Colleges face increasing demand to produce more and better sports webcasts

  • Members of the UCSD video production crew work in the UC San Diego broadcast production control room while the UCSD women’s basketball team play against Cal State Monterey Bay at the RIMAC Arena on Jan. 2 in San Diego, Calif. (Hayne Palmour IV/San Diego Union-Tribune/TNS)

SAN DIEGO — In RIMAC Arena at UC San Diego, banners of blue and gold hang below a massive new video board to commemorate the achievements of teams from the past.

They are important reminders of where the Tritons have been, but their significance now pales to the long, white banners with red lettering draped on the railing of the grandstands. The logo on them is recognizable to just about anyone who has turned on a television.

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ESPN.

“Those are four important letters,” UCSD Athletic Director Earl Edwards mused on an evening in early January while he watched a Tritons men’s and women’s basketball doubleheader.

There is a touch of pride in Edwards’ voice, and by all rights, there should be.

In a county that has five four-year universities — San Diego State, University of San Diego, Cal State San Marcos, Point Loma Nazarene and UCSD — only the school in La Jolla has the right to hang that ESPN banner every time its teams play in the arena.

In fact, very few NCAA Division II programs in the country can make the claim, and none can do so in the Big West Conference, to which UCSD is moving next year as it begins its transition to Div. I.

In a deal forged with ESPN before last school year, UCSD produces all of its basketball games, as well as men’s and women’s volleyball, for ESPN3 — the streaming platform for the most powerful sports network in the world.

Next up in the coming years — both soccer teams, baseball, softball and water polo will be on ESPN3.

Before even arriving in their new conference, “we’re already leading and pushing the Big West in that direction,” in terms of quality production, said UCSD’s Steven Calista, associate athletic director, video production. “We want to set the standard.”

There is a digital arms race of sorts going on throughout all of college athletics. As video streaming becomes more sophisticated and commonplace, universities are facing greater demands — and higher costs — to produce their own live content.

In turn, viewers have the ability to see every play in an entire season, whether they live in New York or New Zealand. Gone are the days when parents had to scour newspapers or the internet for tidbits in a box score.

“I’ve seen it,” said Jason Bott, SDSU’s coordinator of multimedia productions for seven years. “Swimming and tennis matches are being streamed now. They’re streaming boxing at Air Force. They’re streaming sports that I thought would never be streamed.”

All five of the major universities in San Diego have webcasts for a number of their sports, with plans to do more, and they can hardly fathom a new world in which they could leave their fans — mostly parents of athletes — in the dark.

Including press conferences, Bott said SDSU will do about 140 live streams this school year. CSUSM, which included a video production room when it built its Sports Center, said it will produce more than 100, and UCSD has about 60 planned, with a goal of reaching 160 in the next few years.

“The reason why it’s exploded is social media,” said Chris Kutz, associate athletic director, strategic communications, for USD, which streams basketball, soccer, volleyball, and baseball, with softball on the way this year.

“You have all of these platforms that are becoming reliant on video. It comes down to highlights and streaming games, and you’re just trying to showcase your scholar-athletes and your coaches as much as you can.

“It’s natural to want to get your stuff in front of as many people as possible.”

The efforts are a fascinating study in cost versus demand. Regular television networks sell their advertising time based on what they believe will be the viewership for various sports.

For the universities, they are paying up to a dozen people — some are highly skilled professionals — to work on events that have viewerships that barely match the number of people producing them.

Bott, for example, said he works a couple of hours to plan and prepare for a game. His onsite producer, John O’Brien, does the same and then oversees the broadcast. There are other production assistants, as many as four camera operators, and a play-by-play person.

“When you put a price tag on the people we’re paying, the talent and the crew, and divide that by the number of people watching, it’s a lot of money,” Bott said.

However, simply not showing games is not an option.

Bott recalled a circumstance earlier this season when a technical problem prevented the webcast of an SDSU women’s basketball game from being shown. One parent who makes it a point to watch every game complained rather loudly to the administration.

“He flipped out,” Bott said of the father. “I was kind of upset that we made someone upset, but that also means that somebody is watching. Somebody cared and relies on that.

“If I lived in another state, I’d be glued to the computer every night just to see my kid. If we’re doing that for 17 parents of the kids on the team, and those are the only ones watching, that’s great. It’s a huge service.”

Indeed, numerous administrators interviewed said they could be at a recruiting disadvantage if they didn’t webcast games that other programs do.

Kutz noted that half of the players on USD’s roster are international, from countries such as Brazil, Germany and Belarus. It’s not as if their parents can get in their car to drive to a few games a year.

“They wouldn’t have been able to watch our games 15 years ago,” Kutz said. “For us to survive as a basketball school, to survive in recruiting, these families have to be able to watch their kids day to day. It takes away a negative and makes it a positive.”

Most administrators agree that beyond broadcasting more sports, the potential for audience growth is minimal. They say they don’t see much viewership from other students. The most likely viewers are parents, alumni and recruits.

“Our students are more inclined to follow the teams on social media,” said Mindy Mills, assistant sports information director for Cal State San Marcos.

Though charging for webcasts could produce some revenue, most of the local schools elect not to. The exception is PLNU, which offers paid “passports” to its various sports. A single game costs $8.95, while a season pass for a sport is $79.95 and access to all sports for the year is $99.95.

PLNU’s Justin Courneya called the packages “very affordable” for parents who cannot attend games and added that most schools in the PacWest Conference charge a similar fee.

Mills said she believes strongly that streaming access should be free.

“That’s something that’s dear to my heart,” Mills said. “In my opinion, we should not be charging parents to watch their kids’ games.”

Interestingly, while all of the local universities produce game video, they do so in very different ways.

PLNU, for example, could claim to be on the cutting edge because it uses an artificial intelligence camera to follow basketball action. Courneya, a 14-year basketball assistant at PLNU before he took over his current position this year, heard about the AI cameras being used to gather NBA practice tape.

He pitched it to Athletic Director Ethan Hamilton, and they got a camera made by Pixellot, one of the industry leaders. For games, the camera begins with a wide shot, but can focus tighter as the action moves closer to the basket.

A second camera focuses directly on the scoreboard, and a computer program extrapolates the time and score from that.

The only manpower required to broadcast the game: a play-by-play announcer and someone to turn the camera on and off.

No other schools in the conference use an AI camera, Courneya said, “but I think some will jump on board now that we’ve started it.”

At San Marcos, Mills and Tyler Morrison, an assistant sports information director, oversee all of the video operation. Along with other schools in the California Collegiate Athletic Association, they use the company BlueFrame as their streaming service.

For basketball games, the Cougars have a camera that is operated by a joystick connected to a console. For outdoor sports such as soccer and baseball, the camera is mounted on an arm that rises 20 to 30 feet into the air to provide an optimal angle.

At the upper end of production facilities is UCSD. With increased funding that comes with the transition to Div. I, the school incorporated a state-of-the-art broadcast booth high above the court when it remodeled RIMAC Arena. From there, Calista and his crew create a broadcast that they strive to be of “ESPN level.”

To Calista, that phrase has many meanings, from the depth of the technology to a higher expectation for the way the broadcast looks and flows.

Calista, who previously developed the sports video department at Long Beach State, said all of those working on UCSD’s broadcast are paid. Most have extensive backgrounds in television, including regular work on Padres telecasts. The director for basketball, Garrett Zrake, grew up in a television production family. Technical director Lucas Armstrong is a UCSD graduate who worked his way up from the intern level.

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The entire crew, Calista said, is always cognizant of the four letters attached to the broadcast. The reminders are down near the court.

“That’s what I most love about this job,” Calista said. “I’m getting the freedom to do it the way I want to, at the ESPN level.”

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