As Pac-12 Schools Ride High in NCAA Men’s Tourney, Network Reflects on Unusual Season

Pandemic drives decentralized production, increased efficiency

The Pac-12 Networks’ coverage this month of the 2021 Pac-12 Men’s Basketball Tournament, at T-Mobile Arena, and the Women’s Tournament, from Mandalay Bay, in Las Vegas was another achievement for a network that will ultimately produce about 425 events this academic year. Though maybe half what the network usually produces, it’s an accomplishment, given how things were at a standstill for the conference last fall.

Pac-12 Networks will have produced 425 events this academic year, fewer than in pre-pandemic years.

“The basketball season was a huge undertaking and fascinating because, every day, things were moving — dates, opponents, and venues,” says Larry Meyers, EVP, content, Pac-12 Networks. “It has been a battle, but everybody just kept going and learned how to work from home and, I’d add, very successfully. And we’re not done.”

The centerpiece of the two tournaments was NEP Mira M12 mobile production unit, which operated more as a contribution center than a full-fledged production unit because the Pac-12 Networks team produced the coverage from its facility in San Francisco. Each game was produced with six operated cameras and two robos, and onsite personnel included truck engineers, two A2s, a tech manager, utility, and field producer. The announcers also were onsite.

Transmission from Vegas involved units that incorporated encoding and other transmission gear.

“We have two shipping units that are self-engineered, self-integrated, and serve as the demarcation networking points for both the conference’s digital needs and ours,” says Meyers. “Our encoder system hasn’t changed that much as we continue to use JPEG2000 because of its inherent low latency.”

The two kits transported all audio, video, data, and comms signals between Mandalay Bay, T-Mobile Arena, and San Francisco, with most signals outbound from Vegas.

Pac-12 Networks Broadcast Engineer Emery Hudson at work in San Francisco

In San Francisco, every control room was in use: the director, technical director, and producer were in one control room, and statisticians were located in a second. On a Zoom call with announcers in Vegas, the statistician would hold up stats to the screen, and the announcers would give a thumbs up when they saw it. The bullpen area in San Francisco was home to graphics and the EVS slo-mo operator.

With only an hour between games, according to Glen Stilwell, senior audio operations manager, Pac-12 Networks, the biggest challenge was getting all IFBs, PLs, tape machines, and panels swapped out when coverage changed between Pac-12 Network and ESPN.

“Jumping back and forth is a really intense 45 minutes,” he says. “I’m a big believer in checklists.”

This year’s 425 events are produced out of a mix of Gravity Media facilities, some NEP trucks, and, occasionally, a scoreboard-control room.

Lessons From Pandemic Productions

There have been plenty of lessons this past year, including the need to innovate and learn new ways of working with partners like ESPN and Fox.

“A number of games for ESPN and Fox were produced out of our facility,” says Meyers. “We hadn’t done that before. We’re glad to have them in the building while Gravity provided the hardware and crews at the event site. We provide the controls and crews at our end.”

Pac-12 also makes use of robust scoreboard-control rooms and the production team working there. “We can basically have them do the productions for us,” notes Meyers. “We also will use a ProAngle Media or some other small-footprint, self-contained production system.”

Pac-12 Networks A1 Andy Roundy works on a Calrec Summa audio console at the Pac-12 Networks facility in San Francisco.

For on-campus productions that require a production vehicle, Gravity Media Sprinter vans have built-in encoders compatible with Pac-12 Networks encoders. Setup requires simply camera and audio setup and signals flowing over the fiber network that connects the 12 campuses to the Pac-12 facility.

Looking ahead, Meyers says, the expectation is that, next fall, the network will be back to delivering more than 850 events. “That’s what we do in a normal academic year, and we have every expectation that that will be the case starting in August.”

Decentralized production will be more prevalent, he adds, noting that cloud-based production is starting to become a reality. “You can see it evolve.”

The goal is to continue to drive efficiency, allowing as many sports as possible to get exposure.

“It’s good for the school’s program, recruiting, and fundraising, the athletes’ family relationships, and alumni relationships,” he explains. “If we can do these productions in a more efficient manner, that means more will get on-air.”

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