Tennis Panorama News had the unique opportunity to visit the ESPN broadcast compoundÂ and spend time in the control room in Melbourne during coverage of the Australian Open back in January. Senior Vice President of Event Production for ESPN Jamie Reynolds took time out from his extremely hectic schedule to speak to us about the logistics, technologies, philosophy and personalities of ESPN’s Australian Open coverage.
Karen Pestaina for Tennis Panorama News: How are the logistics of planning different for the Australian Open versus the other slams?
Jamie Reynolds: The way that we approach the Australian Open is similar in the way we do all four majors. And ESPN is unique in the aspect that we literally take apart our entire operation, our entire family, our entire circus and we take it three continents and an island.
We go to Australia and then go on to Paris, we then go up to the UK for Wimbledon and them back down to New York at the end of the summer. The nine month rip is pretty aggressive. So we probably pick up 115 people, and literally land on these hotspots for these events, move them in for three weeks. And I think we are probably the largest broadcaster who does all four majors at that level of commitment or the magnitude of the production assets that we bring. So itâ€™s pretty challenging.
The biggest thing, the hardest thing for us, relative to the Australian Open, candidly is that we are upside down on the time zone to our audience and the fact that we donâ€™t start until 9pm and we run the overnight hours, thatâ€™s great, but when we are trying to grow the sport, itâ€™s a little challenging. How do you get people to stay up all night long or want to get invested, either TIVO, record, DVR the matches, because they are that much of a tennis fanatic to take advantage of what we are doing versus what they getting immediately either texting, news reports, Morning wheel of the news, they can get all that social currency to get up to steam.
So our challenge really, for this particular event is probably more editorial that logistic.
TPN: What is the biggest technological challenge in covering the Australian Open?
JR: This event is technically, is one of the easier events for us to handle technically. Weâ€™ve got a partnership going with Channel 7 Australia, who is also the host broadcaster. So ESPN comes in and effectively we are a world feed embellisher. We put our own character, our own personality, our own voices, graphics, music. Pick the asset that can actually tailor the world feed presentation to look and feel like a standard ESPN product.
So perhaps our biggest challenge is what if we donâ€™t necessarily agree with you on covering a match? Or perhaps the isolation plan for Tomic or for Federer or for Roddick or for Rafa perhaps. That assignment of cameras may not be perhaps the level or the rate or philosophy that we might bring to a match. So how do we cover that chasm?
Technology wise we continue to push the envelope by bringing assets like the Spidercam, the aerial system that you see out on Rod Laver, thatâ€™s a device that we on ESPN brought to the tennis world and introduced at the majors at the US Open three years ago, convinced Tennis Australia, Channel 7 that it might enhance their coverage, convinced all the parties to come together and bring it down and fly through Rod Laver.
This year weâ€™ve been very aggressive in trying to help Channel 7 understand how that could be an asset to enhance the coverage package. I think that everyday we chip away at it and get a little bit bolder with its flight pattern and we kind of rely on it a little bit more. I think that it enhances the value of its coverage.
TPN: Now that we are down to one American left in the singles draw, what are your angles going to be?
JR: Without the Americans doing well for the first time in the open era and not get to the round of 16, thatâ€™s challenging for us. Because weâ€™ve got a lot of personalities and lot of what we do look at from the access to a lot of these players, what the interest is back home. Our particular productions have migrated to a new way of thinking. Specifically this is truly an international event with so many great personalities form around the globe, and because we do reach a lot of countries with ESPN, we think a little bit broader in how we are actually in going after a Hewitt story, a Roger or a Rafa or a Raonic or Tomic and any of the ladies as well.
That our goal now is to make that as personable, as desirable, in terms of wanting to understand the back story, getting our audience invested inn them, just trying to figure out the best way to convey that to our audience so they donâ€™t mind that there are no Americans. We donâ€™t have to put the red, white and blue all the time but thereâ€™s really great tennis out there that is fun.
TPN: Any new technology being implemented at this yearâ€™s Australian Open.
JR: The Australian mindset is very unique. They are gregarious fun loving good folks down here. They tend to be incredibly open-minded in terms of progressive introductions of new ideas to help convey the event and one of the initiatives theyâ€™ve helped us achieve is what we call our behind-the-scenes franchise. And that behind-the-scenes franchise as effectively as I describe to our teams is this: â€œTake behind the velvet ropes. Give me discovery and access. Take me places I couldnâ€™t get to if I had a ticket or if I had the ability to watch every hour of what ESPN puts out, I need to feel like I actually in the event and going somewhere where no one else can go.â€
And with that kind of mindset and philosophy with Tennis Australia, â€œwhere can you give us access to?â€ Well we can go to the workout room, we can go to the locker room, we can go to the hallways, the waiting rooms for the players, the player lounges. We can go to the car park area, where a lot of them just go and out their headsets on and just get into a zone and just kind of shut the world out to deconstruct their match. Theyâ€™re very open-minded, progressive in terms of allowing that access. With that comes the ability to kind of shape the way we convey this event as opposed to just a rectangle on a screen, two players back and forth, three-hit rally or a 17-hit rally. Itâ€™s a little sexier, a little bit more valuable, more attractive presentation. I actually feel like Iâ€™m part of it, a part of the community, behind the velvet ropes and going somewhere where I couldnâ€™t even go if I were on site.
TPN: What would surprise tennis fans about being behind the scenes?
JR: Thereâ€™s an incredible amount of camaraderie and I think that what doesnâ€™t convey that whether itâ€™s the ATP or the WTA, these athletes and personalities do travel the circuit week after week and what you actually see behind-the-scenes is the feeling of family amongst the players themselves. As combative or as aggressive as they can be with each other out on a court there is sincere appreciation, chemistry, commitment to one another, whether they are having a good year or a poor year. Thereâ€™s respect but there is a dynamic that these athletes share with each other. Itâ€™s not as adversarial as it might convey over an 11-hour show window where we are just showing guys beating back and forth with each other.
TPN: What is a typical day for you and the talent?
JR: This is probably the most challenging because of the sheer number of hours that we televise. When we say first ball to final ball, it is a very solid commitment to coverage of the most important matches from front end to back end. That really requires commitment of literally hours per day. So when you look at the first ball starting at 11am and often times ending like New York ending after Midnight, if not later, keeping people motivated through that 14-day stand is challenging. And with a roster ofÂ personalities, our talent roster, keep them enthusiastic, keeping them invested and focused on being â€œonâ€ for that 10 hours a day waiting for a match, getting ready for one that is coming up tonight, Â and you really gotta go through your head for 2 hours and come back with the same enthusiasm, thatâ€™s challenging. You are asking a lot of people.
So what happens behind the scenes to help that? Itâ€™s the sense of community, family and respect for each other we all try to create. This isnâ€™t just a group of specialists, assassins coming into do a single job. Weâ€™ve got to keep everybody working with the chemistry and taking advantage of that. So weâ€™ll rotate teams. You might see Chris Evert working with Pam Shriver today or you will see Patrick McEnroe and Darren (Cahill) or Patrick and Chris Fowler so we can actually keep them involved with each other because they donâ€™t have to always rule out â€œ Oh God Iâ€™m just sitting with my partner for this match and Iâ€™m doing every single match him for the next 14 days.â€ It changes up the dinner table a little bit.
TPN: Who are the practical jokers behind the scenes?
JR: I think that those in the tennis community and those of us who are running the sport know what kind of personality a Brad Gilbert brings. And we know, we look loving and fondly at Cliff Drysdale. Heâ€™s the godfather of our team, the elder statesman. As a perspective, he is the longest running talent on ESPN, bar none. Heâ€™s been with us since 1979, so we look at that history, having done Davis Cup that year, he is the man who is the franchise longer than anyone.
And then you look at Darren Cahill. Cahill with the Aussie wit, terrific personality. Patrick McEnroe, thatâ€™s pretty good â€“ an acerbic wit. And McEnroe has a pretty good timbre to work with. Look at the gals â€“ Mary Joe (Fernandez) and Pammy (Shriver) are well respected. Pammy can be polarizing, sheâ€™s got a great personality, she will go off on a flyer and make us all laugh and look at things a way many of us would never think about. She connects the dots on a lot of different stories and a lot of personalities. So thatâ€™s kind of like a really valuable spark. Itâ€™s a good roster.