SVG College Q&A: Northeast Conference Commissioner Noreen Morris

For smaller mid-major conferences, basketball season is the most wonderful time of the year. The NCAA Tournament and its automatic bids to all Division I conferences offer even the tiniest of schools a chance to compete on the big stage.

The same can be said for video-production technology. As gear has advanced and, in turn, come down in price, smaller institutions have been able to make live productions a part of their overall mission. Now one doesn’t need to be a University of Texas to gain exposure. Fans and alumni of nearly every Division I school can watch their alma mater via a digital outlet.

Noreen Morris

Noreen Morris

For the Northeast Conference (NEC), that outlet is NEC Front Row, a digital network founded with Boston-based production company Pack Network in August 2012. Front Row offers fans unprecedented coverage of all NEC sports, ranging from football and basketball to soccer, field hockey, and tennis.

One of the driving forces behind the conference’s accelerated video branding is Noreen Morris, now in her fourth year as commissioner. She is the fourth full-time commissioner in NEC history and last summer received a five-year contract extension that runs through June 2017.

Morris sat down with SVG to chat about the conference’s overall video strategy and offer advice for others looking to establish a digital presence.

Why is NEC Front Row such an important component of your and the conference’s strategy? What makes investing in live video production a plus from the conference office’s perspective?
This was an initiative that actually grew out of our NEC Council of Presidents. They were looking for way in which the conference could invest in itself in a way that could help enhance the brand of the NEC as well as to create a community in which all the institutions could share in exposing not only the athletic accomplishments of its student-athletes but the academic and the community-service activities that our student-athletes and coaches get involved with.

The presidents were just looking for an avenue by which do to all those things, and that’s when [Senior Associate Commissioner] Ron Ratner came up with this concept, this online digital network [that allows] our institution to stream their live athletic events as well as to post other videos that they create. [These videos] could be academic in nature: an institution trying to promote a new academic program can [post it] on the Website as well. It was a way for our institutions to promote what they were doing on their campuses but also for the NEC to cross-brand amongst all of our conference institutions.

The site is one-stop shopping for all things NEC relative to live broadcast as well as other types of promotional programming that institutions and the NEC put together. It’s branded; each institution’s page is branded with the NEC and the institution’s branding. It’s free to the user, because the main point of this network is to provide more exposure for our student-athletes, to our fans and to the community. We felt it was very important to maintain free access so that we did not limit anyone’s ability to access the site. Again, it was exposure. It was access for our fans and the ability to build a community within the NEC.

What has the relationship with Pack Network been like? When did you first meet to discuss this project, and how key is the company in helping you develop the production end?
They’ve been crucial in the whole production aspect. We had worked with Pack Network previously; they were broadcasting our championship, and we had already been doing a women’s-basketball Webcasting package. They’re creative, very innovative, and always looking for ways to do things better, more cost-effectively, which we like.

So, when we were thinking about NEC Front Row, we put it out to bid. We had a number of companies come back with some bids, but Pack came back with the most comprehensive bid that really understood what we were trying to in terms of building that community. And, because we knew them and we knew how creative they were and on the cutting-edge, not only was their proposal the best, but we knew what we were getting in terms of their commitment and their passion for what they do.

It was a two-year project to get it off the ground, and Ron Rattner was the key component, working with the Pack Network. They built out the site from A to Z and every piece of the site. There was specific reasoning for how we were putting things together. We wanted it to interact with social media, so there’s a social-media component.

We also wanted the fans to engage not only with their own games but with other games as well, so we [modeled] our site after MLB.com. You can watch up to six games at once. Let’s say you’re an LIU basketball fan and you’re watching the LIU-Bryant game, but you know that Wagner’s also playing Robert Morris, and you want to see how that’s going. You can watch both. You [can] listen to the audio [of] your favorite team [and watch] the others at the same time. And there’s a social-media scroll so you see what everyone’s tweeting and reactions during the game and can get involved that way as a fan. So it elevates the fan experience. You can observe only [and] can participate in the social-media action as well.

How are you currently measuring NEC Front Row’s success? Is there a way to measure the success? I know a lot of people say it’s hard to tie an ROI to it, but what is a tangible thing that the conference is looking at to gauge how well it’s going?
Obviously, just looking at the viewership and the unique viewers that come to the site. Our viewership was much greater than anticipated; [it] did exceed our initial expectations. The other is just feedback as we work around the conference. I visited each institution last year for basketball-specific review and met with the coaches. Basketball coaches, the president, and the AD [would say], We love the Front Row. It’s great.

[For example, the presidents, , who are busy people, can watch on their phone; they can watch on their tablet. It’s easily accessible. The coaches love it from a recruiting standpoint, because their prospects, no matter where they live, can access [the institutions’] games and access their Websites. When a student[’s home is] a long distance from the campus, their parents can watch every game. We’ve got lots of international student-athletes on our basketball rosters as well as many rosters throughout our campuses. Golf, tennis, you name it, we’ve got lots of internationals. The ability for their parents to be able to see them play every single time has been a huge selling point for our coaches.

We measure it tangibly with the numbers from our viewership, but we also measure it from the feedback that we get. Everywhere I go, unsolicited, I get feedback from fans, from student-athletes, from our coaches, from our administrations. [It has] been received very well. We’ve just updated to HD quality so we continue to try to bring our fans a better experience.

As a smaller major conference, you hold much of the rights to even your first-tier games, so a lot of games are being produced. What is the conference’s strategy to allocating those responsibilities?
The production is up to the institutions. We provided all of the equipment. We provide the cameras and the [NewTek] TriCasters and all of the different types of [equipment] that they needed to produce the game. We had two days of training when we launched in August 2012, and we had another set of training this year when we upgraded to HD quality. So the institutions are armed with the training [and] the equipment. We pay for the broadband costs, and then the institutions have to take on the responsibility of producing the game. Most use their radio announcers as the audio and then [have] folks do the camera and a producer/director.

Some of our schools have chosen to upgrade [the way Central Connecticut State did]. [They] partnered with the Pack Network, [which] produced all of their men’s and women’s basketball games last year. It was a slightly upgraded production with more cameras, a higher-quality production. They felt that was important for them to do and invest the additional dollars.

Was it at the school’s discretion to hire a new “video person” or delegate it to someone currently on staff? Was that left pretty much up to the school?
We talked about that originally and [whether we] should require them to hire someone specific to the video production. We chose to just indicate that this is going to increase the responsibilities and the time within your staff, your current staff. [Institution] presidents don’t always take lightly to the conference telling them how to spend their dollars on employees, so, we basically said, It’s up to you. But we do expect [those that have the ability to do the digital broadcast to] put, at minimum, all football, basketball, and likely volleyball [on the digital network]. From that point forward, it’s up to the institution what they can put on their own Website, on the NEC website. Others may not, depending on the institution’s ability and how it’s wired.

What piece of advice do you have for another school or conference that may be just starting or looking into a digital network of their own?
I think the biggest issue is to properly introduce the concept to the membership and explain the big-picture strategy on going to a digital network. It is something that all of the institutions [in] a conference have to buy into, and [they] have to be committed to producing the best quality that they are able to. Individually, you can do great work, but, if everyone works together and creates the collective, your work can be that much better.

We’re all competitive, regardless of whether it’s on the field or not. School A is going to look and see that School B is doing this: Wow. That’s a great idea. We’re going to do that, too. As people become more creative and more innovative, that will just push all of the others to do the same.

[There has] to be a buy-in across the conference. They have to understand what your strategy is. Our strategy was branding, exposure, and community building, and so the free component was very important to us. Some of our schools already had a paid model for their own Webcasting, but they all understood that the amount of money they were making, potentially, on the pay model, they would get back tenfold [given] the exposure and branding and the number of eyes on the actual product. And you can use that to sell sponsorships and marketing, and you’ll get the money on the other side. That was [what] our schools bought into and understood. Even though it may have been negative for them for a year or two, from a financial standpoint, they saw that the dividends that they would get from being a part of the NEC Front Row would pay tenfold.