

A GameDay Feel
This year, ESPN seeks to project an atmosphere similar to that of College GameDay, the network’s weekly college-football preview show that travels to a different campus each Saturday. The crowd will be heavily featured at ESPN’s primary set location in the Fountain Plaza, much like the raucous hordes of college students that have become a GameDay staple.

“We want to bring more energy to the event so you’ll see us creating more of that GameDay feel for the on-site crowd,” says Reynolds. “We will also create more of an opportunity to get players, coaches, celebrities, and fans out there to both the television and on-site audience.”

Band of McEnroe Brothers
For the second consecutive year, John McEnroe will team with his brother, Patrick McEnroe, to call the U.S. Open. Although ESPN was very pleased with the team’s performance in the booth last year, it ran into an unforeseen issue: telling the two apart vocally.

“Being of the same parentage and the New York vernacular and speech patterns, it’s really hard to tell them apart sometimes,” says Reynolds. “Last year, one of the biggest concerns that we had, especially when using them in the primetime windows, was being able to figure out if it was Patrick or John talking. I actually had the audio guys tweak a little bit of bass into John and a little more treble for Patrick to at least create separation between the two. It ended up working out just fine, though, and we’ll do the same this year.”

The More Things Change…

The aerial camera systems and the focus on hyping up the on-site crowd represent rare changes from ESPN’s 2009 coverage.

ESPN will once again share coverage with CBS, which will carry most of the weekend coverage and late rounds. In total, the two networks will have upwards of 65 cameras at their disposal: about 50 from CBS, a dozen from ESPN, and specialty cameras including RF, aerial, and super-slo-mos. ESPN will assist CBS in providing a world feed for the USTA to distribute to its international rightsholders. The U.S. Open marks the only major in which ESPN has editorial input in creating the world feed.

ESPN will use the Vizrt-based graphics package introduced last year. In addition, the Orad MVP system will allow ESPN to incorporate on-court graphics enhancements, such as ball tracking, the distance players run in a volley, and ace tracks. The system was used last year but will be used on a larger scale in 2010.

The transmission side will also look very familiar. ESPN will again rely on Genesis Networks to send the content via fiber back to network headquarters in Bristol, CT.

“We had all the ingredients last year, and they’re basically the same this year, but now we’ve made the horsepower in the broadcast center more robust,” says Reynolds. “Our connectivity and our media management has all gotten stronger to accommodate the load that we have.”

Primetime vs. Daytime

He sees the daytime and primetime coverage of the Open as two drastically different productions. He equates the daytime sessions to covering the early rounds of a golf tournament, checking in on each match as on each golfer on the course. The primetime telecast is similar to match-play golf, according to Reynolds.

“In the [primetime coverage], you change from whipping around from court to court and settle into a dedicated match and invest all your resources in covering that one match,” he says. “When you get to the evening, it has to be like match play. We’re focusing on head-to-head competition between two opponents.”

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