MLB Down Under: MLBI, MLB Network Bring Crack of Baseball Bat to Sydney Cricket Ground

Major League Baseball’s 2014 regular season is once again starting with an international flair. At 4 a.m. ET tomorrow, the Arizona Diamondbacks and Los Angeles Dodgers will take to Sydney Cricket Ground for the first of two games. The production also marks the first time that both MLB International and MLB Network have worked together on a regular-season event.

“It’s a fun hybrid of what we do in the postseason,” says Russell Gabay, VP/executive producer, MLB International, adding, “We are overseeing production for four different networks.” Those networks will serve MLB Network, Channel Nine Australia, ESPN Australia (which carried the preseason games), and a world feed used by the SportsNet LA and Fox Arizona home-team broadcasts.

The centerfield camera position at Sydney Cricket Stadium is 70 yards behind the wall.

The centerfield camera position at Sydney Cricket Stadium is 70 yards behind the wall.

“It’s a unique production because it is underwritten by Channel Nine Australia, who is really the host,” says Gabay. “They farmed the production out to [Australian production-services company] Global TV, but they don’t know how to do baseball. So we will do the production for them with MLB Network, as it made sense to work together.”

A Diamond in the Cricket Ground
It’s a unique production for another reason as well: it is being played in a cricket oval instead of a baseball diamond. The differences are substantial. Most of the action on a cricket oval takes place in the center instead of on a corner. Also, there are no base paths, so an entire baseball infield and mound had to be constructed within the oval. And there are no outfield walls or even foul territory. Over a 16-day period, the Sydney Cricket Ground were turned into a baseball stadium (for a time-lapse video of the transformation, click here).

A look at the Los Angeles Dodgers dugout that was constructed solely for the MLB games this week in Australia.

A look at the Los Angeles Dodgers dugout that was constructed solely for the MLB games this week in Australia.

The production itself involves 10 Grass Valley cameras along with a handheld camera, two robotic cameras, two locked-off cameras, and two super-slo-mo cameras. Canon is supplying the lenses and support gear.

“You cannot put cameras close to the field, and the stands only have a slight incline. While the centerfield wall is 408 ft. away from home plate, it is another 60 yards to reach the stands,” says Gabay. “So we had to build a platform 30 yards past the wall for the camera with a 100-times lens.”

The challenge, in fact, is that every camera position needs a big lens. “And the camera operator is working the glass a lot more than normal for a baseball game,” he adds.

Previous MLB seasons have started out overseas, and MLBI and MLBN teamed up to produce two World Baseball Classics, but this is the first time the game will be played in a country that doesn’t have a local production community well versed in baseball production. MLBI and MLBN sent a combined crew of 22 — talent, production, operations, and technical — from the U.S., including announcers Matt Vasgersian and John Smoltz, producer Chris Pfeiffer, director John Moore, a technical director, one senior EVS operator, four camera operators, an audio mixer, a graphics operator, and a tape assistant director.

Another view of Sydney Cricket Ground after its retrofit for baseball.

Another view of Sydney Cricket Ground after its retrofit for baseball.

“When we combine forces, we maximize efficiencies and can take advantage of our individual areas of expertise,” says Susan Stone, SVP, operations and engineering, MLBN. “Our experiences in producing coverage of both the 2013 and 2009 World Baseball Classic set the foundation for our partnership with MLB International, which is at the core of our work on the Opening Series Sydney.”

Additionally, SportsNet LA and Fox Sports Arizona will have their own commentary and supplemental unilateral production. Both RSNs will supplement the clean international feed with their own production elements (unilateral cameras, graphics, etc.) and on-site announcers, including Hall of Famer Vin Scully in the Dodgers’ booth, to produce a feed targeted at their individual markets.

Signal Transport: 10,000 Miles Across the Pacific
In terms of signal transport, coverage from Sydney is being sent to Los Angeles and then from Los Angeles to New York via PACTV fiber. From New York, it makes the jump to MLB Network in Secaucus, NJ, via Encompass Media.

MLB Network Engineering Manager Steve Rittenberg also created a file-transfer workflow between Sydney and New Jersey whereby QuickTime files are sent through EVS Xsquare and converted into EVS MXF files, the required format in Australia. The completed files are written to a shared server that is watched by the DSynchronize synchronization tool, which automatically copies the files to a Dropbox folder installed on one workstation in New Jersey and on the laptop of tape producer Ben Friedfeld in Sydney.

“The local Dropbox folder synchronizes with the instance on Ben’s laptop, and he is then able to move the file out for transfer to the EVS servers in Australia,” says Stone. “The entire transfer between New Jersey and Sydney occurs in the background, and, with the time difference, we can move files while it is nighttime, allowing us to avoid delays for production and wasting valuable time.”

She notes that MLB Network also avoids much of the user interaction to initiate uploads and downloads, freeing up resources. “The only user interaction is at the starting point in edit and at the completion in Sydney when the file appears in the local Dropbox folder.”

Jason Dachman contributed to this report.

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