In 2019, the commute for ESPN’s Chris Fowler to his annual gig as the host of the Heisman Trophy ceremony where Joe Burrow became the 85th winner of the award took just a few minutes, a quick jaunt from his Manhattan apartment to the nearby PlayStation Theater.
But for the 2020 award, Fowler hit the road to an old home-away-from home for the veteran broadcaster, destined for Bristol, Connecticut. For the first time, the Heisman ceremony was going virtual, originating from ESPN’s Studio E, the same space ABC used for the NFL draft in April and one ESPN employed for the NBA draft.
The four Heisman finalists – Alabama’s DeVonta Smith and Mac Jones, Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence and Florida’s Kyle Trask – were all at their respective schools to participate via satellite. In Bristol, Fowler joined co-host Maria Taylor and a small army of behind-the-scenes staff that turned the Heisman ceremony into an intimate affair despite its virtual setting.
There’s not much, if anything, the Covid pandemic hasn’t altered over the past year. For the Heisman, that meant no traditional award ceremony for the first time since 1982 and no black tie banquet the following night to celebrate the winner and honor the heritage of the award and its many recipients.
So in the summer, planning for a virtual ceremony began in earnest, starting well before the Nov. 14 announcement that the 2020 winner would be announced on Jan. 5, the latest the award has ever been given out. The “Worldwide Leader in Sports” has made countless adjustments in all of its broadcasts to accommodate Covid protocols, but the Heisman broadcast was a unique challenge.
For starters, ESPN had to lean heavily on Alabama, Florida and Clemson while preparing for the broadcast as they could not send crews or satellite trucks to the schools’ facilities.
“You have a model in place with the finalists and 25-30 past winners in a room, and then you have to pivot,” said Rob Adamski, the Show Producer on the broadcast. “It evolved to partnering up with the schools and using them to run the cameras and audio and lights and create sets for each of the three locations. All the schools were great partners. You only have a limited amount of control, but you share your vision and ultimately, they have to pull it off. And they did.”
Because of ESPN’s long-established relationships with the ACC and SEC Networks and the frequency of satellite interviews dating back well before the pandemic, the three schools were well versed in the network’s needs and able to prep broadcast ready sets on campus. The necessary fiber and camera connections were already in place.
An added touch for each of the schools’ sets were authentic Heisman trophies delivered days earlier. Whichever finalist won would be able to have their moment with a true trophy.
“It can be a bit unnerving because you are used to using your own crew, but it ended up working very well. It was a great partnership with the schools,” said Tom Lucas, the Show Director in his second year on the broadcast.
Alabama created a set to include both of its finalists and head coach Nick Saban. All were mic’d up, as were Jones’ parents off site, while Smith’s parents were mic’d and on camera from their hometown of Amite City, Louisiana. Clemson’s set, in one of their team meeting rooms, included Lawrence, his parents and fiancé, as well as head coach Dabo Swinney. Similarly, on the Gainesville campus, Trask, his parents and head coach Dan Mullen were live and ready to go.
“It’s quite the process to make sure you’re hearing everyone’s mic, all of the IFBs are good, all of the video is good,” Lucas said.
It’s an even bigger process making sure almost half of the living Heisman fraternity of winners were also ready to appear remotely.
ESPN GameDay served as a sort of template for what the Heisman production was attempting to pull off. This season, the eponymous college football pregame show couldn’t feature its usual human collage of hundreds (if not thousands) of fans that color the background of their typical on-site set, so they went digital to showcase their show’s collective supporters.
“Every time you’re forced to do something differently, you inevitably discover something you would not have discovered if you didn’t have to do it differently,” ESPN’s Coordinating Producer Kate Jackson told Sports Business Journal. “You just have to be nimble and flexible and ready to adjust.”
Partnering with Ross Production Services, ESPN and the Heisman joined forces to have close to 30 former winners (as well as the two 2020 recipients of the Heisman High School Scholarship) shown live remotely on the broadcast, including ESPN co-hosts Tim Tebow and Desmond Howard. Ross – and six members of ESPN’s crew – were tasked with making sure the dozens of camera feeds throughout the show looked and sounded right.
“We were trying to re-imagine a really special broadcast that had had a great precedent since 1982 and one that ESPN has been blessed to partner with since 1994,” Adamski said. “It’s like doing a 180.”
The live feeds of the past winners complemented the set ESPN designed that featured digital versions of the 85 previous Heisman winners on the studio’s massive LED screen, echoing the portraits that line the typical in-person ceremony.
At the center was a polished Heisman on a pedestal that served as the show’s guest star. In a studio typically dominated by anchors behind a desk, creating just the right atmosphere was another test.
“The challenge for us was how to create an intimate environment that had some gravitas to it,” Lucas said. “We chose that studio because of the LED wall. It helped provide that intimate look as opposed to a typical news-based show.”
Three days before the show, the production was in full swing, putting together elements of the broadcast and building out the design in the studio, which included a black glossy floor specially installed.
On Jan. 3, the ESPN crew ran through a technical rehearsal, without any of the hosts, from top to bottom. On Jan. 4, the show’s hosts joined for a complete rehearsal. ESPN squeezed in one more compressed run-through early on the morning of the broadcast.
At 7 p.m. ET on Jan. 5, the show kicked off with a taped intro written and voiced by veteran ESPN scribe Wright Thompson before cutting to Fowler as the host, setting the stage for the 60-minute special presentation.
Behind the scenes was a crew of some 75 people manning the control room, edit stations and various other roles responsible for pulling off a flawless broadcast that featured live shots from across the country interspersed with various produced pieces. The montages of the finalists in their youth was an especially nice touch.
“We were able to bring a lot of people onto team Heisman,” Adamski said. “People who had never been a part of it, people who specialized on live shots, and give a lot of Bristol-based teammates some cool opportunities. And it turned out wonderfully.”
Everyone knows how the show ended. The Heisman Trust’s Anne Donahue walked onto the set to announce Smith as the winner, the wide receiver getting hugs from Jones and Saban before ESPN cutting to a shot of his ecstatic parents, capped by Smith’s heartfelt comments.
Donahue’s first time announcing the Heisman winner was in 2012. This, like everything else, was different.
“The level of excitement was less but so was the pressure on my nerves! I missed having the personal interaction with the finalists,” she said. “In 2012, the last time I presented, I made a point of saying something about each of the finalists, rather than congratulating them as a whole. That is easier to do when the finalists are sitting in front of you.
“The Heisman Team was great to work with as always. It was not an easy year – everything had to be changed and even the changes needed to be changed!”
Off air, Heisman Trust Associate Director Tim Henning, who had also made the trek to Bristol for the show, completed a long night by hosting the Heisman’s first virtual press conference, Smith answering questions from the national media via Zoom.
“Like everything else, this was the first time we ever held a virtual press conference. Normally, I would get to talk to the finalists and eventual winner and prep them a bit before they speak to the press, but not this year,” stated Henning.
Given that Covid safety protocols prevented having a representative of the Heisman Trust, or Heisman photographer, on hand at the actual campuses, Henning had to make arrangements with the sports information directors at all three schools should their finalists win.
In addition to the technical requirements that ESPN had, there were also protocols established regarding the Heisman Trophy, and installing the winners name plate on the trophy as well as capturing images of the newest winner with his trophy. Henning had been in regular contact with each of the finalists schools to iron out those details in advance.
After Smith was named the 2020 winner, Josh Maxson, Alabama’s Assistant Athletic Director, was instrumental in getting Smith ready for the presser. Alabama’s photographer, Kent Gidley, grabbed the shots the Heisman Trust needed for Henning to distribute to the various photo wires and other media throughout the country that had requested the images.
“I have worked with Josh and Kent in the past which made things a bit easier.” said Henning. “At the end of the day, the ceremony came down to an incredible amount of teamwork between ESPN, the Heisman Trust and the schools. Thankfully, we were working with an all-star team, which resulted in an awesome show.”