Whenever ESPN produces an event, the rule of thumb is members of remote operations are the first ones on the scene and the last ones to leave.
That motto took on added significance inside the NBA bubble at ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. Three team members have already spent more than three months, one quarter of the year, inside the bubble. Tom Clark, operations specialist, arrived July 5. Judi Weiss, senior operations producer, and Lindsey Hertel, operations coordinator, arrived July 6.
“The sacrifice and dedication of Judi, Lindsey, and Tom, and the entire operations group on site, is incredible and appreciated,” said Senior VP, ESPN & ABC Sports remote production operations, Chris Calcinari. “Their unwavering commitment, care for everyone involved, and positive attitude inspired the team. From Day One, they always prioritized health and safety for the entire crew.”
As soon as it was determined the NBA season would be completed in the bubble, the remote operations team jumped into action.
“We conducted a site survey on June 11, and trailers arrived on June 22,” said Weiss. “The entire setup happened very quickly, so we had to be nimble and flexible, with health and safety top of mind.”
The compound was completed on July 20. The first scrimmage games took place on July 21, and some days the team worked up to six games across three courts.
Clark, who previously worked on multiple Olympic Games, added: “The setup reminded me of the Olympics, with multiple venues and a complicated broadcast compound. The difference being we planned for those setups years in advance, and here we had a little more than one month! This remarkable compound would not have been built so quickly without tremendous teamwork between ESPN, NBA, and Turner.”
Clark focused on the 205,480-square-foot broadcast compound’s technical setup, the 99,541-square-foot field shop, and the 16,000-square-foot robotic cameras operating space compound.
He collaborated extensively with Eddie Okuno, senior remote operations specialist, who helped design the space. Weiss, who has also worked on multiple Olympic Games, was the on-site project manager. She worked very closely with Patty Mattero, senior operations manager, who remained in Bristol.
They collaborated on the initial plan for the broadcast compound. Hertel worked on logistics – credentialing, hotels, catering, schedules, and answering health and safety questions.
More than 180 people from remote operations on-site throughout and everyone had to follow the strict COVID-19 testing and social distancing rules.
“It truly was a team effort to keep us all safe,” said Weiss. “Everyone took it seriously. The NBA and our health and safety teams worked hand in hand to make sure we were protected.”
A vital additional role the three played was to keep up morale for their colleagues.
At the start of the bubble, there were questions and some uncertainty because nothing like it had ever been done.
“While we addressed the technical side and logistics of building the compound, we also focused on the people since our teammates were top priority,” said Weiss. “We gave them a sense of security, and they knew they were being supported.”
Hertel added: “One of our most important roles was to watch for anyone who needed a boost. I worked with everyone who needed care and checked in on a regular basis. The remote operations team provided any support that was needed. Our colleagues felt it and appreciated it.”
The three kept people engaged during downtime since even when there were no games, no one could leave the bubble.
ESPN/ABC televised 60 games in a span of 83 days. In addition, the remote operations team worked more than 40 games televised by the local broadcasters.
Bingo nights and golf tournaments were regular occurrences. Clark has been a musician for years, and Weiss and Hertel encouraged him to perform.
Just like that, the “Bubble Band” was born. Clark was the leader, and other musically inclined ESPNers joined the group – always wearing their masks and social distancing.
Hertel loves to cook, so she “made crockpot delights a few times each week, lots of grilled cheese and Yom Kippur and Break the Fast platters.”
She also organized football watch parties.
“We wanted to make sure there was a sense of team beyond work,” Hertel said.
Weiss concluded: “We wanted to create the best experience possible for our team during unprecedented conditions. Safety and security were always a key component of any activity or gathering. It worked.
“Our colleagues said we made their stay easier. It’s a testament to how our team comes to work every day. They all felt safe, secure, and supported, which led to outstanding work.”
The compound was built in less than one month. The Los Angeles Lakers won the championship Sunday night. The remote operations team will need about five days to break it down.
Weiss heads home today and Hertel on Thursday. Clark arrived first and will be the last to leave on Friday. After some well-deserved vacation and relaxation, all three will move on to their next assignments.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Watch an ESPN video recap of the NBA bubble: