Liberty Flames Sports Network Is a Rising Star
When evangelical Southern Baptist pastor Jerry Falwell founded Liberty University in the early 1970s, he had ambitious goals for the Virginia-based school: be for Protestants what the University of Notre Dame is for Catholics. That is to say, a large, nationally recognized university that enjoyed success at the highest level, most notably in athletics.
It’s for that reason that it was particularly satisfying for the team at Liberty Flames Sports Network (LFSN), which not only took home a SVG/NACDA College Sports Media Award for its production of a National Signing Day show that aired in February but topped the likes of Notre Dame in doing so.
“It as an awesome recognition for the hard work that was put in by so many,” says Matthew Byrd, producer for LFSN. “To win an award like this is a neat fulfillment.”
Liberty has come a long way from its controversial early days as a small bible college to reigning as the world’s largest Christian university, nearing 100,000 students in its residential and online programs. It’s commitment to video production has also been something of a roller-coaster journey along the way.
When the college was founded, a department within the administration produced Sunday-morning church programming that boosted Falwell’s position as a televangelist. It eventually led to the development of a 24/7 satellite network that ran in the late 1980s called Liberty Broadcasting Network. Included in its religious programming was also a generous amount of live coverage of Liberty University athletics.
In the ’90s, as the business model of the cable-television industry changed, the university sold the network and its transponder and shifted its resources toward a syndication model. Today, the university still follows a similar model but has made a large commitment to digital distribution, and now sports programming makes up a significant portion of the content created by the university.
The institution’s re-commitment to television production has also grown exponentially over the past couple of years. Since a key HD upgrade in the summer of 2013, the university has begun to establish itself as one of the elite college sports-broadcasting outfits in the country.
The organization comprises about 30 people, a mixture of a small full-time operations staff and a collection of industry freelancers from around the area who provide guidance and training for the large crop of students who make up a big portion of what makes Liberty Flames Sports Network work.
Professionals largely make up the crews on major productions, such as football and basketball (on average, 70 such events per year). Students, meanwhile, get the chance to cut their teeth in live productions on events like soccer, field hockey, lacrosse, etc., (of which there are well over 100 events per year).
That crucial summer of 2013 saw Liberty invest approximately $5 million to build an HD production facility that completely changed the game and pulled Liberty’s program out of what LFSN director Russ Hall calls “the dark ages.”
The network’s main control room rivals that of any in a professional setting. The space features a Grass Valley K-Frame switcher, a Grass Valley Dyno replay system, a ChyronHego Mosaic graphics engine, a Calrec audio console, Miranda multiviewers, and RTS intercoms. The set itself is equipped with Sony cameras.
“The gear in those control rooms are the exact same as is used for the NHL, NBA, and Major League Baseball,” says Hall. “If you step into our control room in little Lynchburg, VA, and, if you step into a sports truck in Charlotte at an NBA game, it wouldn’t be that different in terms of the professionalism of the broadcast. So we’re really happy that, in just the past 24-36 months, we’ve gone from probably the worst example of a technical sports production to one that is now top-notch.”
Students get to work in the main control room, and the school has also invested in a small, 13-ft. HD production truck that features two control-room setups enabling students to get added work on the Olympic events on the programming calendar.
That unit is built around NewTek TriCasters (855 and 850), NewTek 3Play machines (425 and 325), a PreSonas digital audio console, RTS intercoms, ChyronHego IP graphics, and JVC 700 series cameras with SMPTE fiber connections.
Students, in turn, get hands-on opportunities to produce their own live coverage for the athletic department’s digital platform. It all adds up to a robust organization that maintains a professional on-air presence that the athletic department requires while offering the education opportunities that the university needs. And it has all come together to produce award-winning work in just three years.
How has the team behind the scenes done it?
“Get a plan together. Figure out the key people or pieces,” Byrd explains, noting that departments will have different numbers of people and skill sets.“Lay down your game plan and figure out where you can get the proper workload so you don’t feel overwhelmed. Make sure that everyone on the football-operations side has bought in [to the effort] and that they feel it’s just as much theirs.”