TranSPORT: For Venue-Circuit Success, Optimizing Existing Infrastructure Is Cornerstone

As the demand for in-game sports content grows exponentially with the launch of each new specialty television network, so too does the question of fiber transport from venue to production facility.

At SVG’s TranSPORT Summit in New York City, one panel addressed the issue of venue circuits, concluding that the best solution was not adding fiber but making better use of existing infrastructure and “sharing the pipes” with all systems that require them.

Ballpark Cam Connects Network to MLB
After launching in 2009, MLB Network has established itself as more than a television destination for live games and original programming. With two HD cameras located in the dugout and centerfield of MLB’s 30 ballparks, MLB Network is integrated directly with each team’s venue in order to get camera angles that no other network can.

MLB Network’s HD Ballpark Cam system is robotically controlled from network headquarters in Secaucus, NJ. From each venue, the network accesses audio, video, communications, data IP, and VPN connectivity at low latency and seamlessly integrates these feeds into its live, nightly studio show.

“We get reactions from the players, especially in the dugout when a home run is hit,” said Mark Henry, director of IT broadcast systems at MLB Network. “We get that access that you wouldn’t get in a typical production and can integrate it into our regular show.”

In addition to the feeds generated from Ballpark Cam, MLB Network transfers a high-quality recording of each game over FTP from the on-site server to the Secaucus studios to be archived for future use.

With new encoding schemes requiring more bandwidth, networks and venues alike must either add more fiber or get creative with existing fiber.

Same Pipes, More Services
MLB Network’s Ballpark Cam is supported by HTN’s OC3 fiber-optic network, introduced in 2007 and integrated into all MLB, NHL, and NBA venues.

“Looking ahead, the OC3 has worked, but now it’s about more bandwidth: how do we get bigger pipes into these locations?” said Christian V. Kneuer, senior director, operations and client relations, for HTN Communications. “We’re now looking at local HD-SDI as a potential upgrade to the existing infrastructure to be able to support more services, more customers at the same time.”

Echoing the need for increased access, Ryan Korte, principal architect at Level 3 Communications, suggested using dark fiber, sharing bandwidth, and leveraging fiber to drive down cost. That includes using the same fiber for IP and point-of-sale technologies as video production.

“It doesn’t mean that we have to separate the pipes,” said Korte. “We have to be cognizant of how we open the pipes to the services in the venue: use QOS, give them what they need, and size [the pipes] for all the services in there.”

Build Relationships as Well as Infrastructure
Although MLB’s 30 ballparks are equipped to handle substantial production crews and fiber requirements, the recent launch of several college-conference networks poses logistical challenges. For many college productions, the first step is getting fiber on campus and to the venue itself.

“Some of these colleges are in the middle of nowhere, and their campuses are complex,” said Kneuer. “Once you get the circuit in, you have to get it to the football field, which [could be] either off campus or in an old infrastructure.”

To handle this challenge, he asserted, you must have a team than can adapt to the vast varieties in infrastructure encountered in college facilities.

Throughout the panel discussion, each speaker continually referred to the importance of relationships. When dealing with the idiosyncrasies of college venues, having the right team and building a relationship with the venue are essential, said Korte.

For Kneuer, forging a relationship between regional broadcasters and venues and enabling the broadcasters to take advantage of the fiber available to them is the goal.

“Traditionally, the backhaul from the regionals out there is usually one path out from the venue to master control,” he explained. “We’re trying to think economically. What makes sense for the regionals? How do we optimize what we have in place? Whether it’s data offering or return feeds, that’s our next big push: to really get the regionals to utilize what’s in place.”

MLB Network is currently working to optimize the connection between the studio and each ballpark. In addition to transferring audio and visual data from the 30 venues, MLB Network’s connectivity allows return feeds: the network can feed data into the stadium over the same bandwidth, occasionally providing content for the video board.

Two years after launch, Henry’s goal is to continually improve the on-air product, without bandwidth being an issue: “Now the creative directors can say, ‘Can we do this?’ and we can respond, ‘We have the bandwidth, let’s go.’”