NFL Kickoff 2021: In Super Bowl Year, NBC Sports Treks Cross-Country for Season, SNF Openers

NBC kicks off in Tampa tonight, heads to L.A. on Sunday for whirlwind Week 1

While gifting NBC a star-studded slate of games this year, the 2021 NFL schedule has also presented one of the most challenging Week 1 scenarios in the 16-year history of NBC Sunday Night Football. NBC will handle tonight’s massive Cowboys-Buccaneers NFL Kickoff Game production from Tampa before traveling across the country for yet another colossal show just three days later: Sunday Night Football’s Bears-Rams opener in Los Angeles.

From left: Keith Kice, John Roché, and Tim Dekime onsite at the truck compound in Tampa for the NFL Kickoff Game

Because of the quick cross-country turnaround, NBC will not be able to use its longtime primary mobile unit — NEP ND1 A, B, C, and D — for both shows. Instead, ND1 is already parked at SoFi Stadium in Los Angeles, and NEP EN3 (A and B) and Summit (A and B) have been refashioned to stand in for ND1 in Tampa tonight.

“This is the first time in 16 years that we were not able to use our primary trucks to do both [opening] games,” says Tim Dekime, director, sports operations, NBC Sports. “With the help of a lot of smart people at NEP and our engineering team, we were able to put together a combo of trucks in Tampa that could match our primary trucks.

“Everything that was on ND1 and all the equipment [deployed for] Sunday Night Football, we needed to have here in Tampa,” he continues. “It took months of planning led by [Technical Manager] Keith Kice, but we’ve got everything working here just like it was an ND1.”

NFL Kickoff Game: Re-creating the Friendly Confines of ND1 in Tampa

EN3, which is built around an Evertz EXE IP router, serves as the technical core of tonight’s production while Denali Summit, which is typically used for large entertainment shows, provides a large and flexible control room for SNF Executive Producer Fred Gaudelli, Director Drew Esocoff, and the rest of the SNF production team.

“EN3 is basically the brains of the show,” says Kice. “The main reason for Summit is, so we [could have] a control room that would match ND1 [and] Fred and Drew [would feel] comfortable. It was very important to have as close to the exact same [setup] as we have every week for a Sunday Night Football show, which was challenging. But, as far as Fred and Drew are concerned, it’s the exact same show that they know: all the cameras, EVS quantities, audio [capabilities] — everything is the same.”

In addition to EN3 and Summit, NBC has rolled NEP ND5 to handle the special onsite edition of the Football Night in America pregame show. Also onsite in Tampa are three office trailers to support graphics ops (the lone game for which graphics will be onsite instead of remote) and other needs. BSI also has a truck on hand to manage RF wireless audio/video, and SMT has rolled out a small truck for its virtual-graphics/AR operations.

SNF Cameras: Line-to-Gain Cams,  8K Skycam Angle, but No ‘Megalodon’

On the camera front, the big news is NBC’s addition of new RF line-to-gain cameras and pylon cameras from C360 that will offer close-up looks at close plays at the line of scrimmage. In addition, NBC has upgraded several cameras to Sony HDC-5500’s and added six new Canon 111×8.3 lenses for its 6x-slo-mo and 4K cameras.

According to NEP Senior Technical Manager John Roché, addition of the line-to-gain cameras brings SNF’s complement to a whopping 45 cameras. This primarily Sony arsenal comprises five Sony HDC-4800 4K 4x-slo-mo cameras, 13 6x-slo-mo systems (a mix of HDC-5500’s and 4300’s), three RF Steadicam systems, seven robos, a Skycam, and an aerial.

Gaudelli teases a still-in-development 8K camera that would be rigged on the Skycam system.

“I’m hoping that, at some point in the season,” Gaudelli says, “we’ll have a second camera on Skycam that would be an 8K camera where we’d be able to do some great isolation of offensive and defensive linemen from that Skycam angle. [It’s] not ready at the moment, but I’m hopeful that, at least halfway through the season, we’ll be moving to that.”

One camera that won’t be deployed for SNF in the foreseeable future, however, will be the “Megalodon” cinema-style shallow–depth-of-field mirrorless systems that have become all the rage across live sports coverage.

“Drew and I have spent a lot of time studying these cameras in the off-season, and, obviously, you see them now on every single event,” Gaudelli says. “Call me old-fashioned, but I just like shots that are in focus, and I think one of the issues with that camera is, sometimes, the subject will go out of focus and the background will come into focus. Not to blast anybody else’s show, but it’s just not consistent enough, and it doesn’t match the look of the other cameras. At this point, Drew and I don’t have any plans to utilize [them].”

In the SNF Compound: ND1 Upgrades; Peacock Postgame Show Joins the Party

After tonight’s Kickoff Game, NBC’s production team will return to ND1 for the remainder of the season. During the offseason, NEP and NBC upgraded all EVS replay systems from XT-3’s to XT-VIA’s.

Although the bulk of NBC’s production team is back onsite this year, following strict safety protocols, some of the crew will continue to work remotely. With the exception of the NFL Kickoff Game, all graphics operators will once again be located remotely at NBC Sports Group’s Stamford, CT, headquarters, and editors will work either in Stamford or from their respective homes.

NBC’s crew, including Sideline Reporter Michelle Tafoya, will have more access on the field this season after being largely barred from the field during the COVID-plagued 2020 season.

“We don’t have the operational zones like last year,” notes Dekime. “Our sideline reporters and personnel can be on the field for live reports and things like that. The NFL has given us more access to have more people on the field overall as well. That’s always a positive thing and makes us feel more connected to the game.”

One new element onsite this year will be the addition of Peacock Sunday Night Football Final, which will stream exclusively on Peacock following every SNF game beginning this Sunday in L.A. NEP Supershooter 3 will be on hand for the postgame show throughout the season.

Super Bowl Year: For NBC’s SNF Team, All Roads Lead to SoFi

Any year in which a broadcaster has the Super Bowl is a big year in terms of technological leaps forward, and Gaudelli says NBC will look to enhance its coverage wherever possible on the road to Super Bowl LVI at SoFi Stadium in February.

“The Super Bowl affords you the opportunity to perhaps incorporate more things than you would in a normal season,” says Gaudelli. “I think, at the end of the day, we just want to do it better, and, if there is new technology that allows us to make the game more enjoyable or make it more understandable or make the experience of the viewer just better, we would obviously do it.”

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