After winding through the halls past the network's NASCAR Race Hub studio, Fox Sports Director of Technical Operations Kevin Callahan led me on a tour of the space, meticulously explaining what was going on at each stop and why it had to be done. Callahan is no stranger to big events: He's overseen Fox broadcasts for the Super Bowl, in addition to the network's coverage of major soccer tournaments like the CONCACAF Gold Cup, Copa America, Women's World Cup and Confederations Cup. While all of those offered chances to fine-tune the process, the Confederations Cup was held in Russia just last summer, serving as a dry run for the biggest soccer tournament in the world.
"Once we're in Russia, we have exactly 30 days from when we get the keys to the time that we're on the air," he said. "To build an entire broadcast facility in 30 days is a little tight, so we wanted to take advantage of the facility we have here to get as much tested as we can."
Thanks to the Confederations Cup, Callahan and his team have an idea of what to expect in Russia. This means they know how hard it will be to get even the simplest of supplies -- like whiteboards. A forklift was actually loading a dozen or so of those into a container as I got the rundown. The locale also requires them to go through a painstaking process of testing to make sure things will work under certain conditions.
Outside the facility in Charlotte sat a generator Fox rented specifically for testing all of the broadcast gear on the 230-amp current prevalent in Russia.
"We wanted to eliminate every variable that we possibly could," Callahan said. "If we had a piece of equipment that didn't react well, we would find that out here."
Last summer's Confederations Cup also gave Fox the chance to test its security measures. Like it does for the Super Bowl, the World Cup crew worked closely with the broadcaster's information-security team to verify its methods were the best. When you're hauling literal truckloads of gear around the world, you have to make sure you cover the events without a hitch. And in 2018, that includes being able to mitigate the risk of hacking.
Preparing for an event like the World Cup is about a lot more than just security. You have to be ready to cover a dozen venues during the group stage and as many as three matches a day. For Fox, that process started in 2013. The Women's World Cup presented the first learning opportunity in 2015, followed by the Copa America in 2016 and both the Gold Cup and Confederations Cup last year. Over the course of those events, Callahan and his team pieced together what he calls "kits" to make the at-venue job much easier.
"We took lessons that we learned at the Women's World Cup and put together a kit that consists of encoding gear, intercom systems and things that mimic what's in a mobile [broadcast] unit," he tells me, running down a list for what seems like the millionth time. "We started working with those ahead of the Copa America in the United States in 2016." Fox would also use the "kits" for the Confederations Cup in 2017, at which point the broadcaster had four sets to deploy. Each time, the network took note of feedback, fine-tuning the compact set of gear so that it required the absolute minimum number of people to use.
"The Confederations Cup, from a venue standpoint, went off without a hitch," Callahan said. From there, Fox teamed up with an outside partner to build two more packs, so it will use a half-dozen of the kits in Russia at a dozen stadium venues starting next week. Some sites won't have a dedicated crew or commentators, depending on which teams are playing. Instead, Fox will rely solely on the feed from the host broadcaster.
Once testing was complete, all of the gear headed to Russia was loaded into shipping containers and trucked to a port in Norfolk, Virginia. There, it was moved onto ships for its monthlong journey to St. Petersburg, which includes a stop in the Netherlands. That voyage began in Charlotte on April 6th -- over two months before the first match in Russia. The documentation process, including the details that will be needed to clear customs, began months before the scheduled departure from the States.
The last key piece of World Cup gear left the US on May 7th.