At ESPN, a game of football begins 10 days before anyone even kicks the ball.
Coverage, for most of us, is a 90-minute affair; with that convenient break in the middle to get the next round in or arrange yourself some tea and biscuits, depending upon where you are, but, if you’re a sports network televising the match, then there’s a lot more to consider than just throwing in your cameras and a commentary team, as Pocket-lint found out when we went behind the scenes at the ESPN studios.
It’s 3pm on Saturday afternoon. The early kick off is done and dusted and the three o’clocks are just under way but the 40-strong team at ESPN’s Chiswick nerve centre are just limbering up for the day’s late game - Stoke vs Manchester City.
Up in the gantry at the Brittania Stadium are Jon Champion and Chris Waddle with arguably the easier job but, for everyone else, the programme of events lasts a lot longer. ESPN will be live on air from an hour before kick off until 20 minutes or so after the referee has called a halt to the day’s play, and that’s a fair bit of time to fill. Naturally, there’s the usual star squad of ex-footballers and experienced show hosts to see the transmission through, but it’s the technology that they’ll be using that’s attracted Pocket-lint like an Udinese scout to a youth fixture.
The studio floor has two main sections, each surrounded by a series of cameras. The brightly coloured main desk area is the most obvious one as we walk in. There sits Ray Stubbs (Stubbsy, as he is inevitably known to all) checking the scores on his iPad along with tweets from footballers and pundits up and down the country while he plans his patter for the show.
“It’s good to be able to take the live news from the tablet as we’re broadcasting but it’s quite difficult keeping your head up and out to the cameras and the show going at the same time,” he tells us.
“When Robbie’s in [Savage] he’s really good at getting the messages from Twitter. It’s a tricky balancing act but, in the end, we’d like to be adding more of that.”
Other than that, it’s just the technology of the cameras themselves and making sure that he’s looking at the right one - all with an autocue of one size or other next to them - at the right time.
Over in the technical area of the studio though, it’s a very different story for lead pundit Kevin Keegan. There are two main devices in the technical area. ESPN Touch is a large, wall-mounted, touch-enabled, flat-panelled monitor which allows the user to cycle through the stats of each encounter as well as check the scores on the other games and drill down into information on individual players. It’s a massive tablet, essentially, with just the one Premier League football app upon it.
The second gadget is the ESPN Arena and it’s this with which Keegan is attempting to get to grips as we’re taken around on our tour. Again, normally Robbie’s territory, so we’re told, Arena is a table-top touch surface device specially built with, again, a single purpose in mind. The idea is that it gives you an interactive top-down view of the football field with 22 men plus substitutes in formation to choose from. The user can then select and move each of them as he or she desires to represents tactics, moves and also to demonstrate zones of congestion or space as needed.
The clever part is that what appears as 2D name circles on the Arena surface is captured by an overhead AR-enabled camera which then superimposes little pop-up versions of the players as virtual images on top of the field when the pictures are seen at home. So, if you want to show Gael Clichy bombing it up the left wing, then that’s exactly what you can do with a quick drag of your finger. With a bit of a delay on the AR effect, though, and a few other optional extras here and there, it can be a easier said than done.
“You’ve got to watch your cuffs,” Keegan explains.“You can be drawing one thing with your finger and suddenly find you’ve pulled an arrow all the way up the pitch with your sleeve if you’re not careful.”
Although ESPN is huge in other parts of the world, the UK’s football market is a relatively new one for this sports multinational. Taking over Setanta’s 23-game Premier League rights package, 2011-12 is its second season and it's with new approaches - such as the technical area and even the American-style half time analysis desk and guests set up on the pitch - that the company plans on setting itself apart from the rest. ESPN is the first to acknowledge that not all of its approaches will work across all of its sports and every new idea can have its downside, something to which Martin Keown will attest. The message from all the members of the team, from the company directors to the producers and the pundits, seems to be the same - just because you can do something, it doesn’t mean you should.
“You shouldn’t get carried away drawing lines and circles,” says Steve McManaman fresh in off the back of a scooter through London traffic for his second game of the day having just been pitchside for the 12:45pm kick-off at Stamford Bridge.
“It’s all about teaching the audience something that may have missed.”
“I’ve done some work with ESPN in America and seen the 3D analysis they use in basketball where you can actually step in and interact with the players and see how someone took them on in the game; how they did the step over and such. Whether the person watching would really appreciate that for football or whether they’d think it’s a load of new fangled nonsense, I don’t know. The main thing is to help and give some knowledge. Anything you can have which will help people understand what the experts think is great.”
Of course, the experts themselves don’t carry all of the footballing knowledge required for the show around in their heads at all times. If you’ve ever wondered how John Motson pulls the most obscure of stats out of the air on the spot, that’s because there’s people employed to put together stat packs for that very purpose. In the case of the ESPN, it’s one hell of a stat pack indeed. The producer of the show, Nick Moody, passes around a 60-page document jam packed full of facts and figures with everything from the head-to-head records down the individual player trivia including the better part of a side of A4 even devoted to Manchester City’s second choice, 25-year-old, Romanian goalkeeper. All part of the 10 days of preparation.
“We sit round for a production meeting 10 days in advance and work out what we think the stories are going to be,” explains Moody as he shows us round the gallery packed with monitors, control panels and the bulk of the team.
“We have access to the clubs’ players for interviews for the build up of the show. Every week we ask Manchester City if we can speak to Carlos Tevez. Every week they tell us no,” he jokes.
In fact, ESPN’s coverage of the weekend’s games stretches even further after the event. The ESPN Goals app, which allows smartphone users watch highlights of each Premier League game, has now passed 2 million UK downloads thanks to the company making it free just before the start of the ‘11/’12 season.
“The company mission is to serve sports fans, anytime, anywhere,” commercial director for ESPN Digital Media Robin Ashton tells us.
“On the best available screen - that’s how fans watch the game, so that’s an option we’re giving them with Goals.”
With the average user spending 158 minutes per month on Goals, the mobile screen seems one that many are happy to go for, but the company’s plans for any direct, second screen interaction with the television broadcasts are fairly muted for the time being despite a reported 70 per cent of TV watchers confessing to dual-wielding a tablet or smartphone while watching the box.
“The question for us is whether we can use a second screen experience to make the broadcasts more engaging without overloading people,” explains Ashton and it’s hard to think of anything that fits the bill while still technically not too difficult to pull off at the same time.
It’d be nice to have your own sofa version of a slow motion sequence to play with or to find out how the game might have turned if the manager had done as you'd said, but there’s even the tricky issue of Premier League rights to deal with as well, even if you can make it possible.
For now, we’ll have to be content with the boundaries of the Technical Area but, with the next Premier League rights auction coming up soon, it’s a safe bet to assume that the self-proclaimed “worldwide leader in sports” will be bidding again, and maybe for more than just the single Setanta share this time. From what Pocket-lint’s seen of the way ESPN approaches its coverage, we’ll be happy to see them working the channels.