Let the Games Begin
Staffers begin to move in as construction of the new NBC Sports Group headquarters centralizing its broadcast operations in Stamford reaches completion
portrait by Gus Cantavero
It’s just a short dash down Blachley Road to get to the new NBC Sports Group complex, the home of NBC Sports, NBC Olympics and the NBC Sports Network. But during a recent extensive tour of the thirty-two acre facility, construction crews in neon-orange mesh vests and white hard hats with the NBC peacock logo sprinted about the site, seemingly in a race against the clock to get everything ready and operational for the 500 staffers who’ll be working there. “This [campus] is specifically for us, specifically about television and it is the ultimate facility for a television network,” says NBC Sports and NBC Sports Network Executive Producer Sam Flood.
All this hectic activity to be up and running contrasts with the fact that viewers and fans will not notice when broadcast operations transition from various sites—Rockefeller Center, the Comcast Center in Philadelphia and Landmark Square and Harbor Drive in Stamford—to one central location. What will be evident, executives say, is that the move will result in coverage that brings fans closer to their favorite sports than ever before. Centralizing operations provides “synergy,” adds David Mazza, senior vice president of engineering for NBC Olympics. “So we’re going to be much more efficient and able to turn around and develop stories much faster than we could have when we were separate groups.”
Seeing the work in progress strongly hints at the kind of programming we will see on our TV screens once NBC Sports is fully operational in this state-of-the-art production facility, a $100 million project that broke ground in March 2012. Standing at the entrance of the 100,000-square-foot administration building is John Fritsche, senior vice president of operations for NBC Olympics, who’s been involved in Olympic coverage since the 1988 Seoul Summer Games. “It’s all about light,” he says, proudly pointing to where a gloomy gray cinder block has been demolished and replaced with gleaming glass. The natural light will make “this a fantastic place for the employees to come and work.”
Governor Dannel P. Malloy is obviously pleased to see his hometown recognized as a media mecca now that the NBC Sports Group is here. “I think the diversification of Stamford’s economy is important and one of the broadest and most successful diversification implementation [strategies] has been in the media area,” he says. “It’s exciting for Stamford. [With] ESPN in Bristol and NBC, a major competitor, in the same state, indicates that we have the skill set, the talent, the personnel, the resources to compete with anybody, including New York, when it comes to TV production. We should be very proud of it…This has been a great move for everybody.”
Sam Flood, a fifteen-time Emmy winner who has worked out of a sports memorabilia laden office in the legendary Rockefeller Center, says the move to Stamford is a step in the right direction. “Thirty Rock is a wonderful historic building but it was built before television existed,” he says. In Stamford, Flood will continue his effort to revamp the NBC Sports Network, once known as Versus, of hunting and fishing shows fame. “That’s becoming a smaller part of our portfolio going forward,” he adds. The cable network, now in nearly 80 million households, is currently home to the National Hockey League, Tour de France, Major League Soccer and college football, basketball and hockey. Not one to rest on its laurels, the network will begin broadcasting Barclay’s Premier League soccer and Formula 1 this year.
The cable network will be “taking advantage of the NBC brand,” says Flood, by showcasing its famous storytelling. Think of those Olympic athlete backstories that leave you with a lump in your throat. There will be plenty of those as we look forward to NBC’s coverage of the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, Russia, and the 2016 Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. As part of the network’s strategy to reach a wider audience while putting the viewer in the driver’s seat of his favorite sporting event, Flood approved plans to transport a Formula 1 race car to the Stamford studios via the loading dock, a moving feat that would have been impossible at 30 Rock.
This will allow on-air personalities to talk about the car and to show the audience how it works, enhancing the viewer experience. “What we try to do is immerse you in a sport in a different way than other people do,” he says. To a similar end, NBC’s coverage of the Tour de France will include a segment called “Inside the Race,” in which a reporter on motorcycle will ride along with the field of cyclists. Similarly, Flood, a college hockey captain, tells us that fans of his former sport will be taken “Inside the Glass” by a reporter embedded between the two team benches.
There’s more. Joining original programming Costas Tonight and The Dan Patrick Show will be a show anchored by Michelle Beadle, the former ESPN host who left Bristol last May in an elaborately staged send-off. Dressed in an Evel Knievel jumpsuit, she was purportedly shot out of a cannon. The details of her new show were still in the works at press time but when Beadle announced her move to NBC, she said she was looking forward to “trying to kick ass and have some fun along the way.”
As we walk fast through the 200,000-square-foot production building, our tour guide rattles off facts and figures faster than a color commentator during a gold medal match in overtime. Trying to keep up was almost as much as fun as getting a sneak peek at what will soon be a bustling newsroom, where sports announcers will report the latest—live—surrounded by a field of writers, editors and producers, all slamming up against deadlines.
We pause before a glass wall, where light courses through translucent purple, orange, yellow, green and blue rectangular panels that create a peacock color border along the twenty-four-foot-high ceiling. And what a view of gold-toned trees, an orange sunset sky and the bright lights of Stamford’s downtown beyond. Next stop—by way of long stretches of hallways that have already been named I95, the Merritt and Route 8—is one of six of the facility’s on-air studios, a 5,400-square-foot behemoth that can accommodate six anchor sets and twelve camera positions. And even though it shares a wall with neighbor Chelsea Piers Connecticut, the only splashing water and cracking bats the viewers will hear will come from NBC Sports broadcasts, thanks to six layers of gypsum soundproofing.
Near to each of the studios are their corresponding control rooms, where directors and producers will monitor and communicate with each other and the on-air talent. Having these adjacent to each other points to another efficiency in having everything under one roof; previously, in some cases, control rooms could be in entirely different locations from the studios. We also stop by the broadcast operations center, where large monitors divided into dozens of screens create a dazzling display of information and technology: 130 feeds of live sports events can be received, all at the same time, and all in high definition.
Already the size of the NBC campus and the scope of all the whiz-bang technology it encompasses take a few breaths away. But what does it all mean for the sports fan? “In the end, it’s about the people and the stories you tell,” says Flood. “And that’s our job. But to be in the right environment certainly enhances the product.” The audience gets to “enjoy a beautiful backdrop and we’ll feel the sense of pride to be able to work in an environment that’s stunning and state-of-the-art.”
THE FINISH LINE
It’s a week after Hurricane Sandy and David Mazza, who’s worked on Olympic coverage since 1984’s Summer Games in Los Angeles, shows us all the progress made despite the ferocious storm. Crews had to cover all the critical equipment and turn off the power as Sandy approached, explains Mazza. “We stayed pretty dry,” he says. “We didn’t have any leaks. We didn’t actually lose power.” But workers had to be diverted to Harbor Drive to get sandbags in place to keep the generator from flooding there, so work on Blachley Road was halted. “It broke the momentum of that whole week,” Mazza admits. But he was optimistic that NBC Sports’s digital division would meet its December deadline to begin creating content from the site (they did), and that the first NBC Sports and NBC Sports Network broadcasts would be generated from the studios early this year.
If all continues to go according to plan, it would mean that this gargantuan broadcast center was built in less than a year, even when its engineering team was elsewhere occupied—in London—during the summer Olympics. Mazza says building a broadcast site on a fast track is not unusual, but he’s “never been involved in anything this big and this fast.” It’s astonishing, he adds, “that we build a broadcast center for the Olympics every two years and it goes up in a big hurry, but this actually happened even faster.” As Mazza speaks, it is clear the finish line is in sight. A technician crouches in a control room, fiddling with wiring. Office furniture has arrived. Many offices are painted in bold colors, while others bear large, in-action images of athletes like American ski racer Lindsey Vonn. There is an obvious sports theme already visible all around us. The newsroom’s green carpeting, with its gray stripes, resembles a football field.
In the meantime, the move to Stamford garners different reactions from the NBC executives. Mazza’s been working in Stamford for ten years and loves it. Leaving Manhattan will be a big change, admits Flood: “It’s a special place and I’ve worked [at 30 Rock] since 1986, so it’ll be bizarre not jumping on the train to run into the city, but…I love the scene in Stamford. I love the pace.” John Fritsche looks forward to an easier commute. “It’s really nice having some trees around, working in a place where you can park,” he says.
All look forward to working together at one site, something Mazza says NBC Sports has previously experienced only when everyone’s together in an Olympic city covering the games. “I think that’s one thing that has our leaders very jazzed…they see how quickly we’re able to react to things when we’re all under one roof,” Flood says. “Television is a collaborative business” and in Stamford, NBC Sports Group will be in one building as “one team.”
NBC Sports By The Numbers
1 newsroom (460-feet wide and 320-feet long)
6 on-air studios
6 control rooms
50 graphics suites 50+ edit rooms
250+ producers will reside in the newsroom mezzanines
1,000 miles of broadcast and networking cable in the building