Firsts are always an important part of a Sports Broadcasting Hall of Fame resume and Steve Hellmuth, the recently retired NBA EVP of Operations and Technology and former chairman of the SVG Advisory Board, oversaw his share of firsts. Under his guidance, the NBA became the first league to develop an advanced statistical system that drove a wide variety of services including becoming the first league to deliver live scores and statistics to the Web. In addition, the NBA was the first league to develop a centralized instant replay system, the first league to develop a digital archive, and the first league to tackle new technologies like live streaming, 3D, VR, and volumetric capture in a meaningful way.
Adam Silver, NBA Commissioner, says Hellmuth seamlessly guided the NBA through countless advancements in technology over the past three decades.
“His vision as an experienced and innovative technologist helped transform the broadcast operations of our league and revolutionize the way our content is distributed and consumed around the world,” says Silver. “Steve has no doubt left an indelible mark on the NBA and the broader sports media industry.”
After graduating with a B.A. in Art History from Princeton University, Hellmuth came up a few credits shy of earning a Masters degree in Cinema Studies from New York University’s Film School. While a student, he spent his time working on independent, experimental films and helping to run a catering business.
“I thought I was going to go into the entertainment side. My girlfriend at the time was babysitting for someone in charge of the NBC Olympic production managers, and he suggested I apply”, says Hellmuth. “I applied, got the job, and my career trajectory changed and began.”
That first job was as an NBC Sports production administrator, working on the Olympic Profiles of athletes competing in the 1980 Moscow Olympics. The profiles were to be broadcast in SECAM (Sequential Color with Memory), the broadcasting standard at the time for the Soviet Union, so Hellmuth got a crash course in transferring films and editing in SECAM, as well as a whirlwind tour of the U.S. and Europe.
Hellmuth travelled through Germany several times doing profiles of athletes, through Czechoslovakia and Poland, and back and forth across the U.S. His job duties included handling film magazines, driving the van, arranging flights, and handling catering.
“I was required to do double duty as the production manager and a technician on the shoots, and often I was responsible for booking the athletes as well”, he says. “My main mentor was the late Barry Winik of WW Films, one of the best film sports directors of photography ever.”
Hellmuth also worked closely with Peter Diamond. Peter was charge of Olympic research and produced a number of Profiles. Peter remained at NBC and rose to become the NBC Olympics, EVP, Programming.
A Little Bit of Everything
From the Olympic-profile unit, Hellmuth transitioned into a position as unit manager and production manager at NBC Sports, where he worked from 1979 to 1987.
“I did tennis, college basketball, baseball, everything that came my way,” he says. “I really enjoyed it and became very competent in budgeting, operations, and remote management across the board.”
Hellmuth’s main mentor at NBC Sports was the great Ted Nathanson, a member of the Sports Broadcasting Hall of Fame. The two worked together on NFL games and the NFL studio show for four years, culminating in Super Bowl XX.
Along the way, Hellmuth kept his production credits fresh by producing the opening for the 1986 World Series for Mike Weisman.
In his capacity as lead NFL Production Manager, Hellmuth, also oversaw the production and operations of the NBC NFL Studio show in Studio 6A, shared with The David Letterman Show.
“Working with the great NBC scenic designers and lighting directors taught me volumes,” he says. “The iconic studios at NBC were filled with talented engineers, camera operators and technicians well versed in live.”
After marrying his wife, Theresa, Hellmuth accepted an offer to become general manager of Potomac Television, a startup company that produced Washington news for TV stations across the country and provided news releases to Capitol Hill.
“I helped build the company,” he says. “We had the CNN contract for news crews in Washington and created a video news-release channel to local television stations.”
First Jump Shots
However, when the NBA called looking for a director of operations for NBA Entertainment, Hellmuth thought that might be more challenging. He joined the basketball league in 1990 and moved up the ladder from running the postproduction outfit to overseeing all broadcast operations and the launch of Inside Stuff.
Hellmuth was also at the NBA when there was a famous lawsuit between the league and Motorola and STATS, Inc. which involved Motorola sending out NBA scores to pagers with around a three-minute delay. Hellmuth had undertook a project to create a near real-time interface for statistics to the NBC Sports Chyrons for graphics and saw an opportunity to combine the issues.
“I asked NBA Commissioner David Stern if I could head a development of statistics that would be so fast and accurate that Motorola and STATS, Inc. would no longer have a viable product and we could also interface it to Chyron,” says Hellmuth. “He gave me firm backing to proceed, and I worked with Rallis Pappas at IDS.”
It was an important, and game changing initiative for the entire industry, as the statistical system could be used to drive everything from on-air graphics to indexing of the media asset management system.
Later Hellmuth would oversee a project that made the NBA the first league ever to have live stats on the Web.
“All the other data services hang off the backbone of statistics as stats are the language of sports,” he says. “And then we replaced the clock system courtside with a universal Swiss timing system so we could get all the timestamps relative to clock and score. Combine all of this with the NBA private HSAN network and it set the NBA up for downstream success…the digital editors, the innovations in the app, and the logging. It literally set the stage for the NBA to establish itself as the leader in digital sports.”
Hellmuth also produced one of his favorite events: Larry Bird Night. At Bird’s request it was a continuous show in the Boston Garden without commercial breaks presented as theater in the round on the raised parquet floor of the Boston Garden.
On to the Diamond
In 1998, Major League Baseball wooed Hellmuth away from the NBA to serve as senior vice president of MLB Productions, and he continued to flex his production muscles.
“I was responsible for putting MLB Productions back on its own two feet and relaunching This Week in Baseball” back on the Fox Network,” he says. “I put my production hat back on over there, and I got a chance to produce the on-field ceremony of the All-Century Team at Fenway Park, with Ted Williams. Michael Weisman was put in charge for Fox, and he and I teamed up to make the event work for TV. Mike and Fox deservedly received an Emmy.“
A New Basketball Challenge
After three years, Hellmuth transitioned back to the NBA, where he was put in charge of information technology, broadcast operations, engineering, and internet services. He also has oversight of the construction of facilities for broadcast standards, having developed the arena-construction guidelines for camera positions, lighting, and audio that define the theater for NBA basketball.
“Stern and Silver understood well that a great telecast begins control of the venue: bright and lively acoustical profile so the fans can project their support on the field of play, great camera locations and superior lighting,” he says.
Hellmuth designed the LED lights framing the backboard that end every period and overtime for Replay Review and created the clear shot clocks over the basket stanchions.
“Stern and Silver set me to the task after a couple of tough calls at the end of the 2001-2002 season to design a system that would assist the referees and allow for video review at courtside,” he recalls. “The lights went into every backboard, and for a few years, the broadcasters assisted the referees providing video for end of game or period scenarios.”
The design and building of the NBA Replay Center was the completion of that system. Debuting in 2014, along with the debut of a new 10 gig private network between arenas and the NBA, Hellmuth went on the journey to design the system with longtime NBA Referee and Head of Official Joe Borgia.
“Of course, with 14 camera angles delivered from every venue, the network fueled the rise of the NBA App and the NBA presence in social media,” adds Hellmuth.
Hellmuth’s career is a testament to having leadership that fostered innovation, and co-workers at NBA, and MLB that stepped up and made it happen.
“Steve was one of the earliest and most impactful technology enthusiasts at the NBA,” says Dallas Mavericks Owner Mark Cuban. “He helped move the NBA into the 21st century at a time many did not understand what he was trying to do.”