Conference USA Floods Streaming Viewers With 1,150 Events With Help From CBS College Sports

By Carolyn Braff

When it comes to online streaming, Conference USA is eliminating excuses by creating opportunities. Two years ago, the Conference began mandating that each of its 12 member schools stream their athletic competitions online and backed up its proclamation with some cash, providing each school with the equipment necessary to do so. The investment has paid off, as the conference has since seen a four-fold increase in the production of online content, and has laid the groundwork for other conferences to follow suit.

“We did a little bit of research and realized that the growth in broadband connections was happening at a pretty rapid pace,” explains Britton Banowsky, commissioner of Conference USA. “The technology relative to producing events and streaming events online was becoming more affordable and the production equipment was things that we felt we could afford.”

In 2006, in concert with CBS College Sports (then CSTV), the Conference began purchasing equipment for its member schools, training campus representatives in the use of that equipment and encouraging each school to develop an online event offering.

“When we did our deal with Conference USA, one of the big things that came out of it was the fact that we would have the rights to stream all non-televised events,” explains Tom Buffolano, GM and VP of digital programming and subscription for CBS College Sports Network. “We undertook a project with them to not only have equipment purchased for the schools, we also sent representatives to train the various departments.”

“We have thousands of athletic events going on on our campuses through the course of the year, so we encouraged them to try to grow a fan base or an audience for them,” Banowsky says. “We’ve been really pleased with the way that the schools have stepped up.”

Step up they have, more than quadrupling their offerings in just one year. After streaming 285 events in the 2006-07 school year, Conference USA schools successfully streamed more than 1,150 events in 2007-08 after working through some of the facility and wiring issues that plagued the schools the year before.

“What they’re doing is completely significant,” Buffolano says. “It’s an ambitious undertaking, and their fan base is now more connected to their athletic programs than they were before we became partners with Conference USA. There’s a lot more content out there for their fans to experience that they were never able to see before. We see them as being a very progressive-minded conference when it comes to streaming.”

“Our audience is certainly growing,” Banowsky says. “We’re seeing more people purchase those packages online, so there’s a revenue side of it, but most of all we want to be a conference that is ahead of the curve.”

A relatively new conference, C-USA was formed in 1995, but its current membership of 12 schools was not set until the 2005-06 school year. The schools range in geography from west Texas to east North Carolina, and their level of technical expertise spans an equally vast divide.

“We felt it was important to get everybody their own package of equipment so that every school had the same chance to stream events,” explains Kelly Carney, associate commissioner of Conference USA. “There are schools that have gone further down the road, but we wanted to make it even across the board so that not having the equipment wasn’t a hurdle that one school had but another didn’t.”

The conference, with approval from the board of directors, provided the funding, but when it came to determining exactly what to buy, Conference USA turned to its broadcast partner, CBS College Sports.

“They said based on the money that we had to spend, here’s what your best options are,” Carney says. “They ordered it for us, took it in house and loaded all the software. We offered training for those who could get to Dallas and CSTV sent people here to walk through how it worked.”

The relationship did not stop at the initial training stage.

“On a daily basis, we have people that work directly with the different Conference USA schools and their video departments to make sure that we’re enabling them to stream as many events as they have resources to do,” Buffolano says. “It’s a collaborative effort and, from our perspective, Conference USA is doing something that no other conference is doing. Not just in the quantity of events, but in the way they showcase to their fan base the best of their athletic department.”

Surprisingly, making the financial commitment to buy the gear was not nearly as difficult as finding the personnel to operate it.

“The real trick was getting the universities to commit the human resource power,” Banowsky explains. “The equipment wasn’t that expensive, in the grand scheme of things. It really was about them allocating people on campus that would take ownership of it, go turn the equipment on, make sure it was hooked up right, make sure there was audio feed to it. The logistical piece was really the most challenging, not the equipment side.”

The Canon GL-1 camera, Toshiba laptop and Conopus Firewire A/D converter that the conference provided for each school is coming up on its third anniversary, so if the member institutions do not begin upgrading the equipment themselves, they will likely look to the Conference to come up with a plan. While choosing the proper upgrade for 12 separate streaming operations can be a daunting task, Banowsky is confident that his team will come up with the right solutions to keep his schools streaming into the future.

“We do go out and source the various pieces of equipment that we think the conference USA folks should purchase,” Buffolano says, but no definitive plans have been made as of yet to replace any of the Conference’s existing equipment.