ORLANDO, Fla. — There is a place where coronavirus does not exist, where former president Barack Obama sits courtside and where two people can fist bump without a care. It’s not quite the happiest place on earth, but it’s right down the road.
It’s the NBA bubble at ESPN Wide World of Sports.
Making all that magic wasn’t easy. Behind the scenes, more than 200 people helped ESPN broadcast an unprecedented NBA season during a global pandemic. Together they constructed a massive 205,480 square foot broadcast compound from the ground up and produced 79 games after Friday night’s Game 5 of the NBA Finals.
“I’ve been here 92 days today,” ESPN remote operations specialist Tom Clark told the Orlando Sentinel on Sunday.
He’s not the only one. Many staffers arrived in late June or early July, leaving their lives and families behind in order to safely do their jobs isolated from the outside world.
Clark works out of one of about 30 office trailers on the compound that four months ago was an empty parking lot. A sign on the door distinguishes his trailer as “The People’s Porch.” A vase of half-dried flowers sits on his desk below giant diagrams of the property hanging on the wall. Personal pictures to the left and a guitar on a table across the cluttered room offer a glimpse of life before the bubble.
“While a lot of people have sacrificed and it’s been a lot of work, it’s been a joy to do,” ESPN vice president of production Michael Shiffman said. “The first thing that comes to mind is collaboration. It’s been unbelievable the whole way. We were down here in earlyish June with the league and it was sort of all just a blank slate.”
Not anymore. Other than the trailers, there’s six production trucks covered by giant tents to protect them from the Florida sun (there were even more prior to the finals when Turner Sports shared the space); a bunch of generators; cable running all over the ground; Coca-Cola vending machines that dispense free drinks because that’s safer than having everyone reach into a cooler; and portable toilets every couple of feet.
In addition to the broadcast area, there is a more than 99,000 square foot Field Shop, which houses catering tents and a sanitization area all equipment rolls through before entering the bubble.
“Planning for something like this usually takes months and years, ya know, when you do an All-Star or Olympics,” said Judi Weiss, ESPN’s senior remote operations producer who has been in the bubble since July 6, save for a couple days when her father got sick. “Even with the Finals, we have a template and we’re accustomed to working in those buildings. This was a blank canvas for us. We weren’t 100 percent sure how it was all going to fit, and we got it all mapped out in a month.”
Without fans coming to take up parking spaces, the easiest thing to do was take over the parking lot. Then, it was filling in the blanks, she said, working with the facility’s preferred vendors and going through the permitting process. Within a couple weeks, the site was up and running for scrimmages and the league restarted July 30.
“Again, this isn’t a facility we work with in the scope of NBA in normal years,” Weiss said. “We work with the Staples Center and TD Garden and Madison Square Garden, ya know, American Airlines Arena — that’s where we usually go. Several of us have done Olympics, which really helped.”
Despite the novelty of it all, Shiffman said there were no disasters, though some things did require trial and error. For example, perfecting the virtual logos and graphics on the courts took some time because lighting was different in each of the three buildings hosting games. ESPN also directed and produced feeds for regional networks during the restart, which required enhance communication with each market’s team staff.
The unique circumstances also expedited the implementation of innovative ideas ESPN and the NBA had discussed long before the pandemic.
“We’ve been partners for over 18 years on the project, but over the last probably three summer leagues, we’ve tested things like rail cam and court-side robotic cameras and stuff like that, and now all of a sudden we had a facility where we could actually accommodate all the things we were looking at, plus some new things,” senior coordinating producer Tim Corrigan said. “So when we were testing a rail cam, we probably had a 15-foot courtside rail cam going. Now, we have a 94-foot rail cam going up and down the sidelines.
“What our productions look like are significantly different, significantly better in my mind. We’ve been doing basketball the same way for a long time because it was the best way to do it, and I think our learnings here will change how we do it moving forward. Hopefully we can take some of these technologies with us.”
The three arenas all housed the innovative cameras and other technology, such as 17-foot video boards surrounding three sides of the court to feature fans, celebrities and Obama cheering live from home. Plenty of plexiglass completed the aesthetic for health and safety reasons, everyone’s No. 1 priority.
No one inside the bubble has tested positive for COVID-19, a herculean feat given how rapidly the novel virus spread across the world.
“There’s been no anxiety about health and safety, which has allowed people to really focus on the content and the production of games,” Shiffman said.
That security came with strict rules, however. In addition to social distancing and requiring masks indoors and out, the league implemented regular testing throughout the season and daily testing during the finals. Inside the arenas, everyone receives a small white electronic device to wear around their necks. They beep anytime two people are closer than six feet and keep a record for contact tracing should anyone get sick.
Much of ESPN’s staff also remained quarantined to their hotel, the Waldorf Astoria, and the production compound — for 100 days. To survive that long away from their lives and families, everyone got a little creative. Some played golf on off days. Others swam laps or cooked for coworkers.
And then there was The Bubble Band.
“Tom Clark is the band leader and really very strict,” said Weiss, a backup vocalist. “He came up with a set list of about 10 songs. … I did do Hotel California live and in person.
“We’re The Bubble band. We wear masks. We’re all arms-length distance apart and have our own microphones.”
The first show took place in front of about 100 colleagues. They gathered outside by the hotel pool and listened to the group of four vocalists, multiple guitarists, a bassist and a drummer.
“I’m a huge proponent of the Bubble Band,” Corrigan said. “You don’t really know people ’til you’re in a situation like this, and we didn’t know we had all these gifted musicians. It’s not like it was a bunch of hacks getting together. They were really good!
“That night when we were down there, … it was the ultimate escape from what was happening.”
What happened on-air was a historic NBA season. Behind the scenes were real people pushing through real life obstacles and emotions to do a job.
“Life happens outside the bubble. It does,” Weiss said. “But we were all in this together and we all had a goal: Get this on the air safely and bring the NBA back. And we did it.”
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