What goes on behind the scenes during an APP broadcast is just as eventful as the show itself
As the saying goes, “there’s no business like show business.”
At each APP Tour stop, the cameras are rolling on commentators AJ McCord, Chad Edwards and Dominic Catalano for about six hours a day, which is a lot by sports standards. Normal NHL, MLB and NFL broadcasts last, in contrast, about three to four hours per game. While that six hours is a big window, the work that goes into one nationally televised broadcast is enough to command its own reality television show.
Hank Greening, the APP’s producer of live events, will sometimes get to make a site visit to a tour venue a few months in advance, which is the case with the Donald E. Stephens Convention Center, where the State Farm 2023 APP U.S. Indoor Championships will be held later this week.
“We very much try to be a part of those site visits,” explains Greening, who started with the APP in June of 2022 after coming over from ESPN. “If, for some reason, our production team is not able to go on the operations site visits, then we’ll ask that the operations team tries to bridge that gap for us and take pictures and ask questions for our needs. So far we haven’t walked in blind anywhere yet.”
Greening is constantly preparing and researching for graphics, edits, and scripts as far out as he possibly can because he knows those are elements he’ll always be running in the show. By Monday or Tuesday of tournament week, when all the production meetings happen, those elements are usually finalized, so when Championship Sunday is airing, the stat comparison graphics and past tournament highlight edits that viewers see have likely been waiting for a week or more.
“In terms of when we start planning the broadcast really depends on how much time we’re able to have before a match. A lot of times we only have a week from tournament to tournament and sometimes we have a tournament in Atlanta for one weekend and then we turn around and we’re in Dallas the next, so turnaround can get really crazy,” admits Greening, who has a graphics operator, editors, and producers who help make his visions come to life on-screen.
The fact that each APP Tour broadcast comes from a different city presents a unique opportunity to capture scenic shots from all around the United States, which Greening maps out for his ground camera team to pick up. Those shots are then used to introduce the show.
“We were just in Houston, so I sent our team to a bunch of locations in Houston that I wanted them to see and I wanted them to help us out with in capturing video or drone footage of the skyline, cool street art, there are popular places in Houston that really scream Houston so that when we build the video or build the edits or introduce our show we can really say ‘hey we’re in this city and we are truly in Houston,” elaborates Greening, who took his production team and on-camera talent to the Texas State Fair to shoot while in Dallas. “I try to make it as local as possible, and I try to make the team and the production really have the feel of the towns that we’re in.”
Broadcast details are ironed out during the meetings on Monday of event week: everything from which matches will be captured, to storytelling ideas, to telestration plans. Tuesday is typically a travel day for the crew, and Wednesday is used as a media day, when Kitchen Confidential, sit-down interviews, and other editorial items are filmed. Thursday is the first day of match play, and Greening will get some matches in, and support the ground camera team as well as the talent. Friday is rehearsal day, and the day when the crew double checks camera angles, tests graphics, and ensures all the bugs have been dealt with.
By the time Saturday rolls around, everyone is well-prepared, including the three people viewers see and hear, McCord, Edwards, and Catalano. An hour before the show goes live, they do a run through, and about 10 minutes before they’ll try to do a second run through. There’s a lot less practice needed at the end of the year than in the beginning, when they were trying to find a rhythm with each other - first Catalano and Edwards, and then adding McCord into the mix during the Mesa tour stop.
Having never done pickleball commentary, there was a bit of a learning curve for McCord, but with a little bit of pickleball playing experience under her belt courtesy of her aunt and uncle in Hawaii, gaining the trust of the fans and athletes was a challenge she accepted.
“I don’t think I expected the tournaments themselves to go so fast-paced, and I remember that catching me off-guard because I didn’t have a lot of experience with professional pickleball,” recalls McCord, who has covered football, basketball, lacrosse and gymnastics in the past. “The fact that you can find out 20 minutes before your game, who you’re playing and what court you’re on…that means how much time I have as a broadcaster. I have five minutes to organize all the notes that I’ve taken on this team or these people and get them all ready. That was one of the unique challenges of the broadcast side of things that took me a few tournaments to get my process down.”
That process isn’t one that Edwards has to worry about.
“My preparation is a little bit different. I don’t typically write any of my stuff down,” Edwards concedes. “I find that when I write things down my focus becomes too much on reading. My part is obviously knowing the players, knowing their tendencies, knowing their play style, so my preparation a lot of the time is watching the players and following the draws, then looking for upsets and things that they’ve done in the tournament leading up to when we go live.”
The fact that the APP Tour incorporates both digital livestreams and national broadcasts, adds another dimension to the preparation process.
“When we go live or we go to our featured match it’s a little bit different because when you’re streaming it’s a little bit more laid back,” Edwards reveals. “We run it through multiple times and I literally say something different every time I practice for the intros, trying to find the best flow. That’s why I don’t write things down…when we go live it’s kind of like one and done, there’s no screwing up, no making mistakes. You have to be dialed in and there’s a little bit more tension as far as that because obviously once you go live where you go to the featured matches, it’s a little bit larger audience, so you feel a little bit more pressure there. But I think in reality, once you get through the intros and the standup, then it’s kind of just business as usual, it doesn’t matter if it’s live or if it’s a stream, it’s all the same.”
Pickleball is a sport where new players are rotating in on the regular, and staying up with the knowledge of who’s who in the zoo is a vital part of the broadcast’s success. Edwards, though, has an advantage when it comes to knowing the up-and-comers, as he serves as the APP’s Next Gen National Team Coach.
“The good thing for me is that I’m part of Next Gen, so I was just in Dallas with the Next Gen series. I get to see a lot of the younger players coming into it and because I’m coaching with that national team, I come in early to be able to coach them and get to watch some of the early round matches, some of the qualifying rounds. In reality the preparation is just watching a lot of pickleball.
“There’s just so many young kids coming into the sport now and we have so many former college tennis athletes coming in as well,” says Edwards, who began playing pickleball with his wife, Simone Jardim, back in 2015. “We’re going to enter a really good spot right now where there’s new talent coming in and it’s just pushing the game further and further.”
While there are a lot of new faces to keep up with, the Tour mainstays have been a highlight for McCord.
“Honestly I think the thing that I’ve enjoyed the most is just getting to know the players at each and every stop,” comments McCord, who is responsible for the play-by-play call. “Like Megan Fudge and I have had a chance to talk. She’s really big into hiking with her family and I absolutely love hiking, I find a hike to do at almost every single stop we have. It’s been really fun to get to know the players better at each stop and sort of create that rapport to where I have something new to bring the audience every single time to help them understand more about the human being that’s playing the game instead of just the pickleball player. That’s the best part of my job is I get to tell stories about athletes and tell people something about this player that they thoroughly enjoy watching and a little bit more about who they are as people.”
The rapport between the athletes and the on-air talent goes straight into the broadcast itself sometimes, because at many venues, the broadcast booth is literally right on the court. This leads to some interesting chatter during matches that may or may not be picked up by viewers at home.
“I can’t remember who it was, but at some point someone leaned over because Chad was saying something that they needed to do, and she was leaning in and cupping her ear,” McCord says. “He finished talking and she nodded her head and I’m pretty sure she did it on the next point and go the point, so that’s the thing that’s pretty funny. Rob Nunnery has come over a few times to clarify ‘oh, I didn’t mean to hit her.’ There’s a lot that doesn’t make it to to broadcast, like those interactions, and they’re some of my favorite parts about calling tournaments.”
The athlete interaction is just one way the broadcast team keeps things lighthearted while they’re on-air. Fun and entertainment are aplenty, especially amongst a group that travels together and spends six-hours at a time live-streaming.
During the APP Sunmed St. Louis Open, the heat was overwhelming, topping 100 degrees. John Paquet, the executive producer of production, said that if any of the commentators said the word “hot” they would owe him a push up. The push up payoff happened a couple weeks later in Philadelphia, which happened to be captured on camera and used in a later broadcast.
“Between that and when Dom and Chad dance in between commercial breaks and think nobody’s watching but we’re always watching, I think those have been the moments that have been the most fun where it’s like you forget that you’re doing the job,” adds Greening.
Edwards is a self-proclaimed sarcastic person by nature - he likes being loud and he likes to have fun and laugh.
“As the year’s gone on, we’re a lot looser as far as not feeling the pressure as much, so I think it’s great,” Edwards muses. It’s been probably the last six months or so, we’ve started to have a lot more fun where it’s like, alright we’re between points and now we just start doing silly stuff.”
Continues Edwards: “But it’s also we’re streaming for six hours, so if you’re focused for those whole six hours it becomes draining on your brain. So the breaks in between, those are our times to just be a little bit silly, tells some jokes, do some stuff and it kind of raises your energy level going into it.”
So while watching the State Farm 2023 APP U.S. Indoor Championships on ESPN+ this weekend, it’s totally fair to wonder if there’s as much happening behind the camera as there is happening in front of it.
Thank you to the world-class team that has presented the APP's 2023 broadcasts: John Paquet - executive producer of production; Pat Gulotta - SVP techical operations; Jon Graff - senior producer; Jimmy latropolous - senior director of digital technology; Anthony Stagno - senior editor; Tim Reilly - ENG producer; Matt Birtell - ENG producer; James Cunningham - associate producer; Jakob Farness - production assistant; Afua Oppong Wadie - production assistant