Raycom, CBS College Sports Partner on ACC Select

By Carolyn Braff

Over the past three years, Turner Sports, Raycom Sports, and the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) have built a broadband empire in ACC Select. In June, that empire nearly collapsed when Turner abruptly closed its PlayOn subsidiary, but strong ACC ties at the CBS College Sports Network helped get the empire quickly back on track. Now under new streaming guidance, ACC Select is relying on CBS College’s enhanced Silverlight-powered player to grow its fan base, despite a tighter schedule of events in 2008-09.

Finding a New Partner, Fast

A live and on-demand streaming service, ACC Select offered nearly 800 football, basketball, and Olympic-sports events annually in its first two years. With so much success, it came as quite a shock when Turner closed PlayOn, leaving the ACC and Raycom scrambling for a streaming partner just weeks before the fall sports season got under way.

The ACC’s existing relationship with the CBS College Sports Network paved the way for a smooth “if accelerated” transition to its new streaming partner.

“CBS College already had a business relationship with eight schools from the ACC on the official athletic-site side,” explains Colin Smith, VP of distribution and new media for Raycom Sports. CBS College, formerly CSTV, runs the Websites for ACC members Boston College, Clemson, Florida State, Georgia Tech, Maryland, Miami, North Carolina, and Wake Forest, as well as the conference’s official site, theACC.com. Combining those relationships with the ability to cross-promote between platforms, CBS College quickly emerged as the top contender.

“We firmly believe that this type of broadband delivery system works best as an aggregator, when you get everything in one place, on one site,” Smith explains. “ACC Select did that but was always separate from theACC.com because they didn’t live in the same place. With CBS College, now we had the ability to combine the two.”

The agreement to move ACC Select’s streaming operations to CBS College was completed in mid August, giving everyone involved just two weeks to get settled before events began.

Building the Player

“We wanted to work with Raycom to build on what Turner had done to take the program to the next level,” explains Tom Buffolano, VP and general manager, digital programming and subscription, for the CBS College Sports Network. “We wanted to launch ACC Select within our new player, and that was a big deal for Raycom and the ACC as well.”

CBS College’s new player, built on Microsoft Silverlight technology, greatly improves the player environment and consumer experience.

“With 800 events on there, you’ve got to be able to find what you’re looking for and be able to search,” Smith explains. “When CBS College showed us what they were improving with the Silverlight application, that sealed the deal.”

The new player allows users to customize their viewing experience by integrating the GameTracker application into the player (GameTracker allows fans to follow live simulated game action, details, and full play-by-play of a variety of sports). Fans can also search for news pertaining to the event or schools playing.

“There’s a lot more ability to customize and get more embedded into that experience,” Smith explains. “If you don’t want that, all of those bells and whistles don’t get in the way of being able to pull up that stream and watch a solid video of the event.”

Using Turner’s Building Blocks

ACC Select events are quality-controlled by CBS College’s operations center, but each school is responsible for putting on its own four-camera shoots, using the equipment kit Turner provided two years ago. That kit comprises four Canon XL2 cameras, four tripods, and two computers equipped with a video switcher, audio mixer, and producer and director station. The graphics package is included in the Web-based production-manager software.

“The equipment stayed with the schools, so that was a big help for us,” Buffolano says. “The quality of equipment that Turner provided to the schools was excellent, and the quality of the production over the past years has gotten really good. From our end, we talk to them about things like pulling highlights and interviews along with the live events.”

Buffolano noted plans to include pre- and post-game interviews with players and coaches, highlight packages, and different game wraps to enhance the ACC Select product.

The Windows Media encoding software that the schools had been using fits seamlessly into CBS College’s new player, and given that 10 of the 12 ACC member schools have worked with CBS College in some capacity “either for official athletic sites or for the CBS College All-Access product” there was a high familiarity throughout the league with CBS’s content-production system. The transition was as smooth as it could have been, given the time crunch.

“They just have to change a few settings within their Windows Media encoding session, and that’s about it,” Smith says. “The schools are all pretty comfortable with their internal network settings and the things that they need to do to ensure a high-quality stream going out of their venues. Luckily, they’ve had two years of practice, and it has been a fairly smooth transition.”

Cross-Platform Promotion

CBS College has big cross-promotional plans for the ACC Select content. In addition to highlights from ACC Select events aired on the College Sports Tonight show, ACC Select promotions will be wrapped on-air with other programming on CBS College Sports Network and Raycom Sports shows, and some ACC events will be syndicated throughout CBS College’s digital network, which includes such partners as USA Today.

“We love working with Raycom; they’re a great partner,” Buffolano says. “We have the ability to cross-promote in a much bigger way, I think, than what Turner was able to.”

A Tight Schedule

This year, the ACC Select subscription service will offer approximately 50 live events per school, about 600 in total. That number is about 200 fewer than were offered last year, in part because events televised by Raycom will no longer be streamed simultaneously.

“We realized that the rights issues associated with streaming live events that are also televised can get very complicated,” Smith explains. “It created more confusion than it was helping since we’d have to black out certain areas.”

Instead of streaming live the 75 events that Raycom Sports is televising, Smith is considering a free-content highlight package or a video-on-demand archive to give fans access to that content.

In addition, all ACC Championship events not televised will be streamed live, for free, separate from the subscription service.

Improving the TV-on-the-Internet Experience

For this season, the new members of the ACC Select partnership are focusing on making a solid transition, but the next big question they face is equipment upgrades.

“The more bodies, the more cameras you have, the more that production’s going to look like television on the Internet,” Smith says. “Hopefully, with a couple years” practice, we’re going to have something that will be very equivalent to a television production, including in the ease of getting that stream into your home, onto a computer, or onto a television.”

Standardizing the staffing situation at each member school is also a priority. While all 12 schools have added resources to their streaming group, some contract out to a production company, some have a full-time staff member dedicated to ACC Select, and others are more casual about their in-house operations.

“That was one of our biggest challenges at first, dealing with all the different layers at each school and then multiplying that by 12, plus a conference office,” Smith says. “We had our bumps and bruises early on, but now all 12 schools have made a conscious effort to either add staff or add resources. That’s been a huge help in making the service better.”

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