SVG College Q&A: Ken Cleary, University of North Carolina’s Assistant Athletic Director for New Media

When it comes to live broadcast and in-venue–video productions, the University of North Carolina is one of the leaders not just in the Atlantic Coast Conference but in college sports as a whole.

Ken Cleary, who has overseen UNC’s New Media Department since its founding in November 2007, has gradually built up a strong video-technology infrastructure while forming a talented team of staffers that will produce 160-170 live events for the school’s athletics Website and its digital-broadcast partner, ESPN3.

Ken Cleary

“If there’s a theme to how we’ve done [video technology], it’s been incremental improvements.” — Ken Cleary

Cleary and UNC served as the hosts of last week’s SVG College: Carolina regional forum where over 50 representatives from various university athletic departments and technology manufacturers shared ideas and best practices in video production workflows.

He took the time to sit down with SVG to discuss some of the main talking points from the event and share his thoughts on how schools can improve their existing production outfits or how to get one started.

What are some of the major steps that UNC has taken in video technology since you arrived?
We started from nothing really. If there’s a theme to how we’ve done it, it’s been incremental improvement. We started off with a very basic setup: we only had one videoboard and a sort-of standard-definition flypack with two separate single-channel replay machines and used PowerPoint to do all of our CG work.

That’s going back 10 years now. We picked through these things incrementally every year and tried to figure out what our most important need was and change it.

We permanently housed our equipment in the Smith Center, which, for us, works very well to have one central control room versus having a mobile capability. The next evolution for us from there was getting our fiber infrastructure to be able to control multiple venues from one location.

The next incremental transition for us was the move to HD, and that wasn’t a whole switchover. We still do some SD broadcasts because our Smith Center videoboards are 4:3. So we do everything from almost a 4:1 aspect ratio in our football stadium now to 4:3 at Smith Center and all over the map in between.

At the end of the day, our last incremental change on the equipment side was getting Ross gear — the Xpression [graphics system] and Carbonite [production switcher] — which opened up all of the ESPN3 productions and allows us to do all different types of definition and aspect ratios.

There was never a time when we said, OK, we’ve got all of the stuff we need. A lot of the SEC schools are going through this now, and they’re going from doing nothing to having to spend multimillions of dollars on video. We’ve never really been that way. It’s been incremental budget requests of “this is what we need this year the most.” That also gives us the ability to do a lot of homework on a lot of different pieces of equipment, which is great.

Your athletic director, Bubba Cunningham, is a pretty strong advocate not only for what you guys are doing but also for video production in general. How critical is that support from the top?
It’s huge. You’ve got to get [the administration] to understand what the benefit is going to be to the programs and the student athletes. A lot of video people — and I’m one of them — get to be “gear heads” about certain things, and we get excited about how this piece of equipment can do this and how it has this functionality. When it comes down to it, an athletic director is concerned that the student-athlete experience is as good as it can possibly be. That means you’re helping build a market and a fan base for your teams and giving their families the opportunity to watch them as much as possible, whether it’s live or on-demand in a feature. From my perspective, the focus when I’m talking to [Cunningham] about these things is how video can really enhance that experience for our student athletes.

How much is ESPN changing the game with its ESPN3 College Initiative? Obviously, it means a lot more content, but what impact is it having on UNC and athletic departments as a whole going forward?
It sort of switches your focus. Instead of doing everything primarily for the people that are in the building in front of you, whether it’s a basketball arena or a volleyball court, you’re now doing it for the world. You’re not just supplementing what’s going on on the court with what you’re doing on a videoboard.

So we’ve had to learn something entirely different, and it opened up the world to us in a lot of different ways in that videoboard productions — while we’re very proud of what we do — can’t. There aren’t a lot of kids that are sophomores in high school saying, I really want to do a videoboard production for my life. It’s not a career goal, where working for ESPN is.

With this, there’s no better opportunity because you’re going to learn hands-on. Years ago, you could be a utility if you knew the right person, and they would give you a T-shirt and you’d wind up hanging up banners in some camera-visible location in the stadium and running [sportscaster] Dick Vitale to the airport. Now, if you get good enough at it, you’re going to be the [technical director]: you’re sitting there calling shots and punching it, you’re running the replay machine, you’re getting your hands dirty in actually producing a broadcast.

That’s a huge focus for us. Yes, students provide a great source of labor, but also, as a university, we’ve got to be doing things that are enhancing their educational experience, helping them grow, and giving them opportunities to learn and hopefully get jobs when they leave.

At the event last week, you discussed the value of having a conference where all of its member institutions are on the same page. Where is the ACC in regard to video technology, and what are you all likely to be discussing at your meetings in May?
I think the ACC is very advanced in having a constant dialogue between our video directors. I think we do a great job. I probably talk to [my counterpart] Chad [Lampman] at Duke or Rick [Bagby] at Clemson or Andy [Blanton] at Georgia Tech all the time, and they are just a great resource. We’re constantly sending each other e-mails asking about equipment or what we all think about a new rule.

In terms of NCAA legislation, it can also be difficult to understand what you’re allowed and not allowed to do at a championship. If it’s your first time going to the College World Series, you’re just not going to know things like where the distribution room is and this is what I’m allowed and not allowed to record. In cases like that, it’s awesome to have that resource in the conference. I’m also lucky to have a lot of smart guys at other schools that can help us out when we have problems.

Can you go through your relationship with the IT Department on campus? Why is that such a growing part of the job of a video professional, especially at a college?
Generally, whether it’s a fiber-optic or Ethernet campus-network–based solution, you’ve got to know those guys. Again, like with your athletic director, you’ve got to get them to understand that this is important to the university; you’re building a brand.

It’s important to build a relationship and not just go to them when you need something and say, Do this for us. There’s all kinds of firewalls and other things that you’re trying to navigate as a non-IT person, so it’s great to have a relationship with them and say, Hey, here’s what we’re trying to do. How can we work together to make this happen?

In transmission, [if] you’re streaming an ESPN3 broadcast, that signal has to get off campus in some way. [If] it’s an IP solution or fiber via a data carrier, the IT group is going to need to be in the loop on that.

On a separate note, in asset management, we’ve just started talking to our IT folks about helping solve some storage issues. Regardless of how much storage you have, it’s never enough, and the last thing I want to do is manage another piece of computer hardware. The IT folks are experts at managing, backing up, and protecting data across campus.  We haven’t started this process yet, but between 24/7 data-center management, lightning-quick campus data rates, and economies of scale (100 TB is a lot to us but a small piece of the whole campus), I think we’ll take a good, hard look.

What’s your one piece of advice for an athletic department looking to get into live sports production?
You’ve just got to do it — not to steal Nike’s phrase there. You’re going to learn so much from event 1 to event 2 and event 2 to event 3. You can’t worry about producing a primetime-quality broadcast right out of the gate. You’ve just got to start figuring it out. You’re going to get better at it; you’re going to get more efficient in how you do it. You’ll get more comfortable with it.