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ESPN sets an elaborate Super Bowl stage

TAMPA — To the kids with the cardboard sign, the guy who played hooky from work, the married couple camped out since 6 a.m., Cotanchobee Park was a wonderland Monday.

ESPN was in town, and its stars were out.

"I watch these guys every day," Bob Norton, 72, said of the SportsCenter cast bantering on stage just feet away. He held a note pad scribbled with the schedule of shows to be broadcast from the network's Tampa headquarters this week. Norton said he would be out here each day.

Millions more will be tuning into ESPN from living rooms and sports bars across the world. For many, the view from this little channel-side park will be their only window into Tampa before Sunday's Super Bowl.

They'll have no idea how much thought went into delivering that image from behind a carefully positioned set. Hiding the eyesores. Finding the perfect angle. Hoping nothing gets in the way.

Mike Feinberg knew what he wanted to see long before he arrived at the park last week.

The coordinating director has been planning the image for a year.

Wednesday, 3 p.m.

Feinberg stands at the center of a bare span of grass large enough to house a 40-foot stage and a replica football field. It's just east of the Marriott Waterside and across the street from the St. Pete Times Forum's south side.

The 42-year-old director has traveled to Tampa three times in the past year to look toward the Garrison Channel from this spot, to envision the view inside a camera's frame:

In the background, the condos of Harbour Island. In the foreground, water and palm trees, a boat sailing past. To him, these things scream Florida.

A man from the stage company walks onto his patch of green, clutching a handful of tiny, hot pink flags. "All right," the man says. "Let's start with a corner."

Feinberg has taken photos of his ideal view. He holds one up as the first flag goes into the ground. After all are planted, he decides the entire stage should shift five feet north — he doesn't like the way the corner of the Marriott Waterside juts into his back view.

Two hours later, a truck arrives. Once positioned, it will unfold into a 19-ton stage, which is a lot harder to move than little flags.

The view isn't perfect yet — city light poles are poised to stick out of the talents' heads.

But it's a start, Feinberg decides.

"Drop it."

Thursday, 11 a.m.

Cotanchobee Park was once part of Fort Brooke, an important military outpost during the Seminole Indian wars. On this day, it is a hive, powered mostly by men on forklifts and in trucks and on the ground. With the stage already planted, today is power day.

Frank Gatto, here from Boca Raton to illuminate the set, hangs a 75-pound light above the stage. It's his 4,000-watt weapon against the temperamental sun.

Underneath the stage, lead electrician Royce Vibbert uncoils a thick cable and plugs it into a box, which will connect to a generator, which Vibbert says carries enough power to light up seven homes.

Just how powerful are the 1,400 amps running this show? "You figure," he says, "half an amp will stop your heart."

Everything here is big like that. The generator guzzles enough fuel in a day to power seven Ford Mustangs for a week. The cables could stretch more than 2 miles.

Even the peanut butter and jelly sandwiches are triple-stacked.

Feinberg eyes the three offending city light posts. It would be easy for the crews to pluck them out of his view. But city attorneys are still discussing the matter.

The stage is powered up, Vibbert tells him.

"You're hot."

Friday, 11 a.m.

Feinberg bends his knees and squints as the crew positions the desk on the stage. "Slightly counterclockwise," he tells them, as workers iron the seams of the carpet with a toothbrush.

The director is a father of three. He's friendly and polite, but serious about details. He'll be watching television and notice a seam in a studio carpet. His stage is a no-seam zone.

He spots a bubble in the carpet caused by a beam in the floor of the stage. Rip it up, he tells the crew. Start over.

In the distance, a city worker perched on a ladder begins to unscrew a light pole.

• • •

Chris Berman, the longtime ESPN announcer, remembers the 1984 Super Bowl — Tampa's first — as a scene right out of broadcasting's Stone Age.

Unlike this week's broadcasts, which are shot live in Tampa and instantly transmitted to headquarters in Bristol, Conn., Berman recalls having to transport the tapes by planes.

The three-man crew would find a palm tree near the airport, but with no planes in sight.

Berman would then jump behind a bush, change into a pair of shorts ("to make it look classic," he says) and film a last-minute standup.

"That's it," he said. "That's all we had."

Monday, 5:53 a.m.

Feinberg sits inside a mobile unit in the truck compound, looking at more than 100 tiny television screens.

The first show in 90 hours of Tampa Super Bowl broadcasting, except the game itself, is about to begin. (The World Series of Poker is scheduled for the 6-10 p.m. slot Sunday.)

Someone brings him a cup of coffee.

"Keep it coming," Feinberg says.

Radio talk show hosts Mike Greenberg and Mike Golic, of Mike and Mike in the Morning, take their seats.

Gatto's big lights shine bright. Vibbert's power is flowing. And Feinberg's carpet — and his view — is seamless.

Feinberg sits back and watches the show.

Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Alexandra Zayas can be reached at azayas@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3354.

By the numbers

ESPN

104.1-million

Number of viewers expected to tune into the network's various Super Bowl platforms this week.

117 Number of countries that will be watching.

150 Number of hotel rooms that will be occupied by ESPN and its subcontractors.

90 Number of hours of Super Bowl-related television coming out of Tampa.

25 Number of on-air commentators in Tampa.

10 Number of portable toilets at Cotanchobee Park.

3.5 gallons Amount of diesel fuel guzzled by each of three generators every hour.

4,000 watts

Strength of the brightest bulb on stage

ESPN sets an elaborate Super Bowl stage 01/26/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, January 27, 2009 12:08am]

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