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Into the net: With limited access to Wimbledon grounds in the ’90s, ESPN producers and Robin Roberts improvised

The Championships, Wimbledon began this week, ESPN’s 15th – and sixth with U.S. exclusivity – at the All England Lawn Tennis Club, with its immaculate grass courts, ivy-covered walls and all-white policy for players’ attire.

With a full roster of producers, editors, PAs, and technicians, ESPN will produce 140 hours of television – first ball to last ball – plus 1,500 hours of coverage on ESPN3 and streaming live on the ESPN app from up to 15 courts at one time.

But before ESPN was a rightsholder, covering the fortnight in London for SportsCenter required some extra creativity and hustle from a far smaller crew.

Bristol would tape the matches from the U.S. coverage (NBC and HBO) for highlights, but a band of three was on site to provide one sidebar story per day.

Bending the rules

Lazarus can now reveal how he – arguably – violated The Club’s rule about a non-rightsholder taping on site: “I had Robin stand inside the gates, and I bribed a guard to leave the gate open about a foot. All it took was an ESPN pin! My cameraman was on the other side of the fence – strategically outside the grounds. The piece ran with Robin inside the fence, and somebody somewhere saw it and didn’t like it. I got yelled at from Bristol. I tried to explain: ‘But the camera wasn’t on the grounds.’ It didn’t work.”

Craig Lazarus (an associate producer in 1992 and now Vice President, SportsCenter and News, Storytelling Units) and David Brofsky (the New York bureau producer in 1993-94, now a senior coordinating producer in studio production), were among the first given this assignment, working with then-SportsCenter anchor and now ABC’s Good Morning America co-host Robin Roberts and a local cameraman.

“I was supposed to go in 1992, but I broke my elbow training for the Pan Mass Challenge bike ride a week before the tournament,” Brofsky recalls. (He still rides in the charity event.)

Soon, Lazarus got a call from Bristol while on assignment in San Francisco.

“I was asked, ‘Do you have a passport?'”

He remembers wondering what could be behind that question.

My main memory is Nick driving fast, fighting London traffic for 45 minutes to get to ABC in time while I screened the tapes in the backseat with headphones, planning how we would edit the piece.
– Craig Lazarus on working with a cameraman in London to rush Wimbledon reports to ABC’s bureau

Fortunately, Lazarus did, and he was on his way to England, despite the limitations on what he could do.

Non-rightsholder TV networks were allowed on the grounds to watch matches and conduct verbal interviews, but were not allowed to shoot video. That rule extended even to news conferences.

Roberts had to tape her “stand-ups” across the street, shot in a way that with the famed Centre Court behind her, no one would know she was actually on a golf course.

“I made friends with some guy in the tape room to get video from the press conferences,” Lazarus said.

But without any facilities, how did they screen tapes before editing and feeding pieces at the ABC News bureau in downtown London to Bristol?

“The cameraman, Nick, had a station wagon – a ‘mobile unit’ of sorts – big enough for the three of us and our gear,” Lazarus says. “My main memory is Nick driving fast, fighting London traffic for 45 minutes to get to ABC in time while I screened the tapes in the backseat with headphones, planning how we would edit the piece.”

Brofsky’s most lasting memory is the quiet but majestic elegance of the grounds.

“The first day in ’93, I went early to get a lay of the land, and there’s almost no one there at 8 a.m.,” he recalls. “I walked into Centre Court; it was me and one bird. I got chills. I loved tennis growing up, played some, and couldn’t believe I was where [current ESPN analyst] John McEnroe, [Bjorn] Borg and [Jimmy] Connors had played.” (For the record, Brofsky says the only other sports venue to elicit such chills was the first time he walks the course at Augusta National, and he came upon Amen Corner.)

In 2012, GMA’s Robin Roberts (with mic) interviews ESPN analyst Chrissie Evert and John McEnroe as they hold Wimbledon trophies. (Photo courtesy of Dave Nagle’s Twitter feed)

Both agreed they loved walking around the outer courts where fans are so close to the action. And that there were certain purchases they were required to make.

“I had strawberries and cream because you have to,” Lazarus says.

Brofsky brought gifts home.

“I bought lots of souvenirs for my kids and wife, Ruth-Ann.”

They also brought home memories that remain fresh, and bring a smile, more than 20 years later.

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