Longhorn Network Ready for Launch, Future Needs

ESPN and the University of Texas are putting the finishing touches on the Longhorn Network’s launch on August 26. But with a 20-year relationship ahead, the technical facilities have required a mix of practical thinking to get the network on air properly while also laying a foundation for future services.

“Given that this is a 20-year project we wanted to build out a technical environment that is flexible, efficient, and can support the network for the long haul,” says Chris Calcinari, ESPN VP of event operations. “We have 11 venues on campus and are looking at every single area to make sure we have connectivity to everything, including the press conference area.”

For approximately the next eight months the Longhorn Network is residing in a temporary facility with a studio and control rooms while a more permanent facility is built on a different floor in the same building. The network has leased 18,000 sq. ft. of space in the office park about a mile from campus. A 5,000 sq. ft technical facility complements a 2,000 sq. ft. studio.

The backbone of the studio operations is the Bexel Hercules flypack complete with a Sony MVS8000G production switcher, Calrec Artemis audio console, Vizrt graphics, and Ikegami cameras in the studio. Two Quantel edit suites are also part of the mix, allowing for content to easily be recorded and transferred as files to Quantel systems in Bristol and Los Angeles.

That facility is connected to ESPN’s Digital Center in Bristol, CT and Los Angeles with the latter handling master control operations for the network. Two 34-foot Lyon Video production trucks are on hand for sports event production and the network expects to produce more than 175 sporting events next year.

“The temporary facilities will support the studio side of the operation for the first six or eight months while we build out the long-term infrastructure,” adds Calcinari.

Sports in the mix include football, volleyball, swimming, soccer, track and field, baseball, basketball, softball, press conferences, and more. The production team is already hard at work on “Texas All Access,” a show that will take viewers behind the scenes with the football team.

“We’re taking the team’s directions in terms of what we can show, as we are telling stories and not looking to give away strategies and gameplans,” says Stephanie Druley, Longhorn Network, VP of production.

The diverse number of sports also means a diverse group of venues but they all now have one thing in common: a single-mode fiber infrastructure that totals 700 strands with local power for cameras, power and Internet capabilities at the truck docks, and even new announce booths.

Jeff Willis. ESPN, coordinating technical manager, says the first venue survey began in late February with a cabling strategy laid out by April.

“There was some fiber infrastructure but only football had Tac-12 cabling while baseball and basketball had more copper,” he says. “So when the deal was 20 years long we decided to put fiber in everywhere.”
Calcinari says one of the long-term goals is, in theory, the ability to bring camera and audio signals back to the studio locations and have the shows cut there.

“That won’t happen for a minimum of three years, if ever,” he explains. “The struggle is you then need studio resources to support it and sometimes you’re better off in the field. When doing five or six camera shows you could argue the model of sending camera signals back over fiber is palatable but it doesn’t make sense for a show with 20-plus cameras, multiple talent on the fields and booth, and dozens and dozens of mics.”

The two HD trucks are smaller 34-foot units but they are still powerful courtesy of a Grass Valley Kalypso production switcher, a 48-fader Yamaha audio board, six Grass Valley LDK cameras outfitted with Fujinon lenses, a Panasonic P2 camera for ENG work, and two EVS units. The communications system can also be connected directly to Los Angeles and Bristol. While the former handles master control and commercial insertion the latter will archive content. And there will be plenty of content as a full-time staff of 80 and additional freelancers deliver thousands of hours of content in the coming months.

For DeLoss Dodds, University of Texas, athletics director, the launch is a proud moment. “ESPN is a class act and what they have done in 30 years is amazing,” he says. “And 30 years from now this will be something special because coaches and kids are what this is all about. Parents and relatives who have not been able to see their kids compete will be able to do that. So I am proud, happy, excited, and looking forward to the challenges.”

Check back next week for more of Sports Video Group’s in-depth coverage of the Longhorn Network’s upcoming launch!