CSMA Master Class: RIT’s SportsZone Live Aces HD Hockey
Since its inception, the College Sports Media Awards have recognized the best in the college-sports-production arena. As technology and production techniques improve, the ability to create high-quality video on any budget has proliferated significantly. At the College Sports Video Summit, six universities and two professional networks were honored for their work in sports video. Each Thursday this summer, SVG is proud to offer an in-depth look at these personalities and programs that have raised the bar for what college sports video is capable of.
It’s a dark Saturday night in January, and snow is lightly falling outside Frank Ritter Ice Arena in Rochester. It’s hockey season in Upstate New York; it’s expected.
SportsZone Live director Mark Fragale is staying warm in the program’s self-built HD production truck just outside the rink getting ready for another night’s broadcast of RIT men’s hockey.
A colleague leans in to say hello but, before leaving, heeds a warning. “Oh you better be careful,” he says, softening his voice. “The president of the university is here tonight.”
“Well, that’s great,” replies Fragale with a wry smile, “but that doesn’t matter to me.” Mind you, this isn’t in any way a swipe at Dr. William W. Destler. “We’re going to go 100% no matter what.”
It’s that kind of attitude that helped land SportsZone Live the XOS Digital Award for College Athletics – Live Event at the College Sports Media Awards for its broadcast of RIT men’s hockey vs. Air Force Academy. It’s also helped the team produce top-notch sports programming in HD on a regular basis for nearly a decade.
A Small School Hits the Big Time
RIT SportsZone was born in 2002 when Fragale was hired full-time at Rochester Institute of Technology to run the new program being established in conjunction with ESPN and Time Warner Cable. It began as a 30-minute newsmagazine show and continues today, producing between 15 and 20 bimonthly episodes per academic year.
“The objective was to give Division III schools more exposure in their local markets,” says Fragale, who officially serves as assistant director of ETC Video Production Services. “This was a chance to get out and branch out.”
Not really known as an athletics institution, RIT put itself on the NCAA map courtesy of its wildly successful men’s hockey team. The Tigers, a Division III powerhouse for decades, developed a cult following in Upstate New York with a pair of national championships in 1983 (D-II) and 1985 (D-III). After appearing in seven consecutive D-III tournaments from 1996 to 2002, the program made the leap to D-I status officially in 2006, joining the Atlantic Hockey Conference and reaching the NCAA Tournament Frozen Four in 2010.
In 2008, SportsZone followed suit, elevating its game to a new level by beginning to broadcast men’s hockey games live locally on Time Warner Cable.
“We had never done live hockey games,” says Fragale. “We had had some live hockey done by a local television station, but it was always a logical step for us to branch out and expand the SportsZone name and model into live hockey.”
A Typical Night On-Air
With HD capabilities and a talented team, it didn’t take SportsZone Live very long to find its footing and to start churning out quality live hockey broadcasts.
A broadcast from Ritter Arena consists of five manned cameras — Panasonic AG-HPX500 P2 HDs, three of which are on tripods and two handheld — and three unmanned Canon HDV cams, which are positioned in the ceiling above each goal and in the scoreboard above center ice.
Each game consists of about a 25-person crew that, according to Fragale usually averages about 15 students. Two professional announcers from the Rochester area, Gene Battaglia and John DiTullio, handle on-air duties with students getting the chance to get on-air as on-ice reporters. Students get to work closely with industry professionals hired by RIT as freelancers, which, in turn, leads to excellent opportunities as camera operators, producers, and directors.
“We try to make it as professional as possible so that our students are getting real-world experience,” says Fragale, whose program has expanded to include women’s hockey, men’s basketball, and men’s lacrosse coverage. “The objective of this program was not just to put hockey on the air, which is obvious, but it’s to give our students real-world experience, where they are working with people who are out working in the world.”
From Inside the Truck
SportsZone Live broadcasts are run out of an impressive, self-constructed HD production truck that the team has begun using for road games.
The 24-ft. trailer is split into two areas — an 8- x 17-ft. main production area and an 8- x 5-ft. audio room — and can hold approximately 10 crew members. Inside, the unit shines with two Panasonic 50-in. plasma flat screens, four AJ-HPM110P P2 portable field recorder decks for replay, a pair of AG-HPG20 P2 portable field recorders, a DVC Pro deck for backup, a load of LCD monitors for engineering and camera shading, and a Harris Inscriber graphics system.
The truck was designed and constructed by James Bober, assistant director of ETC engineering services at The Wallace Center at RIT. With the assistance of two students, two co-op students, and another staff member, the unit was completed in just four months during the summer and fall of 2008.
Creative Improvements Ahead
SportsZone Live has all but mastered the live hockey broadcast, drawing viewership even when up against the NHL’s Buffalo Sabres. But that doesn’t keep Fragale from wanting to improve the show.
After spending time researching by watching NBC’s telecasts on the Winter Classic and the Stanley Cup Playoffs, Fragale invested in two Panasonic robotic cameras designed to get higher-quality closeups of RIT players and opponents.
“I want to get more face time on the benches,” says Fragale. “I’m really trying to bring the viewer onto the ice — trying to put the viewer in the helmet, in the pads, in the goalie’s mask. For me, that’s where you build the story.
“Obviously,” he continues, “it’s always about the game, what’s going on in the game and the score, but it’s the in-between stuff, seeing the face of a goalie after he’s just been scored on or when there’s a celebration. I think the robotic cameras are really going to help us.”
Raising the Bar
While Fragale will openly admit his program is blessed with a wonderful stash of equipment, he will be the first to tell colleagues that it’s not money or equipment that necessarily takes a broadcast to the next level. It’s talented people telling captivating stories.
“As a producer, I don’t want to reach out to the athletic world,” says Fragale. “I know that sounds silly, but, for us, the die-hard hockey fans are going to watch. They are going to watch hockey because they want to see what’s going on, and they may not care about the fluff in between. I tell our announcers, you don’t have to scream and yell or talk about the statistics to the nth degree. Highlight the statistics; let’s talk about them but let’s not dwell on them. What I’m trying to do is to get people to come to the rink, trying to get people involved, and trying to sell the show and the production. I think that part of it is an important part of our program.”
Added elements that give personality to players give viewers a chance to relate to them, making them more than just jersey numbers and tallies on a score sheet. For other collegiate athletics programs looking to maximize the potential of their video, telling stories is the best way to get the community engaged.
Adds Fragale, “With big programs like Notre Dame football, for example, you get a pregame show, a halftime show, a postgame show; it’s a big production, and I’m not asking anyone to do that; we don’t do that. But you can try to tap into some of that stuff. So, obviously, the game is probably 75% of what people are coming in to watch, but, if you could hire someone to produce that other 25% to give it a more creative look, I think it adds so much value.
“Don’t sell the creative element short.”