A Digital Disney World for Sports Junkies

To say that ESPN’s new 120,000-square-foot digital facility is to tech geeks what Walt Disney World is to 8-year-olds — namely, the end all and be all — isn’t a stretch.

In fact, it’s only fitting. That’s because Disney Imagineering helped with the effort, designing the new SportsCenter set that has enough sizzle to make it right at home on the Las Vegas strip. (Five thousand flashing fiber-optic lights will do that.)

The main SportsCenter set may supply the on-air spark, but it’s the facility behind the scenes that has really set the standard for top-notch broadcast plants. Why? Because not only is the facility ready for an HDTV future, it also uses video servers and networking technologies that will improve work flow and get highlights to air faster than ever before. In many ways it is a technological first, a playground for the future.

“I can’t imagine making a change that is bigger than this,” says ESPN’s director of engineering for special projects, Ted Szypulski. “It’s a new building, it has HD, it has Surround Sound audio, it’s tapeless, and it has nonlinear editing. What else is there?”

Honestly, nothing much. The set has 13 Barco N.V. HDTV rear projectors and 11 liquid-crystal display panels.

Three “privacy-glass” panels located behind the anchors can instantly turn opaque, making them suitable as a backdrop for images and graphics that can swarm across them, giving SportsCenter as much action as player introductions for the Super Bowl.

The flashiness of the new set is one thing. But it is Quantel’s generationQ storage and editing system and BBC Technology’s Colledia asset-management system that will help ESPN tell a better story. ESPN expects these systems to be operational early next year.

At the heart of the facility sit 72 Terabytes of Quantel generationQ video servers — enough to store more than 4,000 hours of content — and a 100 Gigabits-per-second network tying all the editing, graphics and newsroom computers together.

“This is the world’s largest [digital video recorder] for the world’s largest sports fan,” says senior vice president of technology, engineering and operations Chuck Pagano.

What that means for the people who put the highlights together is better work flow. In the past, ESPN staffers would sit at a video monitor and manually log highlights while recording the feeds on videotape.

When the new system is completed, they’ll be sitting at computer terminals with touch-screen panels, and the feeds will be recorded instantly to the video server.

Information about the clip, the players involved in the play, the score and any other information will be attached to the clip on the server, like a computerized Post-It note.

Once annotations are in the system, editors in the 19 edit rooms (seven with Quantel eQ editors and 12 with Quantel qEdit Pro systems) will be able to add interstitials, sound effects and graphics to the video. Pointers will bring them straight to the clip they want, without having to shuttle through videotapes.

ESPN is still putting the finishing touches on a room that will have 68 workstations, each with a flat-screen TV and two computers.

One computer will be tied into the Colledia system, where editors can enter game information tagged to the video file. The other will be for e-mail or Internet service.

Just how important is the move to tapeless?

Consider this: For the first time ever, ESPN will be able to play back highlights instantly. That will mean that viewers can begin watching San Francisco Giants slugger Barry Bonds blast a no-doubt home run into McCovey Cove outside SBC Park before he even finishes circling the bases.

Pagano was at the helm of the project from the early stages, but he’s also the first to acknowledge that it was an all-hands-on-deck project that required everyone’s attention and input.

“You can’t put enough investment into training,” he says. “Also, get as much evangelism into the process as soon as you can.”

Pagano says the state-of-the-art technology is the best way to serve ESPN’s viewers and customers. “This infrastructure allows us to retool our work flows and production environment to match the business environment.”

For sports fans and ESPN viewers looking to the next 25 years, that means one thing: the ability to offer even more HD content when the market starts really ramping up.