The story behind the story: Live-streaming the 2017 US cyclocross national championships
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Over the past few years, the amount of cyclocross racing available to watch live, via the internet, has increased dramatically, with much of it no longer requiring a pirated feed. Thanks to Trek Bicycle, during the 2016-17 season North American fans could watch many of the top-level European races in high-definition, for free. For Trek, it was simply a matter of obtaining the streaming rights — the live coverage already existed, produced for European broadcasts.
However, for races in America, there is no pre-existing live coverage. A race that wants to offer a live-stream must produce it from scratch.
USA Cycling has aired a live-stream of the national cyclocross championships for the past few years at varying levels of production quality; the 2016 production received a fair amount of criticism. In response, the governing body decided to up its game for 2017, investing into a high-end, broadcast quality HD mobile production truck to increase the quality of coverage from the event in Hartford, Connecticut.
CyclingTips had a front row seat for the production — its ups, downs, and everything in between. As it turns out, it takes a little more than pointing a camera and a web connection to create a live-stream on par with European standards.
You get what you pay for
Brad Sohner, who has commentated on the cyclocross nationals web stream for the past three years, as well as many other cycling events, took on a producer role this year to help USA Cycling improve the production quality.
“In 2016, we learned the limitations of a smaller setup, and everyone agreed that it was going to take a bigger truck and a bigger budget to do it justice,” said Sohner. “I give USA Cycling credit, they wanted to step it up and give people a good show, and they paid for it.”
USA Cycling’s VP for National Events Micah Rice said that this year’s production budget was an increase of more than 50 percent over the previous years, in part, to handle the extreme weather that the event would likely see, but also to produce a product more on par with what cyclocross fans have come to expect.
However, as a nonprofit governing body, the amount USAC could afford to spend was still paltry compared to major cyclocross events in Europe, and even more so in comparison to typical mainstream sports in the U.S.
“We knew weather could be a factor, so we put a bit more money into the infrastructure this year,” he said. “And it is a good thing we did — I don’t know if we would have gotten any images out if we had tried to do this on a small budget.”
— Bill Schieken | CXHAIRS Media (@CXHairs) January 7, 2017
“We started looking for a production company in the fall, and got all the RFP bids, seven in total, at the end of October.” Sohner said, adding that the bids ranged between $16,000 to $60,000.
USAC went with an experienced live TV director, Chris Lincoln, who has directed for broadcast networks such as NBC, CBS, and ABC, including nine Olympic Games, with specific cycling experience directing world feed coverage for cycling events like the Amgen Tour of California and USA Pro Challenge.
A few contacts in New England enabled Lincoln to keep costs down. As opposed to previous years, a full 53-foot high-definition production truck, similar to what is used on major sports productions, was brought in, with the plan for 12 cameras to cover the immense course at Riverside Park in Hartford.
Make the plan, adjust the plan, toss the plan
The production truck arrived on Friday evening after battling Boston traffic, with its driver threading the big rig through the pro team tent area. The crew assembled the next morning, and began to run 12,000 feet of cable for cameras, audio, monitors and jumbotrons — including fiber-optic cables capable of long runs to the far reaches of the expansive venue.
“Cyclocross is one of the more difficult to cover, along the lines of other moving-field-of-play events like sailing, requiring a lot of coverage,” said Lincoln. “Stadium sports, like basketball and football, are in a confined, linear area to cover. Only golf has a similar amount of cable required. The weather adds to the unique field of play — the only thing I can compare it to is Olympic cross-country skiing. And this was a huge venue even for cyclocross, with a 3km course.”
Adding to the difficulty was the daily weather changes, resulting in numerous course changes, including removal of the course’s infamous slip-n-slide section, and more modifications coming later in the week, even on the morning of the elite races.
“We had a map of the venue, and where the truck had to go, but with a cyclocross course it’s impossible to pick camera locations until they build the course,” Sohner said. “And then, with this course, we couldn’t even do it because it kept changing every day during the week, so we couldn’t pick final locations until Saturday.”
— Brad Sohner (@bradsohner) January 7, 2017
With the forecast calling for snow Saturday afternoon, the crew was racing against the weather to get cameras built and hooked-up. These were not small, consumer video cameras, but rather the large, heavy cameras you see at major sporting events, with 96x zoom lenses that cost around $75,000 each.
As the snow began to fall, plans were made for running cables over roads and where spectators would walk, so as not to damage them. While they are designed for outdoor use they are still susceptible to heavy foot traffic. The snow kept falling, so much so that multiple serious traffic accidents were reported around the entire area. Adjustments had to be made to keep the cables visible and protected from damage.
The morning of the event, the crew arrived 90 minutes before the first race to find key parts of the infrastructure, laid the previous night, had been damaged, with snow plows severing multiplex fiber-optic cables needed to run the lengthy distances of the camera positions.
Sunday’s extreme cold temperatures also played a factor, with two of the three scissor lifts for camera positions malfunctioning.The crew worked around the problems admirably, going down the punchlist in order of importance. Fortunately, another mobile production crew was in the area to cover a college basketball game, and lent out a multiplex fiber optic cable reel.
Not long after the first race of the day started the team had three cameras up and running, with more close to coming online.
The announcing team was beginning to hit its stride when disaster struck — the rental generator stopped working, and all power to the truck was gone. After sourcing the problem, the generator was re-fired and the crisis appeared to be averted. But the cold temperatures had gelled the generator engine and 20 minutes later it quit again. This time, it wouldn’t start back up.
After diagnosing the problem, the generator was eventually restarted. In order to avoid a power surge to the truck, the crew waited 30 minutes to make sure it would continue to run, while the U23 women’s race was underway. One of the commentators, Bill Schieken from the website In The Crosshairs, quickly jumped into action, running around the course with his camera rig to get highlights and interviews with the hope of using them once the truck came back online.
— Cyclocross Magazine (@cyclocross) January 8, 2017
“I would rank it in the top three, but the toughest one in terms of the timing of things going bad,” said Lincoln, who has seen his fair share of things go sideways on a live TV production. “Oddly enough, at the World Cup in Iowa we had a sanitation truck rip through two of our multiplex fiber optic cables — that is unrepairable in the field. Luckily, the mobile truck had more of it on board.”
Finally, the truck was reconnected to the generator and powered up. By then, the crew had more cameras ready to go, and eventually eight of the 12 planned cameras were up and running. While not the full complement, the weather also affected course conditions enough on the day that the far north end of the course was removed, and eight cameras could cover most of the revised track.
In the end, the web stream went live 10 minutes before the start of the elite women’s race, and there were no major problems the rest of the day, save for a cable disconnection for the penultimate lap of the men’s race that took out three cameras. However, the crew had hit its stride by that point, and the outages seemed to go unnoticed.
A look at the action inside the truck during the broadcast.
Along with the upgrade in equipment, another aspect of the production that some may have noticed a bump in quality was the on-screen graphics, which also took an investment in both budget and pre-production time.
“That was another step up, spending the time and money to have a quality graphics package,” Sohner said. ” I hope people noticed. People expect that these days, along with cameras that can zoom that far in.”
By most accounts, the production of the event was a success — and definitely an improvement on any previous effort, even with the issues that resulted in missing most of the junior and U23 men races and all of the U23 women’s race. Negative comments on social media during the morning transitioned into positive and appreciative comments during the afternoon’s elite races.
“I don’t think people realize what we were going through with the snow plows and weather and all the other issues,” said Sohner. “Maybe I should have been more up front about the troubles we were having, but we didn’t really miss anything in the elite races. It was a huge bummer to miss the earlier races. We really tried to get those races on and nobody was more bummed than us to not cover those races.
“I will say people seemed genuinely appreciative that we even got anything up. Once we got going with the elite races, people seemed grateful. But the backlash was relatively tame compared to other events, so a shout-out to the Twitterati for their understanding.”
In a larger context, the production in Hartford was an interesting case study for race promoters outside of Europe. The internet has made distributing live race footage much easier; but producing quality live TV is still difficult and expensive, wherever it is eventually seen. For sports that are outside the mainstream, covering costs is a challenge. The riddle of how to produce a quality product on a small budget remains.
The 2017 U.S. cyclocross nationals live-stream, by the numbers
12 high definition triax/fiber cameras
1,000 ft. (300m) triax/fiber optic cables (average) for each camera
500 ft. (150m) audio cabling to commentary booth
1,000 ft. (300m) audio cable to field positions
1,000 ft. (300m) Coax to field monitors and jumbotron
12,500 ft. (2.3 miles/3.8km) of cables
125 kilowatt generator for production truck
3 3.5kw generators for remote cameras
3 20-foot (6m) scissor lifts
24 crew members