SVG College Sports Summit: For Conference Digital Networks, It’s Mainly About Engagement

Implementing a digital video network across an entire athletic conference requires more than a video platform and a united graphic look. It’s up to the conference office to ensure that member schools are on the same page, in terms of infrastructure, staffing, and strategy. Not to mention, the all-important issue of monetization.

At SVG’s College Sports Summit last week in Atlanta, representatives from the America East, Mountain West, Southland, and West Coast conferences shared their experiences in establishing and executing digital video networks that unite and promote their member institutions while benefiting student-athletes, alumni, and fans.

From left: Moderator Chris Wagner, EVP/co-founder, NeuLion, and panelists Mountain West’s Tripp, Southland’s Burnett, America East’s Huchthausen, and West Coast Conference’s Tourial

From left: Moderator Chris Wagner, EVP/co-founder, NeuLion, and panelists Mountain West’s Tripp, Southland’s Burnett, America East’s Huchthausen, and West Coast Conference’s Tourial

Mountain West Conference Associate Commissioner Brian Tripp opened the panel discussion by describing his role as head of Mountain West Network. He joined MW Network, powered by Campus Insiders, in 2013 from the now-defunct The Mtn. linear network.

“The initiatives [of MW Network] are basically to give the schools all the tools to get anything out there that they want,” he said. “Then it’s my job to manage it, make it look good, [and] try to keep it all on brand, from both a live stream and VOD. We’re learning as we’re going, and it’s a lot of fun.”

Last September, the West Coast Conference launched, also in conjunction with Campus Insiders, which delivers WCC live games, regular student programming, and live coverage of every sport’s championship via linear and digital channels. The decision meant investing not only in the network but in the schools themselves.

“Going in, our presidents and ADs decided to commit a lot of conference dollars to upgrade the infrastructure on our campuses,” explained Jeff Tourial, associate commissioner, broadcast and communications, West Coast Conference. “We were nine schools at the time — growing to 10 — and we had 10 different situations on our campuses in terms of equipment, infrastructure, and so on.”

Tourial’s office opted to fund a video-production manager position on every campus and allocate funds to ensure that each school had comparable video infrastructures. Currently, only a few schools are producing live games for the network; however, Tourial expects that number to rise significantly as individual institutions’ contracts with outside networks expire.

“We’re taking the process of onboarding our schools with their live productions slowly,” he explained. “We want to make sure that the production quality is there, that the standards are there, that they’ve implemented our graphics package, etc. … We’re really excited about where we are, but we know that we’ve got a long way to go.”

The Southland Conference unveiled its new digital network late last year, partnering with SIDEARM Sports and Volar Video to create the Southland Conference Digital Network, which delivers live and archived video, stats, social-media integration, and more.

Broaching a topic that permeated the 45-minute panel conversation, Southland Conference Commissioner Tom Burnett addressed the expense of establishing and maintaining a free digital video network (each of the four conferences’ digital networks is available for free).

“We’re resource-limited, but what we have found is, there’s a lot more that we’re capable of than what we’re limited by,” he said. “We’ve learned through ever-changing technology over time that it’s gotten easier to deal with, and, certainly from a financial-ability standpoint, that has been something that has allowed us to try to keep up with our big brothers, so to speak, at Mountain West or even at the Big Five-level conferences.”

AmericaEast.TV, America East’s first-ever conference-wide digital platform, launched just prior to the 2013 fall sports season. The NeuLion-powered platform powers live events from eight of the conference’s nine institutions (under an existing agreement, the University of Vermont continues to stream its home live events for free through the Northeast Sports Network), as well as video on demand, feature stories, and more.

In launching the network, first-year Commissioner Amy Huchthausen had to decide whether to pursue a subscription-based service or provide live content for free. After a study of the revenue generated by one institution’s pay model in comparison with the other institutions’ free models, the answer was clear: the pay model provided marginal revenues while the free model garnered substantially more viewers.

“It is an investment for us,” she said of the free AmericaEast.TV. “While we’re not getting a return on investment on dollars, we’re getting it in engagement. … There is an engagement return, and, quite frankly, that was our primary objective with the digital network. It was not to generate revenue or be a moneymaker for us; it was to increase the exposure and reach of our brand, and I think we’ve accomplished that.”

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