‘Every Mat, Every Match’ at NCAA Wrestling Championships Pays Off for ESPN

Every mat, every match. That was the tall task once again facing ESPN’s production operations team at the NCAA Division I Wrestling Championships earlier this month. For the second consecutive year, all six sessions were televised on ESPN or ESPNU, and every single match was streamed live on ESPN3 during the three-day competition at the Scottrade Center in St. Louis.

Running two sessions per day on eight mats, then on six, then on three, and finally the finals on center mat, ESPN delivered more than 100 hours of live wrestling — all while constantly repurposing resources as part of its ultra-efficient production model that never lets a piece of onsite equipment go to waste throughout the tournament.

“I was just blown away by the amount of content that we cranked out in three days,” says Larry Wilson, senior operations manager, ESPN. “It is a very unique show with a very aggressive schedule: three days of air, six different windows, 10 weight classes. And we are doing multiple shows at the same time on ESPNU or ESPN and then ESPN3.”

Early Rounds: Eight Mats on ESPN3, Whip-Around on ESPNU
Three Lyon Video HD mobile units were at the core of ESPN’s production: Lyon-12 served the ESPNU/ESPN linear telecast, Lyon-8 handled the ESPN3 streaming feeds and four scoring systems, and Lyon-B3 housed the balance of the scoring systems and produced the aggregate scoreboard feed for all matches.

It all came down to a single mat during the finals, which aired on ESPN.

It all came down to a single mat during the finals, which aired on ESPN.

From each mat during the early rounds, ESPN produced a single composited pool feed, comprising an isolated camera feed (Grass Valley LDX 8000 in a hard configuration), one effects mic, an in-house–announcer commentary feed, and a clock-and-score graphic (but no replays). ESPN also used six LDX 8000 cameras in a handheld configuration, with image-recognition software to aid clock-and-score needs. In addition, crawling text integrated into the clock-and-score graphic indicated which match was next on that mat.

Inside Lyon-8, ESPN took 4M/E from the Grass Valley Kayenne switcher and split them, with, for example, one half for Mat 1 and the other for Mat 2. The audio was mixed with the truck’s Calrec Omega console, which offered 32 channels of audio transmission. The composited feeds were fed discretely to DTAGS for encoding, then muxed back to ESPN’s Bristol, CT, facility and on to MLB Advanced Media’s facility for distribution to ESPN3 viewers.

ESPNU’s early-round whip-around coverage featured a tight-iso camera position.

ESPNU’s early-round whip-around coverage featured a tight-iso camera position.

“Viewers can bounce around to every match on every mat. That is where ESPN3 comes in and pulls the load,” says Jarrett Baker, associate remote operators producer, ESPN. “We want families that couldn’t make it to the tournament to be able to see their kids [compete]. It used to be that we could show only so many mats. But now that we are showing all eight mats, you can watch [a competitor] live regardless of the mat he is on.”

Also in the early rounds, ESPNU’s whip-around coverage integrated all eight mats into the show, choosing the most compelling match and adding a tight-iso and reverse camera position.

On the audio side, in addition to a single shotgun mic per mat, four RF units roamed the floor with shotgun mics to capture the sounds of the action. ESPN also peppered in a handful of crowd mics.

“Those four RF audio units are focusing on the sounds we are really looking to capture,” says Baker. “They concentrate on a specific mat or a specific coach on a mat.”

Sharing the Wealth
In the later tournament stages, more resources became available to the linear telecast and the Off the Mat onsite studio show.

Each mat in the early rounds was covered by a dedicated hard camera

Each mat in the early rounds was covered by a dedicated hard camera

“As the mats go away, we don’t need as many cameras doing iso feeds. We can repurpose our resources for a reverse or a slash position, or our handelds get freed up to be repurposed for the Off the Mat show,” says Wilson. “As it all boils down, we get more and more camera coverage for the rounds getting closer to the championship.”

As the rounds progressed, the linear telecast production added a jib, a slash position, a wired handheld, and an RF handheld from CP Communications. ESPN also deployed two roaming RF reporter kits.

In the finals, the mat was elevated on a stage, allowing ESPN to deploy the Xducer contact mics used for X Games (often attached to the underside of the Vert and Big Air ramps) to better capture the thump of the wrestlers hitting the mat.

In addition, ESPN was able to move its entire commentary booth from the fifth level of the Scottrade Center to mat-side on the floor in a matter of hours, thanks to a new fiber-based booth kit custom-developed by Lyon Video for this event. The kit connects directly to the Artemis console in the truck with normal mic in and out, line in and out, and preconfigured IFB and comms running on two strands of fiber. In addition, a Python 2 booth monitor system, Panasonic AW-HE120K PTZ camera and booth arm (provided by Fletcher), and lightweight, low-heat LED lighting from Bexel and Litepanels made it possible to move the entire booth in just six hours.

It all came down to a single mat during the finals, which aired on ESPN.

It all came down to a single mat during the finals, which aired on ESPN.

During the finals on Saturday night, ESPN once again presented Off the Mat, with wrestling legends Jim Gibbons, Dan Gable, and Lee Kemp providing deep tactical analysis while watching the matches. As equipment came off the floor from the early rounds, it was moved to the Off the Mat studio, which is built on the fly to avoid having to ship in dedicated equipment.

This year’s Off the Mat set featured three cameras (including a reverse angle to show the analysts looking at the monitor) and a FlexSet desk, which provided the look of a high-end set (featuring ESPN3 and NCAA signage), was capable of fitting six on-air talent, and could be assembled in just 30 minutes.

“We at E3 have our eyes and ears out for any equipment that might become available because we are ready to snatch it up for Saturday night to do our Off the Mat,” says Stellios Maroulis, remote operations producer, ESPN. “This is the second year that we have this analyst show watching the matches in a quieter studio off the mats analyzing the matches as they happen.

Big Production Attracts Big Audience
All the hard work paid off in spades: ESPN’s coverage of the Wrestling Championships generated record viewership. The finals, on March 21, averaged 694,000 viewers on ESPN, with an additional 1.6 million minutes consumed on WatchESPN, a 10% increase in television viewers (630,000), and a 148% increase in WatchESPN consumption (644,000) from last year. Additionally, WatchESPN more than doubled its total unique viewers during this year’s Championship Finals compared with last year. Overall, ESPN’s coverage averaged 256,000 viewers across six sessions on ESPNU and ESPN, up slightly from the 253,000 viewers last year.

The “every mat, every match” coverage on ESPN3 combined with live access to ESPN and ESPNU on WatchESPN resulted in more than 21.3 million minutes viewed throughout the three days, a 67% increase over last year’s coverage (12.7 million minutes consumed).

“Unlike hockey or something like that, we don’t have any ramp up for this. It is our one big event each year, and it would be tough to get it any bigger than it is,” says Baker. “With three different resets in three days and a significant amount of equipment being moved around, if we didn’t have a cadre of people here who know exactly what they’re doing, the event wouldn’t be anywhere near as successful as it is.”

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