MLS Cup 2019: ESPN rolls in Skycam, Pole Cam, a robotic jib and a drone for the big game

100+ crew fill busy Seattle compound that also included Univision, TSN, TVAS

The Seattle Sounders won the second MLS Cup title in their history when they beat Toronto FC 3-1 in the 2019 final at CenturyLink Field in front of a Seattle record crowd of 69,274 on Sunday (10 November 2019). It is the second time the club has won the MLS championship in the last four years.

With more than 30 cameras and well over 100 operations, production, and technology staffers onsite in the Emerald City, ESPN delivered a weekend full of content from CenturyLink Field. From SportsCenter hits on Saturday to a full pre-game show from the field to the match itself on ABC, ESPN had the Cup covered.

“It’s three out of four years for these teams, so we are looking to frame this as the rubber match between them. That’ll be first and foremost,” said Chris Alexopoulos, coordinating producer, soccer, ESPN. “But, in game productions — and in the general media around MLS — we talk a lot about crowd atmospheres and how great many of these franchises are.

“I think this game will show that Seattle is, in many ways, the original,” he continued. “It was a huge step for the MLS to come to Seattle and to get some of the crowds they were getting. It brought with it a positive notoriety that led to Atlanta and LAFC.

“Seattle and Portland are the originals in this, so, with the crowd and the atmosphere that will be here, I think it will be great to remind everyone how tremendous the Northwest has been to the growth of MLS.”

The hype is real in Seattle, driving ticket prices through the roof and making it one of the more highly anticipated sports events in the history of the Northwest. For Alexopoulos, at an event like MLS Cup, even with the crowd atmosphere at the fever pitch expected, it’s critical not to lose sight of the most important aspect of the broadcast: the game itself.

“I think you dial-up [coverage of the fans] when you are at a stadium where it’s really going to make it feel like a bigger event,” said Alexopolous. “You need to be aggressive with that because a lot of people are still surprised when they turn on a TV and see a game in Portland or Kansas City or Atlanta and realise that this is in the US and the crowd is going that nuts and sounds that great. You want to show that.

“That’s bigger [for MLS] than for other sports,” he continued. “You don’t need to prove to the audience that a game at Cameron Indoor Arena looks and sounds amazing. What percentage of sports fans know that LAFC is an absolutely incredible environment to watch a sporting event in the U.S.? That all said, MLS Cup is a championship game, and you cannot miss action. This is the time when you don’t want to be on a fan and missing a critical turnover, pass, or, god forbid, an actual goal. You don’t want to be overaggressive. You can’t get lost in non-game priorities.”

The match, which was produced by Matt Leach and directed by Bob Frattaroli out of NEP’s ND4 truck, was covered by more than 30 cameras, a hefty load far exceeding that of a typical MLS match. ESPN also brought in plenty of speciality cameras to provide a big-game feel to this Final. Among those toys are an RF Steadicam, a smartphone ‘Fan Cam,’ the pole cam Pico, an Intellijib, a Skycam, and even a drone.

The Fan Cam was a camera operator roaming the stadium with a smartphone camera on a gimbal and using a TVU Networks app to live-stream a video signal to Bristol with images of what it’s like to be in some of the noisiest parts of CenturyLink Field.

The network also collaborated with Fletcher to deploy a speciality-camera system behind each of the goals on the field. On one side was the Pico pole cam system, a small dome-like camera atop a tall pole held by an operator; on the other side, the Intellijib, which is essentially a smaller, robotic jib. The Intellijib with its robotic ability has made it the jib of choice for ESPN on MLS matches because many of the newest stadiums in the league offer tremendous in-arena experiences with rows of seats very close to the playing field, leaving very little space behind the end lines for personnel. With a jib, there is rarely enough space for a human operator.

Both camera systems are new to ESPN coverage of the Cup. Pole cam is manned. Intellijib is robotic, mostly because many new MLS venues are designed to get the fans as close to the field of play as possible, leaving no room for a jib operator.,

This MLS Cup also saw the return of the ESPN-developed cameras in the goalposts (which ESPN has now come to calling Keeper Cam). Crews carve holes into the posts, wiring a small POV camera inside and covering the space with clear plastic. It’s become a signature shot on marquee ESPN MLS productions like the Cup and All-Star Game.

The production compound outside CenturyLink Field was extremely busy with four broadcasters onsite for the match. ESPN served as host broadcaster, but Univision (domestic Spanish-language), TSN (Canadian English), and TVAS (French Canadian) had their own technical and personnel resources onsite.

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