For Super Bowl, ESPN taps tech in San Francisco (pictures)

The network may not be broadcasting the big game itself, but its high-tech mobile studio has set up shop in the City by the Bay to provide commentary. CNET takes an inside look.

James Martin
James Martin is the Managing Editor of Photography at CNET. His photos capture technology's impact on society - from the widening wealth gap in San Francisco, to the European refugee crisis and Rwanda's efforts to improve health care. From the technology pioneers of Google and Facebook, photographing Apple's Steve Jobs and Tim Cook, Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg and Google's Sundar Pichai, to the most groundbreaking launches at Apple and NASA, his is a dream job for any documentary photography and journalist with a love for technology. Exhibited widely, syndicated and reprinted thousands of times over the years, James follows the people and places behind the technology changing our world, bringing their stories and ideas to life.
James Martin
1 of 10 James Martin/CNET

The view from backstage

ESPN gave CNET a behind-the-scenes look at its weeklong coverage of Super Bowl 50, which meant a convenient cable car ride across town for us. The TV network is shooting most of its NFL-related programming at the Marina Green in our hometown of San Francisco. As its name suggests, the Green is an inviting lawn that sits on the waterfront and offers postcard views of the iconic Golden Gate Bridge and the famous San Francisco Bay. The network will also use the spot as a backdrop for episodes of its popular SportsCenter program, which averages up to 115 million viewers a month. In addition, ESPN Deportes will be airing a Spanish-language telecast of the Super Bowl, which takes place just south of SF at Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara, California this Sunday.

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Golden gate, golden anniversary

It took ESPN more than two years of planning to set up its San Francisco location on the Marina Green for the 50th anniversary of the Super Bowl.

"When we were touring the city and when we came here, we said, 'This is it,'" said Seth Markman, a senior coordinating producer who oversees the network's NFL shows. Mike Feinberg, an ESPN coordinating director who helped scout the location and worked with city officials to get approval, was on the same page as Markman.

"You can't go wrong with these vantage points," he said.

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Portal to the set

ESPN is using two mobile studios for its Super Bowl-related programming at San Francisco's Marina Green. A camera sits atop one to take 360-degree shots of the area (you can see it there in the upper left). With dozens of crew members handling everything from cameras to lighting to staging, the network can broadcast shows and segments from three different locations on site.

"In terms of Super Bowl coverage, we want to own the week," said Seth Markman, a senior coordinating producer. "Whether another network airs the game, we will dominate the discussion." CNET's parent company, CBS, might beg to differ. It's the one broadcasting the actual contest.

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Filming by the dock of the bay

A camera zooms in during Thursday's broadcast of ESPN's "NFL Live" show. Host Trey Wingo is on the left, with, from left to right, analysts Steve Young (MVP of Super Bowl XXIX, as quarterback of the victorious San Francisco 49ers) and Trent Dilfer (who won Super Bowl XXXV with the Baltimore Ravens). Wingo, who's been at ESPN for 20 years, says technology increasingly plays a role.

"It's crazy. We used to run one story that would run all day long," Wingo said. "Well, in the environment we live in now, if that story is three hours old, it's dated. There's constant mass consumption. Social media is ridiculous. We try to push out as much social-media data as possible during every show to keep our viewers' focus."

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Mobile production

Production trucks form their own avenue in a parking lot, as ESPN broadcasts Super Bowl-related coverage from San Francisco's Marina Green. ESPN has production facilities across the country and worldwide. It also relies on its own core fiber-optic backbone, known as ESPN Net, to share content quickly and efficiently, said company spokesman Paul Melvin.

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The view on the inside

ESPN's private fiber network lets production crews, like this one in a truck in San Francisco, remotely access content like video highlights and stats. Fiber routes extend from the network's headquarters in Bristol, Connecticut, to hubs in New York City and Los Angeles, which can send content to studios in Mexico City and London. The fiber network, aka ESPN Net, especially helps with remote productions.

"In the old days we had to carry a stack of tapes and ship them, now we can file and transfer content right from Bristol to us on site here," said Mike Feinberg, a coordinating director. "Years ago, we didn't have that kind of connectivity. Today, it's almost like being back in our headquarters."

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Dishing the latest

If ESPN's fiber-optic network hits a snag, there's always a satellite truck on hand as a fail-safe.

"We're not going to lose power here...we have our uplink truck," said Mike Feinberg, a coordinating director. "We have fiber, but if we lose it, that's our backup right here."

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Covering all angles

Because of technology, the ESPN crew working from mobile units in San Francisco can access hundreds of hours of video to spice up its coverage of Super Bowl 50. The sports network even has a crew from soccer-crazy Brazil covering the big game.

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The giving game

Keith Bruce, CEO of the San Francisco Bay Area Super Bowl 50 Host Committee, as he prepares Thursday to talk with the cast of ESPN's "NFL Live." With the goal of making Super Bowl 50 the most philanthropic big game ever, the host committee has raised more than $50 million in private funding and services, Bruce said, including from tech heavyweights Apple and Google. About $12 million of those funds will go toward nonprofits in the Bay Area that deal with issues such as homelessness, he said.

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Camera, action, lights

The lights come on around ESPN's Super Bowl 50 setup Thursday on the Marina Green in San Francisco. Michael Leonard, a producer for ESPN Deportes who'll be working his 10th Super Bowl, said that though this is usually one of his longest work weeks of the year for him, it's also "one of the greatest." Covering the big game, he said, "never gets old."

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