Colleges, Universities build brands through tech

By Ken Kerschbaumer

Is college athletics the next frontier when it comes to TV and broadband production? With hundreds of schools hosting thousands of college sporting events taking place every day during the school year, parents and family sometimes thousands of miles away, and alumni scattered to the four corners of the globe the resounding and obvious answer is yes.

The trick now, for both universities and their distribution partners is to figure out a way to most cost-effectively produce the events and deliver a high-quality experience.

“If the fan experience is not delivered at the highest level they’ll find content somewhere else, where it’s more reliable and a better experience,” says Tim Pernetti, CSTV senior vice president of programming and talent.

That’s one of the reasons universities and colleges are looking to ink affiliate deals with the likes of a CSTV, Penn-Atlantic, ESPNU or JumpTV (which acquired XOS collegiate streaming rights for $60 million this past summer). The companies provide the technical backbone to offer fans a consistent streaming experience and can also wrap other content, like scoreboards, player profiles, and press conferences, around the live events, keeping fans coming back even when there isn’t a game. And the ability to more easily monetize the events through advertising doesn’t hurt either.
“The 10 years ahead will be more of the same on television but explosive growth in new media,” says Burke Magnus, ESPNU vice president and general manager.

Companies like CSTV and ESPNU provide the sort of high-quality networks that give schools an opportunity to easily tap into multiple platforms: TV, mobile and, especially, broadband. But other distribution options, whether local cable access channels, local TV stations, or even cable VOD, are driving athletic departments to develop comprehensive production units.

One school that has already taken the production plunge is New Mexico State University. The school recently put into operation a small production vehicle capable of handling eight-camera, standard-definition coverage of everything from football to basketball, baseball and beyond.

The unit is based around six JVC DV1500V cameras and two Panasonic DVX100B cameras. Steve Macy, New Mexico State Associate Athletic Director says the new truck will give fans at home a chance to watch the games on Time Warner Cable, FSN Arizona, and Comcast Cable’s local access channel. The school will produce and distribute at least 43 games via AggieVision, produced by the University’s mobile production unit.

Comcast affiliates in Las Cruces, Albuquerque, Gallup, and Santa Fe and Time Warner Cable in El Paso will carry each of these events, while Altitude Sports & Entertainment and FSN-Arizona will carry selected events. In most cases, these games will be carried live but home football games will be tape delayed in Las Cruces.
Macy says that the university wanted maximum control over game coverage and the ability to cover the events it wants to cover. “We decided to take the bull by our own horns and create our own mobile video production unit,” says Macy. “We’ll be mostly doing home events but also some road games and the trailer will also be used by other university departments.”

Students in the Communication Department will complement five full-time staffers that include a general manager and assistant FM, two videographers and an IT engineer.

“By year two we also believe the production truck will be a money-making venture as well,” says Macy.

Getting Exposure

Macy, however, adds that AggieVision isn’t about turning a profit. Instead that is a nice potential side benefit of the main purpose: giving the school more exposure.
“We felt that we were severely under-exposed and the only way to generate additional exposure for our program was to develop a distribution system,” says Macy. “Last year, we used external production companies for a limited number of events, but knew the long-term goal could only be done if we could produce our own events.”

Meanwhile across the country at the University of Central Florida in Orlando John Kvatek, video director, led a similar effort to gain exposure for the university.
“We have to create a brand and we’re fighting for market share so we’re in an explosive growth phase,” says Kvatek. “We’ve made some big investments and are using video production to catch up.”

Topping the list of big investments is a new football stadium that opened this September. Located on campus the new stadium will make it easier for students to attend the games and also easier for national and regional TV networks to cover the action.

Our stadium was completely Greenfield and pre-wiring the stadium to make it TV friendly was part of the design,” he adds. “If we’re going to get TV coverage we need to give them a reason to come and one way is to be an easy place for them to come to. And now they can set up for a broadcast in less than four hours thanks to analog SD and triax cable and single-mode fiber to handle ESPN.”

Working From Strength

While video production is a strong tool for up-and-coming athletic programs to build brand the larger schools, like Texas A&M and Florida State University, use it to continue to tighten their relationships with alumni, fans, and sponsors.

“We look at all digital media as a tool to tell the story of Texas A&M,” says Drew Martin, Texas A&M Assistant Athletics Director for Branding and Creative Development. “The Internet provides a way to be more interactive with the fan base and learn what they want while the big board in the stadium helps us target messages to fans in the stands.”

Multi-million dollar scoreboards have been installed across all Texas A&M facilities but even the big schools aren’t free from challenges. Pre-wiring the football stadium at Texas A&M for HD was cost prohibitive due to the size of the three-deck stadium. “We work as cooperatively as we can because at some point our network partners like ESPN on ABC will have to choose [whether they want to do our game or a game at an already pre-wired facility].”

Billy Vizzini, Florida State University football video coordinator, says FSU also hasn’t fibered its stadium, leaving it and any other major program without fiber vulnerable. “If you start losing games or you’re a program on the edge and you don’t have a pre-wired stadium the networks are going to make a choice to go to a game in a pre-wired stadium because it makes life easier and their costs go down,” he says.

Bigger schools also tend to have bigger communications departments that can come in handy for sports video. In 1989 FSU slashed its own athletic department video costs by operating it as part of the communications department. “When the athletic department made the move to videotape the school of communications became involved,” says Vizzini. “We were able to bring their knowledge and experience to the athletic department and also have cost savings because we didn’t need to hire a full-blown staff. We can use students, interns or graduate assistants and save money up front to get events on TV or the Internet.”

New Mexico State is taking a similar approach. “I think that having a good communications department was very important for us to develop a pool of talented young men and women,” says Macy. “However, television is a sexy endeavor and I believe that we would have been able to find interested students regardless.”

The Right Partner

As schools like New Mexico State, UCF, Texas A&M and FSU step up with more internal video productions they continue to get the attention of networks like CSTV or ESPNU. Jason Dimberg, senior director of advanced technology for CSTV, says it’s actually cheaper to acquire video streaming rights than audio streaming rights because CSTV doesn’t need to strike a deal with a third-party radio station.

“From our standpoint the future is video, video, video,” he says. “And as facilities
have become video friendly we’ve definitely seen an increase in the amount of content available.”

Of course, acquiring the programming is only half the battle. Also important? Making sure fans can see the action. That’s one reason the networks rely on university students and alumni to encourage local cable operators to carry networks like CSTV or ESPNU.

“The schools and conferences are critical to the carriage process,” says Pernetti. “For us it’s about the number of viewers but for the school it’s about their relationship with the local market. When we have a game in a market and the cable operator gets calls from the school that its important to the school, parents, students, and alumni to have CSTV that really resonates.”

One counter-intuitive trend among college sports is that higher-profile sports and schools don’t necessarily mean higher traffic. “We had higher traffic for division II NCAA football than for the stream of the Notre Dame-Air Force game last season because you can see Notre Dame on TV every week but you can’t see Division II anywhere,” he says. “It’s about making content available.”