Bringing It Home: American Athletic Conference’s Digital Strategy Takes Innovative Approach to Transmission
You’d have to forgive Mark Hodgkin for being a little nervous.
The senior director of digital media for the American Athletic Conference had never produced a live stream of a cross-country event before, but, on Nov. 2, he and his team were doing just that, bringing the conference’s championship meet to the Web from a course in Madison, CT.
In addition to the complexity of covering the sport, the production brought with it a bevy of specific challenges, most notably the lack of any Internet connectivity in or around Hammonasset Beach State Park. So The American — in its first year of operation — and its new video-production partner LiveU (most known for its mobile-uplink solutions) got creative and innovative.
Controlled from the conference’s production center in Providence, RI, three cameras equipped with LiveU backpacks were deployed across the course, sending the video signals back to a LiveU receiver in Providence, where the entire production was directed and switched and graphics and replay were added.
“I don’t think it was the world’s best cross-country stream of all time, frankly,” Hodgkin cracks, “but it allowed us to do something that we had never done before and never would have even considered doing in the past since the site didn’t have any Internet capability. So it was cool to be able to attempt something like that.”
For many in video transmission, it is the ultimate in resource saving: three camera operators on-site and everything else back home.
“On one hand, it sounds super high-tech, and, on the other, it was unbelievably low-tech,” says Hodgkin, noting that the biggest hurdle remaining in this workflow is internal communication with camera operators. “It was challenging, but I think we learned a lot, and I think we could do it 10 times better if we were to do it tomorrow. It was that valuable a learning experience.”
Digital networks have colleges and conferences producing more live Olympic-sports content than ever, sports that, in the past, would never see a camera all season. That has video-content creators working out of many venues that are not built for television. Connectivity was a critical factor that led The American to sign LiveU as its sole video-production partner, a company that, for all intents and purposes, was not a digital-platform provider at the time.
“The transmission was a big piece to me because, when we were doing one-off events each week, it would be very difficult to ensure that the Internet connection was up to speed,” says Hodgkin. “There may be high-speed Internet, but there’s a campus firewall on it, or it’s shared with something else. It’s tough. So, to me, using LiveU was going to be a part of the process regardless, at least in a supporting role.”
The deal with The American is a major step forward for LiveU, which is looking to expand beyond handling just the transmission side of video production. For a 30-game women’s-basketball schedule, future spring sports, and various championships, LiveU will not only transmit but also produce The American’s live digital-network events.
“When you look at the college-sports landscape specifically, there’s a real need in the market for the ability to produce high-quality, compelling content in a way that doesn’t cost an arm and a leg,” says Tim Prokup, head of sports and new media sales at LiveU. “I can turn on a camera and stream it, but nobody is going to watch it because the expectation of viewers is higher. They expect multiple camera angles, replays, and graphics. What we’re looking at is using the American Athletic Conference to help us figure out how to bring down the cost of production and still be able to deliver a compelling, high-quality event.”
It should be noted that the cross-country event was more a peek into the future of transmission and the eventual goal for LiveU. For now, the company is realistic that these types of remote-production workflows are a work in progress.
“I think, when you’re doing football and basketball, you’re probably always going to try and produce those in the traditional manner with everybody there on-site,” says Prokup, “at least until this idea of changing remote production really fleshes out.”
The upcoming women’s-basketball slate will be produced much in the way the women’s-soccer championship semifinal matches were produced for The American on Nov. 8. LiveU built out a small flypack kit that included a NewTek TriCaster, four cameras, and graphics, replay, and audio solutions all on-site.
From there, LiveU was able to meet all the conference’s video needs by delivering live streams to four receive sites. One fully produced video feed was sent directly to The American’s Website platform hosted by Sidearm Sports. A second feed was sent to the Providence production facility for highlights creation and postproduction. A third feed was sent to SnappyTV, where social-media staff could cut real-time live highlights for distribution. And the fourth feed was sent to the conference’s archival partner, XOS Digital.
“We have the ability to manage digital assets in a more effective way,” says Prokup. “That’s the thing that’s really interesting for them, because it solved a lot of challenges.“
All in all, though, the key to the entire deal is the ability of LiveU’s technology to get around the issues of connectivity in-venue and the prospect it presents for future cost-effective transmission methods.
“We’ve always struggled with consistency,” says Hodgkin. “We would do events, but softball at School X would look a lot different than baseball at School Y. For me, I don’t think that’s fair to our student-athletes or our membership to have a wide disparity in video quality. Consumers are expecting more and more, and I don’t think they are buying it’s a ‘Web production’ like they used to. They really expect it to be crystal clear, shot well, and of a high quality. So consistency is the reason we decided to go find a single partner to take on the entire year’s package.”
Hodgkin also enjoys the possibility of using the conference’s production center to produce multiple events from different sites simultaneously, using the LiveU backpack model.
“I’m very intrigued by the idea,” he says. “Everybody is scaling back travel. I do think there’s something here that, for certain sports, remote technologies give a much better chance of fitting into the plans.”
This first year of The American has been a growing process for the conference and its video strategy. Hodgkin says that it’s more about finishing out the rights package in place for this year and looking toward the future; the summer of 2014 offers a clearer picture of the league’s membership, with Louisville and Rutgers on their way out and new members East Carolina, Tulane, and Tulsa coming aboard.
“Our biggest challenge now in the next three months is going to be to determine our long-term strategy,” says Hodgkin. “A digital network is a buzzword, but everybody has a different definition for it, and we have a lot of strategic questions that we’re going to be working through with our consultant Randy Ecker.
“How many games do we want to do live?” he continues. “How much of a commitment to the live programming is a digital network going to be? I tend to think of a digital network not as heavy on live content as some of the other conferences are doing it. I think quality and consistency is really important.”
The American and LiveU have already begun putting pieces in place for the long haul. Hodgkin recently approved installation of a green-screen studio set in the conference’s video-production center, and LiveU has hired nine-time Emmy winner Michael Cohen, recently of Major League Soccer, to build scripts and graphics packages for the digital network.