So you sit back in early summer to watch tennis from Wimbledon. For those who love the sport, there’s a magnificent appreciation for the great heritage, the grass courts, early morning matches, a fresh cup of coffee and a warm morning breeze on a sunshiny Sunday.
NBC had Wimbledon for 43 years, beginning with its first in 1969. Those Breakfasts at Wimbledon were memorable. They were anchored so eloquently by Dick Enberg and chronicled so colorfully by writer turned broadcaster Bud Collins.
In 2003, ESPN joined the party, carrying select matches on cable. By 2012, ESPN won the rights to the whole kit and caboodle and has since broadcast the matches exclusively. NBC’s long run ended.
At the time ESPN bagged the full rights, Wimbledon boss Ian Ritchie told the media, “The sports viewer wants to see things live.” NBC wasn’t prepared to preempt other profitable morning programming, an issue that ESPN didn’t face. So this year again, tennis fans can see every match live, somewhere on the network’s broad platform.
It’s easy to get trapped in memories of past broadcasts. Yet ESPN’s team of commentators captures Wimbledon’s magic concisely. Chris Fowler the network’s lead voice for college football will again serve as the lead stroke-by-stroke voice for the fortnight at the All-England Club. Cliff Drysdale, the native South African who played in the era of John Newcombe, Rod Laver and Fred Stolle, presides mellifluously as well. Drysdale, you might say, is the dean of tennis broadcasting, having been a part of the game as a player or commentator since the 1960s. In all, ESPN has a star-studded list of 15 on-air personnel including John and Patrick McEnroe and Chrissie Evert.
For you and me, the production looks easy. After all, it’s tennis. It’s not covering the acreage of golf. Place a handful of cameras at strategic vantage points around the rectangular court. Then, sit back and enjoy.
Not so fast. Just ask Dennis Cleary who’s tasked with preparing for ESPN’s Wimbledon remote. When I asked him how many ESPN people will be on-site, I was quite surprised. The numbers are compelling.
Cleary, who heads up remote broadcasts for many of ESPN’s live events, tells me that there will be 182 folks working Wimbledon. The crew, more like a mini-battalion, is made up of what Dennis describes as 125 personnel from production and 57 from operations. For the uninitiated in backroom lexicon, including myself, production is made up of executive producers, producers, associate producers, coordinating producers, directors, associate directors, and on-air announcers. Operations consist of the technical director, audio, video, camera and replay personnel.
Why a veritable horde for tennis? Cleary elaborates, “Well, to begin with, think of the period we’re covering. Wimbledon goes on for a couple weeks. It’s not a one day, one match event. And there are also multiple matches at each court. We’re there from early in the morning until late at night. This isn’t getting ready for one big event, confined to a fixed few hours. Tennis, like any of the majors is a marathon.” Cleary knows. He’s also in charge of ESPN’s coverage of the Australian Open in January.
ESPN gives Wimbledon the treatment; a best in practice production, nothing skimpy. Researchers and statisticians, a virtual thinktank to present matches effectively through the intense two-week stretch. Many ESPNers crossed the pond last Friday to get there for the first match on July 1st.
ESPN will use 131 cameras, more than enough to capture the matches, the royal box, the historically reserved English tennis fans and others who made the pilgrimage to the august grounds. The production also gets assistance from Wimbledon’s television arm which supplies cameras, equipment, production and other operational needs.
I asked Cleary how many courts are used. He says 18. And I say to myself, it’s like producing 18 basketball telecasts at one time.
Dennis confidently shares the details of preparing for Wimbledon, doing so unflappably, redolent of a man who’s done worldwide remotes smoothly for decades. Through the years, he in fact has orchestrated broadcasts from far-away places, including Dubai and Sydney and at a wide range of events, from motor-racing to yes, the national spelling bee championship.
While others would see his role as a nightmare of granular measure, Cleary loves his work. His name never goes up in bright lights across ESPN’s multiple-platforms, not on the mothership, the deuce or other tentacles, whether online or Smartphones. And unlike Fowler or Drysdale, he’s not stopped at airport concourses.
The network’s 12-year rights deal which extends through 2023 is costing Disney a reported $500 million. It’s in excess of $40 million a year. NBC, according to the New York Times, paid $13 million per year for its principal over-the-air coverage.
I asked Cleary, an ESPN vet of 22 years, how much engagement there is from production and operations in projecting P&Ls before the network pursues broadcast rights.
“There are internal meetings to project costs. The finance department is always involved,” Dennis says. He adds, “Rights are generally multi-year agreements, so we have to project the annual price increases in bringing telecasts back to Bristol.”
The bigger question, one not in Cleary’s bailiwick, is what revenue will be generated through ad sales. ESPN’s sellers are charged with generating some big bucks from advertisers to keep the accountants happy. I can remember former CBS Sports head, Neal Pilson telling me, “If the sales guys don’t think it will turn a profit, you’re generally dead internally on making a bid.”
For a man wrapped up in critical particulars and what others might consider minutia, Cleary’s job reinforces what good bosses often tell their employees, ‘The devil is in the detail.’
The backup plans alone are sufficiently complicated for the average human being. Remember, the broadcast is being fed by fiber optics and/or satellite from Europe. Something can always go wrong. Reliable backup systems have to be in place for most eventualities. Millions upon millions of dollars, not to mention viewers, expect a smooth broadcast.
I asked Cleary which remote events are easier and less expensive. In talking with him, I got the sense that no remote is easy if you do the job right. He does admit though, “some of the high school and college basketball games,” might be. “Fewer cameras and smaller venues make the set-up relatively quicker,” he adds.
As he puts it, “Worries are worries for events large and small. It comes down to training, experience and understanding the technology.”
I got some more interesting morsels from Cleary that probably never enter the minds of viewers:
I ask how big a crew is needed to produce Sunday Night Baseball. He answers prudently.
“Not my event. Yet, if I’d have to guess, close to 40.”
And how about all those ESPN trucks roaming the country?
“In the 90s, ESPN sold its entire fleet and we now only rent trucks from vendors.”
How many remote units does ESPN use per week?
“Probably up to 50 during busy stretches.”
What’s the busiest time of year?
“End of the college basketball season. Rivalry Week and conference tournaments heading into March Madness.”
What about games called by announcers situated in the studio? Do you see more in the years ahead?
Announcers maintain that they’re better off at the venue to maintain relationships with coaches, players and rightsholders. So we’re not seeing an increase of remote integration (announcers in the studio).
As we close, I raise a little psychology. Do the behind the scenes people miss the limelight? It’s been ESPN’s general tradition not to list credits. It’s more of an environment of serving with distinguished anonymity. Kevin says, “That’s the mindset here. It’s what we signed up for. Satisfaction comes other ways.”
We hear about announcers who started in hamlets and worked their way to big showcases like ESPN. It’s much the same I would suppose for the behind the scene group. Cleary started at ESPN as a studio technician in production operations and advanced steadily through a series of promotions.
Now he’s on the big stage of Wimbledon, albeit with no fanfare, which is just fine with him!