What do the NFL Network, the MLB Network, KABC Los Angeles, and WMAQ Chicago, and the PGA TOUR’s new production facility (set to open in 2025) have in common? 2022 Sports Broadcasting Hall of Fame inductee Darrell Wenhardt. Currently principal consultant at CBT West, he has played a major role in bringing together countless opinions and created the workspaces and workflows that have been crucial to the sports-broadcast industry for nearly five decades.
Over the years, he has worked with hundreds of types of organizations, and figuring out what an organization aims to create means countless meetings with countless departments to make sure that the workflows will meet not only the need but the work environment.
“What I like is being able to start with a clean slate with a client and dig into what they are trying to produce,” he says of his professional philosophy. “It’s probably overused, but it’s still about storytelling and being able to meet expectations within a client’s budget constraints. We need to understand exactly what their production requirements are before we even begin to apply technology to it.”
Wenhardt notes that the work environment ties into workflow, which is very important because the workflow comes in many forms and factors. The client’s culture, he adds, also has to be reflected in any design or workflow considerations.
“It starts with a good physical workflow within the control rooms, edit rooms, or other facilities,” he explains. “Then, it’s the design of that space and working with the client to understand what each operator’s needs are in fulfilling the obligations of their job. Only then can you start to match technology. It’s a multi-stage process.”
Though focusing plenty of energy and expertise on the technical infrastructure over the years, Wenhardt has also done work supporting architectural design and how a building, or a vehicle, is laid out. The final piece of the puzzle is seeing how the production team and everyone else operates in a new environment.
“Ninety-plus percent of the time, it all works great,” he says, “but usually about 10% will have issues. What is great about that is, I get to hang around and make sure it all works.”
When it works, the new facility can also help reshape the culture. Wenhardt cites his work on the NFL Network’s facility in Culver City, CA, in 2003.
“We worked with [Sports Broadcasting Hall of Famer] Geoff Mason through the whole process,” he explains. “What was unique — and a key factor — was that NFL Network CEO Steve Bornstein and Geoff brought NFL Network host Rich Eisen in early. He became a critical player in bringing the right energy to the set and did it in a way that gave the network a unique voice. It was one of those cool times when we got the talent involved.”
The result was a facility that laid a cultural foundation for the new NFL Network facility.
“In the new studios at the NFL Network,” he adds, “there’s a legacy aspect from the 2003 development because a brand-new culture was born. We started from scratch so that was very fulfilling.”
A few years later, Wenhardt helped MLB Network launch in a brand-new facility. “It began with an NAB meeting where Hall of Famer Ken Aagaard and I met with MLB Enterprises President/CEO Tim Brosnan in 2007. Brosnan asked, ‘Do you think we can build a network for baseball?’ Less than two years later, we were on the air with MLB Network.
“We had to make the culture up, learn what they wanted to produce, and go through that whole process of programming a 24-hour baseball network,” he continues. “Did they just want to throw games on the air, or did they want to produce a lot of shoulder programming?”
Wenhardt says working with a client often involves some tough decisions on what stays and what goes in terms of production needs and, in turn, technical needs. He says, regardless of who the client is, there are always budget constraints.
“When they tell us our budget is ‘nuts,’ I ask a simple question: what part of the programming that you’ve outlined do you want to put on-air and what part do you not want to do?” he says. “I use that question all the time to quickly frame the budget concerns.”
Both the NFL Network and MLB Network projects offered an opportunity to develop new technology to provide fans with direct access to teams and players.
For the NFL, Wenhardt and his team developed what was branded as TeamCam, placing 32 mini production kits at all NFL training facilities and giving the network the ability to go live to each team with two-way video and audio.
For MLB, Ballpark Cam was developed, placing two robotically controlled HD cameras and stereo microphones in each of the 30 MLB ballparks. Cameras, interview mics, and IFB were all remotely controlled from the network’s studios in Secaucus, NJ.
MLB Network and the development team won a Gold Edison Award for the innovation and technology development that went into Ballpark Cam. Says Wenhardt, “I also need to thank Hall of Famer Joe Cohen, [then-president, The Switch], for providing us with digital links from each ballpark to the network and all within a 10-month window.”
Tony Petitti, former president/CEO, MLB Network, says Wenhardt played a huge role in the launch of MLB Network.
“His innovation and implementation of the Ballpark Cam system was truly a game-changer for MLB Network,” he says. “The system connected us to every team and allowed us to show images from every ballpark at any time with a simple toggle on a controller in our control room. We conducted thousands of interviews with players, managers, and coaches. Darrell’s vision and his execution were flawless.”
Childhood Interest in Electronics Grows Up
Born in Los Angeles in 1950, Wenhardt grew up in San Diego. He was close to an older cousin who interest in electronics spurred Wenhardt’s own interest. He built his first HeathKit at age 8 and also had a chance to learn how to put together PA systems with his cousin, a skill that would serve him well at parties.
“I never became a DJ, but I did everything else,” he recalls. “I was doing that when I was 11 or 12; it was just sort of in my DNA. I didn’t realize until I was in high school that I wanted to be an electrical engineer.”
The big leap in interest occurred when his electronics-shop teacher, Mr. Hillsgan, left the high school and set up a class focused on TV and related technology at a different school.
“He called and asked if I would be interested in joining him in a new class at a high school about 20 miles south of my school,” Wenhardt says. “It was aimed at helping the students obtain a third-class license and then a first-class license from the FCC and to learn about video and audio production. I just fell in love with TV because it was the photographic side and the sound side of my interests all wrapped into one.”
He attended San Diego State University while also working part-time building AV systems for schools and hospitals and even got involved with a TV station. The local station had a mobile unit, and Wenhardt began doing maintenance on the truck. “It wasn’t sports; we produced a weekly show called Zoorama out of the San Diego Zoo, but I learned about the bad things that happen when you put TV technology into a bus.”
After graduation, he got his first full-time job as a teleproduction engineer at Grossman Community College, where he learned a lot about system design and spent a lot of time imagining how to build better equipment that students would destroy in a semester. This led to a chance to begin a business in 1974: Centro Corp.
“I was 24 years old, and I was the vice president of engineering,” he says. “We started designing products. That was my start in the industry from a truly commercial perspective.”
Soon the company was building systems for various schools in California and also realizing that it could make more money on integration work than on designing and building equipment.
“We stayed in that lane,” he adds. “That is the foundation that got me to where I am today. Centro started in 1,500 sq. ft. of space, and then we added a welding shop and built our own rack frames and consoles, and we added a wood shop. By 1980, we had 98,000 sq. ft. of space, and 128 employees. I became a marriage counselor and child psychologist. Engineering was becoming a second-hand job, but we were having fun.”
Growth, however, led to cash-flow problems because Centro was working on multimillion-dollar jobs that required capital outlay for materials and equipment. Several years later, one client, Salt Lake City-based Skaggs Telecommunications Services, decided to acquire Centro and make it a wholly owned subsidiary. “I declined the offer to move,” Wenhardt says. “Only about 20 people from San Diego went. Centro was closed two years later, in 1989.
“One thing that Centro became known for,” he continues, “was showing up at NAB with 48-ft. trailers and putting them on the NAB Show floor. In 1984, Aagaard and his team from NBC wandered into our booth. They had one truck vendor on the East Coast and were looking for a second vendor. In 1984, they offered us a chance to build a truck to replace their NT-5 tape truck. It was a challenging project because it was late in the year and was needed for the Rose Bowl in January. We had a total of 140 days to complete the project, but it took 120 days to build the trailer body.”
Explains Aagaard, “I met Darrell in the early ’80s when I was at NBC and needed a truck built in a very short time for golf and was fortunate to have found Centro to figure out how to do the impossible. Darrell’s ingenuity in pre-building the guts to the truck in his shop and sliding it into the truck that was completed only weeks before we needed it was sheer brilliance. Especially when it worked. We used the truck for multiple years.”
The tight turnaround required some innovation: building the trailer body while simultaneously constructing the equipment on a 48-ft. flatbed and then moving the pre-assembled package into the trailer body.
1984 also introduced Wenhardt to the Olympics and allowed him to work with Hall of Famers Marvin Bader, VP, Olympic operations and engineering, ABC Sports, and Jules Barnathan, head of broadcast operations and engineering, ABC, and 2022 Inductee Manolo Romero, former managing director, OBS.
“Five of the mobile units that Centro had built participated in the Games,” Wenhardt points out. “We also got involved with the design and implementation of ABC’s Broadcast Center on the Prospect Lot in Hollywood. It was exciting and a great opportunity of having a good part of our company involved.”
One other early project in his career was the design of a large mobile unit for a company called Orange Coast Video, owned by Jim Irvine.
“We started from scratch with that one,” Wenhardt explains. “The claim to fame was how it was used to support the Long Beach Grand Prix; it never should have been there, but we made it work. It also introduced me to Hall of Famer Linda Reinstein and her collection of chyrons.”
Centro also designed and built a unit called the Zoetrope for movie director Francis Ford Coppola. “That was an amazing project,” says Wenhardt. “Francis wanted to integrate video editing with film production. We worked with his engineering staff on digital conversion of film 24 fps into a 30-frame video format, but that wasn’t the best part: we designed an editing couch with intercom and VCR control panels, [enabling] Francis to direct from the truck and edit as he moved through the script. Still not the best part: this unit contained a custom refrigerator and oven sized to Mr. Coppola’s favorite San Francisco Pizza, and it also contained a custom hot tub.”
Other entertainment included facilities for Entertainment Tonight and Solid Gold and some big projects for Disney, such as the Euro Disney Studios.
“That led us to do KABC Los Angeles, which is one of the largest station moves in the country,” Wenhardt adds. “It was a brand-new building and also went from NTSC analog to digital. That was a big project.”
Another big station move was WMAQ Chicago. That was in 1988, after he had gone independent. Soon relationships with Hall of Famer George Wensel, founding partner and president, NEP/MPS, and Aagaard led to the formation of a new company: Creative Broadcast Techniques (CBT).
For more than 20 years, CBT was at the center of not only the facilities described but also the America’s Cup in 1992 and 1995 and even FIFA World Cups in 2002 and 2006. During the 1992, 1994, and 1996 Olympics Games, Wenhardt again worked with OBS’s Romero.
“1994 Lillhammer was the top of the Olympic experience. It was the best and most organized Olympic event that I had the honor of working. That same year, we did the Turner Sports Goodwill Games from St. Petersburg, Russia, which was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. I have to thank John Wendel, former VP engineering and operations, Turner Sports, and another Hall of Famer, Ted Turner, for making that possible.
“I also have to say that these 1990s events allowed me to have my family involved, for the first time,” he continues. “My daughter Gina worked the Goodwill Games as a Spanish-language translator for the Cuban Boxing Team and, two years later, as a runner for NBC at the Atlanta Olympics. My son, Chris, worked the 1992 America’s Cup and the 1994 Goodwill Games as an athletic trainer; he got some interesting experience working elbow to elbow with the Russian doctors. It also got my wife, Karla, over to trade pins on the Lillehammer Storgata and into the Hermitage in St Petersburg.”
From the mobile units to the brick-and-mortar projects, Wenhardt built a solid reputation for understanding where technology was headed, how best to apply it to a client’s needs, and how to deal with a wide variety of pressures. “The Olympics, World Cup, Goodwill Games are two-week, three-weekend events: build it, use it, and then tear it down,” he says. “Fixed broadcast facilities like the NFL and MLB Networks, on the other hand, are turned on and never get turned off. That puts a different kind of pressure on the whole process.”
Not to be left out of the latest in sports-video production, Wenhardt and his CBT Systems Team found themselves in the middle of esports development — designing, building, and launching Riot Games’ first venture into studio and full REMI production with a temporary facility in Manhattan Beach, CA, and an 18-camera flypack for events in Cologne, Germany, and Seoul.
“That was in 2014,” he recalls. “If it wasn’t the first, it was close to it, bringing all camera video and event audio to the Riot Studios to cut and mix the show. We were assisting Riot with the architectural design of what became their permanent studio home in Santa Monica.”
Work in esports continued with the design and 2018 launch of the esports arena built within the Luxor Hotel in Las Vegas. “This space was once the LAX nightclub,” he says. “It was a real challenge to transform this space, within nine months, into a massive gaming stage with separate studio, broadcast-streaming control rooms, and full front-of-house video, audio, and lighting control. I have to thank Hall of Famer Don Ohlmeyer’s son, Drew, for pulling us into this one. It was a high-pressure challenge from beginning to end.”
Since 2016, Wenhardt has devoted countless hours to development of a new-from-the-ground-up Digital Broadcast Center for the PGA TOUR. Set for completion in January 2025, the project includes development, with NEP, of a completely new set of advanced-technology remote trailers capable of producing CBS, NBC, and ESPN weekly coverage of all PGA TOUR tournaments, plus adding in the TOUR’s new Every Shot Live multichannel streaming service.
He says, “This is going to bring the event-coverage camera count from the 40s and 50s to over 100 every week.”
Luis Goicouria, SVP, media, PGA TOUR, says Wenhardt has been a rock for the PGA TOUR and its ambitious project to build a new, greatly expanded production facility.
“His knowledge of the broadcast technology needed in this type of facility is truly world-class, and he has been an integral part of every conversation,” Goicouria explains. “Simply put, we would not have been able to pull it off without his expertise and wisdom. He has great attention to detail and is equally comfortable talking about any part of the project, from the broad financials to the detailed technical specifications of a piece of equipment. And he is whip smart, humble, and easy to work with. It has been an honor to work with him on such an important and visible project for the PGA TOUR.”
Wenhardt adds that, as tough as the technology will be to build and manage, the real challenge will be getting 10-20 GB of data off the course.
“My best years as a youth were playing baseball and having the benefit of learning from several terrific coaches,” he recalls. “Those times have stuck with me, as my most rewarding times have been leading a team of great and dedicated workers toward a challenging goal.
Adds Aagaard, “Darrell has a unique broadcast-engineering approach to each and every task. Whether it is building and designing a mobile unit, media center, or engineering a remote show, Darrell is the go-to engineer. He is the complete solution for a client with his detailed preparation, ability to stay flexible and adjust to production needs and requests, and innovation along with his follow through.”