ESPN Has Everything Shipshape for Historic Carrier Classic

It’s a sight unlike anything seen in sports-television history.

On the calm, sunny shores of San Diego on the Naval Base Coronado sits a famous American aircraft carrier. Its mission today is a simple one: to serve as the site for a unique tribute to America’s service men and women on this Veterans Day.

The fight deck of the USS Carl Vinson, home of tonight's Quicken Loans Carrier Classic, is 4.5 acres; large enough for 41 basketball courts.

Later today, the USS Carl Vinson, the ship famous for taking the body of terrorist leader Osama Bin Laden out to sea, will play host to the inaugural Quicken Loans Carrier Classic as North Carolina takes on Michigan State at 7 p.m. ET, and ESPN will be there to broadcast the historic basketball game.

Although the event promises to produce spectacular and memorable images, it is also a considerable technical and production challenge different from anything many of the crew members involved have ever faced. For ESPN, this is a project that has taken considerable work, with meetings and planning beginning as far back as August.

“This took a lot more prep time than even we thought it was going to,” laughs Terri Hermann, operations manager at ESPN. “We also had several site surveys, and, as this event really started to develop and we got more and more into the mix, we started to realize we would need some different things, like a wireless person and somebody to be in charge of transportation [there is no parking allowed on the dock around the carrier]. The event really took on a life of its own.

“Some of the folks would like to say it’s just a basketball game,” she adds, “but it’s really a lot more than that.”

Close Quarters Work for 5D
All 1,110 ft. of the flight deck is being utilized by the playing surface and the surrounding stands for 7,000 spectators, which means that things can get pretty tight for the ESPN crew. That fact actually works to the network’s advantage, because being closer to the action will benefit ESPN’s “5D” approach (a 2D/3D production using a single mobile unit).

“I think, with what we’re dealing with, it’s very similar to a civic center-type of facility,” says Jeff Willis, coordinating technical manager at ESPN. “So there really hasn’t been much in the way of compromising. With the 3D, we like the low angles, so I think we approached it the similar way we would approach any 3D show.”

According to Hermann, ESPN will have 14 cameras on the game side, with an additional four deployed with the on-site SportsCenter crew. Both teams will be sharing feeds and resources throughout the day.

ESPN’s top college broadcast crew of Dan Shulman, Dick Vitale, and Jay Bilas will work the game. In addition, the network will carry a halftime show live from the ship and will also broadcast a postgame concert.

NEP on the Scene

NEP Supershooters 32 is on site to assist ESPN in it's "5D" broadcast of the Carrier Classic.

NEP’s Supershooter 32, one of two 3D-capable trucks in the company’s fleet, is on-site to provide the support for ESPN’s 5D broadcast.

“It’s good to see that the technology and the comfort level with the production team have evolved to a place where we can do an event of this nature and still be comfortable with doing a 5D production,” says Mike Werteen, senior VP of sales at NEP, adding that the prep work for the Carrier Classic wasn’t much different from other 5D events the company has done with ESPN.

Some challenges did arise and were addressed early on, including coordinating specific demands in shipping gear to the naval base, having all of the gear cleared by military customs, and supplying extra cabling and fiber.

SportsCenter Set on the Move
SportsCenter’s set is on the flight deck as well and began broadcasting segments and shows from there as early as last night.

The set has its own quirk. The SportsCenter crew placed it on a large turntable, allowing the crew to avoid the track of a setting sun while taking advantage of as many spectacular backdrops as possible.

“The SportsCenter production crew came up with the idea,” says Hermann. “It’s a mechanical piece, and they can rotate it around and have all different types of visuals that they want to have. Engineering has been here many hours trying to make all of that work.”

Andy Katz and Hannah Storm will anchor SportsCenter’s coverage from the USS Carl Vinson.

BSI Assists in Signal Traffic
RF-camera and audio-systems provider BSI is supplying the wireless audio and video gear for both the game broadcast and the SportsCenter shows originating from the event: 2D and 3D camera systems, RF camera systems, and RF sideline, anchor, and player microphones.

The logistics have meant meeting a set of complex requirements, including coordinating secure frequency spectrums with the U.S. Navy and managing back-up location equipment needs throughout the USS Carl Vinson and on shore.

“What makes this event unique are the challenges associated with security,” says Lou Meyers, core plus supervisor for BSI. “We will be escorted by US Navy personnel everywhere we go, which adds a layer of coordination. In addition, we will be managing radio-frequency access with the U.S. Navy, the Secret Service, and ESPN throughout the coverage.”

With President Barack Obama expected to be in attendance, BSI and ESPN coordinated with the Secret Service to ensure that no signals cross with presidential security.

“That was one process we had never encountered before,” Willis notes. “It was very interesting.”

Command and control of all this gear will take place in a 53-ft. BSI trailer situated more than 300 yards from the aircraft carrier.  Five BSI crew members will be on-site to service the game.

Logistical Challenges
With the limited space available on the flight deck, the truck compound is located on the dock a few hundred yards from the ship. This brings up numerous challenges, the most obvious being cabling.

The truck compound is located on the dock of the Naval Base Coronado requiring ESPN to utilize extra cabling and fiber to reach the aircraft carrier.

“Getting fiber to this venue [was a challenge],” says Tom Gianakos, associate director at ESPN. “Being that we’re on a pier, that’s obviously not a standard location to have fiber for transmission. So that took a lot of work from our network traffic brethren as well as the Navy.”

The toughest bottleneck, though, came simply from trying to get all the necessary gear up onto the flight deck during the week. There are a limited number of gangways available to board the USS Carl Vinson, and each has only a small stairwell for access.

“So we would have to stage all of our equipment, and then the event company would take it and put it on the elevators on the carrier, and they would zip it up to the flight deck,” says Willis. “There would be cranes and forklifts to pull it off. So it was a combination of broadcast equipment going up there plus event infrastructure going up there with the stands and the scaffolding. It was just a matter of fitting ourselves in with everything else that went up.”

Weather Concerns
Potential rain haunted the forecast for much of the week, but it appears that conditions are favorable for the Friday-afternoon event , much to the relief of event organizers and ESPN.

Naturally, a backup plan was in place, with another court constructed in the ship’s main hangar bay. Playing downstairs would mean a smaller crowd and a less aesthetically pleasant atmosphere, but ESPN is prepared for either scenario.

“We are poised to move if we have to move,” says Willis. “We will just run a separate set of cables down there, and the hangar is not that far from the compound, maybe an extra 500 ft. max. It’s very easy, but the challenge will be breaking the cameras down because they are 3D rigs, and the reset will take a little longer to make sure of mechanical realignment and everything that goes into the 3D process.”

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