ESPN Sr. Coordinating Producer Phil Orlins appeared on a media conference call today to discuss ESPN’s production approach to start the 2021 MLB season. ESPN’s coverage begins Thursday, April 1, with 11 games in the first week including the exclusive Opening Night matchup between the New York Mets and the Washington Nationals at 7 p.m. ET. ESPN Sunday Night Baseball makes its season premiere Sunday, April 4 at special time of 8:30 p.m. with the Chicago White Sox at Los Angeles Angels.
PHIL ORLINS: Good to see everybody. Hope you’re all doing great. We are six days away now, so excited for sure to get going, and thankfully get going on April 1 and plan on a 162-game season and a full year, for sure.
A lot of learnings, and I’m sure we’ll get into more details that are related to workflows and pandemic and things of that nature, but just to give the quick headlines to it, we will still be in a workflow that is centralized, primarily Bristol-based from a product approach standpoint. We do probably 20 percent of our games out of our Charlotte hub, but for the most part things connect through Bristol and out of the Bristol hub.
The quick top line on that is for those who want the tech TV, inside ESPN terminology, our Sunday Night Baseball games — again, happy to get into some more detail. They are what we would describe as a REMI, or FOX would call an at-home workflow. They are, I would say, pretty unrelenting in terms of our expectations or we’ve given up nothing in terms of our expectations of what those productions should be like.
We plan a minimum of five super slo-mos on those games of which one is an ultra-slow motion. There will be a minimum of 10, 11 cameras plus some additional robotic cameras, depending on the ballpark and circumstances there. A small ESPN core crew at site, a substantial local crew at site, but the productions themselves, the producers, the directors, the switching, lead audio, et cetera, all take place in the control room back in Bristol.
The capacity to transfer data, speed at extremely high speeds is great from MLB ballparks. Again, I think this is a place where we probably needed to be eventually, and because of circumstances that took place last year got there quickly and will stay there.
Our talent on Sunday Night Baseball, Buster Olney, will be at site as the reporter. We expect him to be at site at every game. Matt Vasgersian and Alex Rodriguez will start the year in the Bristol studio. I’m sure I’ll be asked — I don’t know that I have any guarantees, predictions on when that would change or if that will change. I think there are a lot of circumstances that will go into that, and some of them are to be determined, including the COVID pandemic as one of them.
But we like the concept of the reporter at the site. In some ways I think it actually has increased the essential value of the reporter for him to be the one person at site.
Our weekday games will also be fully produced through Bristol or occasionally Charlotte control rooms. In those cases, much as we did last year, we will work off a world feed provided by the home RSN broadcaster. We will, as always, enhance that with at least two or more cameras of our own that allows us to kind of cut on and off of their world feed and cover the stories that we’re talking about, the people that we’re talking about, create our own highlight packages. We use some of their replays, we do some of our own. We’ve got quite significant capabilities there, as well.
Our talent for that will be either in the Bristol hub or working from home on those games. That’s pretty much the workflow there. Again, a lot of capabilities there. I don’t want to get too down in the weeds, but one thing we experimented on KBO last year and we will do again this year is literally like Eduardo Perez even from his home being able to transmit his own, like, video files into our switcher, telestrate his own stuff from his home. The more you challenge yourselves on what you can do with technology, the more these things are accessible and available to be done.
Before we get going, I want to mention we did come off of something we started a year ago, which is approaching Spring Training as an afternoon all-access approach and really being aggressive in pushing the envelope with our ability to experience player personalities in new and different ways and personalities around the game. So we had unbelievable success with that. We thought, a year ago literally in the days that turned out to be leading right up to the pandemic and everything being shut down, but a year ago just great moments with the Mets and Dom Smith and Freddie Freeman and all that kind of stuff.
So this year was a little more challenging because we didn’t have the same proximity and access obviously to the field. But taking a different approach, borrowing a little bit from what we did a lot on our KBO coverage last year we moved to a very normal FaceTime type of workflow to access players.
I guess save the first question, which is are we going to be able to do that in the regular season this year. We had a lot of success last year in the regular season with that type of access material. Bryce Harper was a great participant. Obviously there were a couple in the postseason, as well, Paul DeJong with the Cardinals, Ian Happ was tremendous with the Cubs, some others, and the answer to that is to be determined, as that really requires an agreement between Major League Baseball and the Players’ Association, and we hope that we once again get there. But having said that, those things do not necessarily travel a quick path, as I think most of us are aware.
On the more talent and production-oriented side of it, I just wanted to mention, most of the growth we’re seeing in our audience is coming from younger viewers, female viewers, Hispanic viewers — female has Hispanic has really been the area where MLB has shown the most progress, and I just wanted to say we have an interesting, different and diverse group of talent, and just really pleased. I’ve never really presented a lineup that is this multilingual and this diverse, and I just think it’s a good place to be with where we’re seeing our research indicate the sport is showing its most upside, its most growth, and to be able to roll out Alex Rodriguez, Eduardo Perez, Jessica Mendoza with some of the reductions, Doug Glanville in the mix more than he was in terms of Chipper not coming back, things like that, so we get to use Doug a lot more, offers a really fascinating perspective and smart perspective, and Marly Rivera added in the reporting role, more regularly in our coverage. I just think we have really — almost every crew we put out there is multilingual and has diversity, whether it’s ethnicity or gender or international, Latino birth, things of that nature. So just pretty excited about that.
Q: In terms of how you felt the broadcast sounded and looked being in studio, especially if you’re with Alex and Matt, when you compare it to the past, what did you think in terms of the difference?
PHIL ORLINS: Advantages and disadvantages. You know, I’m not going to tell you anything that will shock you here. Alex at the ballpark gets a lot of attention, and it’s an interesting day with him there and the number of people who wander in and out, go see him, all that kind of stuff. So I will say that — like there is a certain simplicity and focus to the workflow coming into Bristol. A-Rod and company on the Bristol campus, but you’d be surprised how routine that feels with all the people that come through there and being able to stay focused on his own.
The other thing that’s really interesting like with the Zoom calls with the managers and stuff like that, I think they were probably better. They’re quick to get on, to get started. There’s not as many people hovering around, waiting outside the office, extra people coming in, coming out, things of that nature. And I think there’s something about them in the world that we’re in, whether it’s us talking together or A-Rod talking to — and Matt and Buster talking to Kevin Cash, Aaron Boone, whoever it might be.
But the focus is pretty good and pretty straightforward, so some of that stuff is good.
I guess there are two things I think about in terms of them going back to the ballpark. One is if you’re not going to get access by being at the ballpark, that’s a huge piece that makes it less relevant to be there, and the reality of it right now is if you’re not going to be allowed on the field and you’re not going to be allowed in the clubhouse and all you’re going to do is go to a booth, then you get down to really the main question being how you see and how you call the game.
So that piece just isn’t ready to happen. That’s the whole tier 2 question with MLB, whether you’re willing to make the life sacrifices that go with being like an in-uniform personnel and that kind of stuff and being able to get — so right now that piece just isn’t there.
So then the other question really comes down to how you call the game. I think the reality of it is probably 95 percent good from Bristol or from home if you have your home setup set up really properly, which is not a guarantee for everybody. Some people are better with technology, set up better monitors and all that kind of stuff, and other people frankly struggle with it.
So that question is real. The reality of it is, as you guys know, the play-by-play announcer in particular balances his time between looking at a monitor and being able to look up at the field and see everything. It’s not as easy as it sounds. Like we give them an all-nine lock off of everything that happens on the field. That sounds great until you actually look at it and realize how enormously wide it all looks and how tiny the little people look out there, and it’s really hard for an announcer to bounce back and forth between like vivid program shots where the players look normal and then like try to in the middle of a play switch over and watch little ants running around. It’s almost alluring to look at the prettier, bigger pictures.
But then there are risks that go with that. You cut to a runner rounding third or something like that and you hope the cut doesn’t happen at a time where the left fielder bobbles the ball or something, but those are things that announcers had capabilities to manage on their own in the past, particularly when the ball was in play. So that is real.
And the third aspect is, and I think this remains a little to be determined as the crowd comes back, is the sense and feel of the atmosphere. It’s a little more vague. It’s a little less specific. But I do think that for meaningful, big games, it feels right to me for the announcers to be in proximity to the actual crowd and the sounds and the feel of that crowd.
Now of course we’re working our way back into that, depending on whether it’s Texas or New York or Washington or Detroit where the crowds are going to be really small, so I think that’s going to evolve as the season goes on.
Q: How would you evaluate Alex from where he started and where he is now as an analyst?
PHIL ORLINS: I would say that he has some really interesting attributes. He has some curiosity. One thing I’ve liked with him from the outset is he enjoys a story and he enjoys once in a while telling stories about people. Not every big-time ex-superstar thinks that way and relishes that. I remember literally the first game he did, so I guess it’s wouldn’t be a big change him sort of being fascinated by Max Kepler’s mother sending cookies to the team and thing like that, and having done this a long time with some Hall of Famers and things of that nature, not all of them sort of relish that personal aspect, so I appreciate that he does.
His in-game, there are certain aspects that he reacts very, very well to that obviously play off his personal experience, batter, pitcher, baserunning judgments, position — field actions, things of that — defensive actions, things like that. I think he’s got good reactions, and how he thinks and looks at the game is good.
The biggest thing with Alex from day one I think that’s improved dramatically is his getting comfortable, just letting fly and being in the moment and not being concerned about the mechanics or when to talk or that kind of thing and just being — honestly just being instinctive and aggressive is kind of what we — I think it’s improved dramatically. He’s far more comfortable. He’s less thinking about what he should be doing or shouldn’t be doing.
But he’s the kind of person who’s extremely thoughtful about how he prepares, and while that’s a great attribute in a million ways, sometimes letting it fly a little bit is good, too.
Q: I feel like I’ve got an annual question for you about what new innovative broadcast elements you might be adding. MLB talked about how they want to promote the new visualizations with Statcast data in particular. Are any of those in the offing and again with the reduced crowds you have the opportunity for new camera placements and such. Anything on that front, as well?
PHIL ORLINS: Sure. I wouldn’t say like the camera thing, like it’s not just — I know they had some opportunities in the World Series to put a couple cameras in different places, but it’s one thing to go into a chosen hub, bubble, ballpark and build a plan like we do for say Home Run Derby versus 30 ballparks and a different Sunday Night ballpark each week and different restrictions and whatnot. So I don’t think we’re necessarily wide open to — and to be honest, there still are challenges with the proximity to untested fans and things of that nature. So it’s not like we can just go say, just because you’re at 20 percent capacity we’ll take this section down here that’s six rows up inside the dugout and put a perfect camera. I wish it was that simple. It’s not quite that simple.
To get back to start with the Statcast question, yeah, I think we’ve been in extremely close contact with Statcast and their development. It’s kind of a little bit of a unique relationship with Ryan Zander and his group that runs that that goes back to his time before MLB. We always have somebody through their group that works directly with us on the Statcast 3D visualizations. Last year the person was doing it from home; this year they’ll be moving to the Secaucus office.
I believe the potential there is off-the-charts extraordinary, and I don’t know that it’s quite — it’s really cool right now, but I don’t know if it’s quite home run delivery in terms of content and cool.
But we’ll keep working on that. I know they’re adding to it. We just began to play a little bit last year with what they’re calling the pose tracking or the limb tracking. Again, I don’t know that it’s — I don’t know that we put all the pieces together to make it the full spectacular thing that I believe it will eventually be. It’s interesting, like when we did K-Zone 3D, for instance, we were extremely focused on a narrow area, a predictable event. The pitcher stands here, throws a ball, it curves, you track it, you put it in this environment; every pitch works. It gets way more complicated when you start talking about relay throws and a ball could go here and this could happen, so like building out the templates to make that sort of the home run that K-Zone 3D is going to take some time.
But we work with them on that all the time, and unbelievably, the data set that they are working with is unprecedented and awesome, so we look forward to that.
As I mentioned briefly earlier, we keep pushing Sunday Night Baseball was three or four super slo-mos last year, we’re bringing the ultra-slow motion back in. We’ll probably control that and trigger that remotely from Bristol to play it back in most games, but we will get back to a camera that will give us somewhere around 1,000 frames per second. In all of our Sunday Night Baseball games that varies depending on how you set it and lighting and things of that nature, but can certainly go to at least 960 frames, I think 16 times 60, 960 frames.
I mentioned earlier, this is like my favorite little crazy thing. It’s not the biggest thing in the world, but when we did KBO World Series last year, they had 4D replay on site, which is actually a Korean company, which we are not going to use on a regular basis. I didn’t mean to leave you there, but because it was in Korea they had it at the Korean World Series. So they would actually take the files from that, they would place them on the cloud, Eduardo would access the files from his home in Miami off the cloud, then he would play it back on a tablet through an app, telestrate over it, and he would spin and roll and zoom the replays and then we would transmit that on a TVU feed or a cellular feedback to Bristol and put that in through the switcher in Bristol.
We don’t have the 4D aspect of it, but we have every other aspect of that in place, which is to say that we can hand Eduardo or eventually other analysts who are not quite as technically aggressive as he is, but he is very technically aggressive, so we can basically place any guy’s swing or play up on the cloud for him and then he can take it and basically play it to air, telestrate it, freeze it, roll it, all that kind of stuff through an app.
So I think that’s kind of interesting and cool.
I mentioned the mics. We hope to continue down that path. I feel like I’m for getting one other significant thing, but that’s my quick overview there, or not-that-quick overview.
Q: I’m curious about what you learned a year of no fans coming back to having some fans in the stands. What did you learn about the value of being able to go to them for reaction shots, and was there anything that was surprising that you learned, maybe you’re relying a little bit too much on the atmosphere?
PHIL ORLINS: Well, I know it’s a controversial topic, but I’ll tell you the first thing I learned on KBO was I’m not big on like what I’d call necessarily full-force fake crowd sound and whatnot, but I’m not big on no crowd sound, either. So KBO was the first thing to start on May 5th and MLB didn’t start until late July. They didn’t overdo it, it was just included in our feed, sort of a subtle crowd loop, and that would mix with our cheer masters in the ballpark. Boy, I didn’t think that was that big a deal until we had a secondary production we had to go to one day because of a rain thing or situation and there was absolutely nothing there, and I was like — suddenly dialing up phone numbers in Korea like, what the hell happened here?
And I was reminded of it the other day watching it because we don’t do fake — we really don’t usually do our own fake crowd. So I was watching a Boston College baseball game the other day and very few people allowed in the stadium and college baseball, cold weather, man, it was like, ooh. So I do think — and I know not everybody agrees and I know it’s easy to say you shouldn’t fake anything and this and that, but I was never looking to replicate what 50,000 people sounded like, but nor are you trying to create an uncomfortable absence of sound, either. Really not trying to make it distracting, and that’s — having nobody there and having it sound like 50,000 people can sound odd and distracting, but having no sound at all can also sound disconcerting and odd and distracting. So I think that’s the first thing that we learned from it.
As far as the way the game is cut, you can’t — look, there’s not a whole lot you can do in the sense of — you’re not going to not show the pitch from center field because it shows empty seats behind the plate. Do we miss the crowd reaction shots? Yes. Would I ever prioritize the crowd reaction shots over the player reactions? Probably not.
I think what I miss is the — I miss the sound and I miss the authentic sound, but I also miss the personality. I mean, like that’s a real element, especially to baseball. Like I just miss the kid or the father catching the home run or the — I miss the fun. That’s what it is. I don’t really lose that much over whether our reactions on a home run are more dugout versus more fan. I think those shots are to be expected. They’re fairly normal or replaceable to some degree. But I miss the entertainment of kids and parents, and I really miss the odd moments when a guy falls over trying to catch a foul ball or gives it to the kid or refuses to give it to the kid or throws it back on the field, all those things.
I’m still kind of obsessed with them. It’s funny, even though there was no crowd, I remember somebody the first game or second game, I think somebody hits a home run and it goes in the — the ball sits there and no one picks it up or it goes in the water in Atlanta or whatever it is and it’s sitting in the water and some guy from the ballpark, there’s no fans, some guy from the ballpark has to go with a net and dig the ball out. I think that tells you how much — the pace of baseball just lives for that, right? I guess that’s my feeling on it.
Q: Last season there was a whole lot of uncertainty just based on when Opening Day was going to fall and of course with all the lockdowns, no fans, there was just a different feel about the season. As you’re talking about with figuring out the crowd noise and everything, I’m wondering amongst your production staff and as we get — we’ve got March Madness back, we’re getting Opening Day back, there a different sense of excitement for this season? What are you feeling about how fans will kind of come roaring back with this excitement about that April 1st day? It’s just a different time of year and different feel and I’m curious how you’re feeling about that.
PHIL ORLINS: I mean, my sense is that people want normal. It’s not my place to get deep on the pandemic and lifestyle and all that kind of stuff, but we’re closer to normal. 162 games is normal and April 1st Opening Day is normal. Having some degree of crowd in the ballpark is not quite as normal as sellouts on Opening Day, but it’s a lot closer than it was last year.
I think there’s no other sport that quite occupies — wherever you want to compare baseball with other sports in terms of its popularity and how you measure, I don’t think there’s anything like baseball that exists within the daily rhythm of American lifestyle. I think that’s really important right now.
You know, it’s part of what you do every day if you’re a fan. It may not be perfect from a national broadcaster perspective that we’re not on every day with one team, but as a baseball fan, like most people are, the rhythm of your favorite team or your local team is part of your daily life like no other sport. I think that’s pretty powerful, and I think 162 games of that — you know how it is, it’s crazy. You play 162 over 183 days, and the 21 other days feel like there’s something wrong. I mean, I think that’s the way fans become invested in their favorite team and baseball. There’s nothing more normal to our rhythms than that for sports fans.
Q: I know we spoke a little bit about Spring Training but I want to get thoughts about Opening Day. You mentioned a lot about the camera count and things like that, but have you decided if anyone is going to be on site for Opening Day, or is it going to be that world feed from Valley Sports West, and if so, do you know the number of staffers that will kind of be on site and also in Bristol and how many control rooms will be in use for that first game?
PHIL ORLINS: All right, check them off here. Four control rooms. I can tell you that. Four games, four control rooms. That part is easy.
The games vary a little bit in the sense that three of the games are non-exclusive, meaning we’re coexisting with the regional broadcasters, and one of the games, meaning the Mets at Nationals at 7:00, is exclusive. So for the Mets-Nationals — first let me get back to your first question.
On site, Buster Olney will be on site with the Mets-Nationals as the exclusive game. That will be the Matt Vasgersian-Alex Rodriguez-Buster Olney, Buster Olney at site. Marly Rivera is joining us, and we can certainly get into talent more as we go through this, as a reporter on some games. She’ll also be at Yankee Stadium for the 1:00 game with the Blue Jays.
The 4:00 and 10:00 games will not have reporters, and like I said, all of the talent — all the play-by-play and color analysts will either be in Bristol or at home.
To your point, the questions about the size, like last year we did the non-exclusive games with zero people from ESPN at site. We did hire some people through the local teams, local RSNs. This year we’re bringing a small single truck and taking the RSN world feed through that truck back to Bristol. We’re hiring our own two or three camera operators.
But our group at site is about six to eight people for those games total. Again, the world feed, our two cameras and a few other feeds coming back to Bristol, and the show gets mastered in Bristol. I don’t know how many people are involved in Bristol, probably another 25, something like that.
But the full national game, meaning the Mets and Nationals, the full national game at 7:00, that will be about 40 people at site, of which probably six or seven will be traveling from ESPN and the rest will be local. Very, very small compared to what it would have been when the full crew was traveling.
So again, it’s probably 40 people at site, I’d say 12 of them are camera operators. Most of the replays are done from Bristol but a couple of them are done from site. Some of the audio gathering, some of the technical support, back in Bristol, again, probably another 25 people working on it there. Did I cover everything?
Q: I think so. More of a forward-thinking question, hopefully with the vaccine rollout, hopefully something can happen postseason, definitely early next season, but do you miss working in a truck, and if you do are you looking forward to eventually getting back to one and working in one and kind of going back to the traditional way, or is there any kind of situation what you’re used to or more favorable towards?
PHIL ORLINS: Well, on a personal level, I do miss working in a truck. I miss going out to dinner in far-off cities, things of that nature.
On a professional level, I don’t know, I’ve said this a lot, and this is my stock answer on it: If we were coming out with a business plan in a world where extraordinary quantities of data can be transferred at the speed of light all across the globe and I came out with a plan that said we were going to fly everybody to site to meet a massive set of trucks for every game, I don’t know how far I would get in presenting that business plan.
I just think the realities of technology and progress are that — again, very simple. Almost unlimited data that can be transported, again, at roughly the speed of light tells you there are advantages to having a group of people that work and live near their workplace, consistency, centralization. There’s a lot of logic to that.
Yeah, being at site is fun, but kind of everything we’re working towards, this is a lot broader than Major League Baseball. Things we’re doing right now in college baseball where we started doing what we call a live-from-home V-box workflow where we’ve got a tiny little truck out there and camera crew and basically you’ve got a group of people that can be home or in a conference room that are controlling what’s happening on the site over IP. It’s pretty smart, I would say, and a single feed comes back for air.
So all across the board, I think we’re challenging how we evolve. You know, it is efficient, economically efficient, but there is also a lot of power to the consistencies of the workflow and things like that, as well.
Q: Now that ESPN is wrapping up their college basketball coverage, is there anything that you maybe learned from watching the production of college basketball this year with ESPN and you plan to implement this baseball season?
PHIL ORLINS: What do we call them, fresh air islands? The systems that they use to create a safe airspace for camera operators amongst untested crowd.
It’s funny, the guy who runs college basketball, he and I are pretty close. We used to work together tremendously all the time.
You know, off the top of my head, there’s nothing particularly — other than, again, having a camera crew amongst some degree of fans, I don’t think there’s anything particularly in the workflow that we weren’t already utilizing last year. The reality of it is like the live-from-home broadcasting began with KBO on May 5th and got further developed through MLB. I don’t know if I pictured Dick Vitale using that down the road, but that’s where we are.
But I think all that stuff we were pretty — we did 160 KBO games and 70 MLB games. So other than some logistical things I don’t think there’s a whole lot I’m thinking about there, truthfully.