ESPN / US Open Conference Call – Programming & Production

Tennis

ESPN / US Open Conference Call – Programming & Production

  • Scott Guglielmino, senior vice president, programming and Global X
  • Jamie Reynolds, vice president, production
  • First All-ESPN US Open Starts August 31
  • New Cameras on Arthur Ashe Stadium

Today, as the first all-ESPN US Open approaches, two key ESPNers behind-the-scenes on the ESPN Tennis Team discussed the company’s approach to the event on a conference call with media: Scott Guglielmino, senior vice president, programming and Global X, and Jamie Reynolds, vice president, production.

Background

ESPN Overall Plans:   http://es.pn/1ECwZws

ESPN New Technology:  http://es.pn/1MzW0yM

Feature Story: On the ground since mid-July: http://es.pn/1hpRKXv

Topics on the call included:

  • The Importance of Exclusivity – Guglielmino: “In the current media landscape with all of the different platforms that consumers take in content, our ability to tell that story from the draw seven days from now, from first ball all the way through final ball, to be able to do it from a live perspective across our platforms, to be able to do it within shows like SportsCenter, PTI and sites like espn.com, our apps, it allows us to really get into a rhythm and cadence of the tournament, and also to be able to tell the various stories.”
  • Adding “freeD” replays — Reynolds: “We have taken advantage of the fact that the system, particularly because this is a unique venue dedicated to tennis, we can make the capital improvement and help the USTA and NTC deliver those positions in a fixed position and run the fiber once to activate the system. So this is part of the texture that can be counted on year after year… To the progressiveness of the tournament, they were saying, Yeah, you know what, we’re ready to go, let’s do what we can to move heaven and earth and get this system in here.”
  • The Serena/Grand Slam Storyline – Reynolds: “We’ve discussed it in layers in context from the individual of who Serena is, what her arc of success has been in her career. We talk about her as a cultural icon. Then certainly in the historic perspective… We’ve got some one-on-one interviews in discussion with she and her camp right now that might take place over the next 10 days to help frame her state of mind coming off of this summer’s tournaments. They would be long form sit-downs that would be eligible to ESPN, ABC, Good Morning America, that can help shape the broader audience, give them context of what Serena is on the verge of accomplishing…(during the tournament) we’ve got a lot of folks from Mary Joe Fernandez, who was her Fed Cup captain, to Chrissie Evert, who has been down this road, as well, and been passed by Serena (in number of Major titles). So we have a lot of voices of experience that can help shape her story.”

Q-Could you just describe for us how important it is for ESPN to have the coverage of the full tournament for the first time.

SCOTT GUGLIELMINO: From an ESPN perspective, and Jamie should chime in here, it’s important in a number of ways. One of the ways that we view it as being very important is the US Open is a wonderful kind of short story that takes place over two weeks. In the current media landscape with all of the different platforms that consumers take in content, our ability to tell that story from the draw seven days from now, from first ball all the way through final ball, to be able to do it from a live perspective across our platforms, to be able to do it within shows like SportsCenter, PTI and sites like espn.com, our apps, it allows us to really get into a rhythm and cadence of the tournament, and also to be able to tell the various stories.

Obviously we have some wonderful stories this year that are teed up for us. So for us being able to be exclusive, it really allows us to engage tennis fans and sportsfans and a broader audience across those two weeks in a very in-depth and involved way.

JAMIE REYNOLDS: I would just echo and give you a bit of a romantic response to that. When you look at Cliffy Drysdale, our longest-running analyst on the network, dating back to 1979, his association with tennis. Those of us who have had stewardship of the category. As many of you know, other than the Australian Open, we, ESPN, have for a long time always taken these majors typically through or up to the semifinal round because of the existing network deals.

So this particular year, and you look back at where we were with the Australian Open, our success in acquiring Wimbledon, now adding to the portfolio the US Open, the fact that we can now take our position and commitment to this sport and carry it through from first ball to final ball, is a dream come true for those of us who have been aligned with this sport category for so many years.

So from that perspective of being able to run it all the way through from front end to back end, that adds a layer of enthusiasm and capitalizes on the passion and commitment, as I said.

Q-From a production angle, what are some new challenges and obstacles that you guys are expecting?

JAMIE REYNOLDS: Thank you for that (laughter). We’re fond of saying the commitment to the commitment to doing this thing properly. When you look at taking the responsibility to deliver not just the host broadcast but also offer over 130 hours uniquely to ESPN, trying to combine that left side of the brain with what do we owe the world, so to speak, of 11 television courts, and how can we also take half of our group and start thinking about how do you amplify that in an ESPN flavor, so to speak, that from a production flow standpoint is probably the most creatively challenging.

You have the baseline of what court coverage looks like, but how do you start stylizing it for the ESPN audience? Having those two worlds reconcile is one layer of complexity.

On a more pragmatic level, when you think about what this venue, what the USTA has committed to doing for this sport, evolving this venue into what will become fundamentally the best venue in tennis, it’s artful dance to try to be as technologically advanced as we want to be, and also have that run on a harmonious timeline with commitment over the next couple of years and this past year to revitalizing the venue.

It’s everything from laying cable to finding new camera positions to working with the existing infrastructure on-site to trying to do right by the sport, do everything we can in our first foray into doing this event, and also recognize this entire venue will go through another facelift in 2016 when we come back in a year. It’s making all of those decisions, making smart investments on capital improvements to the venue, buying the right technology, dressing it up so the event looks magical and we capture all of the access points and the players, the excitement that this event offers, and then be ready to tear it down again and get out of the way so the venue can continue its facelift.

Q-I know Voya has signed on as presenting sponsor. Can you talk about the opportunities you have for your marketing partners now that you’re going wire to wire with this, things that might not have been there before?

SCOTT GUGLIELMINO: I’ll jump in and try to tackle the beginning of that, then Jamie jump in with whatever you want to add. We just talked about being able to have it from first ball to last ball, being able to really not only have the live coverage between ESPN, ESPN2, ESPN3, but also have all of the other outlets available from a content perspective.

Clearly from a Voya perspective and other partners, the ability to wave that content throughout our platforms, to be able to put it in more places, to be able to provide more access points for the content and the relationship with sponsors, it’s something that we certainly think is going to be a big step up for us and a step up for our partners throughout the two weeks.

JAMIE REYNOLDS: I probably would amplify that from the standpoint that with the revitalization and the desire of a lot of these network partners that can help amplify the official sponsors that the USTA has, that reinvigorates across the entire platform and the presentation not just a financial interest, but it recognizes in large part, I use this term lovingly, it validates what this property and event represents.

There’s so much interest and desire to be a part of it, aligned with it, it means somebody is doing something properly. Whether it’s on the USTA side of the house or the ESPN side of the house, that collaboration is healthy for everybody. So I think it’s a strong statement on what the belief that this event can evolve in this relationship now between one fixed home, between ESPN, and the USTA, that partnership and that alignment, people know they can securely invest in and be a part of.

Q-The 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. window of coverage, which in the past was on Tennis Channel, why didn’t that work out this year? Was it about rights fees? Given ESPN is not going to do the French Open going forward, what is the partnership or relationship or collaboration with Tennis Channel going forward?

SCOTT GUGLIELMINO: I would say in terms of having that window on our platforms, again, it goes to what we’ve been talking about throughout the call. For us, it is a significant advantage to having all the live coverage on our platforms under our control, from a storytelling perspective, from a coverage perspective. Also the reality of it is with ESPN3 and ESPN2 and 1, those are obviously broadly distributed platforms. So you think from a fan perspective and access points, we think that’s going to be a terrific opportunity for the fan to be able to access that content live.

Clearly with the Tennis Channel and with the US Open specifically, they will be on-site, and they do have rights from a re-air perspective once we get out of the live windows. So we think that will be additive, as well. We are looking forward to continuing that partnership around the US Open.

Q-Could that change going forward as far as their live coverage or are they locked into no live rights but they have a presence as far as postgame show?

SCOTT GUGLIELMINO: We generally don’t get too specific in terms of our agreements with our partners.  But I would say that the look that you will see this year, the way that’s set up, I think that is certainly a long-term vision for us.

JAMIE REYNOLDS: Something came up a couple days ago that Scott and I were talking about. That is tennis, this event, the fortnight of any of these majors, is very much a commitment to the commitment, meaning our approach from a production standpoint is much healthier and much more robust if we can tell every story, run from first ball to last ball, whether it’s on the E3 platform, E2 or E1, that we can actually live in the moment.

The same people producing our E3 coverage are the ones that ultimately end up working on the E2 window two hours later. While the platform and distribution is different, the product is harmonized, coming with the same vigor and robustness that we have across the entire 14-day run.

For us, it’s actually the opportunity to service and deliver that product in the same flavor that ESPN takes pride in doing, but it may just be a variety of outlets depending on the day. That actually also extends outside of E3, E2 and E1, because we have a lot of the same production personnel and talent working between both aspects of our house. So from a holistic standpoint, in our partnership, we actually can do the entire event minute by minute by minute, and it doesn’t matter what platform it’s distributed on, it’s still coming out with that same tenor, texture and personality.

SCOTT GUGLIELMINO: I would just also draft onto that. The original concept in approaching the USTA about this particular arrangement, about the responsibility of ESPN bringing 100% of the live coverage in-house and under our brand and under our stewardship with the USTA, was about really trying to create over the long-term a very specific home for the live rights and for the surround coverage, which is ESPN, then also to work together to create a cadence for the tournament itself. You’ve got each round, you’ve got two days, you’ve got the women’s and men’s championships split up, given their own large platforms. The notion of all the live rights being under our umbrella and broadly distributed under our brand and under our production, as Jamie mentioned, that is a fundamental element to the entire agreement with the USTA. They’ve entrusted us with that responsibility and that opportunity. That’s really what’s driving any other deals that we may do in terms of Tennis Channel and their positioning.

Q-So does that apply to the French Open, as well? You didn’t have the umbrella coverage in that case.

SCOTT GUGLIELMINO: It does. The reality of it is we feel terrific about our position with regard to the US Open, Australian Open, with Wimbledon, in that everything that we’ve just talked about applies to and we apply to our partnerships with those three groups. We found that is an absolute winning formula, to be able to cover from end to end live rights, to be able to tell the story in a busy media environment with lots of doors and windows for consumers to access it from. We believe that is absolutely the right formula for the fan and for ESPN and for those partners. And from a French perspective, as you know, we were basically a third partner with that particular event. It was something where we had made the decision, you know, a tough decision, to let’s focus on these three slams where we have the ability to really deliver on the promise.

Q-I want to talk about the rail cam and the technology stuff, the freeD. What kind of modifications had to be done to Arthur Ashe? Was it tricky as far as the negotiations? You have the Spidercam, as well. Is that every 12 degrees like they are at football stadiums? The rail cam is a little tricky sometimes, too. What kind of happened there?

JAMIE REYNOLDS: What we’ve tried to do at this event and in our commitment to the USTA is to try to take all the assets, the strongest pieces of technology that we’ve been able to either share or deliver uniquely to those other majors, and bring them all under – pardon the pun – one roof, convey them and take advantage of them. Doing it on our own home soil is a huge benefit.

The rail cam system is not unique to this event. CBS has used it I think less than a dozen years ago. I think that the altitude at which the rail cam was deployed previously didn’t accentuate the court. This year we’ve had, in cooperation with the NTC and the USTA, the ability to find a new elevation point that looks a little bit closer to the Wimbledon model, so to speak. The venue and the USTA have been very helpful in terms of granting us the ability to draw new schematics and develop this system and bring it in at a more level range and thinner profile.

What it really means is building a false wall, a skinned wall on the end of the court for the track and the camera head to be exposed. I can share those schematics with you and get those over to you.

On the freeD side of the house, it’s not new technology, as you guys know. It has been used most recently on baseball. It’s been experimented with in the NBA and football. But all of us on the tennis side have experienced its usage at Indian Wells and that tournament for two years. But this will be the first time it’s been deployed at a Grand Slam. We have taken advantage of the fact that the system, particularly because this is a unique venue dedicated to tennis, we can make the capital improvement and help the USTA and NTC deliver those positions in a fixed position and run the fiber once to activate the system. So this is part of the texture that can be counted on year after year, right?

So it was a bit of artful dance to line up the schedule and get a blessing from those here on the grounds to say, You know what, it was a late add but a go. To the progressiveness of the tournament, they were saying, Yeah, you know what, we’re ready to go, let’s do what we can to move heaven and earth and get this system in here. We’re excited about whatever that offer can be for the major.

Spider cam comes back, but because of our relationship in the past with our other partners, because ESPN uniquely funded that technology to have it come in, we’re happy to make it available now to the world for the first time. Spider cam will be available in our host broadcast, not just the ESPN domestic feed. That will be a win for everybody going from first ball to last ball.

Q-That was a challenge previous years?

JAMIE REYNOLDS: Exactly right.

Q-There’s about 10 days left.

JAMIE REYNOLDS: Please don’t count (laughter).

Q-How many people are on-site now and how much bigger is your footprint with the host feed?

JAMIE REYNOLDS: Great question. We have less than a hundred on-site right now. You have to remember the ESPN productions team and gear house as well are getting the US Open Series done in the five weeks leading up to the event itself.

Right now there are Gear House people and our production operations team out at Cincinnati, at that event. They all move on to Winston-Salem and New Haven next week before they all arrive next weekend as we take on Arthur Ashe Kids’ Day and a SportsCenter at the US Open telecast Sunday, the 30th.

Our full roster, I don’t know if the USTA is onboard right now, but we’re cresting at about 800 right now. When you look at the aggregate between CBS and ESPN in previous years, I don’t know that we’re record setting, but we’ve got a heavy roster of folks coming on.

Q-With this new technology, specifically talking about freeD, will officials be taking advantage of this to make more accurate calls or review them? If not, do you think it could be in the future?

JAMIE REYNOLDS: Great question. I think that we’re hoping that first and foremost the sport, the audience, the athletes, embrace the technology and recognize that it’s a benefit to help convey the game. Whether it can actually become that kind of tool in an official capacity, I would leave that to those that manage the tournament and the sport itself. From an appreciation standpoint and enhancing the game, I think these devices are to help stimulate the presentation.

Q-There’s been a lot of controversy this week in tennis over Nick Kyrgios. I’m curious if you’ve begun discussing how the broadcast will handle those comments when he appears on your broadcasts.

JAMIE REYNOLDS: From a production standpoint, news and information standpoint, there are no shortage of opinions. I think it is good to gain some traction and interest within the sport itself, and the personalities are wide and diverse. Tennis is one of those sports that is very polarizing. When you look at the unique individuals, 128 plus on the men, 128 on the ladies, any personality has an audience and a following out there.

Our job going into the Open is to help frame and put the context of what those individuals represent and how they see the game and help to clarify all sides of the position of who those individuals are and what they represent.

Occasionally you might get one or two opinions out of a guy like John McEnroe or Brad Gilbert, right? At the end of the day they are just that: opinions. We put our journalistic hat on, deliver the news, and let those that have played the game, been in the moment, understand what he might be all about right now, to help frame it and put it in context. Is it part of our storyline right now? Absolutely.

Q-With Serena being a storyline of the Open, what is your plan of attack for that?

JAMIE REYNOLDS: We’ve discussed it in layers in context from the individual of who Serena is, what her arc of success has been in her career. We talk about her as a cultural icon. Then certainly in the historic perspective, we talk about what she means in 2015, relative to Steffi, what she might be feeling coming in looking for number 22 next week, right?

Our approach is holistic in that we have been running with her throughout the year, which is a benefit back to Scott’s remarks about our commitment to the sport. So we have the historical context of her year, which is great. That’s just a pragmatic approach.

From the individual we try really hard to gain some access to her. We’ve got some one-on-one interviews in discussion with she and her camp right now that might take place over the next 10 days to help frame her state of mind coming off of this summer’s tournaments. They would be long form sit-downs that would be eligible to ESPN, ABC, Good Morning America, that can help shape the broader audience, give them context of what Serena is on the verge of accomplishing.

Then certainly from our ability to work with her during the tournament itself, we’ve got a lot of folks from Mary Joe Fernandez, who was her Fed Cup captain, to Chrissie Evert, who has been down this road, as well, and been passed by Serena (in number of Major titles). So we have a lot of voices of experience that can help shape her story. We’re actually looking forward to what that beat rhythm is through the tournament.

Q-ESPN just did a really good job covering the Special Olympics. You’ve talked about other tennis events. But non-tennis events, covering so many different stories, anything you bring into the US Open, pros, cons, challenges, that sort of thing?

JAMIE REYNOLDS: I think that goes back to Scott’s remarks about the different platforms available. It comes out in what experience of the Open you view, on which platform, specifically meaning whether it’s espnW, espn.com, how we handle coverage on ESPN linear network, and what we might offer on the ESPN3 service, right?

In the broadest sense of our approach, you tier off, the decision tree comes off of what are you doing on the linear network. The tennis fans are so passionate about seeing action, particularly over a 10-hour, 15-hour day coming out of New York, it’s really hard at times to manage the backstory of whether it’s Serena or Kyrgios or others, to devote a significant amount of airtime in the linear windows and not dilute the effectiveness of the competition.So we’ve got those other outlets. We’ve got our linear networks in prime time where we can shape the stories it sounds as though you enjoyed or perked your ears as you watched the Special Olympics, that humanizes the entire dynamic.

The only difference between what we do here versus the Special Olympics is the time delay. We’re living the real-time, minute-by-minute, live-live moment with players and the arc of the tournament, versus the Special Olympics that had tremendous storylines, but also had the opportunity to craft those stories with the advantage of the tape-delayed nuance. You can actually help convey the stories and shape them and convey them with a little bit more post-production robustness.

So that itself, it’s just two different ways of storytelling. So we take that ability to shape a story and put it into a mini movie, turn it around about Serena’s day, how tough it was, that may be a product that lives on espnW, lives on a digital platform, or is cached on E-3 for review, versus what might actually get played back for eight minutes in the prime time window when we don’t ever want to leave the court.

It’s trying to expand the channel range, if you will. Serena for eight minutes, I have here her, but if I want to watch Fed’s first walk-on, stay with that match, I’m on the linear network.

MODERATOR: It’s worth mentioning for much of Jamie’s career, he has worked on these sorts of multi-day, multi-venue presentations, not a three-hour ballgame, but an America’s Cup, tennis, Majors and the X Games. That background comes to the fore here.

Q-Do you think we’ll get to a point where we see people wearing mics, ball kids wearing mics, mini cams, or do you think there will be pushback from the players saying, We don’t want people who hear us using the F word? Do you see the technology pushing even more, I guess?

JAMIE REYNOLDS: The short answer is yes. I think that what we have jointly had in a variety of conversations, specifically with the USTA, and with the ATP and the WTA, is to explore a lot of those what we lovingly call discovery and access moments.

When you look at the fact that you can have a LeBron James wearing a microphone in the NBA Finals, and we’re struggling at times with some other sport categories where you don’t necessarily have that kind of intimacy, how can we bring technology and introduce it to a sport that traditionally has been a little bit more reserved?

In the landscape of sport, the landscape of immediacy, that kind of access is very powerful. I think everybody recognizes that, but we want to make sure across the board, between the governing bodies, the tournaments, the broadcasters, that we do it in a smart way that doesn’t impact their style of play or impact their performance, but does become an enhancement for a broadcast, right?

So finding that balance is a long-range plan for ESPN because that’s why we made the investment. And the USTA is looking to help us all find the right way to do that. At the end of the day if you have microphones on a court, you’re still going to hear it. Now the question is, How loud are you going to hear it?

But like the NBA, if you keep the analogy going, whether you’re in a coach’s huddle, or at a WTA event where coaches are allowed on court on changeovers, there are policies and procedures in place to make sure that either A, actual strategy or plays aren’t being divulged, but you’re getting an emotional texture if you will, sampling of the texture, of where the player or coach might be. Having access to that tonality is something we all strive for.

SCOTT GUGLIELMINO: I think also with technology, we never want to impact the field of play, obviously, and what happens there. But we absolutely are looking to impact how fans experience the field of play.

In each sport, in each event, there’s a different set of kind of norms, if you will, technical and physical parameters. We do the best we can. Jamie and his team certainly in the tennis category, our colleagues around ESPN in other categories, work hand-in-hand with our technology providers as well as with our partners to really try and effect that mantra.

Q-Given the long legacy of CBS, you have always been a guest at the hotels of the majors, now you’re sort of running the hotel. Jamie and Scott, what do you take as far as the learning curve now, looking at what CBS did? People want things sort of the way they were in a lot of ways. How do you look to build on what CBS did and take from the other majors as being a typical guest, you’re probably familiar with some of the frustrations, how do you look to make sure you make things better or at least as good?

JAMIE REYNOLDS: It’s great. You know, when you think about what ESPN has had the luxury of doing, since I’ve been onboard with this particular property, since 2007, we’ve had the luxury of sitting on top of whether it had been CBS here or Channel 7 Australia, or the BBC, and add to the texture. The fundamental baseline coverage was handled by CBS.

I chalk this one up, taking on this responsibility here for ESPN, be careful what you wish for because you just might get it. Now that we actually have aligned ourselves and are happy with the responsibility to do so, it is a very steep learning curve, and particularly from a technological aspect. We’re bringing a different mindset to this particular event.

This has been, as you know in the past, a mobile unit-based solution primarily. We’ve taken more of the international approach by partnering and developing more of the (indiscernible) solution, building out control rooms, creating a more sophisticated hub that can accommodate future growth.

So we built this chassis, we built this really powerful engine for future growth to ultimately deliver all court coverage down the road at some point. So we know that the infrastructure and venue can accommodate that now. Now the question is from a stylistic standpoint of looking to enrich and improve the coverage, that’s our biggest goal now, whether or not we can put the right people, the right directors, producers in the right position to help amplify and deliver a more robust package.

Again, it goes back to this being a long-term investment for us. It’s in our interest and certainly the sport to improve it. What is unique here, though, is ESPN doesn’t necessarily directly interface with those clients of the USTA. So U.S. Optimum is the intermediary where our obligation and responsibility stops, meaning at that point U.S. Optimum, we deliver the switch feed, the camera sources, all the assets of the technology that we’re bringing to enhance and build out this venue to a new level. But at that delivery of the super signal or the discreet courts to the clients of the USTA and U.S. Optimum, that interface will be interesting to see what that feedback is and how that ultimately may help us shape a better product.

So at the end of the day foundation-wise we hope we’ve delivered a better coverage scheme, but we may not necessarily hear the feedback directly. It may come back through U.S. Optimum.

Q-Having the SpiderCam now, do you think that will be a bell or whistle that all the people around the globe will appreciate?

JAMIE REYNOLDS: I hope so. I think that it’s now become so endemic to coverage, particularly at the majors, I think all the clients around the world have come to expect that level of delivery. I think we’ve evolved to a point now where that level of sophistication is now an expected delivery.

I’m not sure at this juncture whether freeD, because this is a joint investment between ESPN and the USTA, bringing that to fruition and success. We may figure out a new system of how that either may stay unique to ESPN or come to the domestic side of the house, or whether in the coming years that becomes an anticipated delivery for everybody to share.

So this is a gradual roll-out, make sure we’re stepping in the right direction, headed in the right direction, to amplify and consolidate all the technology that can make this sport even stronger.

-30-

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Dave Nagle

It was 33 years at ESPN for me as of November 2019 (the only job I’ve ever had) after joining merely to help with the America’s Cup for three months at a robust $5.50 per hour. I like to say I simply kept showing up. I’ve worked on almost every sport, plus answered viewer calls and letters (people used to write!), given tours, written the company newsletter and once drove NASCAR’s Jeff Gordon to the local airport. My travels have been varied…I’ve been to Martinsville and Super Bowls; the America’s Cup (all 3) in San Diego and College GameDay in the sport’s meccas such as Eugene, Auburn, Lubbock, Stillwater and more; the NBA Finals and Indy 500; Wimbledon (16 times and counting) and the “other Bristol,” the one with a race track in Tennessee. These days, in addition to overseeing the Fan Relations, Archives and ESPNPressRoom.com, my main areas are tennis, ratings, and corporate communications documents, including ESPN’s history and growth.
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