SVG College Q&A: Mark Hulsey, VP of Production, BTN

Tonight, Big Ten Network (BTN) kicks off its seventh season of college football. In that short time, the network has grown from an outlet in its infancy struggling with carriage and distribution to serving as the gold standard of college sports television.

BTN will produce 28 Big Ten football games in the first five weeks of the season alone, and behind the logistics of it all is Mark Hulsey, VP, production/executive producer.

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Mark Hulsey, BTN

Hulsey joined the Big Ten Network in July 2009, and, under his direction, it has produced more than 400 live events and more than 250 hours of studio programming annually. He also heads the network’s successful Student U program, which streams more than 300 live Olympic-sport contests.

Sitting down with SVG, Hulsey spoke about what makes BTN so successful, the differences between working in pro and college sports, and how the network is preparing to welcome two new universities into the mix next summer.

How’d you spend your summer? Is there even an offseason in the college sports world anymore?
The offseason is dictated by the fact that you can leave at 6 p.m. every night rather than 10 p.m. every night.

We do have some advantages, though, where we have a little bit of time to plan in the summer. The schedule is not as taxing as it is during the regular production year. So it gives us some time for evaluating talent and evaluating our equipment.

It was an enjoyable summer. We’re also already planning for expansion in 2014 with Rutgers and Maryland.

There are many new and proposed college networks: Pac-12, SEC, a possible ACC network. What, in your opinion, is it about BTN that makes it the benchmark that many of these new networks are being measured against?
It helped that we were first, without question. Our goal is to be the best college sports television network possible in everything we do and to improve our product every year. There are advantages to being first, and the fact that we’ve done it successfully is a tribute to our staff, to the conference, and to our partners at Fox. We don’t rest on our laurels. Every year, we constantly ask ourselves, How can we get better?

You’ve worked for sports franchises and regional sports networks in the past. What are some of the biggest differences that come with operating a college conference network?
Without question, the passion of our viewers is different in college versus the professional ranks. I was fortunate at my last job at Fox to oversee the telecast of the St. Louis Cardinals, a traditionally strong pro product that has a great history in this market. Those fan bases are incredibly passionate and loyal, but there’s just something unique about college sports fans. The emotional attachment they have to these games and to these schools puts more pressure — and I think it’s good pressure — on us to produce a better product. If something happens on a college football telecast, the passion of our viewers is quickly evident. We hear about it. But I think that’s good; I think that puts us on our game and makes us realize that a graphical error or a slip-up by one of our announcers’ not understanding a statistical reference or a historical fact, that’s not tolerated. That makes us better, believe me.

In what ways has the relationship between the network and the Big Ten schools changed or grown in the time since you joined the network?
The camaraderie and the working relationship that the network has with the schools has strengthened every year. I think they fully understand what they have in this network, that we’re here for them. The support that we’ve received since day 1 has been terrific, but I’ve seen clearly, in my short time here, how that’s improved every year.

And that’s in all sports. Not just football or men’s basketball but all of the sports. The amount of exposure that we give to the Olympic sports has been appreciated by everybody. I can say our relationships with the schools could not be better.

Have you begun working with the staffs at Rutgers and Maryland? And what will you do throughout this academic year to help prepare technologically for those schools’ joining the fold next summer?
I and our engineering team traveled to Rutgers and Maryland last February to get an initial look at all of the campuses and get a better understanding of the venues. Last month, our executive team also traveled to those campuses to get a better handle on both campuses and all the work that needs to be done.

I can assure you that both Maryland and Rutgers are going to do everything possible to make sure that we have a successful launch. Both campuses are a little different. Rutgers is a little more spread out than Maryland so that might provide a few more challenges, but we have time to work on it. [Nebraska was a very successful launch, and] I’m confident that we’ll see the same with Maryland and Rutgers.

In your opinion, what’s the next frontier for BTN? Where can the network go next?
When you look at what we’ve done with BTN2GO, our original programming, and our studio shows, I think its steady growth year-to-year is what’s important to us. Again, it goes back to my early statement about getting better each year. If we always maintain the goal of being the best college sports network on television, that’s well within reach, and that’s a great goal to have.