Webcasting is no longer the wave of the future--it's the here and now. Getting started is not as difficult as you may think. Making it profitable is the next step.
By Dennis Read
Dennis Read is an Associate Editor for Athletic Management. He can be reached at: dr@MomentumMedia.com.
A couple of years ago, Donald Tencher, Athletic Director at Rhode Island College, found himself in the middle of a Florida fundraising trip while his men's basketball team was playing its biggest game of the season back at home. For many small-school athletic directors, this would mean a long night of crossed fingers and constant phone updates.
But Rhode Island College carries live Webcasts of all its home basketball games over the Internet. So instead of simply telling gathered alumni about all the great things RIC student-athletes were doing, Tencher showed them. "We had a computer hookup brought into the hotel for the event and watched the whole game," he says. "People were amazed they could see it live.
"Some of them didn't fully understand the whole Webcasting thing, but they loved feeling like they were a part of the action," he continues. "One guy even went back to his hometown the next day and told everyone, 'Hey, my college was on TV in Florida.'"
From CBS College Sports offering live Webcasts of every NCAA Division I men's basketball tournament game to small schools like Rhode Island College showing its games to fans and alumni across the country, Web streaming is a trend with many applications. But it's also an emerging technology with many questions. How difficult is it to implement? What are the costs and benefits? Is it feasible for small colleges and high schools? What does the future hold for Web streaming?
Tencher says the benefits of Webcasting have been very real for RIC. For one, it has helped the school reach out to alumni and fans. Just as important, it works to bring new students in.
"Our coaches can tell their recruits that their parents or grandparents are going to be able to watch their games from anywhere," Tencher says. "Our coaches think it's the greatest thing. And I think the kids really like going back and watching the archived games with their family and friends."
At the Division I level, the University of Arkansas has been active in Webcasting, airing many of its women's sports and baseball games live while offering replays of football and men's basketball. "We're engaging alums and fans not only in our backyard, but across the country," says Mark Shenkman, Associate Athletic Director for Marketing and Licensing at Arkansas. "An Arkansas alum who lives in California can talk about seeing that great catch in centerfield with someone who was at the game or saw it on the news in Fayetteville. It allows your fan base to expand its boundaries."
The Horizon League turned to Webcasting three years ago as a less-expensive alternative to televising its games. "Under our old contract with a regional sports network, we were paying a lot of money to get 12 to 14 events on television every year, mostly men's basketball games," says Will Roleson, the league's Associate Commissioner for Communications and Multimedia. "There wasn't much advertising time for us to sell on the broadcasts, and it was hard to promote the games because they were on at various times and days of the week. So we decided to take that pot of money and try something new--putting our league's men's and women's basketball games on the Internet."
The league has retained a deal that places a handful of games on the ESPN networks, and some member schools have select games televised locally. Otherwise, it is available on the Horizon League Network (HLN), which exists solely on the Web. More than 21,000 registered for the free account needed to watch the games this year, well exceeding the 8,500 registrations received the year before. Most member schools also Webcast non-league games and several have started showing other sports as well.
High schools are also getting in on the act. Wheat Ridge (Colo.) High School just completed its first season of Webcasting, carrying football, basketball, soccer, and softball home games.
"We've had a great response, both from our fans and other schools," says Nick DeSimone, Athletic Director at Wheat Ridge. "Let's says grandma and grandpa live three hours away and can't be here for the senior night basketball game. If an athlete isn't going to play in college, this is basically the end of his competitive career. With the Webcast, anybody who can get to a computer can watch the game--including his grandparents."
COSTS & LOGISTICS
While the benefits of putting sporting events on the Web seem to be growing, the big question is: What are the costs? There are two basic parts of any Webcast. The front-end production side involves cameras and operators, announcers, directors, and equipment setup. The back end, which comprises the delivery of the telecast, includes an on-site computer for mixing (bringing the audio and visual elements together) and encoding (converting the video and audio signals into a format easily passed over the Internet), servers, bandwidth, and information technology experts.
Most schools manage the front-end production themselves, often partnering with other entities. At Wheat Ridge, the audio-visual department supplies the camera and other equipment as well as students to serve as announcers and camera operators, so all DeSimone had to buy was a good laptop computer with a broadband card.
"My biggest worry was a kid saying or showing something inappropriate," DeSimone says. "So we made sure the students on this project were quality kids. Then we established parameters, which make sure that the camera operator and announcers focus on the game and not comment on anything else."
Roleson says many Horizon League schools are partnering with their communications departments for gameday help. "We are using students to help produce many of the Webcasts, whether that means operating the cameras or actually producing and directing the broadcast itself," he says. "We really haven't found any difference in quality, provided you have the right equipment up front."
As for purchasing equipment, Tencher says it's important to avoid the temptation to buy cheap. "We started out with $22 headphones and quickly found out you're better off paying $90 for a good pair because the quality is so much better," he says. "Since then, we make sure everything is first class. We use top-of-the-line commercial cameras, which cost about $2,500, and top-of-the-line computers, which cost about $2,000."
In the Horizon League, Roleson says it cost schools between $15,000 and $20,000 to get started, and some league members are now upgrading to higher-end equipment. "We're finding that people's expectations are rising, and you need to have more of the bells and whistles," he says. "Using slightly more expensive equipment that has replay and full graphics and other features provides an experience people are more accustomed to when they watch sports."
Athletic departments can also repurpose other assets to make Webcasting work. For example, it may be possible to use a feed from the radio call of the game for audio. This can only work, of course, if the school owns the rights to the radio broadcasts or gets the approval of the rights holder. Other schools have tapped into the feed for the arena's video board rather than produce their own telecasts.
While most of the production aspects of Webcasting can usually be handled in-house, the back-end process is typically farmed out. "If your school has an IT department that's involved in teaching this technology or already practicing it, that's one thing," says Dave Gardy, Chairman and CEO of TVWorldWide and President of the International Webcasting Association. "Otherwise, I would rely on an outside data center. Serving even 500 simultaneous streams and managing that whole process is not something you want to try internally."
Unlike with television, each viewer of a streamed event requires their own flow of data. If you go from 100 viewers for one game to 1,000 for the next, you have to be able to send 10 times more data to meet the demand. This demand is expressed in bandwidth, and the basic rule is you can never have enough.
One of the first questions potential partners will have is: How many people will watch your telecast? "Most providers do something called a 95th percentile billing," Gardy says. "It's a very convoluted and confusing scheme that only an IT person would understand, but basically they look at the 95th percentile of all the peaks in bandwidth use and set a figure from there. Based on that, you'll have a fixed cost to put in your budget. But if you go over that figure repeatedly because you have some popular content you will face excess use charges."
You'll also be asked at what level you want to send out your feed. The higher the level of coding, the better the video will look--but only to a point, because most people's cable modems and DSL connections limit the quality of the video they'll see. Gardy recommends streaming at 250 or 300 kilobytes a second. This is about six percent of the five megabits per second needed for a true television quality picture.
Most schools find the costs paid for handling and streaming the data to be well worth it. Tencher says he spends $3,000 a year on his Web service, while Roleson says the HLN costs only a fraction of what the league used to pay for its television package. At Wheat Ridge, an outside company distributes the video over the Internet and the school's costs are covered by advertising.
In choosing a company to work with, Gardy suggests looking closely at company histories. "The guys who have been in the industry for years are the ones you can trust because they have used up all their venture capital and are actually generating revenue," he says.
When dealing with outside companies, DeSimone says it's important to get others at the school involved in the discussions at the early stages. "Sit down with the school administration, including the financial people, the legal people, and the facilities people," he says. "They see things from a different perspective. Our district office was very helpful in negotiating contracts and spelling out exactly who would get and do what."
This brings us to the other side of the equation: revenue. Right now, don't count on a magic pot of gold at the end of the Internet rainbow. For high-demand events, schools can still make more money by selling the rights to broadcast and cable networks than by Web streaming games online. For less popular contests, the revenue is helping schools cover costs--and sometimes more.
Gardy says there are seven ways to bring in revenue through Webcasts: advertising, sponsorship, e-commerce (such as selling video on DVD), syndication to other outlets that pay for your content, selling demographic data and information from users, subscriptions, and pay-per-views. "All those avenues can make money as opposed to typical television, which is really just about advertising," he says. "And we've found it usually has to be a mix of all those to add up to something that is worth your while financially."
Tencher is looking to increase revenue through advertising. "I think there's great potential to sell commercials and corporate sponsorships," he says. "I've told our marketing guy he should bring a copy of our Webcasts to every potential sponsor. If they look at it, they will be impressed with the commercials they can get."
The Horizon League sells some commercials and sponsorships on its broadcasts, but does not yet make a profit. "We'd like to make money on this project, of course," Roleson says, "But at this point we need more people to care about us and know who we are before we look into monetizing the network."
Mike Cassidy, Sports Information Director at the University of Illinois-Chicago, says many advertisers are still cautious about making the jump into the Webcasting arena. "We include ads on our Webcasts in some of our corporate sponsorship packages," he says, "but we have found that some companies are hesitant to spend considerable dollars in this area because there really isn't a hard metric to gauge the demographics of the viewers. We know their IP addresses and how long they were online, and maybe what state they were in. But we don't know whether it was an 18-year-old male or a 35-year-old female who was watching. We're building that library of information, and I hope that in another year or so we'll have some hard numbers we can go to sponsors with."
UIC considered using a subscription model when it started Webcasting three years ago, but ultimately decided to keep things free. "When we started out, we didn't know if it was even going to work," Cassidy says. "So the last thing we wanted to do was charge fans for something that didn't pan out. We've briefly thought of adding a monthly fee, but decided that would put off some of our longtime fans who are used to watching, as well as keep new viewers away."
After several years of providing free audio-only Webcasts of many of its games, including football and men's basketball, Arkansas went to a subscription model in 2005 and upgraded its offerings. "We assumed there would be some adverse reaction to us charging $10 a month for something that had been free," Shenkman says, "but once people saw everything we offered--live video, coaches' shows, replays, press conferences, and so on--we knew the subscribers would feel more connected to the program."
Although he won't go into detail, Shenkman says the site has been turning a profit since the switch to a subscription model. Marketing efforts for it include e-mail campaigns, advertising at event venues and in local papers, and a presence on the department's free Web site. "The video items we put on the free site tend to be more promotional in nature--maybe a highlight video," he says. "But anything we feel would generate special interest goes on the pay side."
While the precise future of Webcasting is still a question mark, one certainty is that it will continue to evolve. Roleson sees a day when Webcasted games will be regularly watched from recliners instead of desk chairs.
"A lot of people don't know that for $50 you can get a simple PC-to-video cable and connect your computer to your television," he says. "It's not perfect television quality, but you can sit on your sofa and watch in comfort. And as streaming grows more popular and the bandwidth available to home users grows, I think it will become second nature. We'll just have to wait and see how fast that happens."
Gardy says electronics manufacturers are starting to produce Web-video friendly television sets, driven largely by the concept of downloadable high-definition movies, but which will also benefit live productions. "People are now trying to stream HD video, and it will develop in the video on-demand market first," he says. "But eventually that will be delivered through the Internet and it will be viewable on either a computer monitor or a larger television screen."
While some people are looking to show Internet video on larger screens, others are trying to make it practical for smaller wireless applications. "The video iPod has really accelerated demand for mobile video," Gardy says. "There isn't much bandwidth available for mobile products, so companies have to develop very efficient uses of bandwidth. This in turn will also allow the quality to improve on larger screens since we'll be able to send out that much more data."
For now, though, the focus remains on bringing games to people who otherwise wouldn't be able to watch them. And Cassidy says there's no reason for anyone to remain on the sidelines.
"By no means do we have a large budget here at UIC," he says. "This project was achieved through the gumption of a few people on our staff who really wanted to make it happen. I'm confident that even if you're a high school with modest financial resources, with a decent investment, you could have this up and running rather quickly."
Sidebar: YOURS IS MINE
Many schools limit their Webcasting efforts to home games. But by cooperating with other schools, you may be able to expand your offerings at little to no cost. "We can all generate more revenue on our sites if we share because then we can provide our fans more games," says Mark Shenkman, Associate Athletic Director for Marketing and Licensing at the University of Arkansas. "It wasn't always the case, but the current trend is that schools are much more willing to share their content for mutual benefit.
"One problem, however, is that sharing is limited to schools on the same platform," he continues. "A CSTV school can only share with another CSTV school, but not with a Jump school. I think the technology will eventually allow us to bridge that gap, though."
Sharing content with television networks is another story. Arkansas doesn't even bother trying to Webcast football and men's basketball games because of television's demand for exclusivity. But when ESPN2 wanted to carry the Razorbacks' spring football game two years ago, Shenkman was forced to get creative.
"They immediately told us we wouldn't be able to stream it," he says. "And we said, 'No way. We've been promoting this Webcast for two months. We're going to have to co-exist.' They replied they might not do the game then, which was going to be a delayed package anyway.
"So I went to back to ESPN and said we would Webcast the game live, but once it was over, I would upload their broadcast of the game to our site and stream that as our replay. I also said we'd leave in all their commercials,'" Shenkman continues. "They couldn't believe I would carry their ads, so they agreed and suddenly I was their best friend. It's easy for people to get territorial over these things, which is frustrating. But it was just a matter of finding a way for all of us to benefit."