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ESPN’s NBA bubble broadcasts are an Olympian effort

NBA executive Steve Hellmuth watches three feeds of an Aug. 5 game from Disney World's Wide World of Sports Complex.
(Andrew Greif / Los Angeles Times)

LeBron James had just exited a Mickey Mouse-decorated bus last week when the superstar’s arrival for that night’s Lakers game was spotted by Camera 50, one of the nearly 100 remote-operated cameras stationed around Disney World’s ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex.

A half-mile away in a humid parking lot, James’ stone-faced entrance at HP Field House was registered by Mike Schwab, a television director scanning a wall of glowing, shoebox-sized feeds inside a 53-foot ESPN production truck. He could not linger on the image for long.

Surrounded by a producer, audio engineer, associate director and technician, Schwab was directing an afternoon game between the Memphis Grizzlies and Utah Jazz. With more than a minute to play before halftime, Jazz center Rudy Gobert had begun looping behind the defense for an alley-oop.

In the truck, a replay was queued up after the dunk. Then another. Viewers watching on regional networks in Memphis and Salt Lake City saw them seconds later.

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“Oh, that’s nice!” a producer exclaimed.

The NBA and its players weren’t sure when they’d see highlights like this again while stuck in limbo for four months because of COVID-19. But they understood that the success of any restart plan would require adapting to the pandemic’s new reality — one location, daily testing, fewer staffers, more logistical hurdles.

As the league hammered out details to stage games, its television broadcast partners, including ESPN, scrambled to ensure fans would be able to watch them. They had no script to follow, only one question to avoid: If the NBA holds a 22-team restart but fans can’t watch in person, did it really happen?

The result has been tricked-out arenas, more remote-operated cameras than ever and basketball broadcasts that, by necessity, look like nothing else seen before. All of it is anchored by the bubble within the NBA’s bubble — a 200,000-square-foot broadcast production complex shared by ESPN and Turner Sports and connected to the Wide World of Sports complex by a short walk and 436 miles of fiber cable.

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“I’ve never personally worked an Olympics,” said Mike Shiffman, ESPN’s vice president of production. “But in talking to folks who’ve set up for it, this is much more of an Olympics-type setup given the amount of trucks and trailer space than we would have for a normal event.”

Before the pandemic, ESPN produced a typical NBA game from one truck, with up to 10 people working snugly within its largest compartment. In the restart compound, there are 13 trucks — two per network per arena, as a means of spreading out workers now divided by plastic shields. They are surrounded by 31 office trailers, 20 generators that supply all of the site’s power, two catering tents and red Coca-Cola machines offering free mid-shift pick-me-ups.

An aerial view of the ESPN broadcast compound at the NBA's bubble in Disney World.
(Courtesy of ESPN)

To get here, ESPN, Turner and the NBA had to first agree on health and safety rules, twice-weekly testing protocols, camera locations and how they would share their technology. They also had to coordinate staffing. While the majority of the 170 to 200 ESPN workers here at any given time live in a hotel close to the edge of the Disney property, a handful of its camera operators, producers and reporters live inside the bubble, near the teams, and were required to quarantine upon their arrival in Florida.

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“I’ve done Super Bowls and World Series and this has been infinitely more challenging,” said Steve Hellmuth, the NBA’s executive vice president of media and technology. “You can’t just put someone on an airplane and say, ‘Go to work, you’re Camera 2 tomorrow.’”

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Staging games without fans is a worst-case scenario for the league’s bottom line. Commissioner Adam Silver told players in May that 40% of league revenue is derived from game nights.

And yet, for broadcasters tasked with designing and producing the best television possible, empty arenas represented unprecedented opportunity.

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Underneath each court, 36 contact microphones were placed to pick up sneaker squeaks and dribbles. Empty seats are obscured by 17-foot-tall video boards ringing three sides of the court on which the feeds of 320 fans watching from home are digitally stitched into seats. More than 20 cameras are positioned inside each arena — including new angles such as “rail cam,” which runs the length of the court — but only a fraction are operated in person.

“We had dreamed about all these things and being able to do these things in NBA buildings but were prevented by fans,” Hellmuth said. “But now there are no fans. We knew exactly where we wanted to put the cameras.”

Visiting the Wide World of Sports Complex during the summer was nothing new for Mark Jones, who has called games for ESPN since 1990. As a father to a basketball-playing family, he’d watched countless games within the venues. He knew the bubble’s strict health and safety protocols would alter some elements of his job. Play-by-play teams no longer work courtside, within breathing distance of the players, because commentators live just outside of the bubble. Instead, they now work about 15 rows up, surrounded by Plexiglass. It looks less like a broadcast booth and more of a phone booth.

Still, the transformation stunned him the first time he walked into HP Field House in July.

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“To see what it should look like with a bunch of teenage kids occupying 20 different courts all playing at once and whistles blowing in your ears like a cacophony of sound, and then to walk in and see just one NBA court with the technology, the lighting, the microphones, the cameras, the scoreboards, the virtual fans board — it’s very impressive,” Jones said. “I was just blown away when I walked in.”

ESPN employees produce an Aug. 5 NBA game from a production truck at Disney World's Wide World of Sports Complex.
(Andrew Greif / Los Angeles Times)

The new toys at ESPN’s disposal have led the broadcasting giant to walk a fine line during its broadcasts. As much as they want to incorporate the new elements, they don’t want to upset viewers accustomed to the way broadcasts were before, Shiffman said.

There was pressure to find that balance quickly. They understood their work would be scrutinized closely by an audience that had gone without live basketball for more than four months.

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“The fact that we can be a source of entertainment or distraction or escape for fans, I don’t think was lost on anybody,” Shiffman said. “We always go in thinking of the fan experience first and maybe there’s a little more added to that given the current circumstances.”

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Before the pandemic, Jones would match the energy of his call after a game-changing play to that of the crowd around him.

Without live fans, however, he’s cognizant of not going overboard. It’s one of many adjustments he has made to change his style to fit the unprecedented surroundings.

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His preparation now includes noting which players are loud or emotional on the court, a detail that has led him to often stay silent after consequential plays — “laying out” in TV-speak — in hopes of catching candid reaction.

“There are some real, good unique things about this,” Jones said. “It’s something that’s made me more aware of the sound that’s available to us and I think it’s great.”

Just not too candid: The broadcasts run on a delay.

“This is still the players’ place of work,” Shiffman said. “I think the mix we’ve landed on is the appropriate mix. It brings fans a bit closer to the players but again, we want to respect their privacy.”

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ESPN and Turner not only had to figure out how to broadcast their own games but those televised by teams’ regional networks because the NBA didn’t allow networks such as Fox Sports Prime Ticket or Spectrum to send staffers to Orlando in order to reduce the number of personnel on site.

ESPN routes a “clean feed” — a version with an audio mix but without an announcer track or graphics — from its production truck to NBA Entertainment headquarters in Secaucus, N.J., where on-court branding for arena sponsors and other advertisers is digitally overlaid. The feed then goes to regional networks, who add their own announcer audio and graphics.

Most of the angles seen at home are chosen in trucks in Orlando, but regional networks also have control over one camera in every arena.

“It’s almost like a game in itself,” said Steven Rose, a producer of Clippers broadcasts for Fox Sports Prime Ticket. “We spend the first five, six minutes of the game figuring out the production crew at the site and then adapting from there.”

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Lakers games have been produced remotely before, such as the team’s preseason trip to China, but the restart arrangement is a more delicate dance, led by the trucks in Orlando.

“You’re used to having entire control of how you produce a game from every shot you select and we don’t have as much control of that,” said A.J. Ponsiglione, a senior coordinating producer who oversees the production of Lakers’ broadcasts for Spectrum. “Most fans at home probably don’t realize the difference because it still looks, feels and sounds like a Lakers show.”

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When James entered HP Field House through its back door on Aug. 5, he began preparing for a matchup with Oklahoma City that would be broadcast locally by Spectrum and nationally on ESPN.

Usually, an ESPN game would lead the network’s commentators to chat with James in person before tipoff. In Orlando, those meetings happen via videoconference.

In so many ways, players have never been farther away from their fans. And yet, Jones wondered whether viewers at home have ever felt closer. He believes the tighter camera angles and better audio has revealed nuances of the game and more about the players themselves.

When James missed a free throw with 32 seconds remaining in the third quarter, Jones laid out while watching Thunder guard Chris Paul approach his teammates.

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“He don’t ever miss two in a row,” Paul said, in comments heard faintly on the broadcast. “Don’t box out.”

When James missed his second shot, Jones pounced, repeating the remark to the audience at home. The clip of ESPN’s broadcast was quickly posted to House of Highlights, a popular Instagram account. Within hours, it had been watched more than two million times.

“Being able to hear that and pick that up is gold, man,” Jones said. “It’s like players in the park.”


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