ESPN Innovates, Experiments, and Scores with Major League Soccer
By: Karen Hogan, Associate Editor
Friday, March 9, 2012 - 10:57 am

ESPN kicks off its 17th season of Major League Soccer on Monday with a live telecast of the Portland Timbers hosting the Philadelphia Union from PGE Park. The inter-conference contest is the first of 20 matchups to be broadcast on ESPN2, ESPN3, and ESPN Deportes.  With one additional match (Chivas USA vs. Chicago Fire on May 4) slated exclusively for ESPN Deportes, ESPN will carry a total of 21 regular season matches in high definition.

Covering the Field from Every Angle
ESPN is ramping up its camera complement for the regular season, with plans to roll out eight hard cameras, including one super slo-mo camera, for every match.

For select matches, such as the season opener in Portland, ESPN will up the camera complement to include a jib, a handheld Steadicam, and a goal-line cam.  In addition, the season opener will feature an on-site set.

“[We’re] certainly taking advantage of the fabulous atmosphere in Portland,” says Amy Rosenfeld, coordinating producer of ESPN’s MLS coverage. “We’re bringing our host set to site, so we’ll [also] have cameras on the set that can break away and be deployed down the field [and] a small jimmy jib on the set, so that’s one of our bigger shows.”

On the Field Perspective… Literally
ESPN will deploy one hard camera to a low mid-field position, operating from an Orbiter rig.  Used on a trial basis last year, ESPN has since purchased the rig for use in all of its MLS broadcasts.  The rig, which Rosenfeld describes as “a rotating hardhat,” allows the operator to sit at field level.

“Frequently, in soccer, we have the issue with the fourth official having a compromised position if that hot low mid camera is up on a platform, because he feels it blocks his sightlines,” explains Rosenfeld. “So this puts the operator literally almost right on the… field. Moreover, it gives a really fluid turning motion for the camera, and I think it’s been a nice addition.”

A Unique (and Undistorted) Point of View
After experimenting with in-goal POV cameras during the MLS playoffs last year, ESPN will include two ICONIX HD-RH1 POV cameras with 2-mm wide-angle lenses in every broadcast.  In Portland, ESPN plans to mount one POV camera high in the back corner of one net and low in the other.

“What’s really nice about [the POV cameras] is they can be shaded remotely, and that just makes such a big difference in terms of dealing with the change in light,” says Rosenfeld. “We’ve been trying to find the perfect solution for the goal POVs — to be able to not distort the image, capture as much as we can, and be able to see whoever [is] coming into the frame in a way that there is no distorting the depth of field.”

Because FIFA does not allow anything to interfere with the nets, posts, or columns, ESPN plans to experiment with placement throughout the season. Wherever the cameras are placed, Rosenfeld’s team will have complete remote control.

“[The cameras] have the ability to pan [and] tilt remotely,” says Rosenfeld. “So we’re not having an operator running out and trying to move the framing through the net when the ball’s at the other end.”

MIRA Mobile, F&F Roll Out for Soccer
In order to cover 21 matches across the country, ESPN will split matches into east and west and regionalize its truck deployment.  A MIRA Mobile 53’ HD expando will handle all western matches, while an F&F Productions unit with similar specs will cover all eastern matches.  While the trucks are not exclusively bound to ESPN’s coverage of MLS, both trucks will be customized to ESPN’s needs.

“They’ve really been great about customizing for soccer needs,” says Rosenfeld. “[It] still allows them to do other events, but our equipment is pre-installed.”

A Fresh New Look for ESPN Soccer
ESPN will be rolling out the network’s new soccer animation package that debuted during the MLS playoffs last year.  In addition to being a regular element of MLS broadcasts, ESPN will use the same animation package in its Premiere League and U.S. Soccer broadcasts.

The EVS Epsio virtual offside line will return to ESPN’s MLS telecasts. EVS’ Epsio graphics system uses image-based motion-tracking technology to display a virtual line affixed to the last defender.  Using the line on replays lets viewers know if the referee’s offside decision was accurate.

Kicking Coverage Up a Notch
ESPN will broadcast the MLS All-Star Game, several MLS Playoff matches, and the 2012 MLS World Cup. With this season’s standard production complement consisting of last season’s experiments, there’s no telling what new technological innovations will appear in the playoffs.

The larger production complement, which viewers will see in Monday’s opener, will provide the base level for ESPN’s All-Star and MLS Cup coverage.  Rosenfeld anticipates expanding that 14-camera complement for these higher profile events, but recognizes that it will be dictated by venue.

“What’s exciting about MLS this year is, for the first time, the Cup will be played at the higher seed as opposed to a predetermined location,” says Rosenfeld. “Depending on [the] venue, that could impact some of our cameras because some of the venues just have some fabulous different positions that afford neat looks.

“As [the MLS has built] these soccer specific stadiums,” she continues, “I think they’ve done a pretty good job at incorporating television and figuring out ways to carve out little nooks for us that give a unique and dynamic soccer perspective.”

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