Missouri Valley Conference Cranks Up Video Production Using ESPN3 Model

There was more than just that “new-control-room smell” in the air on an early-September evening in Terre Haute, IN. There was tension.

“You could hear a pin drop,” chuckles Christopher Jones, the new athletics video production manager at Indiana State University.

A student crew was about to go live with the school’s first live sports production — a volleyball match — to air on ESPN3, and they were doing so on gear they had just become acquainted with in a room that, only three weeks earlier, had been an empty space with four walls.

“There was a lot of nerves,” says Jones, “but they did a fine job, and we got through it.”

Students work in the master-control room of the Indiana State Sports Network in preparation for the ISU-Chicago State volleyball game.

Students work in the master-control room of the Indiana State Sports Network in preparation for the ISU-Chicago State volleyball game.

It has been a wild few months in the Missouri Valley Conference (MVC), where Indiana State is one of 10 schools whose athletic departments have revamped their live-video-production strategies, thanks to a new relationship with ESPN that follows the industry’s popular ESPN3 model.

Building out either centralized control rooms or mobile solutions, the 10 member institutions have been hooked up with new gear by the conference, including ESPN3 staples like the Ross Carbonite production switcher, the Ross Xpression graphics engine, the NewTek 3Play 425, Clear-Com internal communications, and the Fujitsu encoder.

With help from integration partner Alpha Video Sports & Entertainment, this new gear and distribution platform have set MVC schools up to produce more than 370 live events combined in Year 1 of the program.

“I couldn’t be any prouder,” says Jack Watkins, associated commissioner, marketing and television, MVC. “I sound like a proud papa — and I guess I am to a certain degree — but, to this point, for our staff and our league, we could not be prouder of the 10 branches of the Valley on ESPN3.”

The plan really began to blossom in April 2013, thanks to a perfect storm of circumstances. MVC member Wichita State was fresh off a run to the NCAA Men’s Basketball Final Four, conference realignment was wreaking havoc (sending Creighton to the new Big East and bringing in Loyola of Chicago), and the league was approaching the end of its current media-rights agreement with ESPN.

“We had a lot of positive momentum going on, and we wanted to find a way to stay relevant in a shrinking linear [television] space,” says Watkins. “Our thought was, Maybe we should develop a digital network.”

Renegotiations carried into June 2015, when the MVC officially signed a new 10-year deal with ESPN, which would carry through the 2023-24 season, and laid out a robust plan for schools to produce live events for ESPN3.

As is the case with most conferences, the schools aren’t all the same: some have advanced experience with video production; others have no experience. Also, all 10 campuses are starkly different, meaning that production setups would need to be unique to each campus.

“It’s not a one-size-fits-all operation,” says Watkins. “The resources and the facilities that are on our campuses drove whether it was a mobile unit or a centralized control room.”

Andy Stidham (left), sports director, and WZIS, Michael Winstead, GM, Sycamore Video, call the ISU-Western Illinois volleyball game as part of the Missouri Valley Conference's arrangement with ESPN3.

Andy Stidham (left), sports director, WZIS, and Michael Winstead, GM, Sycamore Video, call the ISU-Western Illinois volleyball game as part of the Missouri Valley Conference’s arrangement with ESPN3.

The conference spent the summer and early weeks of fall getting its production workflows set up in earnest. Member schools like Bradley and Illinois State had some experience with live video production prior to the agreement and had worked with Alpha Video. In fact, Alpha had just finished building a videoboard-control room for the University of Northern Iowa, an MVC school, just before the conference’s new media-rights deal was struck over the summer.

Alpha Video played a critical role — along with local production company Webstream Productions and owner John Servizzi — in setting the schools up for success, with both gear installations and training sessions. Ross Video also held training sessions to get staffs and students acclimated with the Carbonite and Xpression systems.

“It was actually nice that each of the schools were rolling out at a different timeline,” notes Darren Whitten, account rep, Alpha Video. “When Loyola, for example, was doing their training, Illinois State was able to send some of their guys over to sit in before their training to make them better prepared. It gave them visibility of what was going to come and what was going to be expected from them.”

Working directly with ESPN3 and its production guru Al Fong and advisor Matt McCandlish also helped guide the process along.

“Having a defined equipment list makes things a lot easier for these conferences,” says Whitten. “A lot of these folks just aren’t video people, so, instead of having them see what else is out there, it’s just a lot easier for them to understand and wrap their heads around what’s recommended to them.”

The conference decided to start with the “court sports,” basketball and volleyball, because they offer a climate-controlled environment and, in most cases, are played in the same campus venue. However, a few programs — notably Bradley, Illinois State, Southern Illinois, and Wichita State — plan to produce baseball and softball in the spring, even though they are not obligated to.

“We didn’t want to say that we would produce everything right out of the gate,” says Watkins, noting that the number of events produced annually will increase in each of the next four years. “We wanted to set our people up for success.”

One of the selling points to the league’s presidents was the educational opportunities that would be made available to the 10 institutions, a few of which have well established broadcasting and journalism schools.

“Not only has it been great for the Missouri Valley Conference for the exposure and the relationship with ESPN, but it’s been a tremendous learning experience for our students,” says Bobby Parker, who oversees the Athletics Communications department at Bradley. “This provides a great educational opportunity. They are getting real-world experience with the letters E-S-P-N attached.”