Power Hitter Profile: Mike Rokosa – An Innovator at Every Turn
HDTV, surround sound, live 3D production: name a groundbreaking advance in the history of sports television, and odds are, Mike Rokosa was there on the ground floor. But, even after three decades as an innovation leader, the current VP of engineering at NBA Entertainment continues to look toward the future.
The ESPN Years
It’s not surprising that Rokosa, born and reared in Bristol, CT, broke into the industry. After serving four years in the Navy as a communications specialist, he returned to his hometown in 1979, where a fledgling cable sports network was attempting to get off the ground.
“I like to say that I bugged the chief engineer at ESPN so much that he thought it would be easier to hire me,” Rokosa recollects. “Plus, I had some satellite experience from my time in the Navy.”
When he arrived on the ESPN campus in July 1979, there was not even a roof on the studio, and satellite dishes were still being constructed. Nonetheless, the network launched in earnest two months later, taking its first steps in becoming the juggernaut it is today.
“At the time, everything was being run from the truck outside,” he recalls. “Skunks were actually following the camera cables into the studio shows.”
It was during these early days in Bristol that Rokosa met the man he recalls as having the single largest influence on his career: Chuck Pagano. Pagano and Rokosa started at ESPN within days of one another, quickly becoming close friends and colleagues.
“Chuck Pagano is all about doing whatever has to be done to get the job done,” Rokosa says of ESPN’s current EVP of technology. “At the time, I had no clue, and he was just so gracious in teaching me what he knew while never making anyone feel like he was better than you. If it weren’t for him, I’m not sure I would have been able to succeed in this business.”
A Lucky Break on the Drive Home
After two years at ESPN, Rokosa moved on to the CBS Technology Center (CTC) in Stamford, CT. It was there that he first found his way into the world of high-definition television. It all started on the eve of Thanksgiving 1981, when Dr. Richard Green, director of the CBS Advanced Television Technology Laboratory (and future president/CEO of CableLabs), asked Rokosa to give him a ride home.
“As we’re driving, he starts telling me about this HD project he’s working on for [former CBS SVP of Technology and HD guru] Joe Flaherty in L.A. and that he would love for me to come see it.”
Luckily, Rokosa was already scheduled to fly to Palo Alto, CA, the following week for other CBS-related business, and Green was able to get Rokosa down to Television City in Los Angeles that weekend.
“Before the weekend was out, I had kind of solved a few problems that they were having, with a few practical solutions,” says Rokosa. “So Green called [Flaherty] on Monday and told him that he wanted to keep me on for the whole project.”
Rokosa proceeded to spend nearly five months working on the first-ever productions using HD technology. Although the resulting video images were “breathtaking,” it would be another two decades before HD was widely adopted throughout the U.S.
From Stereo to Surround and Beyond
By the mid 1980s, Rokosa was at the CBS engineering department in New York City, experimenting with stereo audio. In 1986, he moved to the operations side, becoming a field tech manager but continuing to work on the development of stereo sound.
The goal was to make Super Bowl XXI in 1987 the first CBS Sports event to feature stereo audio. That was until Rokosa and Dolby Labs’ David Gray asked, “Why do we just want to do stereo when we can go for surround?”
Rokosa and his team worked with Gray, lead audio mixer and Sports Broadcasting Hall of Famer Bob Seiderman, and CBS College Sports mixer Tom Jimenez to produce a college football game that was slated for stereo-sound experimentation in full surround sound. He played the results as a demo for the bosses at CBS Broadcast Center.
“We started playing everything in mono, then switched to stereo, and then, without saying a word, we pumped it into surround,” he recalls. “Everyone almost stopped breathing, they were so impressed.
“A few people asked who even had the ability to listen to it [in their living room],” he continues, “but the head of East Coast operations turned around and said, ‘This is incredible. I don’t care if only 10 people hear it. We’re doing it.’ And so Super Bowl XXI became the first live event ever done in surround.”
Good Times, Bad Times: CBS in the ’90s
Rokosa continued to serve as a constant at CBS Sports throughout the late ’80s and early ’90s, pioneering the use of in-wall cameras at Daytona Motor Speedway, fiber optics for auto racing and golf coverage, and RF handheld cameras for golf coverage.
But, by the time Rokosa had been elevated to director of field operations in 1994, CBS Sports had been dealt a devastating double blow, losing both its NFL and MLB packages in a 12-month span. In order to keep the field operations department afloat, Rokosa & company began producing events outside of CBS.
Despite these efforts and an increase in coverage of second-tier sports on the network, CBS decided to outsource its field operations department in 1998.
NBA Entertainment and Another First (Hint, Hint: 3D)
Soon after, he began writing the next chapter of his career at NBA Entertainment, which was in the initial planning phases for NBA TV when he became director of engineering in June 1999. By August, the network had been officially greenlighted. It went live just a few months later on Nov. 2 and became the second network that Rokosa was involved with at launch.
Over the next decade, he and colleagues continued to expand NBA TV’s Secaucus, NJ, facility and upgraded it to full HD in 2003.
At the 2007 NBA All-Star Weekend in Las Vegas, Rokosa continued his streak of innovation: he played a central role, along with his NBA Entertainment cohorts and 3D guru Vince Pace, in producing the first-ever live event in 3D.
“We constructed a perfect viewing environment at the Mandalay Bay Hotel and delivered two full-HD left-eye and right-eye streams,” says Rokosa. “It was so good that people who went on Saturday turned in their game tickets for Sunday and went back to the theater.”
Since then, one of Rokosa’s main projects has been development of one of the most advanced media-asset–management systems in the industry for sports. The system is currently in the process of digitizing the entire video library of the NBA.
A Family Man, First and Foremost
On the odd occasion that he finds himself away from work, Rokosa enjoys spending time with his wife, Darlene, and three daughters: Melissa, Jennifer, and Meagan. Rokosa also has a son, Anthony, and a granddaughter, Zora.
Rokosa counts his father, Philip, a bombardier in WWII and German POW-camp survivor as well as a successful Connecticut state senator and postmaster, as his greatest role model and the essential factor in his success.
“My father was my hero,” he says. “He was from the Greatest Generation, and he epitomized that. He’s the guy I most wanted to succeed for and work hard for. In our family, I was probably voted least likely to succeed, and I like to think that I’ve beaten the pundits on that one so far.”
And having played an integral role in several of sports television’s groundbreaking events over the past 30 years, he has, indeed, proved the pundits wrong at every turn.