SVG College Sports Summit: SEC Network Schools Reflect on Lessons of Year 1

It has been almost a full year since the SEC Network launched, and, although it was certainly a big deal then, the gargantuan undertaking is even more impressive now that it’s a reality. Supported by the power of ESPN, which placed an unprecedented level of responsibility with the SEC’s member institutions, all 14 schools made significant investments in gear, broadcast infrastructure, and staffing. Today, those schools boast some of the most impressive video-production facilities in the country.

At last week’s SVG College Sports Summit in Atlanta, representatives from Mississippi State, University of Alabama, University of Missouri, and Auburn University, as well as Ross Video, offered a look back at year 1 of the SEC Network: their shared experiences, lessons learned, and what to expect in year 2.

With 14 institutions housing 14 centralized control rooms that needed to connect to campus venues as well as to SEC Network headquarters in Charlotte, NC, the panelists quickly agreed on one thing: they learned more about fiber than they had ever thought possible.

However, not all pre-launch experiences were shared. Mississippi State, for example, already had some fiber in place, thanks to its HD videoboard and control-room upgrade at Davis Wade Stadium in 2008.

From left to right: Missouri's Stan Silvey, Alabama's Justin Brant, Auburn's Andy Young, Mississippi State's Bennie Ashford, and Ross Video's Jared Schatz discuss Year 1 of the SEC Network.

From left to right: Missouri’s Stan Silvey, Alabama’s Justin Brant, Auburn’s Andy Young, Mississippi State’s Bennie Ashford, and Ross Video’s Jared Schatz discuss Year 1 of the SEC Network.

“We were kind of in a unique position. We had a control room in place because we put in a big videoboard in our football stadium, so we had some fiber connectivity on campus already,” said Bennie Ashford, assistant AD, video production, Mississippi State. “Once ESPN came and established their minimum standards and what they needed from us, it was basically built from there. We added a few more production pieces to our control room and fiber-connected all the venues. … It’s been good for us. We’ve been able to link to all the facilities, not only for SEC Network production but also for our videoboards as well.”

The University of Alabama had its production staff ready to go in plenty of time for the launch. Nearly five months before the SEC Network hit airwaves, the school unveiled its state-of-the-art Digital Media Center at Bryan-Denny Stadium.

“We built it with the future in mind in the hope that we would do some regional productions with the SEC Network,” said Justin Brant, director, Crimson Tide Productions, University of Alabama. “We already had a larger control room built, [so] we built a second, smaller control room with all the equipment associated with that. … Having the expandability and opening that second room was really our biggest piece [leading up to the launch]. It made it a little bit easier for us, I think, because we had already gone through [building the DMC], we could focus more on the productions. But it was still a huge undertaking.”

For other schools, incorporating ESPN’s production and technical standards wasn’t difficult for the simple reason that there were no standards previously in place.

“It was kind of easy for us because we didn’t have anything,” explained Stan Silvey, assistant AD, broadcast operations, University of Missouri. “We were able to listen to ESPN and take what they wanted us to do and kind of build it from there.”

Auburn University Assistant AD, Video Services, Andy Young found himself in a similar position when he came on board. The school worked tirelessly to build two new production-control rooms and connect nine campus facilities via fiber before the university’s busiest time on the athletic calendar.

“We were in a good position in the sense that we had to start from scratch, a bad position in that we did not complete those rooms until the middle of December,” he pointed out. “Our busiest months of the year were January and February — we did, I think, over 100 live events for SEC Network and our videoboard productions. … We built everything from the ground up.”

Although the scramble to prepare for the SEC Network launch proved more strenuous for some schools, all hit the ground running on Aug. 14 and quickly underwent some serious on-the-job training.

“We learned a couple things,” said Brant. “These productions are a lot of work, a lot of research. And, if you’re getting into a game, productions are only as good as the amount of time you put into it. We learned that very quickly. [Before] our first production, we were all super nervous, and it was crazy. But now we feel very comfortable, and we can focus on making those productions better, which I think is a huge plus.”

Another byproduct of the launch was the need to increase staffing to accommodate the sheer number of productions — both network and videoboard — expected from each university.

“The initial staff went from seven full-time people to, at the end of the year, 13. We just keep growing and growing,” said Young. “We think it’s going to stop, but it doesn’t stop. It was certainly challenging but definitely rewarding to get through that first year. We’re still standing and looking forward to the second year.”

Throughout the process, from announcement to launch and beyond, the schools relied heavily on ESPN’s production and technological knowledge.

Explained Ashford, “Once the SEC and ESPN made the announcement that they would create this network and the ball started rolling, the first phone call I got was from [ESPN Manager, Event Operations,] Rex Arends, and he said, ‘Hey, we need to talk.’ Little did I know how my life would change after that phone conversation.

“Rex and his group,” he continued, “came down did an assessment of our facility, told us what we needed to do, where we needed to be — not only from the digital side but also from the linear side as well for broadcast. All of these venues needed to be broadcast-ready as well.”

For Ross Video, making sure that the equipment in each school was ready to go and staff members were trained to operate their production switcher and graphics engines was top priority. After all, if the SEC’s member institutions couldn’t produce content, the launch would be for naught. Luckily, all 14 were — and continue to be — ready to go, and Ross continues to provide both technical and production support.

“The primary goal was to get everyone on air fulfilling their digital-tier games,” noted Jared Schatz, director of sales, USA, Ross Video. “Our primary role is, of course, on the production side. We quickly realized after a month or two that there are very few technical-support issues. A lot of the phone calls coming into our tech-support department were more production questions. One of the things we’re trying to do now is really build a community and connect everyone on the production level where we can communicate, share tips, and actually provide a production help desk.”

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