The Start of Something B1G: How a New Brand Is Changing College Hockey’s Video Presence
For the Penn State community, the Pegula Ice Arena is more than just a new hockey rink. It’s a symbol of perseverance, a jewel that emerged from the ground during a time when the rest of the university appeared to be crumbling.
For college hockey in general, it’s a symbol of the dawn of a new day, a milestone – for better or worse – where the landscape of college hockey vastly changed.
This month marked the debut of hockey in the Big Ten, the first major conference to sponsor the sport. Since the announcement, the move has been met with equal parts anticipation and trepidation.
Six schools — Michigan, Michigan State, Minnesota, Ohio State, Penn State, and Wisconsin — have joined forces to create the equivalent of a rock and roll super group. With 23 national championships between them (Michigan owns the most NCAA titles in history with nine), this is anything but a startup league.
As a result, there are two camps: those that feel the Big Ten will so dominate play and recruiting that it could drive smaller schools in other, lesser-known conferences — Atlantic Hockey, WCHA, ECAC, and the like — out of business and those who say the Big Ten brings unprecedented exposure to the sport and that, in turn, is good for everyone.
Regardless of where you may stand on the issue, there’s no doubt that NCAA hockey has a much different feel than it did a year ago, and with it has come a wide array of changes and expansion at both the college and the television-network level.
Improvements on Campus
With five NCAA championships and a whopping 20 Frozen Four appearances, the Minnesota Golden Gophers are as big a power as you can find in college hockey. But even on the Minneapolis/St. Paul campus, the move to the Big Ten has been met with much fanfare and a bevy of venue and video-production changes.
“The WCHA was a premier conference in college hockey,” says Tadd Wilson, scoreboard and video manager, Minnesota Athletics, “but, obviously, the Big Ten carries more weight with its name. We treat [hockey] as a big sport. For us, it’s on par with football and men’s basketball. That’s not changing now that we’re going to the Big Ten.”
In anticipation of the move to the Big Ten, in 2012, the Gophers home, Mariucci Arena, underwent major renovations that included the addition of a center-hung LED scoreboard, LED fascia boards, and a state-of-the-art sound system.
The focus is entirely on the in-venue show because the Big Ten Conference television deals ensure that every Gophers game will air on local RSN Fox Sports North/Fox Sports North+ (19 games, 12 home), BTN (nine games, five home), or NBC Sports Network (one game).
The university constructed a video control room inside the football venue, TCF Bank Stadium, a year ago. The room is fibered up with the stadium, Mariucci, and basketball venue Williams Arena.
For hockey, Wilson and his team produce the in-venue videoboard show. They have three of their own in-house manned cameras in addition to penalty-box cameras, a robotic camera under the center-hung scoreboard, and robotics over the goals. Add that to the cameras from the television broadcast — the in-house show gets individual feeds of each camera used by the broadcaster — and Wilson is producing a major show that takes in about 12 feeds.
The control room in TCF Bank Stadium is outfitted with a Ross Video Vision 3M/E switcher, a Harris router with integrated multi-image viewers, Click Effects CrossFire for clips playback, Ross Video BlackStorm video-playout server, Chyron LEX character generator, and two Tightrope Zeplay systems capable of eight channels of replay.
“With so many new opponents this year, we spent a lot of time designing an entirely new graphics package,” says Ryan Maus, new media manager, Minnesota Athletics. “So there’s been plenty more work on the frontend than we normally would have.”
Meanwhile, similar renovations to the Michigan State Spartans’ hockey home, Munn Ice Arena, could be on the horizon. Currently, the 6,470-seat venue built in 1974 hosts two SD Daktronics videoboards.
The conference’s new hockey television package has already led to some changes at Munn.
During the summer, the school partnered with Musco Sports Lighting to install LED lighting, a whiter system more conducive to televising hockey. According to Rick Church, director of broadcast technology at Michigan State, the Big Ten has mandated installation of the XOS HD replay system for hockey across the conference. Supplied by the conference office, that equipment has helped Michigan State start the transition to HD inside Munn.
“[Big Ten Hockey] is a very different feel,” says Church, adding that major upgrades to Munn could be coming in the next three to five years. “Now we’re playing teams in our league that are the Wisconsins, Penn States, and Michigans — the biggies in the Midwest. It was nice playing with Ferris State and Bowling Green and the teams from the Upper Peninsula, because they were close and easy to get to with more bus trips. But now we’re playing in the same league as all of our other sports, so it makes more sense.”
Nowhere, though, have the changes been more massive than in Happy Valley at Penn State. Designated a club team as recently as 2011-12, the Nittany Lions are playing in arguably the nation’s best NCAA conference in inarguably the nation’s grandest venue.
When Penn State alumnus and Buffalo Sabres owner, Terry Pegula and his wife, Kim, donated $88 million for the construction of Pegula Ice Arena, it set the final wheels in motion that moved the university to Division I in men’s hockey and gave men’s hockey the six programs it needed for the Big Ten to sponsor the league.
The spectacular 200,000-sq.-ft. multipurpose facility seats 6,000 for hockey and includes a stunning center-hung LED video scoreboard and fascia and ribbon displays.
“For two years, [this is] why everyone came here: to be a part of Penn State University, be a part of Big Ten hockey, and get a chance to play in front of the best student body in the world in this beautiful arena,” Penn State coach Guy Gadowsky said prior to the team’s first game in the building on Oct. 11. “You know it’s coming for two years. Now the reality sets in, and it gets you amped up.”
Networks Buy the Hype
The big question remains: is there enough hunger for college hockey nationwide? The sport has had its hotbeds (the Upper Midwest and New England) dating back decades, but, outside of those regions, college hockey is a sort of anomaly.
In April, Yale’s victory over Quinnipiac in the NCAA championship game on ESPN averaged 400,000 viewers, according to a report by the New York Times. Last season, the NBC Sports Network, which carried select Hockey East and ECAC games, averaged 68,000 viewers for its 27 telecasts, with a high of 150,000 for Harvard-Cornell on Nov. 16.
Despite those numbers, networks are doubling down, in hopes that increased exposure will build the sport. NBCSN expanded its college-hockey coverage this year, extending its relationship with Hockey East by two years and striking new deals with Notre Dame and the Big Ten. CBS Sports Network will also air 18 games from the National Collegiate Hockey Conference (NCHC), a league made up of programs like University of Denver, University of North Dakota, Colorado College, and University of Minnesota Duluth. Traditional powers in college hockey, yes, but not exactly national sports brands that jump off the page.
“We’re in an investing phase, not in a moneymaking phase, with Big Ten hockey,” said BTN President Mark Silverman at the first Big Ten Hockey Media Day at Xcel Energy Center in Saint Paul earlier this month. “The hope is that, over time, we can grow the sport so it can pay for itself and, hopefully, be an overall benefit to the network. We think it will bring in new viewers. We think it will help with our ratings. But we’re making a significant investment, and it’s not a short-term investment.”
The new Big Ten brand is proving very lucrative in the TV market for the conference’s six teams. More than half of all Big Ten games will be televised nationally this year (BTN, 27 games; ESPNU/ESPNews, 7; NBCSN, 5), a total that vastly overwhelms the rest of college hockey, with its 53 schools of varying sizes and budgets throughout five leagues.
“Big Ten anything is a big deal, no matter what sport it is,” said Penn State junior forward Tommy Olczyk at Media Day. “It’s an honor to be a part of such a prestigious league.”