CSMA Master Class: The Last Hurrah of The Mtn.
Since its inception, the College Sports Media Awards have recognized the best in the college-sports-production arena. As technology and production techniques improve, the ability to create high-quality video on any budget has proliferated significantly. At the College Sports Video Summit in June, 16 productions were honored for their contribution to sports video. Each Friday this summer, SVG is proud to offer an in-depth look at the personalities and programs that have raised the bar for what college sports video is capable of.
As one would imagine, the Denver offices of what used to be The MountainWest Sports Network – affectionately punctuated and referred to as ‘The Mtn.’ – are pretty quiet these days.
There’s only a small handful of executives left, due to leave at the end of this month; among them the former VP of Production and Programming Steve Hurlbut. He understands the financial realities of why the network he had plugged six years of his life in to build had to be shutdown. Still, it’s a bittersweet time.
The Mtn. officially went off the air at 11:59 p.m., MT on May 31. Its final live broadcast was the championship game of the Mountain West baseball tournament; its 899th live game on air.
Even as the empty offices become more and more lonely, Hurlbut tries to keep on a smile and maintain his sense of humor. He got a boost of satisfaction when, at the College Sports Media Awards in June, The Mtn. was awarded for the Best Live Game and Event in the Regional Sports Network/Local Cable Provider division. He accepted the award at the ceremony at SVG’s College Sports Video Summit in Atlanta, a mere seven days after The Mtn. went dark.
“[The CSMA] was the last pat on the back to the folks that have put their heart and soul into this for the last six years,” says Hurlbut, who accepted the award for the broadcast of the MWC men’s basketball quarterfinal game between San Diego State and Boise State. “Its just more validation of the type of work they have been putting out for those six years, and knowing that it was recognized by peers in the field was a nice little volley for everyone to get that validation on their way out the door to whatever that next job is going to be for them.”
Ahead of Its Time
It doesn’t sound that long ago, but in 2006 the sports broadcasting world was a vastly different place. Viewers today take the amount of sports viewing options for granted, but when The Mtn. launched, CSTV was less than four years old and was available in only a limited amount of homes and ESPNU was just getting off the ground.
For the many criticisms fans may have had about The Mtn. – availability in homes and its late adoption of high definition among them – there’s no denying it was well ahead of its time as the first cable network dedicated to a single conference. It provided a blue print for what the Big Ten Network would become and what the Pac-12 Networks hopes to be.
In its six years, The Mtn. delivered nearly 38,000 hours of programming and, near its end, had pushed its distribution totals to almost 13 million homes. However, as a popular saying goes, ‘you can recognize a pioneer by the arrows in his back.’ The Mtn. had plenty but the fatal shot may have come from conference realignment.
The Mountain West Conference proved unstable when realignment reached its chaotic peak last summer. When Utah, BYU, and TCU all left with San Diego State and Boise State not far behind, it knocked out some of the conference’s bigger television markets. When joint partners CBS and NBC assessed the situation, it was determined The Mtn. would not be in their future plans.
“The makeup of the teams in our league is something that we can’t control,” says Hurlbut. “We understand why CBS and NBC, after they ran numbers on those new markets, decided it wasn’t going to be viable going forward. But at the same time, when you are part of an organization that someone says they are going to shut it down there’s still a part of you that feels a little bit defensive about it, particularly in this instance where the quality of the work that’s on the air really doesn’t make any difference to the bottom line decision.”
“We never had the resources that the Big Ten [Network] or some of the other RSNs had,” says Brian Mitchell, former executive producer of live events at The Mtn. “We had a lot of limitations, whether they be distribution limitations, equipment limitations, or financial limitations. Despite all of that I think we were able to put out a very respectable product.”
When Stars Align
With the specter of a coming shutdown hanging over its head, The Mtn. trekked into the Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas to broadcast the men’s and women’s basketball championships.
On the men’s side, thanks to a collaboration with its parent partners CBS and NBC – CBS Sports Network would air the semis and NBC Sports Network would pick up the final – The Mtn. had a bevy of toys to use for its broadcasts of the quarterfinal action.
Eight cameras filled the arena. Six were manned with the other two being robotics positioned above the backboards. A staff of 25 Mtn. workers was on site in the arena or out in the compound in the NEP Supershooters truck that would be utilized by all broadcast entities throughout the tournament.
Any broadcaster will agree that the most significant factor in making a live sports broadcast elite is, sadly enough, one that is completely out of the hands of the production team. All a broadcast operation can do is put out their best overall product and hope for one simple factor: that it’s a good game.
On Thursday, March 8, the first day of the men’s tournament got off to a roaring start as nationally-ranked San Diego State was taken to the limit by the bracket’s lowest seeded team Boise State. With the game shockingly tied in the final seconds, The Mtn. crew knew they had a dramatic finish on their hands. They got it when conference Player of the Year James Franklin drilled a game-winning three pointer at the buzzer, sending the Aztecs to the semis.
“In this game, with the way that it ended, having all of those various looks that we otherwise would not have had really just accentuated the end of that game and allowed us to pump up the dramatic finish,” says Mitchell.
He was also quick to praise the production team he had with him in Vegas who put together four outstanding broadcasts of the day’s entire quarterfinal slate.
“Not only do we have our best people working on that show but I think that particular game we didn’t expect that kind of a finish,” he says. “We had a really great broadcast team. We also had a really good production team. I think what made that really special if you watched it was how we handled the coverage at the end of the game, making sure not to miss any replays, not to miss the important end of the game, making sure we had the proper clocks present where they needed to be when we replayed certain aspects of the buzzer-beater.
“All of that seemed to really come together and make for a really terrific finish to what was an excellent broadcast and game.”
A Pioneer’s Lasting Legacy
On the night The Mtn. was scheduled to go black, the staff hosted a party in its offices; both a warm goodbye and a celebration of the work done during the network’s tenure.
Many in attendance smiled and tried their best to enjoy themselves, but there was still a feeling of dread, both in having to say farewell to a place that had become their home and wondering where the next job would be.
Mitchell addressed the audience wanting to assure them that their hard work was not spent in vain.
“They say great artists aren’t truly appreciated until they are gone,” Mitchell said to the crowd. “I don’t think it will be until this fall and there’s a big programming gap missing there that people will stop and ponder, ‘wow, we miss The Mtn.’ I think that’s when it will really start to settle in for the schools, the fans, and the viewers at home.”
Good news would be in the future for many. In the weeks since The Mtn. died, many of its staff have landed jobs at new networks, including NBC’s new CSN Houston affiliate and Time Warner Cable’s highly-touted Lakers network (both set to launch in October).
“If there was a time we had to go dark, with those two networks and the Pac-12 Networks starting all at the same time, it was probably a God-send for our people,” says Hurlbut, finding the silver lining in it all. “If this were a year from now, there probably wouldn’t be three networks going off. “
The CSMA award, however, serves as a reminder that The Mtn,’s demise wasn’t a result of its broadcast quality; a final tip of the cap to a network that blazed a trail for many and whose impact on the industry will last for some time.
“We were actually hoping [the CSMA] would make us like Family Guy and it would end up bringing us back,” laughs Hurlbut.
Even in his network’s final days, he hasn’t lost his sense of humor.