“I used to think broadcast was pretty challenging back when it was normal. Now, everything's different.”
While the Phoenix Suns were adjusting to their new normal inside the bubble, one of the many behind-the-scenes teams was adapting to its new way of life back in Phoenix.
With unique visuals, sounds and high-quality analysis of Suns basketball, Suns Productions provides fans a thrilling experience to enjoy night-in and night-out while in the comfort of their own home. In a time where large public gatherings are prohibited and live sports are being played in empty venues, the role of providing a virtual seat for a fan became more important than ever.
“First off, we were thrilled that the Suns got the invite,” Suns Broadcaster Kevin Ray said. “We were excited to be back doing what we love to do, having missed it for four-plus months. I think for us, we knew it was going to be unique circumstances, but even beyond that, because while the other local broadcasters are also doing it remotely, Dan Siekmann, our boss, and his crew have taken unprecedented steps. Like everything else, you adapt and you figure it out.”
Suns Vice President of Broadcast Productions Dan Siekmann has witnessed many changes throughout his 23 seasons with the Suns, but nothing quite like this. While there was plenty of enthusiasm for the Suns season to resume, it was immediately followed by a short runway to piece everything together.
“Once we found out we were doing the games in Orlando, we realized we didn't have access to the arena because of the transformation,” Siekmann said. “We also found out that we didn't have access to the downtown ASU studio, which we've been using for about the last seven years for pregame, halftime and postgame shows. Both were not available for us to use, which threw me into a little bit of a panic.”
To add to the stress, there were multiple factors for Siekmann and his team to discuss, plan out and find resolutions for. Executive Producer / Director Bob Adlhoch has primarily held control of what goes out on air throughout his 19 years with the team, but due to the long-distance broadcast from Orlando to Phoenix, that power became limited.
“I think the biggest thing that we face is just the lack of control that we're used to on a normal Phoenix Suns home game broadcast,” Adlhoch said. “We [normally] have 10 to 12 cameras with operators. We're in contact with all of them and we can request what they shoot and change those requests or those assignments at any time. But right now, we're taking essentially one feed from Orlando. That includes camera cuts, replays, pretty much everything except graphics. We have one single camera that I'm in contact with on my headset. And that's the only camera I have that I can ask for a particular shot.”
All of the teams invited to the bubble needed to adapt to this new way of life, but Suns Productions received an additional ripple than these other organizations when constructing their broadcast plans.
“Every team faces similar challenges in how we're taking these feeds from Orlando, but unlike the other 29 teams, our arena is undergoing this huge transformation,” Adlhoch said. “That added a lot more layers of complexity to what we're trying to do.”
While the reimagination of the arena continues to spread excitement throughout The Valley, Suns productions needed to find, or in this case create, a temporary home to house their broadcasts. With TV fiber and audio cables stretching over 1000 feet down Jackson street behind the arena in a PVC pipe, a Frankenstein-type operation was pieced together to connect a make-shift studio with the television truck.
“Parking [the truck] out back, it was a little bit of a challenge in a lot of ways,” Siekmann said. “One, we ran cables up through a stairwell and power cables and all the feeds up to the TV truck outside. Another challenge we had was because of the virus, we couldn't have our full crew in the TV truck. It's just too many people in the small area. We had to rent a mobile mini unit, which parked next to the truck, thus becoming another sub TV truck. Another challenge we had was since we didn't have access to the arena or ASU for our studio, we had to develop our own studio.”
Beyond all the staff and operators that are necessary behind-the-scenes, Siekmann and his team needed to find rooms and manufacture temporary studios for the broadcasters themselves. In a typical game situation, a set is normally only used for Tom Leander and Tom Chambers during the pregame, halftime and postgame shows. But with no media row in front of them, the in-game announcers for both television and radio were in need of their own setup.
“Our announcers are not in Orlando. They're calling the game from here,” Siekmann said. “We had to develop a studio for pregame, halftime, postgame show. We turned the historic building that's next to the arena into a studio. In this building, we set up kind of a small makeshift studio for the pregame, halftime, postgame show for Tom Leander and Tom Chambers. We built a room and turned it into an announcer booth for Kevin Ray and Eddie Johnson. We also have an area for radio. Al McCoy and Tim Kempton calling the game in another area tucked away. So, lot going on in a little small area. It's very makeshift, but it's effective. It seems to be working.”
The studio was built and the truck was ready to go, but with so many people involved in the process of producing and broadcasting Suns games, the next step was implementing COVID-19 precautions.
“Due to all of the coronavirus concerns, we have taken pretty lengthy steps to make sure that there aren't any extra people in the truck,” Adlhoch said. “In fact, where we normally have anywhere between 10 to 15 different people in our truck space, we've limited that so that people can be at least six feet apart. Everyone's wearing a mask. There are a lot of barriers to communication that we don't normally have. Normally a producer would sit to my left, but because there's not enough room for that producer to sit six or more feet away from me, they're now sitting behind me. The graphics operator is in a completely different space. Normally they'd be right behind me. I could turn around and make eye contact with them, but I can't do that now. All of our communication is over headset.”
In order to provide the safest environment possible, Technical Director Len Marinaccio went far beyond what anyone could have imagined and developed a filtration system inside the truck to keep the air moving and keep the potential germs, viruses or bacteria levels down.
“He had an idea to build a special air filtration system and put it in the truck while we were working,” Adlhoch said. “Len's one of the smartest people I've ever met. Even though he had described what he was going to do, it was really amazing to see him actually build it. There's a HEPA filter in one section, that's pulling air from the entire truck through this metal tubing. Then a cardboard conduit that he built that brings the air from the metal tubing that's in the ceiling down to the HEPA filter, which is on the floor next to me. He's done a couple of little studies of his own to show that every hour it completely refilters the air within the truck. It is important in these times because being in a truck, it's a big metal box. It's like when you fly on an airplane and, in our case, we're in it for five to six hours in a day. You have all this circulated air and if it's not being filtered, then any potential germs or virus, bacteria, whatever would just be lingering in the air. It's pretty amazing.”
The truck’s layout was planned. The studio was constructed. The COVID-19 precautions were set. Finally, it was time to play some basketball.
It wasn’t until action got on its way that Kevin Ray realized that the broadcasters were entering a new world as well. While they were still able to watch the game action through their monitor, they had to adjust to not relying on the smaller details within the game that would ordinarily surround them.
“The obvious is just the fact that you're not there,” Ray said. “Yes, we can see the game just like the viewers at home on the screen, but when we're doing a game, there are so many other things that as broadcasters, you're observing. You're able to look down on the bench, see what's being communicated during the timeouts and even what play is going on. Just so many of the little things that you in many ways take for granted until it's not there in front of you. The obvious is just the day of the game. Not being able to talk to the player to the coaches.”
Fortunately for all, the Suns traveled down to Orlando and shocked the world, grabbing eyes nationally and stealing hearts around The Valley. Fans tuned-in to Fox Sports Arizona to watch as the Suns overcame their daunting odds, finishing play 8-0.
Suns Productions ultimately battled through their obstacles and adjusted to their life new life in the studio, just as the team did so on the hardwood.
“We just have to embrace this life right now,” Eddie Johnson said. “So many people in our past and past history have gone through things like this and it's been even worse. What we have to do is just accept it and move forward. That's what everybody's done. The NBA has done a tremendous job down in Orlando. Obviously, the Suns have done a great job in setting K. Ray and I up and I our private room with our TV, big screen. We're sitting there like we are at home. All I needed is nachos.”
For a more in-depth behind-the-scenes with the Suns productions crew, tune-in this Sunday on the Suns YouTube Channel at 11 a.m. PT as we take you inside the truck and throughout the studio in this week’s episode of “Don’t Sleep on Basketball.”
Don’t Sleep on Basketball is a content series that captures the unprecedented times we’re facing through the lens of the Phoenix Suns and Mercury. Basketball sits at the intersection of culture, entertainment and sport, which puts the Suns & Mercury organization in the perfect position to serve as participant, voyeur and storyteller during this unparalleled era. The dynamic initiative is available across multiple mediums, including FOX Sports Arizona, Suns and Mercury social channels, YouTube, and editorially on Suns.com.