NFL Draft 2021: Van Wagner Steers Hybrid Production in Downtown Cleveland

After a fully virtual 2020 Draft, the company is credentialing 105 onsite personnel

Nearly a year ago, the National Football League and its production partners welcomed the league’s next wave of superstars in a totally different way: the first-ever Virtual NFL Draft. At the core of the endeavor, Van Wagner Sports & Entertainment (VWSE) assembled the workflows needed to connect everyone together. This year, the company will deploy a hybrid approach that combines an onsite show with more than 20 LED displays in Downtown Cleveland and an onslaught of live feeds for individuals who will participate remotely.

‘Four-Headed Dragon’: Crew To Handle a Quartet of Responsibilities

Van Wagner will handle its 2021 NFL Draft responsibilities from a compound located behind the stage.

Last year’s NFL Draft was a technical challenge and set a broadcasting precedent, but this new approach puts a lot of things on Van Wagner’s plate. From the outside, the hybrid method may seem an easy assignment, but combining an in-person version of the NFL Draft with a large remote presence is difficult to pull off. Pre-pandemic, production of the in-venue experience would have been straightforward, but adapting that to this year’s plan has increased the crew’s responsibilities.

“This year’s Draft is a bit of a four-headed dragon,” says Nate McCoart, director, technical operations, VWSE Productions, “with four different areas that we’re taking over. We’re ultimately all collaborating to put on this Draft Show, but there will be a lot going on [at once].”

The first task will still be generation of entertainment and prompts on the screen. Second, the team will be the conduit between the league’s onsite personnel and prospects and the prospects who decided to stay in their respective homes. Third, VWSE is constructing the technical foundation for the television broadcasts airing on ESPN and NFL Network. And fourth, the company will provide the flair for the loaded lineup of concerts throughout the weekend, including Kings of Leon, Black Pumas, and Cleveland’s own Machine Gun Kelly.

Ross Video will once again play a large role in the videoboard show at the NFL Draft.

Since the beginning of 2021, VWSE has maintained a packed schedule of events, including Super Bowl LV in February and the NCAA Men’s Final Four this month. These examples required the company’s normal services but didn’t include remote talent on the linear side. Tonight’s Draft will present new production and logistical hurdles that McCoart; Bob Becker, EVP, productions, VWSE Productions; and the rest of the crew must overcome.

“I think the biggest challenge will be the volume of elements across the board,” says McCoart. “We’ll be prepared to bring all of the pieces together.”

Heart of the Hybrid: 117 Feeds Link Offsite Individuals to Commissioner Goodell

Despite the massive rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine and decline of reported cases, a good number of NFL prospects will enjoy the festivities away from the bright lights of Cleveland. Similar to last year, a camera/microphone/lighting kit will put 47 of those prospects alongside those who made the journey to Ohio. In addition, all 32 clubs will receive two kits for a head coach, high-ranking executive, or team representative.

“[These cameras] will be a combination of something as simple as an iPhone to a Panasonic all-in-one PTZ kit,” says Becker. “We’re pretty much interacting with everyone bidirectionally in near real time. If you told us we’d be doing this a year ago, we wouldn’t have believed you because

VWSE will control the LED videoboards located behind the main Draft stage.

we were still trying to figure this out.”

With the variety of cameras, Van Wagner will give ESPN and NFL Media the ability to mix and match the shots they take to air. There will be 117 live feeds sent in and out of Cleveland through 94 dual receivers provided by TVU Networks. Even though the parties are separated by many miles, this remote workflow will once again add a real-time element to the broadcast.

“Since most of the transmission will be riding on TVU,” says McCoart, “anyone from ESPN in Bristol or NFL Media in Culver City [CA] can pull down anything that’s available in the system. For a handful of the clubs that have TVU hardware in their facilities, we’re also able to share their Draft room with the networks.”

On the Shore of Lake Erie: Lots of LEDs for Draft Stage, Numerous Concerts

With 50,000 fans expected, Van Wagner will dazzle the onsite audience with LED magic and other prepackaged material. On the technical side, the shows will be produced by 105 individuals working in 14 trailers located behind the main stage. On the production side, only two editors will be included onsite, with a full team of editors developing the videoboard content remotely.

A look inside of the control room.

More than 25 million pixels of LED will be on display during the proceedings. PRG worked with Van Wagner to provide all of the gear for the master control room and the Evertz System Core. PRG additionally supported lighting, rigging, video and LED. Using a system identical to that deployed for Super Bowl LV in Tampa, the graphics and animations of the LED show will be driven by a full Ross Video production backbone.

“They have what we need to drive these large screens and understand how Van Wagner and the NFL want to do this show,” says Becker. “When you’re working with Ross, it’s a huge weight lifted off of our shoulders.”

Throughout the next three days, fans will experience a handful of activities. One of the more notable will be the series of concerts taking place in Cleveland. With so many resources dedicated to the main production, this prong of the plan requires its own set of staffers.

It’s Good to Be Back: Van Wagner Relishes the Opportunity After 2020’s Audible

Over nearly two decades, Van Wagner has become a mainstay at an event that signifies the start of yet another NFL season. In this period, the company has learned new technologies, workflows, and ideas that have elevated production quality. Although the 2020 edition went in a completely different direction, it allowed further expansion of an already impressive effort. With another marquee event set to get under way, the Van Wagner team is hitting its stride at the right time.

“We’ve all learned how to manage all of the risks that come with COVID-19,” says Becker, “but it’s great to be back because this is what we thrive off of. We’ll try to make this event as special as it has always been, by mixing what we usually do live and these hybrid elements. We’re extremely excited to be here.”

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