June 20, 2013

ESPN: UP CLOSE AND PERSONAL

By: Helen Sowell

Incentive bonuses are nothing new, always coveted yet predictable and fairly standard. What’s not so ordinary is meriting an exclusive trip to Bristol, Connecticut where the “Mecca” of sports broadcasting is headquartered - ESPN The Worldwide Leader in Sports. For two Charlotte area businessmen that is exactly what they earned.

Jay Westmoreland, Senior Vice President Morgan Stanley Smith Barney and Jeff Brock of Morehead Capital are members of the Leatherheads, a group of active community leaders who recognize the significant impact college football has on Charlotte and ensuring the continued success of the game. Having met ticket sales goals for the ACC Championship and Belk Bowl held in December at Bank of America Stadium, they were rewarded with a rare, up-close and personal tour of the network’s “Mission Control.” Jay’s son Jayson, 13, and Will Webb, Executive Director Charlotte Sports Foundation were also included.

Upon arrival, the group signed-in at the Global Security Building, received credentials then were  greeted by their host Kurt Dargis, Senior VP for College Football Programming. Tours are limited and guests must be sponsored by an executive. Their private tour guide was Don Coombs, Supervisor Production Operations Group who has worked for the network for over 27 years and is well-versed in the history and evolution of the vanguard.

Beginning at Building 1, the campus (as it’s tagged) consists of 14 buildings sheltering approximately 4,800 employees of the over 7,000 worldwide. This staff performs an array of specialties in a highly technical atmosphere. Countless computer terminals and video monitors are everywhere. Glassed-in work stations house sophisticated electronics. There is a purpose for every room and an assignment for every individual. Winding around a maze of corridors, the tourists encountered on-air personality Jerry Rice who pleasantly acknowledged with a nod and a smile.

They continued through the “Hall of Banners”, an area designated for ESPN pennants that hang from the walls. Network celebrities like Chris Berman and Adam Schefter autograph the banners which are later auctioned for special-interest charities of importance to staff members. Coombs patiently answers their questions about the functions of particular machinery and mechanical details of the massive amounts of equipment in view at every turn.  For example, the “Radar” room is responsible for cyber security. There are sectors for archives, the world’s largest video tape library, research terminals as well as radio and TV broadcast studios. A photo-op was afforded father and son as they sat behind the microphone in Colin Cowherd’s studio. A group-shot was taken in the Baseball Tonight studio, as well. Unfortunately, the Sports Center studio was off limits because Linda Cohn was live, on the air. 

“The scope of the technology and the complexity is truly amazing,” Webb explains. “Yet to the average viewer at home, it all comes off seamlessly. You have no idea what goes on behind the scenes until you see it with your own eyes.” Coombs clarifies that “ESPN is all about ‘saturation’ and ‘innovation’. In order to be at the forefront of the sports broadcasting world, you’re always reinventing the wheel. Technology advances and so the network must keep up and be in front of it.” A great example is the vista of satellite dishes in the distance. Coombs states that this is one of the largest “earth stations” in the world including a gigantic dish called “The Taurus” which cost one billion dollars and does the work of 30 individual dishes.

The tour concluded with lunch in the on-site food court. Webb and the others waited in line with celebs like Scott Van Pelt, Kevin Neghandi and  Press Pass commentator Alejandro Moreno who took particular interest in Jayson. As they ate and reflected on the day, all agreed that the scope, logistics and complication of supporting these operations in high definition -24/7, 365 -boggles the mind. And the environment was so full of energy on just another ordinary, run-of-the-mill, average day. Remarkable and unforgettable.