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After 307 Days, Gymnastics Returned To ESPN Networks: Here’s How

Friday Night Heights continues tonight (7 ET, SEC Network); a peek inside the new-look production

Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, sports have looked different. Whether it’s an empty stadium, masks on the sidelines, or announcers calling games at home, teams and television networks alike have adjusted to bring live events to sports fans.

As SEC Network’s featured franchise Friday Night Heights flipped into action last weekend, viewers were treated to the same high-level competition as every season, but with a bit of twist. In addition to limited fans, masks on athletes when not competing, and conference-only schedules, ESPN has had to adjust its production plans as well.

ESPN senior coordinating producer Maria Soares, who took on oversight of ESPN’s gymnastics coverage in 2020, has completely transitioned how ESPN will produce meets this winter and spring to make safety the top priority.

ESPN’s production of the sport has changed for 2021, most notably due to the lack of handheld cameras on the competition surface and commentators announcing from home. Soares and her team have created an entirely new camera plan for the 2021 season as well, utilizing anywhere from 3-8 cameras with a combination of hard cameras and marshalls to bring gymnastics to ESPN viewers.

Throughout the 2021 season, ESPN will collaborate with SEC schools to produce meets, while providing remote support for key roles such as producers and graphics. It’s a new workflow for ESPN, but one that provides the opportunity to share the wealth of ESPN’s gymnastics production knowledge and passion with school control rooms.

Play-by-play commentator Courtney Lyle will stand on her head to bring fans Friday Night Heights. (Courtney Lyle/ESPN)

“Every school takes such tremendous pride in its gymnastics team, and the schools are excited about having the opportunity to produce such an important sport,” Soares noted. “We’re thrilled about the opportunity to share what we have learned about gymnastics coverage over the past few years.

“For the first time, we will also be doing virtual interviews with key team members and coaches every week, rather than taping those in person before the season begins,” Soares continued. “This will give us timely interview content we have never had for our gymnastics telecasts before.”

If last Friday night was any indication, the “gymternet” is happy to have the sport back after a lengthy hiatus. LSU’s Kiya Johnson scored the first perfect 10 of the season, Johnson (No. 2) and Georgia’s Mikayla McGee (No. 4) each made SportsCenter Top 10, and gymnastics was trending on Twitter throughout the night. The sport lost the opportunity to finish the 2020 regular season and see superstars such as Johnson, Florida’s Trinity Thomas, and more compete on the sport’s greatest collegiate stage, the NCAA Gymnastics Championships, last April on ABC.

However, as play-by-play commentator Courtney Lyle stated at the start of the first meet of the 2021 season, “in this new season, in this new normal, the passion shines even brighter, the competition has never been tougher, and the team bonds couldn’t be tighter. It may look a little different, but Friday Night Heights is back.”

Amanda Brooks produced the video.

Commentator Bridget Sloan is pictured – within a picture – of her Friday Night Heights matrix.
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