From your perspective, what makes for a great host city experience for a broadcaster or media company?
Acceptance is the key word. When a city really embraces the event and when they acknowledge that the fact we are going to be there should help to promote them to a wider audience, they are then able to work to provide us with things that help us to do the job.
How has the relationship between host city and broadcast partner evolved in recent years?
It’s changed a lot. I think back to when I went to Beijing for the 2008 summer Olympic Games and in some ways that was a turning point. I was really surprised by the fact that when we covered that event, even though we were not a rights-holder and we were simply covering updates and news, the city acknowledged the importance of us being there.
They knew there would be a large number of journalists that were not linked to official broadcasters. Therefore, they designed a system of accreditation for every single media representative – typically a privilege only given to broadcast rights-holders. But Beijing started that process. They probably did that for reasons associated with controlling the situation, but that approach helped us to move around all of the venues, letting people know that we were not just there as regular spectators.
That example has evolved, and I think the fan ID that we saw at the World Cup in Russia in 2018 should be something every event adopts moving forward. I think the Russians also did it for control purposes, but the fact they adopted the system and distinguished fans from journalists made people behave in a different way. It certainly helped to have that distinction.
What sort of personnel and technological support would you put on the ground in a host city for a major event, such as a World Cup or Olympic Games?
It really depends on the rights we have for the event. I’m responsible for ESPN International and, for example, when we went to London for the 2012 Olympics, we had rights for Latin America. We have combinations of rights-holder and non-rights-holder operations. On average we would probably have between 100 and 150 people on the ground, including camera and audio technicians, production staff, operations, transport, security, logistics and on-screen talent. So it’s a massive group of people interacting with the host city for the duration of the event. In terms of the timeframe, we inspected the facilities in Russia properly for the first time ahead of the World Cup after the draw for the Fifa Confederations Cup, about 20 months out from the tournament in November 2016.
We signed a contract for a huge terrace space, which we then used for the Confederations Cup in 2017 and the World Cup in 2018. At that point our operations and security teams set up appointments with government officials as well, and they usually deal directly with the host city.
With major events, we usually have everyone on the ground between 10 days and two weeks in advance of the start of the event.
What are the significant production and logistical challenges for a broadcaster when it comes to covering a major event?
One of the most important ones is transportation. Most cities have a traffic issue. On top of that there is an additional challenge when more people are visiting for the duration of an event.
Then there are sometimes issues with local regulations and permits. For example, we were set up in Rio ahead of the World Cup in 2014, but at the very last minute, there were issues about the outside terrace and the fire department. The cabling was running through some air conditioning vents, but within three days we had to find an external solution – a massive job linking the ground floor with a space 20 storeys high.
Then in Moscow for this year’s World Cup there was an issue with a potential storm at the top of building. We complied with the regulations that were put in place, but a competitor two blocks away from us didn’t, so they were shut down at their site.
For the World Cup, we had four ‘wraparound’ studios. The lights in the structure at the top of our building had to be switched off every time President Putin’s helicopter landed in Red Square. Apparently, it was because the security snipers on top of other buildings didn’t want the lights in their eyes, so we had to find a solution whereby we were able to keep working on one side of the terrace while the other side was in darkness. The longest the lights were off was for two hours.
What are the essential logistical requirements that host cities can provide for broadcast partners?
Above all, the ability to shoot in the city with some help from the host city. Most of the time we have to pay for permits and then it’s up to our own staff to build in a secure area around us, but it can be a struggle when there is a huge mass of people. It’s great when a city cooperates with you and, for example, offers you free access of the transport network, so you can travel on buses and trains for free. That is happening more and more for us at each event.
Can you think of examples where a host city provided valuable support in catering to broadcasters and supporting their work?
London 2012 with transportation, Beijing 2008 with how they recognised journalists and the Russia World Cup this year all stand out. They recognised that for the most part during the 17 days of the Olympics or the 30 days of the World Cup you are actually promoting what the city is about. People are interested in engaging with new cultures.
In Russia, in particular, they were really concerned about journalists showing a very good image of the country. To give you an example, we had an issue where one of our people tried to enter a stadium with the incorrect credentials, and they were taken in by the police.
Nothing really happened, but they were asked to write a statement and sign it, but language was an issue as the interpreter wasn’t there. In the end, though, the only real issue came from the perspective of the locals, and their main concern was that the individual was treated well by the police.
Looking to the future, how will a broadcaster’s role evolve at major sporting events in the coming years?
Cities are becoming increasingly aware that they need to provide digital media networks and other services, such as Wi-Fi spots, to enable media companies to connect with people more efficiently with platforms such as social media. Ten or 15 years ago we were just stadium broadcasters, but now we are all portable networks working in a city.
There are hundreds of broadcasters who are people walking around with a mobile phone, and they are social influencers. ESPN is the home of many of these new kinds of networks, which can really help to distribute information to fans immediately.
The importance of local expertise is also being recognised. You need a few stringers here and there who know the city and can act as interpreters. Local knowledge can be vital.