NBA Finals: ESPN Operations Team Looks To Tie a Bow on Peculiar NBA Bubble in Orlando

In a once crowded compound, ESPN is the last network standing

After an interesting playoff format inside the NBA bubble at the Wide World of Sports complex, the NBA will finally crown a champion within the next two weeks. One of the main broadcasters to set up shop in Orlando in late July, ESPN is poised to put a proper ending on this unique scenario. During the two-month period, the broadcaster’s operations team has gained a wealth of experience and knowledge after an arduous planning process.

“When we first laid out the design,” says Eddie Okuno, senior remote operations specialist, ESPN, “the goal for all of us was to build a robust compound and broadcast environment. We had to endure the summertime weather, thunderstorms, and all of the different things that would normally come in a remote setting but over a long stretch of time. Along with Turner and the NBA, it paid off for all of us because we were all on the same page on how everything was stable throughout [the postseason].”

In the Rearview: Lessons Learned From an Olympic-Style Production

In August, ESPN was joined by Turner Sports and others in a congested television compound at the Wide World of Sports complex in Orlando. (Photo by Phil Ellsworth / ESPN Images)

When you’re stuck in one spot for a long time, a fair amount of that time is used in outward and internal reflection. Prior to Turner Sports’ exit from Orlando, the two broadcasters established a strategy for a smooth departure to ensure that the correct infrastructure was broken down and crews would remain safe. A similar strategy was used internally when ESPN disconnected from Court 3 after games were concluded at that site.

“We had a layered exit plan, so that, when Turner left, there was no disruption to how [cabling] was pulled out and how [sets] were struck,” says Okuno. “It was a clean break, but the most important part is that everybody is abiding by the rules, protocols, and safety measures. The bubble has created an incredible sense of safety and security that everybody needed during this very challenging time.”

The broadcaster’s NBA team is accustomed to constant travel and getting to different cities before executing a broadcast. Without games’ being played in alternating arenas, the team had to deal with a situation more typical of international contests like the FIFA World Cup or the Olympics.

A closeup look at ESPN’s position outside the venue. Photo by Phil Ellsworth / ESPN Images)

“While there are no headaches with travel,” Okuno notes, “two months is a long time to stay in one place. It’s a huge sacrifice made by families and everybody to work pretty much every day in an unusual environment. It’s more of an Olympic-style [production], but from an NBA perspective, we’ve never had to do that.”

Dealing with a single location means dealing with a specific set of weather concerns. With the sports calendar flipped on its head, the entire postseason and upcoming Finals are being played in Florida during the heart of hurricane season. In the event of inclement weather and potential safety hazards to the crew, Okuno and company needed to take those possibilities into account.

“We had to leave extra space within the compound if bad weather came through,” he explains. “All of this was planned in advance, but we would have to remove the truck tents if a Category 5 storm came by.”

In retrospect, there might have been a few elements that would have provided an even smoother production from the beginning. Despite the various unknowns and unresolved questions, the ESPN operations team would be more aggressive with the technology if it had a second chance.

“We already knew how to produce television,” Okuno points out. “We did have technology in mind, but, since everything went smoothly, it would’ve been nice to have played with a little bit more of some of those elements.”

What’s New: Team Upgrades Cameras to HFR, Tries Different Angles and Lenses

At the height of hurricane season in Florida, extra spacing was provided at the compound at Wide World of Sports in case trucks had to be moved when inclement weather arrived. Photo by Phil Ellsworth / ESPN Images)

As the last network left in Orlando, ESPN is implementing extra technologies to cover this year’s championship series. After the departure of Turner Sports, NEP EN2 and EN3 are the two mobile production units outside the venue, and equipment congestion is no longer a factor inside. Some additions include new camera angles and a handful of cameras that had been used in previous rounds.

“We’ve boosted a lot of our regular cameras to high frame rate for better clarity,” says Okuno. “We also had an opportunity to try out some new lenses.”

Besides upgrading cameras to high frame rate, ESPN is experimenting with several new lenses during the Finals, including Canon’s CJ20ex5B 4K UHD portable lens, which simultaneously extends both extremes of the focal range (a wide 5mm and a telephoto 100mm). The lens is being used for handheld shots under the basket, as well as in other handheld situations and on robos.

The lens came to the Finals soon after being evaluated on Monday Night Football in several configurations, including SkyCam and Steadicam.

The Greater NBA Family: ESPN Succeeds Through Collaboration With Turner Sports, Other Partners

In 18 NBA Finals at ESPN, Okuno has never had to produce the completion of an NBA campaign under these circumstances. When there is no blueprint to follow or playbook to rely on, answers and solutions are found through ingenuity and assistance from those around you. After enduring the highs and lows that the NBA bubble has presented, all involved have helped ESPN get to tonight’s Game 1.

“I’m extremely proud of our production, operations, and technical teams, all of our vendors, the league, Turner Sports, and NBA TV,” he says. “We have collectively worked together, and everybody has been incredibly helpful. The camaraderie and relationship have always been part of our NBA family. The best part that I’m going to take away from this event is that it has become even stronger during this stretch of time.”

Game 1 of the 2020 NBA Finals between the Los Angeles Lakers and Miami Heat begins tonight on ESPN at 9 p.m. ET.

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