"There are some extraordinarily talented ladies in the business ... but rarely are they together ... the fact that we had all of them working together, I would bet is relatively historic," Joe Novello said.
At the 2014 Southern California Regional, cameras panned to Josh Bridges in Event 4. CrossFit fans all over the world watched as his chest hit the ground for his last 3 burpees before he screamed in triumph, taking the event record in 8:18.
But Bridges wasn’t the only one working that day. While he pumped out strict handstand push-ups, front squats and burpees, Kathy Elder stood in a production truck nearby, sipping her coffee as she called out commands.
The four women on her team carried out her every request.
“We are the live stream team,” Elder explained. “What that means is when people sit down with their computers at home to watch the live stream … our team is making that whole thing happen.”
With 15 streamed events over three days, it’s a nonstop production.
“We’re never not live,” Elder said.
Each live streamed regional had a producer like Elder at the helm, running the operation with the help of a small crew and many volunteers. The Red, White, and Blue teams spread across the United States and even across the Atlantic to cover a regional before packing up, and moving on to the next location.
In the male-dominated field of sports broadcasting, Elder’s Red Team stood out in that all five key positions were filled by women. Each weekend, Elder was joined by Director Julie LoRusso, Technical Director Erin Bigelow, Production Manager Angela Teran and Red Hat Kristen Connors.
By the time the Red Team was directing the cameraman to cover Bridges’ victory scream, they had already been to Chicago and Seattle, and within a couple days they would travel north through California to their final stop in San Jose.
This wasn’t the first year fans could watch the regional events from thousands of miles away; CrossFit has provided live coverage of select regional events and heats since 2012. But this year, live coverage was hugely expanded to include all heats of all events in 14 out of 17 regions, with full production, graphics and commentary for the top heats.
While athletes spent the weeks prior to the regional devising strategies, the Red Team spent the weeks planning how they were going to pull off this vast expansion of the regional coverage with a tiny crew. After the events were announced, Elder worked with CrossFit Games Coordinating Producer Joe Novello to plot camera positions for each event.
“Every event requires a different approach from a visual point of view,” Elder said. “Before the regional, I had a call with (Novello) and we talked through every (event) and what was going to be the most challenging.”
But planning live regional coverage is about more than knowing the best angle to film a muscle-up; it’s about figuring out how to turn the competition into a story. That meant knowing the athletes as well as the events themselves.
“We need to make sure we know in advance what might happen so the viewer gets more out of watching it than seeing someone win,” Elder said. “We’re helping them understand the context of why that’s interesting … I try to think of that viewer who has maybe just come on and hasn’t seen the regionals every year.”
For the Red Team, the regional began the day before the first event kicked off. After arriving on-site at 6:30 a.m., the team met with the camera crew to coordinate positions between the handheld cameras and the sticks, or anchored cameras. Once the control room was set up, the feed went live to CrossFit HQ to work out any issues with shots, sound or graphics ahead of the game.
“Friday, Saturday and Sunday we’re live all day long from 9 until the final heat is done at 5:30 or 6,” Elder said.
While Elder, LoRusso, Bigelow and Teran worked the control room, Connors called the shots from the floor. A combination of Red Hat, spotter and stage manager, she handled everything from making sure the lanes were properly set up to cueing the color commentators and giving live play-by-play updates to Elder, standing by in the control room.
“I’m sort of the eyes on the field,” Connors said. “As soon as I see something I like, I say, ‘Eyes on (Lane) 5, something’s gonna happen!’”
It’s more complicated than just reporting who’s in the lead. It means noticing everything from who has five reps left on the pull-up rig to who’s still struggling on the movement before.
“In most cases, you want to highlight the race—how far ahead is so-and-so from the rest of the field, and if it’s close, we want a split shot to see them going rep for rep,” Elder said. “But sometimes it’s important to show the person who’s blowing it, to stay on top of what the stories are and make sure those are conveyed to those at home.”
As Connors sent updates from the floor to Elder’s ear, Elder communicated with the crew in charge of audio and graphics. Over her shoulder, LoRusso directed the four separate camera operators.
“It can be really intense and stressful,” Elder said. “It’s television, and if you mess up, you can’t go back. You can’t let anything go by, you can’t let your mind wander one little bit or something gets messed up.”
Connors thrived on the challenge.
“I love the pressure,” Connors said. “I love how exciting and fast it is, I love being right on the ground in the middle of the action. It’s like doing a mental WOD.”
Part of producing a live CrossFit event is adapting to unpredictable circumstances. At the North Central Regional, Connors was forced to think on her feet after the wireless camera equipment broke, rigging up wired equipment and finding volunteers to hold cords out of the way.
“Stuff like that happens all the time,” Elder said. “There’s the way things are supposed to go and what really happens. You just have to be flexible and roll with it.”
After the day’s events were wrapped, the team went out to dinner—for some, the first real meal of the day—to decompress.
“It’s important to have people who like one another and want to have a good time because it’s really hard work,” she said. “If there’s anyone who’s a diva, it’s not gonna work. We had a crew of really cool people who like each other and want to be together.”
The day after the regional, the Red Team returned home for a single night before taking off for the next location.
“You’re getting ready for the next one while you’re washing your clothes,” Elder said.
Each week, the team refined their craft, adding more spotters to the floor or changing the route for the handheld cameras.
“It’s one thing to look at what a workout’s going to be, and another to see it performed,” Elder said. “Event 7, for the men especially, is so fast and it got faster and faster. Once we saw how that happened, it changed the way we approached it. Now we knew how fast this was going to be and what the color needed to say and how much time we had to tell the story.”
While all the regionals featured the same events, every weekend meant a new story with different characters and a new crew of regional staff and volunteers.
“You don’t have the same crew, so it’s about coming on site and asking the question, ‘How do you like to work?’” Connors said. “And you have to be flexible to go with that on-site person … it comes down to everyone working together, and that message needs to come from the top.”
The team’s work ethic and camaraderie did not go unnoticed by Novello, who has produced everything from the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney, Australia, to the Tour De France with ESPN.
“In any TV broadcast, an essential component is chemistry,” he said. “Personal relationships are key, you have to have a really good sense of all of the players in the bigger picture ... and that’s one of the outstanding things that Kathy and her team did. They go out of their way to make sure that what they want to attempt to do is going to work for all the other stakeholders that are out there trying to do their jobs.”
As a team of women, the Red Team also challenged the status quo in the male-dominated field of sports broadcasting.
“Out of 10 production teams on any given day, you’re probably likely to find two women out of the 40 key positions,” Novello said. “There are some extraordinarily talented ladies in the business in producer and director roles, but rarely are they together in combination … the fact that we had all of them working together, I would bet is relatively historic.”
“The old rule that ‘women don’t belong in the club’ is way out of date,” Connors added. “CrossFit is helping lead the way with men and women sharing the same level playing field.”
To a certain extent, what’s happening on the competition floor is mirrored in the production team behind the scenes.
“I think there’s a lot of crossover between the fact that we’ve got these amazing women doing the broadcasting, watching amazing women on the field of play,” Novello said. “Our director Julie is a good example of that, just totally unafraid to take anything on, and that’s very CrossFit.”
“When you work in TV it’s sort of like you go into battle together because it’s so hard,” Elder explained. “But then you come out of it alive and you’ve succeeded, and the relationships you build with people are all the more meaningful because everyone put everything they had into making sure they made it good.”
“These (athletes) care so much about what they’re trying to achieve and they put their whole lives behind it … I just admire that,” she added. “Getting to cover this unusual sport is super cool.”