The HD Odyssey, Part 3: The Staffing Challenge

By Carolyn Braff
The following is the third in a series of articles examining how college athletic departments solve the high-definition challenge, without being able to tap into the budget of a major broadcaster. This edition looks at some creative ways schools across the country are staffing their athletic department’s video office, weighing the time investment required to train students against the cost of hiring freelancers.
Every Saturday, more college-football games hit the airwaves in high-definition than ever before, and the schools hosting the productions are starting to follow suit. College athletic offices are enhancing their video departments with HD-quality control rooms, at less than HD-quality prices and often with less than HD-quality operators. Without the budgets afforded to the broadcasters shooting their games in HD, college athletic programs are finding ways to make high-definition affordable, relying on inside expertise, outside opinions, and plenty of student labor to make the system work without breaking the athletic department’s bank.
Rounding Up the Amateurs
Perhaps the most popular way to cut down on the cost of a transition to high-definition is by relying on cheap labor: getting students involved in the event production.
“There are always anxious students,” explains Tom Gelehrter, manager of new media and broadcasting at the
University
of
Cincinnati.
“It’s just a matter of organizing them and training them. We have a fairly new electronic-media program here, and there are always kids who are interested.”
Schools that have a broadcast or communications department often have it easy, as those students are usually interested in getting involved with live event production, and often are required to do so. But weeding through the interested to find the qualified requires plenty of work on the part of the video director.
“Having an in-house staff of students takes a long time to manage and seek out people who are qualified enough,” says Dan Satter, assistant director of athletics for marketing communications at
Boston
University.
Once the qualified students are found, keeping them at work is another challenge.
“I have been lucky: I’ve had some really good unpaid interns. But they also have lives and class,” Gelehrter says. “For me, the biggest challenge is just having the bodies.”
Of course, not every school has the luxury of a pool of cheap labor just outside the athletic department’s doors.
“For the most part, we don’t hire students,” explains Charlie McCoy, technical director at
Stanford
University.
“The students around here are pretty tied up with studying. We only have about 7,000 undergrads, and they’re focused on studying.”
The Training Investment
For schools that can hire students, the first step in utilizing their low-cost workforce is training. With a significant financial investment put into every HD control room, having student labor on hand helps balance the budget, but the thought of putting that investment in the hands of 18-year-olds is enough to make any video director slightly queasy. A strict training regimen is certainly in the cards, which involves an investment of its own.
“The biggest hurdle we have — it’s a plus and a hurdle at the same time — is training all of our students to operate broadcast-quality equipment,” explains
Brandon Meier, executive director of video production at the
University
of
Oklahoma.
Meier oversees a crew of five full-time staff members, one graduate assistant, and about 30 broadcast journalism students. Each of those students must be trained to operate everything from EVS to After Effects, for which Meier sometimes brings in outside help, but he certainly saves the cost of what professional freelancers charge to do the same job.
Rick Church, director of sports broadcasting at Michigan State University, has four full-time staff members and 40 students on staff, whom he trains one at a time.
“It’s actually worked fairly well,” Church says. “Our students basically train each other. We require them by the end of their second or third month here to have a working knowledge of every piece of equipment that we’ve got, so they can run a camera, run a CG, they kind of know what a producer does, kind of know what a director does, and we can go from there.”
The
Freelance Route
For some athletic departments, students play more of a supporting role, while freelancers take the lead on production duties.
“We hire a number of freelancers for our productions,” explains Tim Asher, producer/director at the
University
of
Kentucky.
“All of our camera people are freelance, and these are people that we know in the business who work for ESPN or Fox Sports as well. The reason we’re able to get such good people is, we’re able to guarantee eight days at home, so they don’t have to travel, which is always a big thing.”
Setup and teardown at
Kentucky
is far simpler than it is for an ESPN or Fox Sports production, Asher says, because the operators simply have to walk their camera to a precabled, predetermined location, plug in, and shoot the game. Rather than arrive on-site seven to 10 hours before kickoff, crew calls at
Kentucky
shows are only five or six hours before the game.
Kentucky
does integrate some student help into its freelance base.
“We could not get our jobs done without the students,” Asher says. “We have a really good relationship with the communications department here on campus. We actively recruit people for internships and actual shooting of practices.”
Kentucky
employs eight students to shoot football practices and another eight to work on video-board productions, pulling cables on the sidelines, running cameras at volleyball games, and getting into graphic production whenever possible.
Fierce Competition
No matter who is at the controls, college athletic departments are in constant competition with other colleges, network broadcasts, and local stations for fans’ attention. While some schools rely on students for radio and TV commentary as well as production support, others include the cost of announcers as a significant line item in their budget, hoping to keep pace with the competition.
“It’s not an easy place in which to compete,” says Joe Castiglione, VP for intercollegiate athletics programs and director of athletics at the
University
of
Oklahoma.
“There are some places within our marketplace that have more dollars to work with to hire just the talent. We do our best at finding those rising young stars and try to make it exciting for them to be part of our athletic department.”