NBA Draft 2020: ESPN Keeps an Eye on Prospects, Works With League’s Content Team for Bristol-Based Production

Operations will use workflows, lessons from the virtual NFL Draft

Since the pandemic’s beginning in March, ESPN’s team has become accustomed to producing virtual Drafts. As the nation’s top college-basketball recruits wait to hear their name called, the broadcaster will have virtual access to up to 30 draftees, a full onsite effort inside two separate control rooms, on-air talent in different studios, and more for this year’s NBA Draft in Bristol, CT.

“The NBA will be directly involved with producing and providing content for our giant LED-monitor wall in the studio,” says Erin Williams, director, production operations, ESPN. “This production will be very similar to what we did for the NFL Draft.

Check out more of SVG’s coverage of the 2020 NBA Draft:

The Homes of Basketball’s Best: Viewers Will See Simultaneous Reactions of 30 Prospects

The 2020 NBA Draft will be the first one sent live from ESPN studios in Bristol, CT. Photo: Shane Norton/ESPN

Unable to replicate an in-venue experience like last year’s event in the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, NY, ESPN is throwing a massive house party inside its Bristol headquarters. Unable to have newly minted NBA professionals walk across a physical stage, the broadcaster worked with the NBA to develop a complex infrastructure that peeks into the homes of the most promising of Draft picks.

The broadcaster has leveraged the resources of Van Wagner as a third-party vendor to ship production kits to the prospects. The kits comprise two Apple iPhones, lighting gear, and other accessories to properly highlight the player at home. To send and receive feeds in Bristol, ESPN will use a sturdy foundation of 15 satellite trucks outside the facility.

“At any given time, we’ll have 12 feeds from Van Wagner as well as five feeds coming from [the NBA facility in] Secaucus, [NJ],” says Tony Lacaprucia, operations specialist, ESPN. “There will also be a variety of feeds from Facetime, Skype, and TVU. We’re looking at about 80 feeds coming into Bristol.”

From a transmission standpoint, ESPN’s sophisticated workflow will involve a lot of moving parts. With some players changing their Draft setup at the last minute, the network needed to adapt to these changes before hitting the air.

“The participants and targeted locations changed with some frequency, so communication was paramount,” said Adam Whitlock, associate director, remote traffic operations, ESPN, after the completion of the NBA Draft. “Most significant was our choice to move to robotic cameras controlled outside of the home, where we would have otherwise had a traditional shooter inside the room.”

In any virtual setting, security is a crucial step to a successful production. To avoid any snafus in that department, ESPN set up an extensive approval process before any feed makes it to live television.

“The iPhone-enabled acquisition and delivery was aided by a collaborative vetting process,” continued Whitlock. “We were very pleased with the outcome.”

Back in Studio E, all 30 potential picks will be able to be seen simultaneously on an expansive 3,436- x 1,080-pixel LED screen. Along with these incoming feeds, the NBA’s production team will be responsible for creating additional content and graphics, which will be shown on the same screen.

Two control rooms and a full onsite staff will be deployed for tonight’s NBA Draft broadcast. Photo: Shane Norton/ESPN)

Although this sneak peek into draftees’ living spaces was seen during the NFL Draft in June, the operations team had ample time to readjust its execution and make any improvements deemed necessary.

“In March, we were able to react and found ways to get things done,” adds Lacaprucia. “We can now do a show with lower latency and much better quality. [For example], we were able only to show video returns of the players’ houses, but now we’re able to include audio.”

Full House: Two Control Rooms Allow Socially Distant, Higher-Quality Production

In accordance with stringent safety protocols, the production and operations teams will be housed inside two separate control rooms. For this large-scale event with a lot of moving parts, a majority of staffers will be completing their duties from either of these control rooms. As another lesson learned from previous virtual Drafts, the two-pronged approach will not only allow ample social distancing but also provide a more efficient workflow.

Up to 80 feeds will be coming into ESPN’s Bristol facility. Photo: Shane Norton/ESPN

“The NFL Draft was the first time that we used a second control room to subswitch and feed the main control room,” says Williams. “As a company, we’ve implemented a lot of safety measures to keep our staff safe with masks and full layout grids with socially distant positions that are marked off.”

With only certain staffers allowed to enter the studio, Williams and the operations team installed pieces of technology that will act as a workaround to look into restricted areas. “We want to utilize this current model moving forward to support all of the inbound feeds and keep everything organized and clean,” she explains. “There’s going to be a Panasonic PTZ camera that’s going to allow our team in the control room to see what’s happening inside of the studio.”

In addition to providing much-needed support to the main control room, the secondary control room will facilitate virtual interviews conducted in the secondary studio by host Rachel Nichols.

Live in Bristol: Studios To Host Commissioner Adam Silver’s Reading of Picks, On-Air Analysis

A 3,436- x 1,080-pixel LED screen will simultaneously project up to 30 Draft prospects. Photo: Kelly Backus/ESPN Images

The broadcaster is deploying the numerous studios in Bristol to host various on-air personalities. The most notable guests will be Commissioner Adam Silver and Deputy Commissioner Mark Tatum, who will be announcing Draft picks in real time in front of the LED display in Studio E.

The main set will also include host Rece Davis, analysts Jay Bilas and Jay Williams, and NBA Draft analyst Mike Schmitz. Situated in other areas of the facility will be NBA reporter Malika Andrews, Senior NBA Insider Adrian Wojnarowski, and NBA Draft analyst Bobby Marks. Before the Draft gets under way, Hoop Streams, the network’s digital-only NBA show, will be produced from Bristol as well. Cassidy Hubbarth, Omar Raja, and Nabil Karim will host from an onsite studio for viewers on the network’s Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook platforms.

ESPN will be using a mixture of manned and robotic cameras. Photo: Shane Norton/ESPN)

To capture the show both in these two studios and outside of the building, the team is deploying a full fleet of manual and unmanned cameras.

“With the four talent that we’ll have on the main set, we’ll be shooting them with three robotic cameras and an E crane,” says Lacaprucia. “In front of the big board, where the commissioner will be at the podium, we will have a manual E crane, and, up in the loft, we’ll have a Jimmy jib for our additional talent.”

To showcase the reimagined graphics package created during the pandemic-mandated hiatus, a jib camera will be positioned outside the building for virtual graphics.

Gradual Improvement: ESPN Continues To Blaze Virtual Draft Trail

To adhere to COVID-19 safety protocols, various areas of the Bristol campus will be restricted to certain production and operation staffers. Photo: Shane Norton/ESPN

Like many professionals, each production is an opportunity to improve on the next endeavor in 2020. It’s also another shot for networks to put their best foot forward in exemplifying how to properly and safely produce a show during the pandemic.

“Everyone is very appreciative of our leadership and the safety measures that they’re putting in place,” says Lacaprucia. “Everyone is super-excited because safety has always been our top concern.”

From a technical perspective, tonight’s broadcast is a chance to showcase the progress that has been made since the previous virtual Draft in June and how well the operations team is adapting to these circumstances.

“I’m unbelievably proud of them because they continue to forge ahead and innovate,” says Williams. “They put a lot of energy behind everything that they do to create a top-notch production. It’s a continual process of improvement, and I think that shows with our on-air product.”

Coverage of the 2020 NBA Draft begins tonight at 7:30 p.m. ET with a digital-only showing of Hoop Streams. Linear coverage begins at 8 p.m. on ESPN.

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