Behind the scenes of ESPN's Euro 2016 coverage with top producer Amy Rosenfeld

 

Amy Rosenfeld has seen a lot of strange things in her many years producing soccer broadcasts for ESPN. There isn't much that surprises her anymore.

But after months of hard work preparing for the network's European Championships coverage, Rosenfeld was forced to call major audibles twice in the span of a few weeks this summer.

The first occasion came when Paris got hit by record rainfall in May, flooding the studio set ESPN built on the Seine River near the Eiffel Tower. Rosenfeld was forced to scramble for an alternate studio site just a week days before the tournament started.

The second came on the day when the studio set finally opened for business. A major protest against the French government's proposed labor reform law marched just a few blocks away, and got unruly enough that police had to use tear gas. Fumes drifted on to ESPN's set amid preparations to go on air – and protesters came that way too. The compound had to be shut down, and on-air talent back home in Bristol, Conn. was quickly assembled to fill in.

 

You might think that it's a really nice perk of the job to be able to spend a month and a half of the summer in Paris. As Rosenfeld told me in a phone interview from Paris late last week, those days were anything but nice.

"It took us a good year and a half to deal with the paperwork, the red tape, the bureaucracy, the permitting, the infrastructure, the set designer, the set constructor, the mobile unit vendor," she said. Once the floods struck, ESPN had "about four days to find an alternate [site]... We were pretty lucky that there was anything available."

Rosenfeld is just as flexible as she is driven, though. As I've written on here before, she famously was in charge when ESPN had to put its production equipment on a floating barge in order to get to a U.S. men's national team World Cup qualifier in Grenada in 2004.

 

 

Compare that to looking for television production space in one of the world's largest cities, even on short notice.

Fortunately, a studio firm that ESPN had a previous working relationship with had space available. And it just so happened to have the Arc de Triomphe out its window.

If you thought you saw that window on ESPN's broadcasts, however, you were wrong. The backdrop was a projection of a live camera feed of the top of the famed Avenue des Champs-Elysées.

Rosenfeld told me that ESPN never intended to fool anyone into thinking that the backdrop was natural. But the picture quality was so good that they did at first.

"There were people at ESPN who thought the set looked spectacular and actually thought that was our plan all along," she said.

After the floodwaters along the banks of the Seine receded - and after all the mud that was left behind got cleaned out - Rosenfeld and her colleagues finally got to their summer home.

It took a while for everything at the Seine site to get fully up to speed. Among the reasons why was yet more rain, which had a particular effect on the touch screen used for tactical analysis. Though the machine was built to withstand the elements, the humans around it - both in front of and behind the camera - were not necessarily.

"If I had realized it was going to be record-breaking rainfall, I probably would have made some alternate arrangements," Rosenfeld quipped, calling the initial plan "a calculated mistake."

Fortunately, there was enough good weather over the course of the month that the touch screen got used plenty.

"If you're in a very sterile, technical environment with a lot of gadgets, sometimes it's not super-comfortable," Rosenfeld said. "We've been trying very hard to, where possible, have conversations and not have a bunch of technology getting in the way. Having the touchscreen allowed the set to be a little smaller, and it also conveyed this energy of being a little more organic."

It helped, of course, that Rosenfeld had on-air talent at her disposal who are great at translating soccer-speak into English. And seemingly the entire cast had strong chemistry on air, from Mike Tirico to Roberto Martinez to Taylor Twellman.

Rosenfeld had especially strong praise for Tirico, whose 25-year tenure at ESPN came to an end during the Euros.

"He has this ability to study a sport and be able to extract the most important things to allow him to facilitate great conversation," she said. "Knowing enough and having enough of a backdrop and knowledge to rely on where he knows what he's talking about but he also knows how to point the conversation to get the best out of Michael Ballack, to get the best out of Santiago Solari or Roberto Martinez. And he does it in a very comfortable way."

Even new additions Vincent Kompany and Steve Bower, who Rosenfeld landed through connections at BT Sport and the BBC, blended in seamlessly.

"There is no way to fake liking each other," Rosenfeld said. "Believe it or not, there's really no egos. That's pretty remarkable when you look at the caliber of former athletes that we have."

And with her typical Massachusetts-bred humor, she also noted: "If you've got the talent, you can have them in a broom closet and who really cares what the backdrop is?"

(Yes, Rosenfeld also knows some things about television shows shot in broom closets.)

 

Here's something else you might not have noticed about ESPN's set: it was in the middle of a residential neighborhood. Though it wasn't quite the traditional kind. The stretch of the Seine where ESPN set up is a docking area for houseboats, and the neighborhood's residents went about their daily lives while Rosenfeld's crew did its work.

For example, you might have noticed that on a few occasions during the tournament, there was a bike parked on a light pole behind the set. That wasn't a prop. It belonged to a houseboat resident.

"You've got to be good neighbors and good partners," Rosenfeld said. "So if one of the boat owners put a bike somewhere, we left the bike there and we just tried to work around it. We ultimately developed a really good relationship with all of the boat owners, and they saw that if we were going to shoot something, they moved their bikes."

The Europe-based production people that ESPN hired certainly didn't mind. Indeed, many of them biked to work each day.

"Hey, it was very Parisian," Rosenfeld said. "The only people who seem to need vehicles are [people like] me, the lazy American."


 

I wasn't going to let the opportunity to talk to Rosenfeld pass without asking a few questions about ESPN's overall soccer strategy. Now that the Euros are over, the full weight of Fox taking over FIFA tournament rights is going to be felt. ESPN simply won't have any really big tournaments on its calendar for a while.

Yes, there's U.S. national team games, a few UEFA Champions League games, some European World Cup qualifiers and Major League Soccer, and the network has some other consequential rights packages in Spanish. But none of that measures up to a FIFA tournament, the Euros or even the Copa América.

ESPN as a whole has also been in little bit of a slump lately. They won't say that publicly; indeed, the network pushes back hard against any claim of it. But it's hard to dodge all of the PR hits from big-name departures such as Mike Tirico, Brad Nessler, Skip Bayless (who drove ratings whether you like him or not) and Bill Simmons (who drove web traffic whether you like him or not).

Then, just a few days ago, executive vice president of programming and production John Wildhack - a 36-year-ESPN veteran - left the network to become Syracuse University's athletic director.

Add to that the decline in pay-TV subscribers industry-wide, and there are valid questions to ask of the power-brokers in Bristol.

You wouldn't expect someone in Rosenfeld's position to be publicly pessimistic. But she was there when soccer was stuck in a back alley on the American sports landscape, and she's there now as soccer takes up ever more prominent real estate.

So her optimism about out soccer's future at ESPN isn't just blowing smoke.

"Soccer is good business," she said. " We've been through some tough times, and being blown off, and told - certainly under the leadership of [president] John Skipper, soccer is so important to him - it really feels like we've broken through more so than ever."

Skipper's leadership goes beyond just giving soccer a seat at ESPN's table. He is renowned for being a big-time soccer fan, and has genuinely championed the sport within his company for a long time. That has been proven yet again during the Euros.

"In a time where budgets are tight, Skipper, Wildhack and Mark Gross [ESPN's senior vice president of remote production and events] all supported a pretty aggressive budget to execute the Euros the way we're executing it," Rosenfeld said. "That speaks to the support. We could have hosted this thing in Bristol, absolutely. They all believed it was the right thing to do for this tournament to have an on-site presence."

That said, ESPN's viewership figures for this year's Euros are down from the last edition four years ago. Just how much won't be known for certain until the viewership for Sunday's final is confirmed, but heading into that game the average audience this year was 924,000 compared to just over 1 million in 2012.

Exactly why the audiences have declined are isn't quite clear; after all, you'd think having a major soccer tournament in France would draw casual observers for that reason alone. Maybe there was some soccer fatigue when the Copa América Centenario overlapped with the Euros; maybe it was the expansion of the Euros to 24 teams, which led to more games without big-name teams involved.

It's not really Rosenfeld's job to worry about ratings, at least not in the same way it is for her colleagues who work on rights deals and ad sales. But she pays attention as much as anyone else does.

"We all worry about ratings and we all do our best, but some of these things are out of your control," she said. "You try to put together the best production and create as much awareness as you can amid a very busy landscape when people are doing other things and you've got games in the middle of the day during a work day... We could not do our jobs to the best of our ability if we are put in the position of worrying about things we can't control."

That Rosenfeld and her colleagues are in such a position comes straight from the top of the company. Consider this next quote in particular.

"Your budget is not set based on your expected rating," Rosenfeld said. "It's set based on the importance of the event to a sports fan and to an American sports audience, and they put a premium value on big soccer events. Even losing World Cups, it's not like we're out of the soccer business. Far from it."

If that sounds like especially good news for ESPN's coverage of MLS, you're right. The league's TV ratings growth could charitably be described as "incremental," and more realistically as "perpetually disappointing."

(Though it's better to have incremental progress than no progress, and there are certainly better-known "traditional" American sports whose trends are headed in the other direction.)

"MLS is a growth property, and there aren't a lot of growth properties out there," Rosenfeld said. "So you've got to cultivate it, nurture it. Each year, it's going to get better. I think the long term outlook for MLS is really strong, with their growth and the markets they're going into."

The league does its part by being flexible with kickoff times, allowing ESPN to set up twin bill coverage windows with Euro and MLS games.

It's a strategy that has reaped many benefits for MLS over the years: the Women's World Cup with ESPN in 2011, the English Premier League with NBC from 2012 through 2014, and two big events this summer: the FA Cup with Fox and the Copa América Centenario third place game with Univision.

The last of those partnerships led an audience of 1 million viewers for a San Jose-Los Angeles broadcast on Univision, the first time a MLS game hit that benchmark since 2008.

 

"They get it that we're in this together and we've got to figure out how we're going to grow the game and grow the audience," Rosenfeld said. "I don't think it works without a really good partner who's willing to make those sort of things happen... Certainly the ratings would bear out that having some compelling matchups coupled with the Euros has been successful. I hope we can keep the momentum."


 

Rosenfeld is the kind of person who makes her work be about the game and other people as much as she can, not herself. But there's a story to tell about her specific role in ESPN's presentation of the Euros.

Simply put, Rosenfeld is probably the most powerful woman in soccer television in America. That unofficial title was bestowed upon her when she was officially promoted from coordinating producer to a higher rank that gave her oversight of all of ESPN's soccer broadcasts, from MLS up to the Euros.

At Fox, NBC and Univision (and at beIN Sports as far as anyone knows, though their global hierarchy is complicated), all of the people with Rosenfeld's power over what you see on your television or computer are men.

To Rosenfeld, this isn't a story. To her many friends and colleagues who see no difference between whether a man or a woman holds a position of power, it shouldn't be a story. But it is a story. 

"I get it on the 'girl thing,'" she told me. "I think we're getting very close [to where] it actually won't be a story... . It's not so much that I think about being a woman who's doing soccer. I'm proud because soccer is so important to me and being able to be a contributor to the growth of soccer in this country is very meaningful to me."

Rosenfeld equated her situation behind the scenes to a conversation she recently had with Sports Illustrated's Richard Deitsch about hiring former U.S. women's national team stalwart Kate Markgraf to be a color commentary for Euros games.

 

“Kate could be a purple llama as far as I am concerned," Rosenfeld told Deitsch. "She just happens to be a great soccer analyst.”

Rosenfeld would like to be treated the same way.

"I just really don't think about [being the] highest-ranking woman," she told me. "I also probably am the highest-ranking person who's under 5-foot-4."

Perhaps the biggest compliment one can pay Rosenfeld is that almost no one in the industry says a bad word about her. That includes soccer production staff at other networks, some of whom - such as Fox Sports' lead soccer producer Shaw Brown - used to work for her at ESPN.

The old saying is that nice people finish last, but Rosenfeld is proof that it isn't always true.


 

All of us who are fortunate to be able to write and talk about soccer in America can spend endless amounts of time holding forth on the subject if allowed. My conversation with Rosenfeld for this story lasted well over an hour. That wasn't the plan, but neither of us was surprised.

We talked a lot about behind-the-scenes production details that a more mainstream audience might consider a bit wonky. I only asked a few really technical questions, but Rosenfeld gave lengthy answers that included some interesting stories.

I know many of you enjoy learning about the technical side of sports broadcasting, so I've put together all of Rosenfeld's remarks on the subject below.

This particular execution for the Euros is new for all of us. It's a little bit of a hybrid of executions we've done in the past. Our control room is in Bristol. So what is here at the set in Paris? We have the cameras on the set, we obviously have the talent. We are cutting the cameras of the set here in the mobile unit, but all of the integration of graphics, video, music - that's all happening in Connecticut. So we are bringing back to the control room a feed of a camera cut of the set that then gets pieced together with graphics, music, taped elements.

 

It's complicated from the standpoint that when Bob Ley is voicing highlights, the highlights are being edited in Connecticut and sent via fiber [optic cables that run beneath the floor of the Atlantic Ocean] back up to Bob to voice over as a proxy. He's viewing it really as a reference.

 

The delay is tricky, because you are completely dependent on how much delay you have. With fiber connectivity - if we were [using] satellite it would be virtually impossible, because the delay of the video getting back to Bob would be three or four or five seconds. It would have to go up to the satellite and back down to him.

 

With the fiber, what we call latency - the delay - is barely a second. The real lifeblood of this event is the sophistication of the fiber network. It's somewhat similar to Brazil other than our control room was actually in Rio. We have a group of people at the international broadcast center [at Paris' Porte de Versailles exhibition center].

 

That is where we're getting the multiple feeds from the host broadcaster, that's where we're getting access to their server, and that's the hub of our transmission. We have feeds that are going from the Broadcast Center down to Bristol, we have feeds that are going from the Broadcast Center to us directly at the host set. 

 

For example, when Ian [Darke] and Taylor [Twellman] are in the stadium commentary booth, that camera feed is coming from the broadcast center to us at the host set, and then down as a composite feed down to Bristol.

 

For all of these events there's a centralized broadcast center that UEFA uses to execute their productions of the match, and then what's known as unilateral services or services provided to all of the rights-holders. That is really the hub of the wheel, and we're all these other things. Bristol and the host set just become spokes.

 

[When ESPN's talent is in the stadium] we have play-by-play, analyst, a producer, an associate producer and an audio technician and a security guy. That's usually our base infrastructure. Now, that's a lot of people. We secure two commentary positions because we have a lot of people, but we're also pretty aggressive with graphics.

 

We control the clock and score [box]. We don't control the design of the clock and score, but we control the execution. We are granted by UEFA the ability to handle all of our storytelling graphics [and] statistical graphics in the clock and score. So that requires some execution, because you want to be in sync. Because the announcers in the commentary position cannot see the clock and score, you have to have a pretty good system in place where they know a graphic is coming or they're going to do a promo and you've got to get the timing right.

 

Because of our unique infrastructure, we actually bring our own commentary box [equipment] that work with the standard commentary [space] that the UEFA folks put out equipment-wise. We bring equipment that we interface with the UEFA equipment. So we end up sort of doing our own thing within the technical infrastructure of UEFA. But they're kind of used to us after all these years, that we sort of have a specialized setup.

 

During the match, all of the graphics that appear on the lower third or lower half of the screen are provided by the world feed. So any time you see a full lower third scoreboard and it may say Orange or Hisense or whatever sponsor they're using, that's all happening on the world feed.

 

The upper left corner of the match feed is protected for broadcasters to do their own clock and score. However, the look of it needs to be in sync with the overall UEFA graphic look, and has to be approved by UEFA. We try to design a clock and score that fit our brand, so you've got the ESPN logo, but we're restricted in terms of color palette [and] shape. They want it to be one cohesive look. They actually gave us some freedom because they designed the clock and score and we made some adjustments to that in keeping with our overall brand, which UEFA allowed.

 

We are completely controlling that clock and score. We are doing all the drop-downs. Many global broadcasters don't need as much information or don't want as much information as we provide. Many of them don't want the jersey colors [in the score box]. Many of them don't feel the need to have any statistical information whatsoever...

 

UEFA has come a long way in understanding that different countries have different requests and needs for their audiences. And by the way, our studio look has to be approved by UEFA too. Anything that involves UEFA content ultimately needs to be approved, and it's the exact same with FIFA. What we can and cannot do, the look of our individual studio design, the fact that it's a UEFA show, they have a say in what everything looks like.

 

We fight long and hard with the governing bodies to explain ESPN's brand and not having something that's completely out of left field, and also that we tend to be, in the United States, relatively interested in statistical information and biographical information. That is part of our execution of a sporting event: we tell you who you're looking at, why they're important and what's going on in the game from a statistical standpoint.

 

Both FIFA and UEFA have come a long way. There was always a big battle in having the "chips" that show the jersey colors. That was always a big deal. Then finally they came around to that. Now a lot of the other countries have started to utilize that. It's something we just felt would be helpful to the audience, to know which country is in what color.

 

Especially when you're trying to get a broader audience that is not necessarily soccer fanatics, you try to be inclusive to the casual viewer. That's one way to do it.

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