By: Karen Hogan
ESPN’s Monday Night Football returns this Monday with many of the production enhancements that made it must-see TV last season — in particular, the highly successful Pylon Cam — as well as a few new tricks and firsts for the franchise.
Chief among the Monday Night Football firsts is a trip south of the border. Earlier this year, the NFL announced the league’s return to Estadio Azteca in Mexico City, where the Houston Texans and Oakland Raiders will face off on Nov. 21. The NFL’s previous game in Mexico City — coincidentally, the first NFL regular-season game to be played outside the U.S. — was played 11 years ago on Oct. 2, 2005, as part of ESPN’s Sunday Night Football package.
Of course, ESPN’s NFL production plans have grown exponentially over the past decade, resulting in a number of logistical considerations for this year’s game. The network has opted to drive its NEP EN1 fleet to Mexico City and treat the game as it would any domestic game.
“We have made the decision that we’re going to send the Monday Night Football fleet to Mexico City,” explains Steve Carter, senior operations manager, ESPN. “It should be a normal Monday Night Football show in the sense of the size and scope.”
ESPN is working closely with SOS Global to handle the bulk of the logistics, as well as an escort company to accompany the fleet to and from Estadio Azteca. In addition to practical considerations like who will be driving and where to stop for fuel, ESPN must document and declare every piece of equipment on the multitruck unit when crossing the border.
Once the crew arrives onsite, both the network and the league will benefit from the ongoing renovation of Estadio Azteca. In 2015, the venue replaced its outdated video-display system with two large-screen LED videoboards from Panasonic Mexico, as well as numerous LED panels and ribbon boards. The stadium has also built temporary locker rooms to host the two teams and has worked with ESPN and the NFL to lay down fiber to accommodate the needs of both groups.
“We’ve been down there three times already — we were just down there a couple weeks ago — and they have made tremendous improvements to that stadium,” says Carter, who also worked on the 2005 Mexico City game. “There’s a lot of fiber that the NFL has put in. We’ve all worked together [and put] in fiber for our needs as well. From a television perspective, it’s going to become a pretty good stadium.”
Pylon Cam, Sony HDC-4300 Return for Sophomore Season After making their Monday Night Football debut last season, Pylon Cam returns to primetime in 2016. ESPN will continue to deploy eight custom-molded goal-line pylons, each outfitted with four 1080p-capable cameras manufactured by Broadcast Sports International, for a total of 32 goal-line angles.
“The Pylon Cams helped in critical situations,” reflects Monday Night Football producer Jay Rothman. “There was one catch we had in Miami with [New York Giants WR] Odell Beckham Jr. that really determined that the call of a no-catch was actually a catch and a touchdown. So that helped us tremendously.”
ESPN will again deploy six Sony HDC-4300 cameras, capturing in high-frame-rate 1080p, and two I-MOVIX Phantom Flex 4K cameras on the goal line. The network added a handful of Fujinon 107X lenses to its complement of 99X and 95X lenses for its hard cameras. Depending on the matchup, ESPN will have the option of adding an RF handheld, a second RF Steadicam, or a jib. In total, including the pylon cams and five or six studio cameras, ESPN will have about 50 cameras at its disposal for Monday Night Football week to week.
ESPN also upped the bandwidth for data between EN1 and its Bristol, CT, headquarters to better share clips, send backup transmission feeds, support comms, and more.
A Testing Ground for Virtual Graphics This year, ESPN will equip its Skycam with Vizrt technology and data from Sportvision to generate virtual graphics. The graphics operator in the production truck who is responsible for lower-third graphics will control the Skycam virtual graphics as well. According to ESPN, improved tracking in the system will allow increased consistency in pinning the graphics, and the network hopes to push virtual graphics in new ways this season.
“I just went through a session of all of the renderings we’re going to have for that, and that’s pretty exciting,” says Rothman. “But, other than that, we’re standing pat in terms of cameras and recording devices.”
The 47th season of Monday Night Football kicks off Monday Sept. 12 on ESPN with a doubleheader: Pittsburgh Steelers at Washington Redskins (7 p.m. ET) and Los Angeles Rams at San Francisco 49ers (10:15 p.m. ET/7:15 p.m. PT). ESPN’s MNF crew features play-by-play commentator Sean McDonough (who takes over from Mike Tirico), analyst Jon Gruden, and reporter Lisa Salters.