It’s Sunday afternoon, raining outside, and rather than write those overdue Christmas thank-you letters (don’t pretend like you’ve done them, you liar), you curl up on the sofa and safely cocoon yourself in some HD sports. Though you take it for granted, the magic of telly doesn’t happen without some hard work, and more importantly, an absolute mountain of expensive and awesome tech.
A few stats just to help you grasp the enormity of the machine that brings sports to your screen: for just one minor football match like the third-round FA cup match ESPN kindly let me poke round, ESPN typically has 90 staff, 20 cameras, 12 mammoth broadcast trailers, and my favourite stat, 14 kilometres of cabling laid. Bear in mind that this is all set up in less than 24 hours, and taken down in the same period of absolutely no time.
For ESPN, the process of broadcasting a match starts just a week or two before kickoff, when the director and a couple of his lackeys visit the venue. They work out where everything is going to go, down to where they’re going to bung the catering vehicle.
At this point, it’s over to the techy people: the technical director will produce a series of mind-boggling diagrams to work out how all the trailers and cameras are going to talk to each other, and how the signal will get broadcast to you, the viewers at home. These diagrams sprawl across many, many sheets of A4, and include far too many words that make my head hurt, not to mention more frequencies than you thought existed in the entire electromagnetic spectrum.
The generatormobile — the most important truck (apart from catering and portaloos)
Once the plans are laid, everything goes quiet until a few days before the event. 24 hours or so before the sports stars show up and do their bit, ESPN’s crew and all their vehicles will roll up. The backbone of the whole setup is a giant generator truck, with enough diesel gennys to power a small city. This is then hooked up to the rest of the vehicles, sometimes with a mains power backup.
There’s a whole plethora of vehicles: a catering van (serving swordfish stew, no less!); a double-decker trailer for meetings and cramming food down out of the rain; a satellite van; security van to protect all the talent, and then three massive trailers filled with enough electronics to make even a seasoned techie weep.
The match director’s control centre
The nerve centre is the match truck, where the match director can take different camera feeds and organise them into one seamless output. This features a giant feed-mixing desk manned by a couple of people, and more Apple Cinema displays than you’d find on the deck of Steve Jobs’s spacecraft. In addition to this little lot, there’s another similar set-up for the programme director — who cuts between all the different shots of presenters, studios, pre-game and post-game analysis — a graphics truck, where they can make special effects in real time, just to prove to you how off-side that last pass was, and another trailer dedicated to replays.
The replay team desperately tries to find close-ups of professional fouls
All of these different trucks have walls literally covered in monitors, with more blinking lights, knobs and dials than most space-rocket-control centres. Here, they collate the feeds from all the cameras, choose the tastiest, and spit them out to the overall director. Then, graphics are added over the top, and the feed is sent out over satellite to ESPN HQ, where it’s passed on to you, the dear viewer.
Of course, none of this can happen without the cameramen and their machines. At a major sporting event like the Liverpool vs. Mansfield match I was at, there are around 20 cameras in action. Most are fixed-position, with an operator just there to point them and focus; the others are Steadicams, monster cameras that are attached to the operator via a mechanical arm and a cyborg-style exoskeleton. This system isolates the movement of the operator from the camera rig; in practice, it means that the camera operator can walk around, and the image will remain perfectly smooth and still.
The whole rig weighs upwards of 50kg though, and costs hundreds of thousands of pounds. It’s also dangerous — the ESPN operator I talked to said the weight of the whole thing has toppled him over a few times, wrecking the camera, and seriously damaging himself in the process. Dangerous business, this filming lark.
At the bigger stadiums, the most awesome bit of camera kit is the Skycam — a cable-mounted, computer-stabilised camera that’s suspended over the pitch, and can run about at 25mph to provide a bird’s-eye view of the action. It’s a neat bit of gear, but has the potential to sometimes go dramatically wrong, as this video shows:
ESPN’s John Champion and Chris Waddle in their death-trap of a gantry
Sports broadcasting is an eclectic mix of the old and the new. On the one hand, there’s truck-loads of ridiculously expensive and drool-worthy cutting-edge equipment. On the other, they’re still using techniques and equipment designed by the BBC back in the early days of sports broadcasting — the commentators are still religiously tied to their antique Coles lip mics. Their stellar design has remained unchanged since the 1950s, and is said to actually generate the sound of “British politeness”, with the ability to turn swearing Aussie chavs into elocutioners worthy of that speech therapy guy in The King’s Speech.
A vintage Coles lip microphone in its high-tech scaffolding holder
The broadcast gantries also provide a bit of a counterpoint to the swanky modern trucks. They’re often just made out of scaffolding, and the club’s gantry I saw was worse — scaffolding, perched on top of a condemned building, with a rickety ladder to get up there. Though I was assured by the Health and Safety bods that it was all nice and safe, I swear I could actually feel the whole thing swaying in the breeze.
So next time you’re lazing on your couch watching England win the World Cup (we can all dream), spare a thought for all the poor techies slaving away to bring the match to your big, oversized 4K screen. Even for smaller matches, all the same amount of work has to go into it — and considering that ESPN is broadcasting a good 25 FA Cup matches alone, that’s a lot of poor freezing techies.