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Taking Tennis FansBehind the Velvet Ropes

Two summers ago, as ESPN began stepping up its drive to become the biggest global television player in tennis and premier broadcaster of the sport’s four marquee Grand Slam tournaments, VP/event production Jamie Reynolds gathered his team and served up a stiff challenge.

“I don’t want to be an observer anymore,” Reynolds recalls telling his producers, directors and on-air talent. “You’ve got to show me something new besides a rectangle with two players running back and forth. Get me into their apartments. Get me in their car ride going to the big match. Getting treatment in the trainer’s room. Interacting with fans. Make me feel immersed in the event.”

And so began a long, sometimes road-blocked process of working with organizers of the Australian, French and U.S. Opens and Wimbledon, as well as the players, to grant ESPN access to places and situations often experienced by viewers of higher-profile sports, but rarely visited before in the more sheltered world of pro tennis.

“We started breaking down the walls in 2011, and we have stayed aggressive,” says Reynolds, who oversees all ESPN tennis coverage and is leading a team of 225 people for the network’s first-ever exclusive live coverage of Wimbledon beginning June 25. “We are now getting into those stadium hallways and locker rooms. We are getting behind the velvet ropes.”

While slugfest Grand Slam finals matches between Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal have supplied plenty of on-court drama and ratings points for ESPN over the past year, journalismfueled “discovery and access” is Reynolds’ personal passion. The network’s change-of-pace, behind-the-scenes segments offering glimpses of players’ lives off the court—Reynolds calls them “BTS bumps”—deepen viewers’ connection with the athletes and keep eyeballs engaged in a broadcast, particularly in the multiscreen environment most sports fans play in.

“It’s all about making you sit up and take notice if you have two screens going,” Reynolds says. The centerpiece of the bumper bits is an extended montage that opens each day’s coverage, setting up story lines and the match lineup, backed with different versions of ESPN’s tennis anthem, 30 Seconds to Mars’ “Kings and Queens.”

Breaking the rules on how to cover a sport is nothing new for Reynolds, who got his start at ESPN back when there weren’t many rules at all. After working two summers for ABC Sports in the early ’80s while attending Bucknell University, helping out on football, golf and tennis telecasts, Reynolds landed an associate producer gig at four-year-old ESPN in 1983. His assignments included the network’s first pro football package (the short-lived USFL) and “aqua” sports including sailing and yachting (the New Jersey native is an avid sailor and taught the sport in college).

“At the beginning, I was lucky to be involved in a lot of sports where ESPN really had no template,” Reynolds says. “It was an opportunity to take my first-hand knowledge and turn our coverage into something special.”

Shortly after helming ESPN’s reporting on the America’s Cup yachting championship in 1987, Reynolds formed his own Boston-based production company. For nine years, he packaged TV coverage of sailing regattas around the world and produced events for ESPN, ABC and NBC Sports.

In 1997, a call came from ESPN to come home and run another new property for the network—the X Games. The success of the event among young viewers led ESPN to make a major commitment to action sports, and to Reynolds; in 2000, he moved up to senior coordinating producer for action sports programming and manager of remote productions for NBA telecasts. He remains involved with the X Games franchise (although this year, the event conflicts with Wimbledon).

“Those of us at ESPN who have been attached to ‘X’ from the get-go, we kind of have ‘godfather’ status around here,” Reynolds says. “People come to us and ask, ‘What would you do differently with this [sport’s coverage] to make us better?’”

ESPN, which this year is taking over Wimbledon’s semi! nals and finals weekend after a 43-year run on NBC, is asking Reynolds to do something that’s never been done by the Worldwide Leader—produce live coverage of an event on both ESPN and ESPN2 at the same time. For key late-round matches from July 2-4, Reynolds will oversee two full production and talent teams for at least 14 hours per day of simultaneous “cross court” coverage. You could get tired just thinking about it. “Our whole [ESPN] family will be on rocket fuel for those three days—it’s going to be a heck of a ride,” says the proud papa, clearly relishing the grind ahead.

Reynolds’ energy and his enthusiasm for tennis is particularly inspiring to his on-air talent roster, which is filled mostly with former top pros and coaches including Chris Evert, Brad Gilbert and Darren Cahill.

“It’s incredible, since Jamie doesn’t really have a tennis background,” says Patrick McEnroe, who has been covering the sport for ESPN since 1995. “The behind-the-scenes coverage Jamie introduced has really humanized these superstar players, and it has changed what watching tennis on TV is all about. I get more responses on Twitter when we run those pieces than for anything else that we do.”

ESPN’s tennis coverage earned two Sports Emmy Award nominations this year, for camera work and editing. It’s nice recognition for a sport with meager production budgets compared to the Big Four, but Reynolds is hungry to bag a trophy in 2013. And the network’s new 12-year, reported $480 million rights deal with Wimbledon secures a long-term relationship that sets up the producer and his team to keep pushing the boundaries of what fans can experience.

“There are still a great deal of things that go on at a Grand Slam tennis event that people have never seen, unless you’re an athlete, a trainer, a boyfriend-girlfriend or spouse,” Reynolds says. “Scenes where the viewer really can feel that they are in the moment, that they have the best seat in the house. That’s what we’re after. Discovery and access will continue to set us apart.”

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