Major League Soccer Club Realize Quality and Cost Savings With Away-Game Production
By B. A. Philips Photos by Carrie Cavalier and Cathy Sherman
It’s March 19 at the Home Depot Center in Carson, Calif., the road opener for Major League Soccer (MLS) club Sporting KC. Anticipation is running high and butterflies are aflutter in more than a few stomachs—not just in the locker room, as players ready for the game, but also in the satellite uplink truck parked outside the stadium.
Production of the away feed of this night’s game between Chivas USA and Sporting KC on the Campus of California State University in Carson, is the first time Chris Wyche, Executive Vice President, Operations, for the metro Kansas City-based professional soccer club, and his streamlined production staff will use their new NewTek TriCaster 850, TriCaster 850 CS control surface and TimeWarp external replay controller for live game production.
Crammed into the truck’s tight confines are the TriCaster 850 and control surface, technical director Craig Niedfeldt, the TimeWarp controller and a full complement of signal monitors, processing gear and other technology needed for satellite backhaul of the game from California, to fans watching on TV in Kansas City.
The brainchild of Wyche, this approach to field production is the next step in an evolving process launched the preceding season to provide viewers with away-game coverage that looks every bit as professionally produced as any other major sporting event on television at a fraction of the price normally associated with remote production.
Last season, Wyche, who also serves as executive producer of Sporting KC’s television operation, approached production of away games with the goal of maintaining the highest production standards, while reducing costs. Although he wouldn’t identify the exact dollar amount involved, Wyche used production of home games done with the Mansion Mobile Television HD truck as a baseline to illustrate what he wished to accomplish.
“When we do a game at home, we use a full HD production truck, and I am just going to say that our cost to do a game is ‘X’, “ he explains. Without making a change in how Sporting KC produces away games, the cost would be identical, he says. So that approach was out.
Another alternative considered was taking a clean feed of the home team’s production, uplinking it via satellite back to a studio and adding production elements, like titles, graphics and Sporting KC play-by-play and color audio, he explains. “What we found was that was going to cost us basically two-thirds “X.” So, we wanted to look around and see how we could do better,” says Wyche.
Drawing on his experience doing the Gold Cup in 2007 for FOX Soccer, Wyche investigated renting key pieces of production technology, such as a video switcher and audio board, in away-game cities, taking camera feeds from the home team’s game production and adding his own production elements, like graphics and video packages.
“The cost of that, even with all of our travel, was one-third ‘X’, “ he says. “So we were reducing our costs by two-thirds on a road game and getting a quality HD product. But we felt like we couldn’t do everything we wanted to do, and we also knew we had other streaming interests and other things we wanted to do.”
When Wyche learned about the TriCaster 850, the new control surface, TimeWarp and what they cost, he immediately recognized an opportunity to own, rather than rent, the key pieces of production technology needed to produce away games at the highest level of broadcast quality and meet his budget goals.
“Using the TriCaster, from a game perspective, I am no longer renting a switcher or an audio board,” says Wyche. “I did buy an audio board, so I am no longer renting that either. This means that I am no longer at the mercy of whatever is shipped in, and we know what we are going to be working with.”
“It also means that now we can add our own graphics, and because we bought the TimeWarp, we can now do our own highlights packages. Plus, we get to have this equipment in our office 24/7 when we aren’t travelling.”
In the month leading up to the season-opener away game, Wyche and his production crew took delivery of the TriCaster 850 and TimeWarp. The goal at this stage was twofold: produce whatever graphics and greenscreen sets, using TriCaster VSE that would be needed for pre- and postgame show use that could be put together in time for the start of the season and learn how to use TimeWarp and the TriCaster 850.
A few weeks later, Sporting KC took delivery of its TriCaster 850 CS control surface, one of the first to leave the NewTek facility in San Antonio, Texas. Sitting behind the control surface with TimeWarp within easy reach, Dan Drelich, from operations, practiced, learning how to put the pieces of technology to work so that in a couple of weeks Wyche’s vision could become reality. “We’ve just been sitting here playing with TimeWarp, and we just got the new switcher in and have been playing with it. It’s taken a little bit of time to get used to it, but it’s really pretty simple once you get the hang of it. It’s pretty user friendly,” says Drelich, who is new to video production.
The plan for this season’s production of away games calls for Wyche’s crew to take a clean HD feed from the home team’s production truck, a feed from the HD camera positioned in the Sporting KC announce booth, assorted home-team HD camera feeds of the game, and feeds from end zone cameras.
“I’ll take as many camera feeds as I can get from them,” says Wyche. “The only limitation we have is the number of TriCaster inputs, and with eight video inputs we are in great shape.”
While more ambitious than the previous season’s setup, fewer production personnel are needed for the TriCaster-based approach. “The amazing thing about this for us is last year we did the show with seven technical people,” says Wyche. “This year we are going to be able to do a whole lot more graphically and with video, and we’ll be able to do that with five people because of what the TriCaster allows us to do.”
The five-person production crew includes: Wyche, who serves as executive producer of the away games, directs and handles graphics; Drelich, who runs the TimeWarp and an AJA Video Ki Pro tapeless video recorder; a camera operator in the announce booth who doubles as an A2 to run announcer sound; an A1 to run main audio; and a technical director to run the TriCaster 850.
Streaming into the future
Although the primary task of the TriCaster is production of live away-game coverage, Wyche also envisions the TriCaster 850 playing a critical role in the soccer club’s still somewhat nebulous plans for Internet streaming.
Quick to explain that MLS partners with over-the-top streaming service provider NeuLion for distribution of league games via the Internet, Wyche says Sporting KC is looking to stream club content when possible to build fan interest and update the community on construction of its new $200 million LIVESTRONG Sporting Park. In fact, the first time Sporting KC put its new TriCaster to work was to provide streaming coverage of a March 8 press conference announcing that the club was partnering with cyclist Lance Armstrong”s Livestrong Foundation in a unique naming rights deal that has the goal of raising $8 million to $10 million for the charitable organization.
“The great thing about the TriCaster,” says Jake Yadrich, the Sporting KC videographer who shot the press conference and also runs the announce booth camera during away games, “is it lets you capture the entire HD program and push it out via Livestream.” With the TriCaster, Sporting KC keyed in lower-thirds identifying speakers at the press conference and put up a graphic telling Internet viewers to “Please Standby” before the event began. “The TriCaster can do all of these different kinds of things that makes the live steam more effective. This was a big deal for the organization, so being able to do this was very beneficial,” he says.
Beyond stadium progress reports, Sporting KC plans to produce regular streaming coverage of the team from its hotel the day before away games and to do a live chat involving viewers and players, says Wyche. Other streaming opportunities under consideration include reserve games, Sporting KC juniors’ games, a U.S. Open Cup game and a portion of the 2012 MLS draft, says Wyche.
Wyche’s way of producing away games has caught the eye of many around the league, and some have cautioned him about his approach. “There are a lot of people in the league who have a history of doing video production traditionally, and we are taking some real risks in their minds,” says Wyche. “And I agree, but I think last year we proved that it can be done.”
“It’s really funny because you will hear from some people who say, “You’ll never do that.” Well I am doing it, and I’m still trying to figure out why we can’t.”
“What we are trying to do is what is right for our team and our organization, and we are offering to anybody in the league the opportunity to look at it. I’m looking forward to seeing their response and answering their questions as we go to different places,” he says.
If its first away-game use of the TriCaster in Carson is any indication, Wyche will have a lot of positive things to tell his peers with other clubs. Despite a couple of hiccups, including having his satellite truck stuck in traffic behind an accident on the way to the Home Depot Center, Wyche described the production as “a good first time out of the box.”
While acknowledging that his production crew didn’t know everything about its new TriCaster and TimeWarp, the viewers at home couldn’t tell, says Wyche. Upon returning to Kansas City, Wyche and his crew took the time to work out the kinks and prepare for the next road game. With the production wrinkles ironed out, the Sporting KC production crew had an away game in Chicago where things went more smoothly, he says.
“The TriCaster is great technology because it allows us to reduce cost and produce quality HD programming,” says Wyche. “It is so intuitive that it makes it very easy to find and use what we want to use quickly and make adjustments as required.”
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