Centennial Conference Is First in Division III To Launch Set-Top–Box App

Fans of the 11 member schools can stream every game for free

The Centennial Conference of Maryland and Pennsylvania marked an important first this month: it became the first NCAA Division III conference to launch a set-top–box app — on Roku, specifically. Other platforms will follow, with Apple TV next on the list.

centennial-conference-logoThe conference counts 11 member schools (including Johns Hopkins, Bryn Mawr, Swarthmore, and Franklin & Marshall), and school parents, alumni, and supporters now have an easy way to catch every game for no cost and without leaving the house.

This isn’t the Centennial Conference’s first experiment with sports streaming. In 2006, Executive Director Steve Ulrich took out a video camera, connected it to his laptop, and streamed a men’s basketball game between Swarthmore and Franklin & Marshall. From that, the effort grew incrementally school by school. Prior to the Roku app launch, all 11 schools streamed games to their websites, a conference portal, and a conference mobile app.

If anyone is surprised that a group of small northeastern colleges known for academics puts that much attention into sports, they shouldn’t be. “We take our athletics seriously,” Ulrich says. “We take our academics seriously as well.”

Ten Centennial Conference schools stream with Stretch Internet, based in Gilbert, AZ; one uses BoxCast of Cleveland. Stretch was used first by Franklin & Marshall, an early experimenter in sports streaming, and many of the others soon followed suit. Working with nearly all the schools made creating an app easier for Stretch.

App users will find a wide variety of sports: football, soccer, basketball, swimming, volleyball, baseball, softball, lacrosse, wrestling, and track and field. The Roku app offers both live and on-demand video, as well as a schedule so that fans can see what’s coming up. The conference site includes a more detailed advance schedule.

People are tuning in. The app may have launched only recently, but, already this year, the conference has live-streamed about 700 events to nearly 150,000 unique IP addresses. That pleases Ulrich: last year, the conference streamed more than 1,000 events to more than 200,000 unique addresses, a figure it will certainly top this year. Centennial’s most-streamed event was a playoff between Johns Hopkins and Mount Union, with 8,135 unique addresses.

Prior to the Roku launch, some conference schools experimented with pay-per-view but decided to keep video free from here out. Doing so helps them build and promote the brand with specially created house ads.

“We’re able to sell the message of what an education at one of our schools means and what kind of experience your child could have,” Ulrich points out, “not only to be educated but also to get the opportunity to continue to play their sport.” The conference might start experimenting with outside advertisers as early as this fall.

Centennial’s schools create their own video, often relying on student volunteers. Most member schools lack communications academic departments but still have plenty of interested students. For postseason games, Ulrich’s office often hires professional talent to call the games.

The production setups vary. Some schools use single cameras and encoding software like Telestream Wirecast; others use multiple cameras and a NewTek TriCaster. The encoded video is uploaded to Stretch, which routes it to its CDN. Stretch will start using Amazon CloudFront in March.

In designing and building the Roku app, Stretch aimed for a simple user experience.

“Our intention was to make it as easy and intuitive as possible for viewers to find and watch the content they’re looking for,” explains Ryan Ermeling, president/CEO, Stretch Internet. “We surveyed a handful of our clients and then iteratively designed the Roku app based on their feedback and our own UX [user-experience] expertise.” Stretch will continue to enhance the app as it gets feedback from the conference, schools, and fans.

For the Centennial Conference, streaming to set-top boxes is more than a way to entertain parents. It’s a way to show people what Division III sports is all about.

Ulrich thinks that some people may think that “we just roll the ball out there and play and have fun; it’s glorified intramurals. But,” he adds, “it’s really far from that.

“This gets our message out there,” he continues. “Today, when we talk about the value of higher education, the value of athletics, getting our message out there as widely as possible is what we want to do.”

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