Generation Now: Why Students Are Key to Successful Video Productions
For the University of Oklahoma, it was an announcement five years in the making. In September, a 10-year multiplatform agreement between OU and Fox Sports created Sooner Sports TV and provided for at least 1,000 hours of Sooner sports programming to appear annually on Fox Sports outlets, including Fox Sports Oklahoma, Fox Sports Southwest, and Fox College Sports Network.
For the Sooners, it’s not quite having their own 24/7 linear channel — à la Longhorn Network — but it’s awfully close and didn’t require the stresses that come with cable-distribution battles.
This wasn’t the typical television-rights deal: OU isn’t selling away its games for a major network to produce and shop. What’s revolutionary about this agreement is the size and scope of the programming window being given up for a university to distribute its own content produced by its own staff — and even its own students.
“We’ve had staff gaining more and more experience producing and distributing certain events,” says OU VP/Director of Athletics Joe Castiglione. “There’s some really special things that we can do here because of our staff.”
That staff includes Brandon Meier, assistant athletic director, broadcast operations, who was hired in summer 2007 and began to construct the road that would lead to the Fox Sports deal. Since then, the university made the investment to connect all of its on-campus athletic facilities via fiber, upgrade to HD video boards in-venue, and build a pair of HD control rooms inside Oklahoma Memorial Stadium that allow simultaneous video-board and television production.
Nearly all of the production responsibilities in the new Fox deal will fall onto the school’s already highly productive SoonerVision, which produced as many as 250 events last year alone, 65 of which were distributed to local television affiliates.
To support SoonerVision, OU made a $2.5 million investment up front with its gear purchases. From there, incremental buys helped keep the operation on the cutting edge of technology. The Sooners went all in: among the top-of-the-line additions were two Grass Valley Kayenne switchers, six new Sony cameras (three HD1400R and three robotic units), a telestrator, and an EVS XT3 server. The administration even considered a SportVision type of 3D graphics system before cutting it to stay under budget.
“We had the thought that this equipment could be used in many more ways than just on game day,” says Castiglione. “We understand the importance of creating a great game-day presentation, but we thought, if we were creative, we could create [multiple purposes] for this equipment and get the best possible equipment that was out there in the marketplace. So those production facilities have developed over the past four to five years with an eye on this particular day coming.”
A year ago, SoonerVision boosted its student staff from 40 to 60 and had the luxury of sifting through nearly 120 applicants. With seven full-time administrators on staff, Meier estimates that 90% of SoonerVision game-production crews are made up of students. As the season progressed into the spring, that total reached as high as 95%-100%.
Meier laughs, “I tell them, there’s no better part-time job on campus.”
Even at a juggernaut like Oklahoma, athletic departments are proving more willing to put their valuable video content — and expensive equipment — into the hands of supervised student producers and technicians.
Here’s a look at a sampling of other universities that have bridged the gap between athletics and academics and, in turn, have created highly successful video-production departments.
Ball State Sports Link
A common thread among many of the universities producing quality sports content is a strong relationship with the communications school. Being able to tap into the talent that’s already on campus is invaluable for finding trained staff looking for real work experience.
“The quality of the product certainly has to measure up, especially if you’re a Division I institution,” says Bill Scholl, athletic director at Ball State University, home to Ball State Sports Link, a student-run sports-video–production program. “For us, it’s not even a question: these guys are off-the-charts good, so I couldn’t put a value on it, it’s so strong. They provide so much more than we could on our own if we had to pay for that.”
Ball State’s mission is to provide students an “immersive learning experience.” These experimental courses combine a student’s major and interests beyond the classroom in an attempt to mimic a real-world environment to give them practical, workplace experience.
“[What our school asks is] how do we differentiate our students from other students at other universities?” says Chris Taylor, instructor of telecommunications/sports immersion and media at Ball State. “For [university President Jo Ann M. Gora] and for us, the Ball State motto is immersive learning. It’s real-world; it’s hands-on experience. That just lends itself to sports production because you can’t get any realer than that.”
Ball State Sports Link began rather unassumingly when Taylor, then working in the Athletic Communications Office, reached out to the university’s Telecommunications (TCOM) Department hoping to gain access to a camera and a student in an effort to create more original content for the Ball State athletics program.
“We were looking for more content for our Website to try to drive more visitors to [us],” said Taylor. “Also, we were always battling with schools such as [Indiana], Purdue, and Butler to get local coverage on TV. So we felt that, if we could provide things to those outlets, we could really tell our story.”
Then-TCOM Chairman Dr. Joe Misiewicz granted the request, and the forerunner to Sports Link was born. In fall 2008, Sports Link was officially initiated as a pilot program. That same academic year, Taylor left Ball State to take a corporate-communications job in Nashville. It wasn’t long before he was headed back to Muncie when, after a successful first year, the university looked to hire a full-time faculty member to run the operation. Taylor was naturally the first choice.
“It was much to our happiness that Chris wanted to come back,” says current TCOM Chair Tim Pollard. “He has the perfect type of background for this operation. So, when you have somebody like that who is also willing to adjust and adapt and move things around as needed, it’s great. In academia, it can take a long time to get things done sometimes, but he’s more than willing to change on a dime.”
In just six semesters, Sports Link has blossomed into the envy of the college-television-program field with more than 20 students producing content for Ball State’s campus station, Cardinal Vision 57, as well as numerous local television affiliates and national partners. Sports Link features and shows have also appeared on Fox Sports Network, ESPNU, and Comcast Indiana.
SUNY Oswego’s WTOP-TV
The quality of broadcasting and communications departments obviously varies from campus to campus, and that, in itself, could be the decisive factor in just how large an investment an athletic department may make in its video-production gear.
“It starts with the strength of the broadcast-communications educational program, and, from there, it’s setting expectations for the students in terms of how you want your athletic program broadcast,” says Cora Brumley, interim athletic director at SUNY Oswego. “Our athletic program provides content, but the quality of the broadcast has to do with how well the students are being trained in their classes and the quality of the equipment they have access to.”
Despite it’s “small,” Division III status, SUNY Oswego’s School of Communications Media and the Arts, partnering with the on-campus student TV station, WTOP-TV, offers student opportunities and high-quality live broadcasts that would rival that of some DI universities.
A team of up to 20 Oswego students broadcasts live ice-hockey and basketball games on WTOP-TV and Time Warner Cable channel 96 and online on the university’s athletics Website.
The productions have given SUNY Oswego exposure not typically enjoyed by schools its size.
“It’s extremely important to us,” says Sports Information Director Adele Burk. “There’s a lot of public institutions that can’t put on the productions that we do due to funding or even student interest. We are very fortunate to have such an active communications department that is willing to take on this sort of task.”
While other universities have strong student-run production operations, Oswego takes it to the next level with only minimal faculty involvement at WTOP-TV, which has been an all-student station since its inception in 1978. The program has produced such noted talent as ESPN hosts Steve Levy and Linda Cohn, as well as Today’s Al Roker, for whom the state-of-the-art production studio — which opened in 2008 — was named after the popular weatherman made a large endowment to his alma mater.
Since the construction of the new studio, SUNY Oswego has emerged from the shadows of other large New York communications programs — most notably, Syracuse University’s Newhouse School and Ithaca College’s Park School — by offering its students the opportunity to get hands-on experience as early as the first semester of their freshman year. And they don’t need to be communications or broadcasting majors to participate.
“We are probably the school that most students look to if they’re not going to go to Syracuse or Ithaca,” says Fritz Messere, dean of the School of Communications Media and the Arts. “But many students who come into our communications program are interested in doing producing, directing, or sports broadcasting, so it’s a really big deal for us to be able to say [to prospective students] that you don’t have to wait until you’re a junior to get into a class to start to do this.”
The combination of immediate hands-on opportunities and new state-of-the-art facilities make Oswego an ideal training ground for sports-broadcasting professionals.
“This is not what you will find in some Division I schools, where it’s more of a quasi-pro operation with professional talent and a professional producer and director,” says former NEP Broadcasting CEO Lou Borrelli, an Oswego alum who gives his time to assisting WTOP students. “These are kids. Everybody auditions. You could have the guy who does play-by-play for basketball one night running a camera at hockey the next night. It’s a great environment that offers great experience.”
Oswego takes pride in having its students leave with the abilities of a “one-man band,” and it has helped grads land jobs at ESPN, NEP, Fox Sports, and many news affiliates throughout the state.
“It’s a tremendous help for them being able to say they’ve done two years of camera, a year of tech directing, etc.,” says Messere. “I think our students realize that they have to make their own opportunities, and this is a tremendous opportunity for them.”
Run by Director Paul Danna and Associate Directors Justin Stoll and Marissa Kenney, Gamecock Productions is the video-production arm of the University of South Carolina athletic department, and it has perfected walking the delicate tightrope of operating as an elite professional organization while using a student staff.
The group does everything from producing stadium-intro videos, commercial spots, original programming, and streaming live games to the athletic department’s Website.
Its mission statement is simple: “Instill the sights, sounds, and motion of Gamecocks Athletics in every fan with innovative and original videos.” It’s made even more impressive that the department serves as an elite training ground for its students.
“The big overlying factor in what we want to do here with students is to understand we’re all going to make mistakes,” says Danna. “Just learn from it, grow, and get better.”
From humble beginnings, Gamecock Productions has blossomed into a combination postproduction house and educational setting.
One of the students’ best productions last year — a stadium-intro piece for the Gamecocks softball team — took home the College Sports Media Award for Best PSA, Promo, or Marketing Campaign video in the student division at SVG’s 2012 College Sports Video Summit.
Working under Stoll’s tutelage, student Courtney Krebs was given the assignment as her senior project. She developed a style and theme and used a Panasonic Varicam and a Canon 5D camera while shooting, spending between four and five hours shooting with the team. It then took Krebs about a week’s worth of editing to create the final product.
“It was awesome working with [Justin] ,” says Krebs, “because he is the kind of guy that will explain everything and really make you understand, which is something a lot of people don’t take the time to do.”
The team enjoyed the video so much that many of the players took screen grabs of themselves from the video on YouTube and used them as their profile pictures on Facebook and Twitter.
“We do streams for all of the games so we’re on top of the Press Box and you still get this giddy, butterfly feeling in your stomach when it comes on the screen,” she says. “You still watch everyone to see their reactions. The players had this ritual where they would stand out there and point to the people that were on the screen at the time.”
The softball intro is just one example of great work produced by Gamecock Productions’ student staff, a group that Stoll takes tremendous pride in working with.
“I get my greatest satisfaction from seeing the “aha moments” with the students,” says Stoll. “Teaching them the simplest things like what white balance really is, what a mechanical iris does, and what a codec is and seeing them apply it across what we do in our office is very rewarding.”
This article originally appeared in the November issue of NACDA’s Athletics Administration magazine.