Saturday, September 20, 2014
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Behind the scenes of ESPN's production of Major League Soccer

Every time I've ever taken in a Union game in person, it's been from the press box. This past weekend, though, I got an opportunity to watch the team from a different perspective.

Behind the scenes of ESPN's production of Major League Soccer

Disclaimer: As happens once in a while, this piece is very long. I hope you'll read it all, though. I think it provides some important insights into the state of American soccer.

Every time I've ever taken in a Union game in person, it's been from the press box. This past weekend, though, I got an opportunity to watch the team from a different perspective.

I was invited by ESPN to observe Sunday's game against the New York Red Bulls from inside the network's production truck. In addition to being able to report on what I saw, I had extensive conversations with producer Chris Alexopoulos and editorial director Marc Connolly about how the broadcasts come together.

(I should disclaim up front that I've known Marc for many years, and briefly worked with him at another website at one point. I've also been professional acquaintances with broadcasters Adrian Healey and Taylor Twellman for a while. Those connections were not how this came about, though. It was a completely separate process.)

First, a few numbers. ESPN's total broadcast crew for a Major League Soccer game usually comprises about 50 people. Approximately 25 of them work in the truck, depending on the scale of the production, and a New York-Philadelphia game is a pretty big deal.

Those people include Alexopoulos and director Bob Frattaroli, along with production assistants, engineers, tape operators and replay coordinators.

I found it interesting that only three people on the production staff Sunday were full-time ESPN employees based at the network's headquarters in Bristol, Conn. Ten more travel from various places across the country to the site of ESPN's broadcast, and the rest are what Alexopoulos described to me as "familiar local hires."

I asked a few people whether Philadelphia's labor costs are higher than those of other cities, given Philadelphia's reputation for labor issues. I was told that costs here are competitive with other cities where production staffs are unionized, such as Chicago and Los Angeles. No one I talked to had any complaints.

That said, I can confirm something that I've heard floated around a few times in the past: it costs more to produce games in Canada. Although the atmospheres in Toronto, Vancouver and Montréal are among MLS' best, the cost of shipping equipment across the border is significant.

For example, I was told that the 2010 MLS Cup Final in Toronto cost 25 percent more to produce than any previous MLS Cup Final broadcast by the ESPN family.

It also doesn't help that one of the two markets involved in games in Canada won't count in American television ratings.

All of these factors help explain why there are so few MLS games telecast nationally in the U.S. from Vancouver and Toronto, and none from Montréal - even though expansion teams almost always produce telegenic atmospheres in their inaugural seasons.

Once ESPN's crew gets to town, it sets up a total of 11 cameras spread across the stadium, from midfield to the corners to behind the goals to the sidelines. One is a super-slow-motion camera that did not come cheaply for ESPN's soccer budget, but has gotten plenty of use (especially Sunday).

The ESPN crew began to work at PPL Park on Saturday, in part because Sunday's Union-Red Bulls game kicked off so early in the day.

The production truck arrived in Chester at around 9 a.m., and the crew was on site until around 6 p.m. On Sunday, the earliest risers got to the stadium at 5:30 a.m., and most of the rest of the crew (save for the broadcasters) got in at 7 a.m.

I mention this because at least from where I sit, a two-day setup is not a small amount of time. It may not be of the scale of a NFL broadcast, but it's a fairly significant investment nonetheless.

And as I found out while in the truck, Alexopoulos and his crew are all soccer people. They get the sport and what it takes to broadcast the game right. Alexopoulos has 16 years of production experience with ESPN, including MLS, U.S. national team games and multiple World Cups.

He has also watched plenty of MLS broadcasts on local sports networks across the country. So he notices when a camera angle isn't right, or when a replay is missed that fans would want to see.

The truck crew is entirely American, which I suspect might be of interest to you. ESPN has been criticized in the past for using British announcers to broadcast American soccer, but Healey was the only non-American I saw all day.

I met up with Alexopoulos at about 9:30 a.m. Sunday, and a lot had already happened.

Sunday started with testing all of the cable connections and microphones to make sure nothing had gone wrong since when everyone left Saturday night. At 9 a.m., Frattaroli met with all of the cameramen to give assignments, and explain storylines that he wanted to highlight during the game.

There were also some instructions for the more inexperienced camera operators on how to properly shoot a soccer game. One specific area of focus that came up in my conversations with Alexopoulos was how to frame a corner kick properly.

Knowing how far out to zoom the main camera angle for game footage is also a skill, and that's something I've seen local MLS broadcasts in many markets get criticized for in the past. There's a balance between being so narrowly focused that a viewer misses the build-up of a play, and being zoomed so far out that the players look like ants. 

Alexopoulos sits next to Frattaroli in the center of the front row of seats in the truck, flanked by production assistants on each side. Frattaroli spends the whole game crisply calling out numbers assigned to various cameras, and quickly transitioning from one to a second to a third.

While the director is talking to the camera operators and replay coordinators, Alexopoulos is in the ear of the broadcast crew. He is responsible for feeding reminders of storylines, giving advance notice of upcoming graphics and calling out times at which sponsorships need to be read. Alexopoulos also dictates what replay angles to use, and when to use them.

The second row of seats is home to the graphics crew. There's one person who keeps the scoreboard up to date, and another who delivers such bells and whistles as the pregame lineups and formations.

I paid particular attention to the creation of the lineup graphic, because I know that's something that a lot of fans pay attention to when they watch games on TV.

ESPN does not just slap names down in lines and call it a 4-4-2. Twellman talks with both teams' coaches before the game, and specifically instructs the graphics crew on how the lineups should be laid out. In total, the creation of the lineup graphics takes between 15 and 20 minutes.

With most teams, ESPN gets the lineup the night before and has plenty of time to get the graphics right. But it was pointed out to me by multiple ESPN employees that the Union are the only team in the league that does not accord such a privilege. So the crew waited along with everyone else until the mandatory release of the lineups 60 minutes before kickoff.

Not surprisingly, this rather annoyed the people who had to rush to get the Union's lineup graphic properly assembled. The fluidity of the Union's formation (to put it one way) made that process even more difficult, but Twellman helped create something that in the end was as accurate as it could be.

Much of the waiting time was spent filming canned segments for later in the week, and rehearsing handoffs for questions that would be asked during the live game.

I spent the two hours prior to kickoff in the broadcast booth with Twellman, Healey, Connolly and a few other crew members. The booth is a busy place on any game day, but it was especially so Sunday.

ESPN threw straight from the end of the Manchester City-Queens Park Rangers game into its MLS broadcast - and that was no ordinary transition.

Not only was it a rare English and American soccer doubleheader on the network, it featured perhaps the most dramatic finish to a season in Premier League history. City won the game and the championship - its first since 1968 - by overturning a 2-1 deficit with two goals in stoppage time.

For as hard as everyone in the booth was working to prepare for the Union game, it was impossible to not watch what was going on in Manchester. Once City tied the score, almost all pretense of focusing on MLS was dropped.

And when Sergio Aguero scored the winning goal with just seconds left on the clock, there was as much astonishment on the banks of the Delaware River as there was everywhere else in the world. That was a pretty neat moment.

But there wasn't much time to savor it. As soon as the final whistle blew at City, the countdown was on to the moment when Healey and Twellman would hit the air live. Television is an extremely precise medium, and everything that is planned for a broadcast is measured to the second.

Those measurements are manifested in a spreadsheet called the Rundown that is given to everyone on the crew. A broadcast is divided up into lettered segments based on blocks of time between commercial breaks, and those blocks are then broken down into numbered segments.

A typical segment during the pregame show lasted between 12 and 20 seconds. Next to each time measurement was the time on the clock at which each segment would begin, also to the second.

The most frantic time I spent in the booth came in the final seconds before kickoff, when Healey and Twellman were doing a standup on camera.

There came a point at which the truck was laying some highlights over the end of their conversation. As soon as Healey finished talking he spun around and dropped his handheld microphone on the table. He did the same with the earpiece through which he hears the truck's orders, and grabbed a headset. All of this took about five seconds.

As Healey was contorting himself, Twellman continued to talk into the camera. He kept going for just as long as it took Healey to get in his announcing position, and right then the referee blew his whistle to start the game.

Healey started talking, and Twellman jumped into the same dance: mic down, earpiece out, a 180-degree twist and grab of the waiting headset. Twellman added another layer of difficulty by taking his suit jacket off along the way.

As seamless as it all seems when watching a TV broadcast, that fluidity doesn't just happen. It takes skill and practice.

(Next time there's a short delay between when the players line up in the center circle and when the ball gets kicked, think about what you just read. It's not the only factor, but it's part of the process.)

A few minutes later, I was back downstairs. As I walked towards the truck, I couldn't help noticing (or avoiding) the seemingly infinite cables running across the ground, and the many boxes they were plugged into. Some were built into the truck's base, and others were scattered around the outside.

The first thing I noticed in the truck was the amount of talking. Alexopoulos was in constant communication with the booth - Twellman in particular - and Frattaroli was giving orders to cameramen seemingly every second.

A lot of the announcers' conversation during a game that is not calling plays is scripted. It's not the producer and cameramen following what the announcers say - the announcers know what the anecdote is and when it's coming.

Here's an example. When Healey and Twellman talked in the 14th minute about Red Bulls defender Wilman Conde's arrest, Alexopoulos had set them up for it a minute earlier.

He and Frattaroli had arranged for the cameras to be trained on New York manager Hans Backe at just that moment. Alexopoulos offered a few reminders of the facts, and seconds later you heard the conversation on air. Cue the camera switch to Backe - albeit blocked by an assistant coach - and it all looked so smooth.

(I should note that Twellman's off-color remark relating Conde's arrest to Red Bulls goalkeeper Ryan Meara's haircut was not scriped or planned. It was spontaneous.)

Three minutes later, Joel Lindpere scored the opening goal of the game for New York. That led to a frenzy of activity, with Frattaroli calling every camera switch to capture Lindpere, his teammates and the traveling contingent of Red Bulls fans just seconds apart.

Twellman then told Alexopoulos that he wanted to get the replay from a certain angle so he could use the telestrator to highlight something. Alexopoulos sent the order to the replay coordinators, and soon thereafter it was ready for air.

Freddy Adu's red card also caused a lot of buzz in the booth. It took Alexopoulos and Twellman a few tries to get the right replay angle into the broadcast in order to prove whether or not Adu took a dive. Here and throughout the game Alexopoulos called out a range of colors - red, blue, gold and silver - that represented various cameras and replay angles.

Fast-forward to the end of halftime, and the transition out of the last commercial break. It may have seemed subtle, but Healey cut hard right into highlights without coming on camera. That wasn't coincidental. There wasn't much time left until kickoff, and Healey and Twellman needed to get through as much as they could before live action resumed.

That meticulous measurement of time is standard operating procedure in television. Get everything done when you're supposed to, and you can be ready to react when something big happens just 22 seconds after kickoff.

A goal by Lionard Pajoy, for example.

When the time came for substitutions to be made, my focus shifted to Frattaroli. He gave the orders to drop the graphics down from the on-screen scoreboard at just the right moment, then gave the order to take them off - barely taking a breath in between.

It was another example of how precisely everything is programmed. And while it's all a lot of little things, if even one goes wrong a lot of people notice real fast.

As focused as the truck crew is on the game, they also pay attention to matters off the field. When word got around on Twitter that Adu was in the stands during the second half, Alexopoulos and Frattaroli got one of the cameramen to find Adu and get a shot of him into the broadcast.

As second-half stoppage time started, Frattaroli instructed a roving cameraman on the sideline to get to a position from which he could get onto the field quickly for postgame handshakes. Right on cue, one of the cameras on the multi-screen monitor at the front of the truck went wobbly as the cameraman started walking.

There was one last moment of drama when the Union won a free kick from close range in the 94th minute. By this point, multiple people in the truck were communicating with ESPN headquarters about how to handle the postgame segments.

But Frattaroli kept his focus on the action. As Michael Farfan stood over the ball, Frattaroli shouted "Keep it basic!" to his camera operators. For just a moment, the truck went silent.

It was a reminder that no matter how much else is going on, live game action always comes first.

After the broadcast wrapped up, I spent a few minutes chatting with Alexopoulos about soccer's place at ESPN, and American soccer's place in particular.

You may have heard that ESPN's current contract with MLS expires in 2014. Coincidentally, ESPN will also lose the World Cup and other FIFA events to Fox at the same time.

This has led a segment of the American soccer community to already start wondering aloud what will happen to ESPN's treatment of MLS and the U.S. national teams at that point.

It's clear that ESPN likes soccer. The World Cup, English Premier League and European Championships draw great ratings. But MLS does not, and U.S. national team ratings for non-World Cup games aren't as strong as many would like them to be.

So I asked Alexopoulos the big questions: How much does ESPN care about MLS; what will it take to get MLS more exposure; and what happens in 2014?

The immediate answer from Alexopoulos was that he wasn't really able to talk about it publicly, because it's not his place to do so. But he's heard the questions before, and he wasn't surprised when I asked them.

In general, what I heard from Alexopoulos and others is this: ESPN does care, and they aren't going to stop caring in 2014. Attitudes in Bristol have genuinely changed over the years, most notably during ESPN's award-winning presentation of the 2010 World Cup.

Yes, ratings can increase if MLS spends more money to bring in better players; and yes, everyone knows that breaking the bank has doomed soccer in America before.

Yes, getting on SportsCenter matters; and yes, it's very hard to do, especially when there are lots of other games in lots of other sports going on. (Which is to say almost all the time.)

But there has been progress, and there are people in high positions at ESPN who believe that there will continue to be progress.

I'm sure I don't have to tell you all that patience is not a commonly-held virtue across the American soccer community. Alexopoulos preaches it nonetheless - and so does Healey.

"There's no reason why MLS can't continue to increase its ratings," Healey told me, though he added that "whatever way you look at it, it's not going to suddenly happen - there's not going to be a quantum leap."

He also argued that "it's unrealistic to expect MLS to get the same ratings as the EPL... it's the same sport, but it's not a level playing field."

Healey noted that MLS is competing for eyeballs not just against the Premier League, but against every other league in the world that is shown in the United States. Soccer fans in America can legitimately claim that they have access to more live action on television than fans in many major soccer nations around the world.

This was highlighted Sunday morning, when ESPN and Fox combined to air all 10 Premier League game on the final weekend of the season. That was eight more games than England itself could watch live: only Man City-QPR and Sunderland-Manchester United were available on Sky Sports.

At the end of our conversation, Healey affirmed ESPN's commitment not just to soccer, but to MLS specifically.

"We've got a president at the helm [John Skipper] who's fully committed to the sport," Healey said. "I think they will find a way to stay in lockstep with MLS, trying to promote the sport. There's some wheeling and dealing to be done, but I don't think there's any way that post-2014, soccer goes away on ESPN."

Jonathan Tannenwald Philly.com
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About this blog
The Goalkeeper is your home for the latest news about the Philadelphia Union, Major League Soccer, U.S. national teams and the rest of the world's most popular sport. It's also a place for fans to gather and celebrate the culture of soccer and its unique place on the sports landscape.

Reach Jonathan at jtannenwald@phillynews.com or 215-854-2330.

Jonathan Tannenwald Philly.com
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