Venue Q&A: Michigan State’s Rick Church

By: Rick Price, President, MoeBAM! Venue Media Services, and Director, SVG Venue Technology Committee

Rick Church is currently in his 15th year as director of broadcast technology at Michigan State University. Previously, he spent 17 years as director of scoreboard operations for the Detroit Red Wings and the Detroit Tigers. He also worked for many years as the message-board operator at the Pontiac Silverdome. SVG recently spoke with Church about the trends he’s seeing in venue design and operation.

Rick Church, Michigan State University

Rick Church, Michigan State University

With more than 30 years of scoreboard-operations leadership and a masters in sports administration from Michigan State, what made you get into the scoreboard side of things?
When I was in grad school in the late ’70s, I was doing a summer internship in the athletic department, and we decided to put in a one-line, black-and-white message board in our football-stadium back, and my boss said, Are you interested in running it? And I said, What the hell is it? Can you give me until tomorrow to think about it? And he said, sure.

So I went back to him the next day and said, Sure, I’ll do it. Fortunately, I knew of a guy at the Silverdome, and [I thought] I’ll go down and watch him one day and that should be enough training, and away I go. That’s basically how it all started. It was being in the right place at the right time.

What is it that kept you so actively involved in scoreboard operations and technology?
One of the big things is, just keeping the fans informed and keeping the fans enthused about the game. In every game, there’s a winner and a loser, and, if you’re on the losing side of things, the fans aren’t going to be as interested as if you’re winning. You have to keep coming up with creative things to keep the fans looking and entertained [during] the game if the field results aren’t exactly the way you want them to go.

What is the role of the scoreboard production team in getting fans into the stands?
It’s got to be a supporting role. You’re going to have the game on the field whether or not you have the video there, whether or not you have the cheerleaders, the dance team, the band, the DJ. You have to remember that fans did not pay a hundred bucks a ticket to come watch the video that you’re putting up there. They came to watch the team, and you’re supporting the team and their experience when they’re in the venue.

With such a long, successful career, do you have a particular philosophy or tenet that you live by and work by?
Since I came back to the university almost 20 years ago, the biggest thing [to remember] is, we’re a school here. We’re here to teach kids to take over our jobs, and so the more well-rounded I can make each student that I work with, the better off the whole industry is.

In your 30-year career, do you have a most memorable game or moment?
It may sound funny with Final Fours, World Series, [and] Stanley Cups, but the most enjoyment I get out of my job is watching my students cross the stage and accept their diplomas, because that means that I’ve trained them well enough that they can go out into the real world and get a job.

You have obviously seen a lot of changes in venue technology over 30 years. What is the greatest change or innovation?
I would say the biggest change I’ve seen — and I’ve converted lamp matrixes to video boards, black-and-white video boards to color video boards, standard def to hi def — is a combination of copper going to glass [cable converted to fiber-optic cable] and wires [going] to wireless. The advent of both glass and wireless technology has allowed us to make things smaller, stronger, faster, and easier to operate.

What do you think that will bring to sports venues over the next five to 10 years?
The best thing that we’ve seen, with the advent of wireless technology, is that you can put more cameras in more places than you ever could before. Before, if you had more than three cameras to cover an event, you were a god. Now, for 500 bucks, you can put a wireless kit together, go anywhere in the stadium. You can give out half a dozen of those. Now, for an in-house show, you can have as many cameras as you feel like you need, and it helps with the production.

What are the latest broadcast trends or changes in technology for venues, and is there a difference between collegiate and professional venues?
The biggest change that I think we’re seeing industry-wide is, the broadcast networks continue to bring in more equipment to do the same events. In the past, you would get seven to nine cameras for a typical football broadcast. Now, in the college level, we’re seeing sometimes 15 to 25 cameras to do a standard football game. Again, I think, with the advent of fiber, they can get cleaner signals longer distances, and, with wireless technology, they can do a lot more than they’ve been able to do in the past.

Obviously, on the professional level, you’re going to get even more equipment, more trucks, and a more intense atmosphere. College games, you’re playing big-time, big-money events obviously but still a college sport. The professional levels, you’re obviously more serious — it is professional — so things ramp up.

What do you see as the driving force behind the recent expansion and growth on LED video boards in sports venues like the Dallas Cowboys’, Houston Rockets’, Indiana Pacers’, and now Seattle Mariners’?
Bling. Bigger is better. At the professional level, the Cowboys kind of set the standard, and now everybody else is saying, well, if the Cowboys did it, we’ve got to be as good as the Cowboys. Same thing goes at the college level. Once somebody in your conference puts in something, then every recruit in the country is going to expect every school in that conference to be that big, that bold, that much better than everybody else. So part of it is just keeping up with the Joneses.

What projects at Michigan State are you currently involved in? What projects do you see for the near future?
The biggest thing that is being done here at Michigan State and all over the country is making sure that the student athletes are comfortable in their locker rooms. It’s where they spend an inordinate amount of time from practices to games to relaxing, and every university in the country is building new facilities and/or renovating current facilities to make sure that their locker rooms are up to date with everybody else’s in the country.

As far as technology is concerned, what is it they are providing the student athletes?
Everything from Xbox plugins at every locker to making sure, regardless of who your wireless-cellphone carrier is, that you get good reception, no matter how many levels of concrete you’re buried under in the stadium. Pool tables, ping pong tables, TV monitors. At the college level, you’ve got study areas right in the locker room so the student athletes can get their work done as well as their athletic events.

Are they putting displays in each locker? What are they deploying?
Both. Everything from huge multiscreens in conference rooms to individual monitors in every locker. Playbooks have gone from paper now to the iPad. Students these days have been brought up in the Digital Age, and, if they don’t have it in the most advanced forms, they’ll go someplace else. Same thing on a professional level.

What is your typical day as director of broadcast technology for Michigan State?
Right now, we’re starting the process of enlarging our stadium, specifically locker-room areas, recruiting areas, [and] media areas.

I also work with all of the TV broadcasts coming into town. This week, Thursday night, I’ve got the Big Ten Network in for a women’s basketball game, Friday night is Fox Sports Detroit for a hockey game, Saturday is ESPN for a men’s basketball game, and Sunday is for a wrestling meet. On four different nights, we’ll have four different networks in here with four different sets of needs to promote our events. All of our venues are fully wired to each camera location and the broadcast location, both with copper and with fiber. [For] our wrestling meet, will do a full-blown flypack show over dedicated fiber from East Lansing, MI, to Chicago.

What is your purpose in serving on the SVG Venue Technology Committee, and what would you like to accomplish as part of this committee?
The biggest thing is to make sure, when people are going ahead with new construction, that they use a consultant. Even though you think that you may have been in the business for 40 years and know everything there is to know, you probably do within your venue or within your region, but you probably do not throughout the country. Consultants — and sometimes we like to badmouth them — do know what they’re talking about. They’ve been around the country; they’ve seen different levels of stuff [and] can give you different ideas. The biggest thing is, just make that transition from copper to fiber and make sure you’ve got the infrastructure in place to go wireless with everything from audio to video to radio to telephone, whatever necessary.

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