By Brandon Costa, Director of Digital, SVG
In this unique year of live sports television in a COVID world, league drafts have emerged as one of the more intriguing and innovative broadcast playgrounds.
In April, the WNBA and the NFL set the standard through comprehensive workflows that took viewers into the homes of draft prospects around the country. Major League Baseball followed shortly thereafter with its own impressive effort (in partnership with ESPN).
This week, it’s the NHL’s turn.
Fresh off the completion of its Stanley Cup Playoffs in a bubble, the league has flipped the script to deliver a live Draft beginning tonight (7 p.m. ET, NBCSN, Sportsnet, TVA). It will feature more than 100 feeds in and out of NHL Network’s home facility in Secaucus, NJ, in support of the league’s national broadcast partners.
“The Draft is generally one of NHL Network’s biggest events every year,” says Eric Eisenberg, VP, programming and operations, NHL Network. “Over the last five years — since we moved our studios into the U.S. — we’ve been focused on advancing our engagement with NHL fans earlier, with prospects and people who are coming into the league. So this event is great for us, and we think there is something really special about what we’re doing.”
Two control rooms will be fully operational at NHL Network: one to produce the “world feed” elements of the Draft itself, the other for NHL Network’s own primetime studio coverage. Jacob Soto, VP, engineering and IT, MLB Network/NHL Network, calls it “one of the largest setups that we’ve done for a single show.”
A Continent-Wide Effort
In its execution, the NHL Draft is actually different from other major sports leagues in North America: instead of having Commissioner Gary Bettman announce every pick from the podium, front-office representatives from each team will come to the stage to announce their respective first-round selection.
Although the league had to pull the plug on the live, in-person Draft (which was originally scheduled to be held at the Bell Centre in Montreal), it was crucial to NHL Chief Content Officer Steve Mayer and his team that this element of the proceedings be preserved.
That led to a comprehensive transmission plan that would allow each team to formally make its picks over video from its home facilities. To support this continent-wide effort, the NHL has provided each of the league’s 31 club facilities with a server from BitFire, a production outfit launched earlier this year. Through its software-based technology, the NHL will be able to reliably handle signal transport through the use of the open internet and hardware-based servers.
“We wanted to keep that element of what makes the NHL different,” says Marc Weiner, coordinating producer, NHL Draft, NHL Network. “We wanted them to have the ability to make the pick themselves, and that gives fans something different. [They] don’t usually get to see that. That’s cool, and we’re glad that the technology is allowing us to do that. The teams embraced announcing their own picks and have taken ownership of it.”
NHL Network’s operations team, led by Soto and SVP, Operations and Engineering, Susan Stone, has overseen the server distribution and taken over a large conference room in the Secaucus facility to serve as the de facto nerve center of the entire operation. It’s there that producers and technicians will check feeds in, monitor and communicate with the BitFire team servers, move signals back and forth between the facility and sites, and reallocate signals.
The video teams at the league’s 31 franchises are doing their part, hooking up the servers and providing all video and audio support to keep NHL and network personnel from having to travel during COVID. As a result, the league is allowing the teams to use their imagination with how they announce their picks (all within safety and reason, of course).
“Each team’s going to be a little unique,” says Dan O’Neill, VP, arena and event operations, NHL. “We’ll leave it to them on their creativity. Which is great, and we wanted to give the clubs that ability. Some teams are actually taking it and going offsite at this point.”
Through BitFire and supplemental units from LiveU, NHL Network’s facility will bring in more than 100 signals over the course of the two-day event. Teams will send a single feed from their end, and the league will send back two signals to the team sites (200-Mbps ASI muxes). One of those feeds includes a virtual Draft board, which includes a live clock and graphical display (built by SMT) of the current Draft board.
User-Friendly Connectivity for Prospects
As for interviewing players in their homes, the NHL decided not to send out AV kits – such as deployed for the NFL and MLB Drafts. Instead, the NHL will use a feature in BitFire called FireBridge, which allows producers to simply send a hyperlink to the player, who, with one click, can have their live video feed ingested into the BitFire network.
No special equipment is needed, and the browser-based solution can easily be accessed via any standard browser (Chrome, Safari, Firefox) on the player’s mobile device or laptop.
Not only does this benefit the player by keeping the process simple, Soto notes, but it allows all the signal flow for the entire production to be kept in a single-server network. This allows synchronized latency between all the feeds, enabling the capture of live reactions from team facilities and players within their homes.
‘World Feed’ Production Supports National Broadcast Partners
Although NHL Network is producing its own coverage of the NHL Draft throughout the event, the effort is designed as a “world feed” of sorts to support the league’s national broadcast partners: NBC Sports in the U.S., Rogers Sportsnet and TVA in Canada.
It’s not a traditional world feed in the sense that it’s not a full clean feed of an end-to-end linear production. Instead, major chunks — such as any appearance by the commissioner at the podium or pick announcements from the team sites — will be produced by NHL for the national broadcasters, while leaving room in the rundown for the broadcasters to fill with their own studio coverage.
Also, the first interviews with each GM and player (based on availability) will be conducted on a rolling basis and distributed to the broadcasters by the league. Those interviews will be conducted by NHL Network on-air talent Jamie Hersch.
“It’s a very large group,” says Weiner, “but it has been a great experience working with everybody because everybody has had one goal. We’ve been focused, and we haven’t had a lot of time. The planning for the Draft has been about five weeks from the time we engaged on this fully to where we are today. I’m really proud of that.”