NACDA Report: College Sports Production Continues To Grow In Digital Age

By Ken Kerschbaumer

College athletic directors met in Dallas this week for their annual convention and while the focus wasn’t on video it was part of the conversation. When it comes to college sports distribution new media is out and digital content is in as an industry that relies greatly on Internet distribution for delivery of games, highlights, and packages attempts to get its affiliates to think of the TV, Internet, and mobile media landscape as a single entity instead of old vs. new and cable vs. broadcast. “We’ve dropped the moniker new media,” says Burke Magnus, ESPN SVP, College Sports Programming. “Today it is just digital media. When the college generation today grew up it was less and less about old vs. new media. To them it’s just content.”

The panel, sponsored and put together by Sports Video Group (SVG), was moderated by ESPN’s Bonnie Bernstein and designed to educate athletic directors and their staffs on the current college sports distribution landscape and how they can enhance the relationship with online and TV networks.

“We’re blurring the line and everything is content,” said Tim Pernetti, CBS College Sports Network EVP, content at a panel at the National Association of Collegiate Athletic Directors (NACDA) in Dallas. “More fans expect the online experience to be closer to being a TV experience and it will get there. And the beauty of the Internet is it doesn’t discriminate: you can put content up and reach everyone.”

Like nearly every other sports market segment college sports is about profitability. But producing the vast amount of sports events at the collegiate level for delivery to viewers requires a large commitment on the part of a school. To Pernetti much of that enhancement is the result of a simple question: how much will colleges and universities invest in content creation?

“Web sites can be profitable but it is as much about what [resources] the school will put into it,” said Pernetti. “And if the investment by the schools isn’t keeping up we’re going to walk away because we need to grow our business responsibly.”

There are also many hidden costs in producing TV events, especially for sports in Olympic venues that may not be wired properly. “The best case scenario is for the school to own a $5 million truck but there are cheaper ways to do a production,” added Pernetti. “Schools today are concerned about recruiting, winning, and fundraising but with our services we can help all of those grow.”

ESPNU’s Campus Connection program gets students involved in the production process and is designed as a way to bring more of a student’s perspective to a production rather than cutting costs. The goal? To get students more engaged and have content that reflects their sensibilities.

“We don’t sacrifice the crew that would have been there otherwise,” he explained. “The students work side-by-side with professionals and learn about the entire sports production enterprise.”

A simple way schools can help improve the quality of productions is by tapping into existing systems like the cameras that capture content for venue scoreboards.

“The scoreboard feeds and the involvement of students are a win-win,” said Will Roleson, Horizon League associate commissioner, communications and multimedia. “The hands-on experience resonates with school chancellors and the board of directors but it involves more risks.”

Even conferences like The Big Ten Network and the Horizon League face the challenge of getting schools on board. The Big Ten Network, which now finds itself nine months into its launch as an HD network looking for growth, found itself facing a similar dilemma before it launched. Leon Schweir, Big Ten Network EVP, says the outlet allows schools to make sure games that weren’t highlighted or carried by national network partners had exposure. But it took a lot of cooperation from the member universities.

“The universities were all over the map as far as that does what on the campus,” he said. “For some it was a communications department and for others the journalism department. It was all about finding the path of least resistance and find out how they wanted to proceed [with productions]. But we imposed the quality of the HD format from the top down.”

Nada Usina, JumpTV president, says schools also need to consider how much they want to invest in high-quality encoding and decoding gear to deliver content to viewers. “The MAC Conference is innovative with production crews for some of their games but schools also need to consider what format in which they want to ingest the content,” she explained.

Schweir advises that partners also take advantage on Internet 2 pipes that are only available to colleges and universities and can provide up to 10 GB connectivity.

“Every Big Ten school has an HD mini-studio and an HD camera on campus for highlights and those are delivered back to us on Internet 2,” he said. “That is a real benefit beyond bounded T1 transmission and an advantage the private sector doesn’t have.”

The concept of single-conference networks is in vogue as the cost of producing and distribution content falls, but Schweir says the first step a conference needs to undertake to form their own network is to have a commissioner like Jim Delaney,” he said. “He had the foresight to aggregate our rights deals into a short window so we had leverage for new rights deals or starting our own network. And for that you need a timeline of at least three or four years.”

JumpTV’s merger with NeuLion gives its affiliates access to a new way to reach viewers: via an IPTV set-top box attached to the TV set. The system will allow schools, conferences or even multiple conferences to deliver long-form video content and short-form content directly to TV sets. “Eighty percent of video viewed online is short form and the content generating revenue is licensed and valuable,” she said. “We’re interested in empowering our partners and helping them navigate through the waters with different solutions. So we’re shaking it up and the merger is about a multi-platform set-top box with a digital focus.”

As for revenue models of subscription vs. advertising based the jury is still out. The Horizon League is currently free and has thought about subscription models but studies show that at most only 20% of current viewers will follow. “And now we have pretty good viewership so we would hate to see the numbers take a dive,” said Roleson. The league is, however, contemplating a subscription-based service that is a higher bit-rate and quality version of the free service.

“But right now we’re reaching displaced fans and connecting with them,” he added. “And they could join the Alumni, become a booster, or come back to campus.”

Growth challenges aside college sports is poised for a big league future.

“We will all succeed because of the passion of the fans,” said Magnus. “College sports is about as individualized as any category in sports and as everything progresses it will only get easier [to deliver quality content].”

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