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ESPN Formulates World Cup Game Plan

With the final draw for the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa coming up on Dec. 4, cable sports giant ESPN is finalizing its production plans for the global soccer tournament. The World Cup runs from June 11 to July 11, with matches in 10 different venues across nine cities.

ESPN has declared the World Cup its No. 1 corporate priority for 2010 as it grows its global footprint, and the network is making a major effort to produce as much live content from South Africa as possible for its myriad platforms. Previous ESPN World Cup coverage consisted mostly of taking world feeds and integrating content in Bristol. But for 2010, ESPN will produce all of its World Cup studio programming on-site, including SportsCenter segments; nightly World Cup Live and pre-, halftime and post-match shows; and additional studio programming and World Cup-branded segments. The matches themselves, which will use host broadcaster HBS' feed augmented by ESPN cameras, will be telecast on ESPN, ESPN2 and ABC.

More than 200 hours of coverage will originate from two sets in and around Johannesburg. Coverage will be supported by nine ENG crews and six satellite trucks that will canvass World Cup venues in the cities of Cape Town, Durban, Johannesburg, Mangaung/Bloemfontein, Nelson Mandela Bay/Port Elizabeth, Nelspruit, Polokwane, Rustenburg and Tshwane/Pretoria.

ESPN will have some 300 staffers in South Africa, with a 12,700-square-foot International Broadcast Center (IBC) in Johannesburg serving as the technical hub. The size of the World Cup effort is second only to the ESPN X-Games, which ESPN stages itself and encompasses roughly 500 workers.

“What's unique about this particular project is that it is a massive company priority, and as such, the infrastructure being put in place on-site is extremely significant,” says Chris Calcinari, VP of ESPN event operations. “Our strategy is to do every single thing from the IBC and from the venues in South Africa.”

The IBC will encompass three control rooms, four edit suites, a replay/screening area, a transmission location, a voiceover room, and one large space where ESPN's emerging-technology unit will work to supply production enhancements such as virtual technology.

One large control room at the IBC will support the main studio, which overlooks the Soccer City venue in Johannesburg. The other two rooms will be used to integrate games and additional content that will be fed back to Bristol via redundant fiber links. Systems integration for the IBC is being provided by U.K.-based Gearhouse Broadcast.

Key infrastructure equipment at the IBC includes Snell Pro-Bel routers, Evertz signal generators and test equipment, Harris Leitch fiber transmission systems, Panasonic and Sony LCD monitors, and Telex communications systems.

ESPN will use Sony HDC-1500 cameras with Canon lenses in its IBC studios, and will ingest content and generate replays using a bank of EVS XT[2] servers. Production switching will be handled by a Grass Valley Kalypso unit, and audio mixed with a Calrec Omega board. High-end editing will be handled by Avid Nitris editing systems supported by an Avid ISIS storage system. Graphics will done on Vizrt systems, which ESPN is currently migrating from Version 2.8 to 3.2.

ESPN's newsgathering crews, which will use SNG trucks provided by Arqiva, will file news reports from the individual venues back to the IBC using Panasonic P2 HD file-based camcorders. ESPN already uses P2 camcorders in its U.S. operations, and EVS has recently integrated the format into its replay servers. The format is also being used by HBS, which made it a logical choice for news acquisition in the field, according to Claude Phipps, director of special projects for ESPN event operations.

“When we bring a file into the IBC, we can ingest on EVS and then send it over to Avid, and we're doing that in faster-than-real-time fashion,” Phipps says. “It makes for a very efficient workflow.”

All of the ESPN coverage will be produced in the European 1080-line-interlace/50 hertz format, the choice of HBS, and will need to be converted to ESPN's 720-line-progressive/60 frames-per-second format for U.S. distribution. The feeds, which will be compressed in MPEG-2 using Tandberg encoders, will also need to be converted to 1080i/60 fps for ESPN's new HD facility in Brazil. ESPN plans to uses Snell's Alchemist Ph.C product to handle format conversion, which Phipps says does a good job with motion compensation, a top priority for sports coverage.

While ESPN's crews will be shooting in HD, the network also plans to incorporate some standard-def material from partners, which gives it more flexibility in coverage. Calcinari notes that its newsgathering plans are still a bit up in the air.

“Once the draw is selected, we'll have a better idea, and we'll map out where the various uplinks are going to be,” he says. “For example, we don't yet know where the U.S. is going to practice. But we're dealing with a global audience, so it's not just where's the U.S., but where is Brazil, where is Argentina? It's quite the project in terms of a global event.”

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