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.
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.
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.
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.