The College of Charleston is proving that you don't have to be a D-I powerhouse to get all your games broadcast on HD television. What you do need is vision and a van.
By Will Bryan
Will Bryan is Associate Director of Athletics Communications at the College of Charleston. He has also worked at St. John's University and for the NFL's Carolina Panthers. He can be reached at: email@example.com.
The influence of television on sports over the past 50 years cannot be overstated. From the phenomenon of Monday Night Football to the growth of the NCAA Division I Men's Basketball Tournament, we've seen how televising events can lead to an amazing growth in fan bases.
While the members of major NCAA Division I conferences have enjoyed such benefits due to contracts with national and regional sports networks, the majority of college athletics programs still struggle to get significant television exposure. For mid-major and low-major schools, the challenge is gaining more television coverage--without paying someone to broadcast your games.
Here at the College of Charleston, we have found this is more realistic than many think, thanks to some exciting new technology and the vision of our athletic director. We just finished a men's basketball regular season that included 23 games shown on traditional broadcast television and/or ESPN3 (a worldwide online streaming arm of ESPN that makes content available to subscribers of various cable or Internet companies). And at the end of February, two clips from those telecasts made it to ESPN SportsCenter's Top 10 plays, a segment watched by millions of viewers around the world each day.
We accomplished this by producing games ourselves using a video production van outfitted with the NewTek Tricaster 850 Xtreme, an out-of-the-box production solution including a fully loaded, 24-channel switcher with text, graphics, and animations. This technology allows us to produce high definition (HD) telecasts instead of the lower quality video that is typically streamed online.
INVESTING IN THE FUTURE
Our trek to high-definition telecasts actually began almost six years ago. At that time, we didn't completely know where we were going, but we were taking steps in the right direction. And that was important.
In 2006, like our peers in the Southern Conference, we began using Web-streaming video technology. We plugged a video camera into a laptop and streamed video through a simple Internet connection. The image quality was crude, the graphics poor, and the audio was a direct feed of our radio broadcast. But at least our fans could watch College of Charleston teams compete. Our focus was on men's basketball since the school does not have football, but other sports also benefited, especially soccer and baseball, which are played off-campus.
The next step forward came in 2007 when the school hired Joe Hull to be the new athletic director. Coming from the University of Maryland, Hull understood the importance of video in the landscape of college athletics. He created a new multimedia department and assigned Facility and Operations Director Josh Bryson to run it.
The goal was to produce better live events and create quality video content for the school's Web site, CofCsports.com. Bryson did this by steadily increasing the number and quality of cameras, the sophistication of the broadcast equipment, and the number of student and professional personnel used for production.
During the 2008-09 athletic year, the school opened a new state-of-the-art arena that vaulted us from having one of the oldest gyms in the conference to having one of the best facilities in the Southeast. This enabled us to upgrade our multimedia operations, as we included an in-house video board and space for production crews to plug directly into the arena's audio system and scoreboard interface. The camera locations were also hard-wired to a central location so that external and internal crews would not have to run cords in the seating bowl.
"Long before we decided to invest in a television production truck, we had to invest in better cameras, operators, collateral equipment, and a permanent production room," Bryson says. "Building the new arena allowed us to make the facility very TV-friendly, both for outside and in-house production crews."
The next move came when the school hired Dennis Trapani to be Multimedia Director, reporting to Bryson. Trapani was tasked with producing on-line video streams for men's basketball games that weren't otherwise televised (seven games each year were on Comcast Sports South) and all other sports. Another one of his duties was to provide in-game content for the arena video board and assemble highlight packages after games.
The final steps in our journey to HD occurred a little over a year ago. The school's athletic Web site provider announced that it was moving to a new video portal that would support HD video. Instead of the seemingly ancient streams of grainy Internet video where numbers and faces were difficult to see, the College of Charleston would now be able to stream in HD and make the Web experience identical to what a fan would see on television.
With that development in front of us, and having already invested in equipment and personnel, the college made an institutional decision to build a television production truck. We bought a high roof van, also known as a sprinter van, which provided enough room for our equipment and operators. Inside the van, we installed the NewTek Tricaster production unit, a NewTek 3 Play machine for instant replays, a graphics computer with packages provided by ESPN, audio equipment, widescreen monitors, wiring, connectors, and a cooling system. Using a satellite uplink, we became able to produce HD broadcasts and feed them to local television and ESPN3, as well as stream them through our Web site.
"The biggest hurdle was the up-front cost, but our athletic director made the decision to do it," says Bryson. "We had the cameras already, and the new video portal on our Web site was going to allow us to show games in HD, so we went for it. We were excited to give all of our programs a level of exposure they'd never had before. "
The cost of the truck was less than $300,000, which might seem prohibitive for a non-BCS school without football revenue. But Bryson says the investment was quite economical considering the cost of a traditional TV truck with a full complement of equipment--something only the major networks can afford and can operate. Having our own truck also allows us to take it on the road whenever we want to carry an away game. Renting a production facility for telecasts from other facilities is costly, while our only extra expense when doing games away from home comes from gas for the vans and food for the crew.
One of the reasons the college was able to keep the price of the production truck reasonable was the NewTek equipment, which combines many of the functions of traditional broadcasting into a smaller unit. However, the smaller space provided by the sprinter van and the limitations of the equipment mean that our production crew has to make do with fewer engineers, inputs, and technological flourishes.
"We don't see the technology as limiting us, but as challenging us to find different ways to create a quality product," Bryson says. "There was a group in the Northeast that built a truck similar to ours, but used traditional TV technology, and spent significantly more. The Tricaster, 3Play, and all of the NewTek equipment allowed us to create a smaller and more affordable package."
For a normal men's basketball broadcast, Bryson serves as the production engineer while utilizing a director, a technical director, a 3Play operator, two graphics engineers, and two audio technicians in the truck. The crew also includes four camera operators and a three-person broadcast booth with a play-by-play and two color commentators.
The director sits in the middle of the truck and advises the technical director on which camera feeds to take and when to utilize graphics and replays. One graphics engineer focuses on the graphic at the bottom of the screen, commonly known as the "bug," while the other creates updated individual displays for situations like a free throw attempt.
The 3Play operator scans all four camera feeds as the game goes on and creates replays for in-game playback, as well as clips for commercials and halftime highlight packages. The audio technicians monitor the feeds from the three talent mics, as well as basket and crowd sound, making sure that the mix is always correct.
"The quality of the broadcast certainly depends on the quality of the people running it," says Bryson. "We were very fortunate to have a number of video professionals in our community who worked with us from the beginning and have helped to train our students as well."
And student involvement has been key. While many of the initial telecasts were manned by professionals, the multimedia team has integrated students into nearly all of the productions outside men's basketball.
"I'm particularly excited about our student involvement," says Hull. "The ability to enhance the educational experience of our students and get them involved in broadcast television is very important. The year before we built the truck, we produced 135 streaming events using mostly student help. It is terrific that the students who had developed skill in video production have ratcheted that up to a whole new level."
Trapani has already seen exponentially more interest from students who want to be involved with the broadcast crew, solely because their friends tell them how much fun it is. "I think it's really cool for our students to have a hand in the excitement that comes with this type of quality programming," he says. "I have several students who have been with me since I got here three years ago, and they've gone from carrying a toolbox with all of our cables and connectors to working in a TV truck. You can see how they've grown and how excited they are to be a part of what we're doing."
Overall, there has been a learning curve, but not a steep one. "We've progressed at the rate that I originally thought we would," Bryson says. "We did have a satellite uplink failure one night, which I'm told never happens. But mostly, I feel like we've done a good job of continually correcting mistakes and making each broadcast better than the previous one."
Along with continually improving our game productions, we needed to work on bringing in revenue from them. While the HD video portal allows us to broadcast anything online, our investments would only pay dividends if we could get our games on television and fill the open commercial spots.
"Selling TV advertising in the local market provides a critical revenue stream," says Hull. "Without it, the numbers just do not add up."
We set out to find a broadcast partner to distribute the school's content, and turned to WMMP-TV, also known as MyTV Charleston. It was a perfect fit because the station was already broadcasting local high school football on Thursday nights. The station excitedly jumped on-board.
"MyTV Charleston has been an excellent partner," Bryson says. "They've provided terrific support so far and have helped to push our broadcasts in the community through their contacts and station advertising."
An equally important development was to get ESPN3 to distribute our content on its worldwide platform. "ESPN3 also gave us the full graphics package, so our productions look like an ESPN broadcast," says Bryson. "And they provided feedback to help us improve."
Not only did the ESPN3 agreement allow our games to be broadcast nationwide for viewers that have access to the service, but it made our events accessible on mobile technology. The WatchESPN app streams games on smartphones and tablets, and is becoming more and more popular and accessible.
Finally, the new Web portal we utilize to stream games that are not aired on MyTV or ESPN3, including other sports, has received positive reviews since its unveiling on March 1. We offer several price points for fans to purchase streams, including a $1.95 single-game price. Along with live broadcasts, the portal allows us to host free highlights and features that are embedded on our Web site's front page. Using the high-quality graphics that we incorporate with our live broadcasts, we are able to display a great product on the Web on a continual basis.
FEEDBACK FROM FANS
Around the conference and beyond, the College of Charleston has come to be known for its TV truck, and other institutions have called to inquire about what we're doing. But the most dramatic reaction has come from Cougar fans.
"The feedback that we've gotten has been very positive," Bryson says. "We're actually starting to get complaints when we don't broadcast the road games. Our fans have developed the expectation that every game is going to be on television in HD.
"In addition, student-athletes love that they and their parents can watch more games," he continues. "Especially in the sports other than men's basketball, the product we put out is a lot better than what our peer institutions are doing."
Hull is definitely pleased with how the project is progressing. "The local TV aspect has gone over very well in this community," he says. "And the ESPN3 partnership has moved our games from a regional to a national scope. Additionally, the digital phenomenon with the WatchESPN app has caught on. People are becoming more and more comfortable watching games on their mobile device or tablet, or even plugging the computer into their TVs. People want access to the games."
The College of Charleston has shown that high-quality telecasts don't have to be the sole purview of the largest athletic departments. Any school, even with a small budget, can find exposure in a media world by providing the public with the high-quality content it wants, when it wants it. While none of this would be possible without today's technology, making it all work comes down to having the right people.
"You need to start by building an infrastructure in your department with people who are motivated to do it and that have the knowledge and the time," says Bryson. "The equipment is great, but it's the people behind the equipment who really make the difference."
Sidebar: High School Options
Colleges may have more resources to broadcast sporting events than high schools do, but that doesn't mean a high school athletic department doesn't have options in this area. The Marist School, in Atlanta, has been using an outside service called PlayOn! to live stream many of its athletic contests over the past three years. Matt Murphy, an assistant swim coach who oversees the broadcast program at the school, explains how it works.
The school was given a laptop loaded with PlayOn!'s software that hooks up to any video camera with an analog output, he says. The software is easy to use and students do almost all of the broadcast work, including the audio and graphics.
"When we started using it, the students who were going to be broadcasting the first games had a short training session and they were able to pick up everything in that brief time," Murphy says. "Now, any time a new student wants to get involved, we shadow them on the software for a short time and then they can use it on their own."
The broadcasts can be done with a wide range of technology, from the basic to the sophisticated. "We can use it with something as simple as a HandiCam if we need to travel light to a road game, or with the more professional equipment we have at the school," Murphy says.
The laptop and software come free with a licensing fee, and there are multiple pricing tiers. All the events are housed on PlayOn!'s servers, and are easy for fans to access.
Murphy says the impact of being able to broadcast games online has meant a lot to the student-athletes and their families. "We had a football player whose father had not missed one of his games in four years, but was called away on business the night of a game," he says. "He watched the game in his hotel room, and it was the first time his son played more than two downs. It was a significant moment for the son, and if we weren't broadcasting, his father couldn't have shared in that."
-- Patrick Bohn