Live from the World Cup: Drake, Phipps Reflect on Massive ESPN Effort

Tomorrow night ESPN will end its 2014 FIFA World Cup experience, one that has seen off-the-chart TV ratings, fans consuming content on mobile devices, countless beautiful shots from the network’s studio on Copacabana Beach, and one infamous bolt of lightning. But for Jed Drake, ESPN senior vice president and executive producer and much of the team it will end a World Cup run that began in Germany in 2006, grew in South Africa in 2010, and exploded here in Brazil. “What we have accomplished here is mind-blowing as it was just an enormous leap,” says Drake.

ESPN's Jed Drake on the set of 'Last Call' in Rio.

ESPN’s Jed Drake on the set of ‘Last Call’ in Rio.

Tomorrow’s coverage will top out at about six hours with live hits from Maracana Stadium, coverage from the studios, and even live look-ins to fans in Germany and Argentina (including Agrentinian legend Lionel Messi’s hometown of Rosario). ESPN’s World Cup rights may be shifting over to Fox Sports for 2018 and 2022 but ESPN approached this year’s event as anything but a lame duck.

“After 2010 I was talking with ESPN President John Skipper about how much we achieved and I said 9-95% and he said ‘I agree with you,’” says Drake. “I would say we did about 95% of what we wanted to do here. There are a few things I would have done differently but it came off the way I thought it would although I can’t say I would have predicted the kinds of ratings increases we saw. It was a foregone conclusion that there would be an increase but I didn’t think that we would have attained the same kind of ratings we have on this.”

Drake says it was about 18 months ago that ESPN’s ultimate plans began to take shape. In South Africa the ESPN studio was located right outside the International Broadcast Center but here in Brazil the distance between the studio and the IBC is about 20 miles as the crow flies. But traffic here in Rio can make that relatively short trip a long journey.

“About 18 months ago we realized it was too important to be with the talent and I didn’t want to have to drive two hours in traffic to have a meaningful format discussion,” explains Drake. So it is a very complex plan and it’s not easy to be here technologically and tethered by fiber to the engine room 20 miles away. But from a location standpoint we needed to be here.”

The Clube dos Marimbas boating club, located on the southern tip of Copcabana Beach, is the “here” Drake refers to. The position overlooks the entirety of arguably the world’s most famous beach and has been constructed in such a way that members of the boat club are still able to get their boats out from the storage area located below ESPN and into the water.

“The club wanted their view and to also be able to get their boats out so we built this structure with massive girders that are overbuilt to support the weight and be a large distance apart,” adds Drake.

Bexel assembled the control rooms and technical facilities and Feeling Eventos, based in Sao Paulo, constructed the studio. Together they give the ESPN U.S., international, and Brazil production teams a place to call home.

“The studio build by Feeling Eventos has been unbelievably good and they stayed on schedule,” says Drake. “If this didn’t go off as planned this whole thing could have been a disaster but all the dates were met.”

The studio is only part of what Drake calls the “eighth wonder of the world.” ESPN initial planned to have a small studio located at the club, but the project continued to grow, and the site is now home to more than 200 ESPN and freelance staffers. It houses not only the three-story master-control area and the studio but also a control room for ESPN International and even a small control room for Good Morning America.

Claude Phipps at his battle station at ESPN's Copacabana Beach facility.

Claude Phipps at his battle station at ESPN’s Copacabana Beach facility.

“Jed, rightfully so, felt that the set and the technical control element should be in the same location and that is just the way our production teams like to work,” says Claude Phipps, ESPN, director for remote production operation. “And in an ideal world we would have had everything under one roof like in South Africa.”

The signal flow for ESPN calls for two control rooms, built out by Gearhouse Broadcast, within the IBC to handle the matches. The match signals are sent to the club, where pregame, halftime, and postgame reports from the studio are layered in before transport to master control in Bristol for ultimate delivery to viewers.

An Evertz EQX router is onsite for all signal distribution, including RF signals from two cameras and a helicopter as well as a camera with a 101X lens located at the Canadian Embassy two miles away on the far side of Copacabana beach. That location gave ESPN a different look at its studio operations as well as an additional backup circuit for transmission to the U.S.

One of the constant themes among all of the broadcasters on site at the World Cup, as well as HBS, is the amount of pre-integration work that was done outside of the country. Bexel, for example,  pre-assembled the production area and technical facilities in Los Angeles. That move gave Drake and the ESPN technical team a chance to make sure everything was as needed.

The front bench of ESPN's production control room in Rio.

The front bench of ESPN’s production control room in Rio.

“We wanted to move the monitor wall back six inches and they were able to do that as we went through the whole thing and then it was disassembled and sent here,” says Drake. “And I will say we would not have been able to pull this off without Claude. I remember when I said we wanted to move the control room to Copacabana and he just said ‘Okay, let me think this through.’”

Phipps says that, in the end, the facility at the IBC and the facility at the Copacabana came together seamlessly not only with each other but the ESPN Digital Center in Bristol, CT as well as third-party editing facilities in Connecticut.

“It was amazing to see how all the areas could work together and there were a few unexpected challenges with power, air conditioning, and telecommunications but the thing that protected the entire event was redundancy upon redundancy,” explains Phipps.

That need for redundancy was an outgrowth of the experience in 2010 in South Africa where transmission errors via fiber can have errors or, larger issues like a cut fiber path.

Drake also credits ESPN Brazil as a critical partner.

“One of the things in this country is you need to know how to navigate a myriad of conflicts and ambiguities and we would not be here without the great operation and great people of ESPN Brazil,” he adds. “Daniel Kochen, an attorney for ESPN Brazil, for example, went to school in Sacramento so he speaks fluid English and also understands the idiosyncracies of English. And [ESPN Brazil General Manager German Hartenstein was with me when we made the initial offer to the club.”

Adds Phipps: “We had an integration of international and domestic ESPN here that was unparalleled. We were really able to share a lot more and work together as a unit.”

From a technology standpoint Phipps says the migration to file transfer-based workflows have been very good.

“At the 2012 Euro Cup we started that workflow and then we perfected it at the X-Games and now we use it exclusively for edited pieces,” adds Phipps. “And we had a lot of files transferred back and forth with the EVS server at the IBC.”

A month-long event like the World Cup will always offer up a surprise that has little to do with what is happening on the field. In

The lightning strike that hit ESPN's facility during the Brazil semi-final loss to Germany.

The lightning strike that hit ESPN’s facility during the Brazil semi-final loss to Germany.

ESPN’s case that surprise took the form of a lightning strike and a massive rainstorm that struck Rio during the semi-final match between Brazil and Germany. The deluge required ESPN to take steps to protect equipment and staff that involved shutting off power to the main studio.

“My first thought was safety because we had a lot of water getting on some power equipment and that is not a good thing,” says Phipps. “And then once we solved that it was figuring out a work around. So fortunately we had another place to go.”

Says Drake: “The control room was still functional and everything else but the studio was unaffected. So we basically had to figure out how to do seven minutes of TV during halftime.”

The first choice would have been to use the small studio at the IBC and tell viewers what happened at the Copacabana studio.

“But we realized we’ve developed a relationship with the viewers that is almost like a friendship so let’s bond with the viewers by showing them a bit of trouble and what happened.”

The eventual location was the small set used for the Web cast of “Men in Blazers” that has nothing but a small POV camera mounted on a wall. Before lightning struck the studio was jokingly referred to as the Bob Ley Panic Room but that joke became a reality for talent Mike Tirico and Alexi Lalas as they called it home for halftime of one of the more interesting World Cup matches in history.

Alexi Lalas (left) and Mike Tirico had new digs for halftime during the Brazil/Germany semi-final.

Alexi Lalas (left) and Mike Tirico had new digs for halftime during the Brazil/Germany semi-final.

That decision, says Phipps, turned out to be the best one.

“Once we were through halftime we had a chance to dry out the equipment and get the studio back for the post-match show,” he says. “Everybody worked together on a team effort where people jumped to complete the appropriate task.”

The “Men in Blazers” Web cast is a perfect example of getting the most out of an Internet-only product. Hosted by Roger Bennett and Michael Davies, the simple program features two ESPN analysts giving their spin on soccer-related happenings.

“They were thinking they would come down here for a bit but then we thought to do a daily live video podcast,” says Drake. “So they would pick a match of the day and have at it and because it was streamed there was no set length. We really left it up to them to go and they took it and ran with it.”

Another big element is an end-of-day 90-minute show from the set called “Last Call.” It’s a relaxed format designed to highlight the vast amount of talent ESPN has assembled for the World Cup.

“We really have a ‘Field of Dreams’ for soccer analysts,” explains Drake.

Reflecting on the ratings, Drake says the ratings for the U.S. games were obviously enormous and going into the tournament the network was not counting on that success. But the beginning of the ratings success was laid down in 2010.

“The time zone certainly helped but what we achieved in 2010 helped the viewers in the U.S. understand the scope and importance and spectacle of the World Cup,” says Drake.

The Men in Blazers studio at Copacabana Beach.

The Men in Blazers studio at Copacabana Beach.

As for the U.S. team, many did not think they would get out of the group stage but they did, turning a their potential success into a reality (and a couple of inches away from advancing even further.

“They were such a great story to tell by being in such a tough group, having five Germans on the team, and then watching to see if Ghana would take them out gain,” says Drake. “The other cool thing was they were in Group G which meant they played their first game later in the tournament. So we had another four days to get the burn going. And it was so great to see the reaction from fans. One of my favorite shots is when they opened up the gates in Grant Park in Chicago and it was like the running of the bulls as fans raced to be in front of the screen.”

Even though the World Cup is not part of ESPN’s plans for the next two World Cups there is still plenty of soccer coverage planned, starting with coverage of the MLS and also the 2016 Euro Cup, a UEFA tournament that will feature European national teams facing off throughout France.

“If we do host that event from France it would be a model very similar to this,” adds Drake. “I do think that soccer will continue to accelerate in growth in our country and with our new MLS deal we’re heavily invested. But these events take it off the charts.”

And, he adds, he is bullish on soccer’s future growth in the U.S.

“There’s always going to be an evaluation of the quality of play and I think that is increasing constantly. And the idea that certain players go to play elsewhere…I see them moving back towards the MLS and coming back when they aren’t past their prime. It won’t be an overnight flip of the switch but I think MLS has a bright future.”

Subscribe and Get SVG Europe Newsletters