Steve Hellmuth, NBA technology visionary

Firsts are always an important part of a Sports Broadcasting Hall of Fame resume and Steve Hellmuththe recently retired NBA executive vice president of operations and technology and former chairman of SVG’s advisory board, has led his share of firsts.

Under his leadership, the NBA became the first league to develop an advanced statistical system that manages a wide variety of services, including becoming the first league to provide live scores and statistics online. 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 such as live streaming, 3D, VR, and volumetric capture in a meaningful way.

Adam Silver, NBA commissioner, says Hellmuth has seamlessly guided the NBA through the myriad advances in technology over the past three decades.

“His vision as a skilled and innovative technologist has helped transform our league’s broadcast operations and revolutionized the way our content is distributed and consumed around the world,” said Silver. “Steve has undoubtedly left an indelible mark on the NBA and the broader sports media industry.”

After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in art history from Princeton University, Hellmuth was able to earn several credits to earn a master’s degree in film studies from New York University’s film school. While a student, he spent his time working on independent, experimental films and helping run a catering business.

“I thought I would go into the entertainment side. My girlfriend at the time was babysitting for someone who was in charge of NBC Olympic production managers, and he suggested I apply,” Helmuth says. “I applied, got the job, and my career trajectory changed and began.”

That first job was as a production administrator for NBC Sports working on Olympic profiles of athletes competing in the 1980 Moscow Olympics. The profiles were to be broadcast in SECAM (Sequential Color with Memory), the broadcast standard at the time for Soviet Union, so Helmut received a crash course in film transfer and editing at SECAM, as well as a whirlwind tour of the US and Europe.

Helmut traveled several times through Germany profiling athletes, through Czechoslovakia and Poland, and back and forth through the United States. His job duties include working with film magazines, driving the van, arranging flights and catering.

“I was required to do double duty as a production manager and technician during filming and was often responsible for booking the athletes as well,” he says. “My main mentor was the late Barry Winnick of WW Films, one of the finest motion picture sports directors of photography.”

Helmut also works closely with Peter Diamond. Peter was responsible for Olympic research and created a number of profiles. Peter stayed at NBC and rose to become NBC Olympics, EVP, programming.

A little bit of everything

From the Olympic profile unit, Hellmuth moved to the position of unit manager and production manager at NBC Sports, where he worked from 1979 to 1987.

“I did tennis, college basketball, baseball, anything that came my way,” he says. “I really enjoyed it and became very competent in budgeting, operations and remote management all around.”

Helmut’s head 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 for four years, culminating in Super Bowl XX.

Along the way, Hellmuth kept his production credits fresh by producing the 1986 World Series opener for Mike Weissman.

In his capacity as the NFL’s lead production executive, Helmuth also leads the production and operations of NBC’s NFL Studio in Studio 6A, shared with The David Letterman Show.

“Working with the great scenic designers and lighting directors at NBC taught me a lot,” he says. “NBC’s iconic studios were filled with talented engineers, cameramen and technicians well versed in live action.”

After marrying his wife, Theresa, Helmut accepted an offer to become general manager of Potomac Television, a start-up that produced Washington news for television stations across the country and provided news coverage on Capitol Hill.

“I helped build the company,” he says. “We had a contract with CNN for news crews in Washington and created a video news feed to local TV stations.”

First jump shots

However, when the NBA came calling looking for a director of operations for NBA Entertainment, Hellmuth decided it might be a bigger challenge. He joined the NBA in 1990 and worked his way up the ladder from managing the post-production team to overseeing all broadcast operations and the launch of Inside Stuff.

Hellmuth was also in the NBA when there was a famous lawsuit between the league and Motorola and STATS, Inc. that involved Motorola sending NBA scores to pagers about three minutes late. Helmuth had undertaken 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 spearhead the development of statistics that would be so fast and accurate that Motorola and STATS, Inc. they will no longer have a viable product, and we might as well tie it to Chyron,” says Helmuth. “He gave me firm support to continue and I worked with Ralis Pappas at IDS.”

This was an important and game-changing initiative for the entire industry, as the statistical system could be used to manage everything from on-air graphics to media asset management system indexing.

Hellmuth would later lead a project that made the NBA the first league ever to have live statistics on the web.

“All other data services hang on the backbone of statistics because statistics is the language of sport,” he says. “And then we replaced the on-court clock system with a universal Swiss time system so we could get all the time stamps in terms of the clock and the score. Combine all of this with the NBA’s private HSAN network and it will set the NBA up for success downstream…digital editors, app innovation and check-in. It literally set the stage for the NBA to establish itself as a leader in digital sports.”

Helmut also produces one of his favorite events: Larry Bird night. At Byrd’s request, it was a continuous show at the Boston Garden without commercial breaks, presented as a theater in the round on the raised parquet floor of the Boston Garden.

To the Diamond

In 1998, Major League Baseball wooed Helmuth to leave the NBA to serve as senior vice president of MLB Productions, and he continued to flex his production muscle.

“I was responsible for getting MLB Productions back on its feet and relaunching ‘This Week in Baseball’ back on the Fox Network,” he says. “I put my producing hat back on there and had a chance to produce the All-Century Team on-field ceremony at Fenway Park, with Ted Williams. Michael Weissman was put in charge of Fox and he and I teamed up to make the event work for television. Mike and Fox deservedly got an Emmy.

A new basketball challenge

After three years, Helmuth returned to the NBA, where he was assigned responsibility for information technology, broadcast operations, engineering and Internet services. He also has oversight of facility construction for broadcast standards, having developed the arena construction guidelines for camera positions, lighting and audio that define NBA basketball theater.

“Stern and Silver understood well that great telecasting begins with venue control: a bright and vibrant sound profile so fans can project their support onto the playing field, great camera locations and superb lighting,” he says.

Helmuth designed the LED lights framing the scoreboard that end each period and replay overtimes, and created the clear shot clocks above the basket posts.

“Stern and Silver tasked me, after some tough calls at the end of the 2001-2002 season, to design a system that would assist the referees and allow video review of the court,” he recalled. “Lights went into every scoreboard and for several years broadcasters helped referees provide video for end-of-game or period scenarios.”

The design and construction of the NBA Replay Center was the completion of this system. Debuting in 2014 along with the debut of a new private 10 gigabyte network between the arenas and the NBA, Hellmuth set out on a system design journey with a longtime NBA referee and official head Joe Borgia.

“Of course, with 14 camera angles delivered from every location, the network fueled the rise of the NBA App and the NBA’s social media presence,” Hellmuth adds.

Helmut’s career is a testament to having leadership that fostered innovation and colleagues in the NBA and MLB who stepped up and made it happen.

“Steve was one of the earliest and most influential technology enthusiasts in the NBA,” says Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban. “He helped move the NBA into the 21st century at a time when many didn’t understand what he was trying to do.”

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