College Football Preview: The Mtn., WAC Sports Network Tackle Transition Years

Conference realignment is a pressing issue in college athletics today, and, with television networks sprouting up across the country, these specialized media platforms need to be prepared to deal with a somewhat regular rotation of institutions.

A conference network’s goal is to give its universities exposure, and that can be particularly challenging when the client list is rapidly shifting. Out west, the scene gets particularly murky as the Pac-10 grows into the Pac-12, budding power BYU goes independent, and the Mountain West and Western Athletic Conference (WAC) juggle a lengthy list of member schools.

The landscape of Mountain West is drastically changing, with one school in its first year of conference membership (Boise State), one in its final year (TCU), and three in line to join in 2012 (Fresno State, Nevada, Hawaii).

The conference coping with the loss of those three institutions is the WAC, which is prepared to open its doors to Denver, Seattle, UT-Arlington, UT-San Antonio, and Texas State (only UT-San Antonio and Texas State field football programs) in 2012.

Despite all that, the Mountain West Sports Network (The Mtn.) and the WAC Sports Network (WSN) are taking a similar approach: forge on.

The Mtn. – Mountain West Sports Network
As Mountain West picks up national power Boise State, The Mtn. enters the 2011-12 academic year ready to broadcast to its largest geographic footprint to date. In the past calendar year, Comcast has added The Mtn. to its lineups in the Greater Atlanta, Boston, Indianapolis, Detroit, Chicago, Nashville, Houston, and Jacksonville, FL, areas expanding the network’s reach into a whopping 32 million homes.

“It’s great for the conference,” says Steve Hurlbut, VP of production and programming at The Mtn. “The schools and the coaches love it because it helps with recruiting. If a recruit is from out of the area, they can tell them to check out our game, and families can see their kids play even if they are from far away.”

NEP is the primary truck provider for The Mtn., which runs its games as a seven-camera shoot. According to Hurlbut, the network — which carries 30 football games from Sept. 3 to Dec. 3 — may experiment with an UltraMo camera on selected games, but plans for that are still in the discussion stages.

The Mtn. plans to keep its fans abreast of coming and going members by covering scores and highlights of those schools not yet in the conference’s ranks. The network also welcomes in a new primary play-by-play voice: Todd Harris, who will call 13 premium games with broadcast partner Todd Christensen, takes over for James Bates, who had been the primary play-by-play man since the network launched in 2006 before joining CBS Sports this summer.

WAC Sports Network
Through primary production partner XXL, WSN, a property of Learfield Sports, returns for a second season with a slate of nine football games, kicking off Sept. 17 with Nevada at San Jose State.

Despite the wealth of changes headed the conference’s way, WAC Sports officials are maintaining a straightforward approach concerning their network outreach, ensuring that new geographic regions will earn necessary exposure.

“Our broadcast philosophy has remained the same since the conception of the network,” says Diane Penny, VP of television for Learfield Sports. “We have reached out to potential affiliate partners in the new WAC member markets in efforts to build the network’s reach for current and future WAC fans.”

A typical game broadcast can be a six-camera operation and is typically run out of a Mira Mobile, XXL DX-17, or NEP Supershooter production truck.

In the offseason, WSN added an affiliate in Las Vegas (KTUD), and Learfield hopes to finalize more distribution rights prior to the first kickoff later this month.

Says Penny, “It is just as important as it was when the network was established for the conference to gain exposure for the WAC membership.”