The Mountain West Readies Its Schools For New-Look Digital Network

A year ago, Jesse Kurtz was your regular local, Colorado-area sports anchor. Now, he’s spending a summer on the road at the center of a major strategy shift for one of the nation’s largest college sports conferences.

Mountain-West-LogoOver the past year, the Mountain West Conference has dusted itself off from the chaos brought upon by the past half decade of realignment and re-positioned itself as a force to be reckoned with, both on and off the playing field.

A major centerpiece of that strategy shift is increased integration of digital-video technology. Earlier this month, the conference officially announced a partnership with Silver Chalice/IMG College-owned Campus Insiders and digital platform provider Volar Video to greatly expand the content capabilities and reach of the Mountain West Digital Network beginning in August for this upcoming academic year.

Video is now seen as such a key component of the conference’s future that its offices have actually been relocated from the building it had called home since the conference’s inception in 1999 to a new structure a few miles across town in Colorado Springs built around an in-house video production set and studio.

It’s a major shift when you consider that when Kurtz arrived last fall as Executive Producer of the Mountain West Digital Network, the conference had fewer than 20 original pieces of video content on its website. His role was to take his video gear across the conference and begin telling the stories of its schools, student-athletes, and teams. Now, the digital network boasts a library of over 350 videos.

“We’re going to broadcasting games that normally have never seen the light of day.” - Jesse Kurtz

“We’re going to be broadcasting games that normally have never seen the light of day.” – Jesse Kurtz

“We basically tried to flood as much video content as we could to try and ramp up to what we’re going to try and accomplish this school year,” says Kurtz, who spent 15 years as a network sports anchor – the last ten at CBS affiliate KKTV in Colorado Springs.

In preparation for August, staffs within the conference office and at member institutions are assessing their video capabilities to boost the digital network that launched as more of a one-man band with the hiring of Kurtz last October. Now, the whole gang across the Mountain West footprint is getting involved after the conference laid out its plan for its member schools to execute during a meeting at the SVG College Sports Summit in May.

“We basically laid it all out for them and showed them we’ve done all the leg work to negotiate this, figure out the best practices, now go do it,” says Kurtz. “So now it’s on them. How much do you want to put on? We’re hoping the competition fuels itself. We work in a very competitive world in college athletics. If School X has fallen behind, they say ‘School Y is kicking our butt here. We can’t let that happen.’ But who knows, maybe all of our schools hit the ground running and do a fantastic job.”

Under the unique alliance with Silver Chalice/IMG College and Volar Video, the Mountain West will live-stream hundreds of its men’s and women’s sporting events (mostly Olympic sports), add branded studio programming, develop sponsorship opportunities, and grow distribution on multiple platforms and devices with the production duties the responsibility of employees and the conference’s schools; a group that will expand to 12 this upcoming year with Utah State and San Diego State joining the Air Force Academy, Boise State, Colorado State, Fresno State, Nevada, New Mexico, San Diego State, UNLV, Wyoming, and Hawaii (football only).

To prepare the schools for this, Kurtz is spending the summer visiting all 12 campuses to assess the video capabilities of each athletic department. The conference office will then foot the bill and equip the schools with the HD gear needed to meet the base requirements. From there, the schools will be off and running.

“It will be patchwork but with the understanding that many of our schools don’t have any of this,” says Kurtz, who noted the conference will mandate some gear purchases, but within reason. If a school already has three HD cameras built by Company A, they won’t force them to use cameras from Company B.  “Obviously, there were some nerves and trepidation as to how it all was going to work. But I think once they got over that initial, ‘oh, so we have more on our plate,’ everyone saw the value in this. So I think it will all work out very well.”

As for the content itself, Kurtz says that the conference has not yet laid out mandated requirements for amount of video content, student staffing, or the like, but that the capabilities of the various schools will be assessed during these campus visits going on this summer.

“The only thing we’ve kind of laid out is a good-faith effort,” says Kurtz. “It will be very apparent to us and everyone else if there is someone not pulling their weight or someone is going very above and beyond. I would hope one of our schools wouldn’t take this to do a one-camera shoot for a softball game. They understand that.”

Through the partnership with Silver Chalice and IMG College, all Mountain West programming will be available through www.campusinsiders.com, the online destination and leading digital content syndication source for college sports. Campus Insiders, a partnership between Silver Chalice Ventures and IMG College, goes beyond the traditional sports media experience, giving dedicated fans an insider’s perspective that includes behind-the-scenes content, original video programming (including hosts Bonnie Bernstein and Seth Davis), and live-streaming events. Campus Insiders will incorporate the Mountain West into its many existing distribution relationships, including partners on VOD, OTT, and IP-Connected platforms.

Meanwhile, Volar Video’s proprietary platform features production software that allows for seamless multi-camera switching, full-custom graphics, and a high-definition embeddable video stream into custom or existing websites. The leadership team of Volar Video previously developed iHigh.com, a digital television network for high school sports.

As the schools start to shoulder more of the load, Kurtz will continue to produce feature content for the digital network – the conference recently invested in a Panasonic AG-HPX600 P2 HD shoulder-mount camcorder as its primary acquisition camera and also added a pair of AG-HPX250 P2 HD handhelds as secondary cameras. There is also a search underway to hire an Associate Commissioner to oversee the administrative side of the network.

“We are excited about the evolution of the Mountain West Digital Network,” said Craig Thompson, Commissioner of the Mountain West. “We know Volar Video’s unique solution and Campus Insiders’ original programming and distribution expertise will give our institutions the ability to provide unparalleled exposure for student-athletes. This venture will heighten the brand of the Conference and enrich how our fans connect with their favorite players and teams.”