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Lights, Camera, Action! Behind the Scenes With ESPN at the SEC Tournament

UT hoops players: Tennessee's Josh Richardson, Jarnell Stokes, Jordan McRae and
Trae Golden pose for the ESPN cameras. / Photo courtesy of ESPN/Photographer Carl Heinemann

It’s hard to fully appreciate a work of art until you see the effort behind its production.

ESPN Production Truck: A view from one of the two ESPN production trucks at the  2013 Southeastern Conference Tournament.

ESPN Production Truck: A view from one of the two ESPN production trucks at the
2013 Southeastern Conference Tournament.

While viewers might not first think of a television basketball broadcast as a work of art, they might change their minds if they got the behind-the-scenes look at ESPN’s coverage of the Men’s Southeastern Conference Basketball Tournament, as I did this spring.

From the approximately 100 people in Nashville on ESPN’s payroll, to the 13 cameras, to the thousands of man-hours involved to produce 13 games spanning about 29 on-air hours, the scope of ESPN’s effort was nothing short of mind-blowing. Here’s a closer look at what, and who, is involved in giving the television viewer a seamless, first-class view of the action.

The tournament doesn’t start until South Carolina and Mississippi State tip off until 7:30 on Wednesday night, but the production trucks and a crew of editors started rolling in to Music City on Monday. Keri Potts, ESPN’s PR director for its college sports division, escorts me inside one of the trucks. With help from an ESPN office in Charlotte, a pair of trailers parked inside the Bridgestone Arena will handle the video production for the week’s event. Of ESPN’s 100 workers at the tournament, 25 will be working from here.

I tour the truck at about 10:30 on Friday morning after the previous day’s four-game marathon. “We got here at 7:30 and leave after everybody else. We left last night at midnight,” Lenny Noel, a video editor, says.

It’s a business-like atmosphere inside the trucks. It’s dark, and there’s scant room to walk between the rows of headset-donning employees stationed in front of the dozens of video monitors. Between the long hours the crew has already worked and the fact that their cramped space is being invaded during busy times by a nosy reporter, I’m apprehensive about being there. But the folks in the truck — like everyone else working for ESPN that week — are friendly and eager to show me how the business works.

I gain respect for the education and experience it took for each to get to this stage of their professional careers. Noel went to school for TV production, but that was back before the digital age when everything was done on tape.

So did Mike Moore, ESPN’s senior coordinating producer, who grew up in Nashville. The affable veteran went to the University of Tennessee in the early-1980s, where he graduated with a bachelor of science degree in broadcasting and advertising before working with the Vol Network and producing various UT coaches’ shows. He’s been hand-picked to show me the ropes.

The room is filled with so much high-tech equipment that I don’t even know where to begin to ask questions. Moore patiently explains the nuances of the business, including how old-school guys like he and Noel had to adapt in the modern world of high-definition production.

Judging from the production quality of what I see — I’m watching ESPN employees edit a still shot of Tennessee’s Jordan McRae that will accompany some video to be shown during the Vols’ game with Alabama tonight — they’ve adapted pretty well.

“We’re in the technology business. We put a premium on it. We’re testing the limits all the time,” said Moore.

The still shot of McRae was generated earlier in the week, a few dozen yards away in the dark recesses of the arena where most fans and media never go. Carl Heinemann, ESPN’s director of photography, has set up a makeshift photography studio there, complete with various props like basketballs and Gibson guitars to capture the spirit of the city and event.

Alabama's Riley Cooper dons a guitar for an ESPN photo. / Photo by Chris Lee

Alabama’s Riley Cooper dons a guitar for an ESPN photo. / Photo by Chris Lee

Alabama players Rodney Cooper, Trevor Lacey, Levi Randolph and Trevor Releford soon enter the area. “You guys have some fun. It’s time to represent,” production assistant Andrew Suarez tells them as they prepare to be photographed.

The four seem unsure about this exercise, but they loosen up quickly. Heinemann hands Cooper and Releford a guitar and asks them to pretend to play it, as their teammates watch their awkward efforts and roar with laughter. Cooper is photographed spinning a basketball on his finger. At various points, the players are gathered together and asked to look serious, and then moments later, to ham it up.

It’s goofy, and the players know it, but it works. Before long, ESPN has more still shots than it will possibly use for tonight’s game.

Back at the truck, a video feed isn’t working as it should. Noel speculates that it could be an issue with a cable. Fortunately, we’re still a couple of hours from tipoff of Friday’s first game, but even if everything goes according to plan behind the scenes, there are always potential issues beyond ESPN’s immediate control. ESPN sends feeds to individual stations, but what happens from there is in the hands of those stations.

ESPN will send out a high-definition signal, but it’s up to each station to run an HD feed. Then, there can be technical glitches. Moore says, for example, that ESPN’s scrolling news ticker, “The Bottom Line,” is sometimes cut off. If ESPN knows about it, it will call the station to notify it.

Other than the one problem, everything else seems to be working fine, which seems like a miracle given all the people and moving parts.

Potts next takes me outside to the court, where she points out the cameras. There’s one above each basket, one at each baseline, one at mid-court, one each in section 102 and 108, two near center-court between sections 105-106 and 115-116 and two more on a production set, which sits diagonally from a corner of the floor about 25 feet away.

On the set today will be former Vanderbilt basketball great Barry Booker as well as Joe Dean, Jr. and Dari Nowkhah, who will provide pre- and post-game analysis. They’re part of an eight-person broadcast crew, but none will do the actual play-by-play. Brad Nessler and Jimmy Dykes will call the two day games, with Dave Neal and Jon Sunvold announcing the nightcaps.

I have known Booker for years, and we say “hello” in the arena’s corridor. We talk with Dean as the two recall working the 2008 tournament in Atlanta, which was interrupted by a tornado.

“My first thought was that terrorists were attacking the building. … It turned into a newscast,” Dean says. Both spoke about the challenge of reporting the event while also reassuring family at home that they were okay.

Calling the event may have been a blessing for Booker. Even though the damage to the Georgia Dome was so severe that the event had to be finished at nearby Georgia Tech, the work served as a distraction: Booker said the gravity of what happened didn’t really sink in until the day was over.

ESPN sideline reporter Shannon Spake has become a fixture at the SEC Tournament. / Photo courtesy of ESPN.

ESPN sideline reporter Shannon Spake has become a fixture at the SEC Tournament. / Photo courtesy of ESPN.

Minutes later, we cross paths with the crew’s eighth member, Shannon Spake. Her job is to track down coaches for in-game interviews. Surprisingly, Spake tells me that the idea for the in-game interviews came from the coaches a few years back. Still, there are challenges.

“There are a handful of coaches who (leave) if I don’t get to them soon enough,” said Spake, adding that approach is everything, especially to a coach who may be on the wrong end of the score.

Spake arrives at 4:30 on Wednesday and didn’t work the first two games. She literally hit the ground running early Thursday morning by 6:30 a.m. in order to cover all four games.

Spake wasn’t there for the tornado, but being an on-court reporter comes with its particular set of hazards. “I’ve been hit in the head with clipboards and cameras,” she says.

Still, Spake – who cut her broadcasting teeth on 13-hour days covering NASCAR, hints that covering the tournament is a walk in the park compared to racing.

“I’m used to long days. (In Bridgestone Arena), you don’t have to deal with rain or high temperatures. … It’s a treat for me,” she smiles.

Now comes the fun, as the games soon take center stage. Friday’s games are on ESPNU, while Saturdays and Sundays will be on ABC. I’m surprised to learn that ABC affiliates as far as Denver, Honolulu, New York and Spokane will be showing those games. Spake particularly enjoys basketball tournaments, and ESPN covers a bunch of them, showing 136 games over 31 tournaments alone this March.

“My favorite part of the week is right before tipoff,” Spake says, elaborating that she enjoys seeing the hope in the faces of the fans, coaches and players, knowing that each team just has to win a few games to bring home a title.

One of Spake’s favorite memories came the previous year in this same event, when Vanderbilt handed eventual national champion Kentucky one of its only two losses in the title game. Spake watched court-side as VU coach Kevin Stallings, overcome with emotion on his team’s accomplishment, uncharacteristically sobbed into a towel when it was over.

“Kevin Stallings, I admire and respect him so much… to see (him break down) was cool,” she said.

Spake also spoke about enjoying the journey to get there. The previous year, she’d covered a freshman-dominated Kentucky team and enjoyed seeing its progress throughout the season.

As if to underscore her point about hope, Vandy will again score a big upset of UK that night, and Ole Miss — a team whose NCAA Tournament hopes had ostensibly gone out the window in the previous weeks following a string of losses — will surprise everyone by winning the 2013 title and getting the league’s automatic bid to the NCAAs.

Meanwhile, Moore works behind the scenes to make sure everything goes right with the production. His job may not be as glamorous as Spake’s, but it does come with perks: he helped produce a spot about the 1992 U.S. Olympic Basketball team, which is probably the greatest squad in the history of American team sports.

“I got to be in the gym while they were practicing. It was absolutely unbelievable… I still have the raw tapes from that shoot in my office,” Moore says.

After that, working the SEC Tournament in what was a “down year” for the league could be a let-down for Moore. But after 30 years, it’s not.

“These events are the reason I got into the business… it never gets old. … When it does become a job, I quickly remind myself how lucky I am,” he said.

UT hoops players: Tennessee’s Josh Richardson, Jarnell Stokes, Jordan McRae and Trae Golden pose for the ESPN cameras. / Photo courtesy of ESPN/Photographer Carl Heinemann