College Football Kickoff 2021: ESPN Sees Shift in Return to Site as Week 1 Ushers in Busy, Complex Schedule

Following a season loaded with REMI shows, 2021 sees some trucks, crews, announcers return to the road

One might call it a logistical nightmare — if college football weren’t so damn much fun.

One of the busiest, most complex projects of the year at ESPN gets humming this weekend as Week 1 of the college football season kicks off with a whopping 58 games across the ESPN family of networks.

The busy slate is headlined by the Duke’s Mayo Classic in Charlotte, NC — No. 5 Georgia vs. No. 3 Clemson —  in ABC primetime on Saturday evening; a native 4K production of the Texas Tech vs. Houston game from NRG Stadium on ESPN Saturday night; and the Chick-fil-A Kickoff in Atlanta — No. 1 Alabama vs. No. 14 Miami — Saturday afternoon.

To juggle the diverse production levels, production models, venue capabilities, and fluctuating schedules is quite the undertaking, to say the least. In Week 1 alone, the network is carrying teams from all 10 FBS conferences and with distribution to 10 ESPN platforms: ABC, ESPN, ESPN2, ESPNU, SEC Network, ACC Network, Big 12 Now on ESPN+, ESPN3, ESPN+, and SEC Network+ (SECN+).

“College football almost feels like endless possibilities,” says Tommy Mitchell, operations manager, ESPN. “I could be doing a game at Mercedes-Benz dome in Atlanta — like we are this week — and then the next week I could be in a glorified high school football stadium that has no power, no internet, and no cables. I think, when you add that into the scale of how many games we do, that’s where the challenge lies. Those logistics problems are not a big deal if you’re doing two or three games a week. When you’re doing 45 to 50 and you compound all of those, that’s what makes college football challenging. But, to me, that’s the fun part of college football: we get to put the puzzle pieces together.

ESPN is coming off a 2020 college football season riddled with logistical challenges, with the COVID-19 pandemic ravaging the schedule and limiting — or completely barring — fan attendance in stadiums. It also led to ESPN’s operations team busting out every flavor of live event production available, including many productions in which many production personnel and on-air talent worked remotely at ESPN headquarters and even at their own homes.

Although many of those REMI, REMI Pro, and GREMI models will again be deployed, Mitchell notes that the 2021 slate of shows will have much more of a feel of 2019, with a large chunk of games returning to full onsite truck production and the vast majority of games on ABC, ESPN, and ESPN2 once again called by on-air talent onsite.

The various production models are slightly different. REMIs are full “at-home” productions, with no on-air talent onsite (except for possibly a sideline reporter) and very minimal crew at the stadium. The events are produced from control rooms in one of the three primary ESPN facilities: Bristol, CT; Charlotte, NC; or Orlando (at Wide World of Sports). With REMI Pro, on-air talent and a few more technical positions are onsite, but the majority of the production is still assembled in a studio control room.

GREMI, which was used most notably during Monday Night Football last season, seems at a glance like a typical truck show, with on-air talent and much of the production and operations team onsite. However, multiple EVS replay operators, a graphics operator, Viz Libero telestration, and the guts and operations of the in-game scorebug are handled from a control room in Bristol.

Much of the work in shifting all these pieces around is overseen by ESPN and ABC Sports SVP, Remote Production Operations, Chris Calcinari; Director, Remote Production Operations, Rex Arends; and Director, Remote Production Operations, John LaChance. Operations Manager Dick Mullen and Remote Operations Specialist Brian Ristine play key roles in ensuring the success of each model.

“I feel really confident in our ability to execute our models,” says Mitchell. “We worked out a lot of kinks last year of how these models all fit together, and we figured out where the pain points are. So I feel really good about this season in our execution models.

“Where I don’t have the confidence is how the schedule is going to shake out,” he continues, noting the potential for conferences to forfeit games if a COVID outbreak occurs within a team. “There’s obviously a lot more games going on this year, and, with most of the conferences saying they are not rescheduling games, that’s volatile for us. We do have so many more options, though, because we’re back to a full schedule of college football. I think there’s [a lot] that bodes well for us. There’s a lot less uncertainty if a game does go away; there are games that Programming can move easier than we did last year, when we just didn’t have a lot of options.”

The schedule has already presented an early challenge (for completely understandable reasons): Saturday’s game between Oklahoma and Tulane shifted from New Orleans to Norman, OK, in the wake of Hurricane Ida’s strike on the Gulf Coast. Resources and staffing for that game needed to be rerouted or completely redone in a matter of days.

In terms of what’s to come on the biggest of ESPN’s broadcasts this season, the biggest game production from a resources standpoint remains the big primetime game on ABC. Those games will again be produced from Game Creek Video 79 for the fourth season.

Although Mitchell notes that the overall gear complement on that show will be at a similar level to previous years (Skycam and PylonCams are back), ESPN will be bringing back its jib camera and have greater use of RF after COVID restrictions either limited or completely eliminated them from the plans in 2020.

“[The jib is] a big color and flavor camera for us,” says Mitchell, “but, with no one in the stands last year, we didn’t use it.”

Other keys heading into the season include a weekly game produced fully in native 4K. Although ESPN hasn’t formally announced a full schedule of 4K games for the season, the game this week is the Houston–Texas Tech game from NRG Stadium in Houston. The 4K games are produced and distributed fully in UHD. ESPN is also able to deliver a 1080p show to viewers watching on standard HD sets. The ABC primetime game, for example, is still delivered in 720p, produced in Lyon Video’s Lyon-14 mobile unit.

Elsewhere, ESPN will also be growing its collection of PylonCams, adding them to selected marquee SEC games throughout the season.

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