Inside The Creative Leap—And Expensive Risk—Of ESPN’s SportsCenter Makeover

With a fancy new studio and social-media playbook, the sports giant is going all out to make SportsCenter a more multi-platform player.

"There's nothing else out there like this."

On a recent Wednesday morning, Rob King, senior vice president of SportsCenter and news (and one of Fast Company's Most Creative People in Business) is surveying the progress at ESPN's ambitious new facility, Digital Center 2, or DC-2, at its Bristol, Connecticut, headquarters. SportsCenter anchors Hannah Storm and Kevin Negandhi and a production team are busy rehearsing, using a script and lineup from an earlier show that day. Like a flight crew testing out a state-of-the-art aircraft, they’re eager to see what this studio can do that the current one can’t.

Which, it turns out, is a lot. And they're running out of time to learn it all.

In early June, just as ESPN's coverage of the 2014 FIFA World Cup begins, SportsCenter will start broadcasting from its fancy new digs. Fast Company got an advance look. Although DC-2 is still a work in progress (the NFL studios won't be ready until the fall), the facility offers not only a window into the latest broadcast technology, but also into how ESPN is remaking its flagship news show--which is no small undertaking.

Screens, screens, and more screens

The space itself is a Disney amusement park ride of a studio, a gleaming and cavernous space with virtual 3-D special effects, a sweeping overhead camera, a 360-degree theater-in the-round layout, and 145 display screens--nearly 10 times more than the current studio has. Some are enormous--more than twice as tall as LeBron James--and they glide silently across the floor, creating fresh shots and angles as they go. One is embedded in the floor, a logical target for the overhead camera. Others have touch screens.

And then there's the North Wall. Just as HBO's Game of Thrones has a colossal edifice separating what passes for civilization and the wildness to the north, ESPN now has its own great wall. It, too, is massive (by TV standards), made up of 56 LED screens. They protrude at different depths, like jagged stones. This wall of monitors separates two worlds, the old SportsCenter and the new, which remains a bit untamed with all the new technology. "It's been 10 years since we gave [production teams] a blank canvas," says SportsCenter Senior Coordinating Director Jeff Schaetzel.

The facility is the sort of big gamble--King prefers "big swing"--that only a network with deep pockets could attempt. Officials won’t confirm the cost, but outside estimates put it at around $125 million. DC-2 took nearly three years to construct. Wiring 6 million feet of fiber optic cable takes time.

Anchors Hannah Storm and Kevin Negandhi in a recent rehearsal.

Beyond seeing big, thinking big

King and his fellow ESPN execs hope that the studio unleashes a wave of creativity, changing how sports news looks on TV, for starters. "Imagine something coming out of this screen--Tom Brady's stats--and landing in front of us with stats on the floor [monitor]," Schaetzel says, describing the show's virtual 3-D graphics and demonstrating with a wave of his hand.

Instead of a single chart or photo, the conventional approach now, SportsCenter will be able to feature multiple elements on the super-size screens. A huge single action shot of Peyton Manning--think of a magazine spread--can start on one billboard-size screen and sweep dramatically through the studio onto the North Wall, where the layered monitors break it up in artful ways. "We're helping people imagine what they haven't imagined before," says King. "We're encouraging them to think of this in a big way."

In the summer of 2012, ESPN's creative services department, its in-house design group, teamed up with the branding and creative agency Troika and identified the core concept for Digital Center 2: the studio as a grand, visually arresting, and ever-changing sports gallery. To create the space, ESPN's environmental design team brought in Jack Morton Worldwide, the all stars of set design (Senior VP Jim Fenhagen has done everything from The Colbert Report to Good Morning America to China's top news program.) "What you see on the walls are canvases featuring teams, players, games, match-ups, the things we tell stories about," Schaetzel says.

The "big verts" are the studio's two 15-foot-tall screens, which make already larger-than-life athletes like Kevin Durant assume Goliath-like stature. This is critical during midday broadcasts, says King when most people experience SportsCenter "walking by a screen with the sound off, in an airport, in a restaurant. The challenge is getting someone 30 feet away to stop and see this is a big deal."

More eye contact

The prodigious displays also allow SportsCenter anchors to stand alongside graphics or video highlights, instead of narrating them off-camera. With the current show, says Craig Bengtson, the new vice president and director of news, "sometimes you're not sure who's anchoring the show. Now you'll have the talent in front of the wall, talking to directly to the audience. It's a better way to communicate. It's easier for viewers to develop a relationship with them rather than just hearing their voice."

To visualize how SportsCenter looks in the new studio, King, a former cartoonist, turns to his sketchbook.

After starting rehearsal behind the anchor desk, Storm and Negandhi demonstrate the show's new choreography, which is almost as nonstop as the San Antonio Spurs' motion offense. One minute, Storm is standing alongside a monitor showing movie-theater-size highlights of the Heat-Nets game. The next minute, Negandhi is sitting in front a stunning panoramic image of the Portland skyline on the North Wall, dissecting the Trailblazers' loss to the Spurs. Then Storm, atop a Plexiglass catwalk, is gesturing to a six-screen wall about the latest young pitcher to suffer an arm injury. She finishes the story by a different screen that displays a chart of pitchers who've had arm surgery this season.

A more digital SportsCenter--finally

Part of the makeover includes beefing up the show's online presence. Just as the New York Times has struggled to coordinate its print and digital operations, as a must-read internal memo recently revealed, ESPN recognizes that SportsCenter remains primarily a TV brand, not a multi-platform brand. Last year, King led the redesign and rebranding of ESPN's popular sports app, turning ScoreCenter into SportsCenter, featuring more clips from the show. In DC-2, sports-media staffers have a newsroom in the studio and a seat in the control room. The app will make regular TV cameos, as SportsCenter anchors retrieve stats and tweets from the upcoming tablet version of the app and display them via touch screens. "If we do our jobs right," says King, "we'll be able to actually teach people how to use our digital products by virtue of what we do on air."

Another factor driving ESPN's investment is that SportsCenter outgrew its studio. Built in 2004, Digital Center 1 is half the size of DC-2, and it feels both claustrophobic with a lower ceiling, and spare with its smaller, fewer screens. Ten years ago, SportsCenter aired three times a day. Now, it's on nearly all the time: 16 hours a day, live. Because the Bristol studio is usually hot--in use--there’s little time to rehearse or pre-produce segments. In DC-2, another notable wall, a floor-to-ceiling sound-proof sheath of glass, creates adjacent studios, a rarity in television. When the larger Studio X is broadcasting live, the smaller Studio Xa can block out a story--rehearsing, for once. "That's an enormous change," says Bengtson. "It lets us try new things and provide higher-quality content."

Although ESPN remains the dominant player in sports media, viewers have more and more places to get their sports fix: from Fox Sports 1, the new cable channel, to the league's own channels. As SportsCenter showed last year, it's not immune to ratings dips. With a limited studio, broadcasts throughout the day can blur together. DC-2's multiple sets give the nine shows a chance to differentiate themselves through various locations. "We're trying to reinforce that SportsCenter is a live show," says King. "So many elements are repurposed throughout the day that you could almost assume I've seen this one before, but it’s a new show."

The creative challenge

More screens, action, and special effects could, like a cluttered website, potentially overwhelm viewers. The challenge for SportsCenter is identifying which technology enhances viewer experience and not letting the dizzying array of tools get in the way of powerful storytelling. Ultimately, viewers don't care if SportsCenter has the most advanced studio. They care about their teams and the athletes.

ESPN execs are aware of the danger in tinkering with a successful product. Just because the North Wall has 56 screens doesn’t mean that SportsCenter will display 56 different elements, says Schaetzel. Ten is more likely, given the popularity of the show's top-10 highlights. Other times, he says, "maybe we just focus on one place to look. Sometimes it's OK to be quiet. It's all about the proper impact of presentation. We're trying to figure that out now."

Because SportsCenter airs daily and covers breaking news, it has to be a well-oiled machine. Mastering DC-2's new equipment and all the moving parts is one of the biggest challenges ESPN has faced in years. SportsCenter has 600 staffers in Bristol. They're figuring out and adjusting to changes in their day-to-day work. For months, teams have been learning new technology, doing visualization exercises, brainstorming, and more recently conducting run-throughs. Like teams preparing for a big game, the staff of each show has a DC-2 playbook.

"There are some guidelines right out of the gate, the ten to twelve things we want to get right in week one," says Bengtson. "I hope in three months we can throw that out because we will have thought of new things. This set gives us opportunities to be creative in ways we’ve never been."

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