SBJ/April 29-May 5, 2013/In Depth

Snow put ESPN production team to the test

The March 22 U.S.-Costa Rica World Cup qualifier in Colorado probably is known more for the blinding snowstorm in which it was played than the actual result.

For ESPN, which produced the game, the amazing on-screen visuals stood in stark contrast to the chaos associated with producing a game in the snow. ESPN producers had to deal with foggy and wet lenses, gale-force winds, a lack of replays and a makeshift studio set.

“This was, by far, the largest amount of snowfall buildup that we’ve ever had to deal with,” said ESPN producer Chris Alexopoulos. “We’ve had MLS events that have been in the cold, and we’ve done some in the snow — but none that have built up that heavily.”

Keeping cameras protected was no small task during last month’s Costa Rica vs. USA soccer match in Commerce City, Colo.
Photo by: USA Today Sports
ESPN’s cameramen were most affected by the snow. They were not able to shoot plays at a distance, meaning they could not cover action across the field. That caused problems when ESPN tried to come up with replays, Alexopoulos said.

“There were times when a play would happen and I didn’t have a look of it at certain points,” he said. “That worried me a little bit because I thought there was a chance Costa Rica would score and replays might be a problem.”

Cameramen ran into typical problems faced while shooting games in a snowstorm. Foggy lenses were not as much of a problem as snow buildup. For many of the replays in the second half, viewers could see the snow accumulate on and circle around the camera lens.

“If a lens fogs up, it takes longer to fix,” Alexopoulos said. “If it’s snow, which was the major problem, the ball’s on one end of the field and you have to get that camera guy to wipe it off.”

Because of the conditions, Alexopoulos adopted a minimalist approach to the game production, saying that he wanted to “get out of the way and let the pictures speak for themselves.”

“It was our director’s show,” he said. “As a producer, you just make sure the announcers have the information they need and be ready for replays. But really, you just let the scene play out. I did have a little bit more time to reflect.”

Alexopoulos, who spent the game in the production truck, said he was surprised officials even started the game. ESPN had a contingency plan to run a live “SportsCenter” in case the game was canceled.

“We thought we had more than a 50 percent chance of that happening,” he said. “I know I was surprised that the game actually kicked off because we knew that it was going to build up relatively quickly.”

ESPN producers had kept their eye on the weather forecast all week and figured the game would be played in bad weather. It wasn’t until earlier in the day that they realized it would be snow.

“We were prepared for cold,” Alexopoulos said. “We were prepared for a little snow. The wind was really the dramatic
Visibility during the game became so poor that ESPN camermen could not cover action across the field, which limited the network’s ability to show certain replays.
Photo by: Getty Images
thing in terms of putting on a television production, which affected some of the things we did. We knew the wind was going to be a problem in the early portion of the afternoon.”

The wind presented the biggest problem for ESPN, Alexopoulos said. It forced ESPN to move its pregame and postgame set just 2 1/2 hours before kickoff.

“This was a heavy-duty thing and something we didn’t expect would be a problem,” Alexopoulos said. “But the wind started to kick up to 30 or 40 mph, and it started to become a real danger to those guys.”

ESPN decided to move the set, which had taken a full day to construct. It took about one hour for ESPN staff to move the set two sections over, to a covered area.

“We moved it at 6 p.m., and it was ready to go at 7 p.m.,” he said. “It’s amazing that it took them one hour to move an entire set, the platform, the deck and all the audio equipment.”

Perhaps the defining picture of the telecast came from the new set, where Bob Ley spoke as snow piled on his hair, and Alexi Lalas and Kasey Keller provided analysis while wearing winter hunting hats that an ESPN production coordinator had bought earlier in the day from Bass Pro Shops in Denver.

“We didn’t necessarily want to go for comedy, but for warmth,” Alexopoulos said. “We all decided that it would be fun and appropriate and not unprofessional. We knew it was going to be somewhat of a spectacle. We didn’t know that it was going to be that wonderful on television.”

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