Pac-12 Network Shares Lessons From Year One at CSS
Executives from the Pac-12 took to the stage at the College Sports Summit to discuss year one, future plans, and keys to successfully launching a conference-wide network that today includes six regional networks, a national network, and plenty of content delivered via the Web to computers and mobile devices.
Leon Schweir, SVP of production and operations, Pac-12 Networks, said that the network had a production-and-operations game plan early on but it overlooked using school assets to create a more flexible bidirectional workflow between the network and the schools.
“We realized we would be better off turning to the schools than making something of our own,” he added.
As those plans changed, said Bob Keyser, VP of university relations, Pac-12 Network, the challenge became to have a constant stream of communication allowing honest dialogue that makes it easier for schools and networks to work together.
With more than 550 events broadcast in year one and plans to grow that to 750 in year two and 850 in year three, that communication is vital.
“It’s important that everyone understands the goals … and we are broadcasting from venues that never had TV before,” Keyser explained. “So there is a constant push to get those venues TV-ready, and there is no way we could have done that without a huge level of cooperation from our schools.”
Those production efforts are also about more than advertising and subscriber revenue.
“There is an economic measure of success, but there is also a huge metric around the exposure for sports that previously did not get exposure,” said Keyser. “The Pac-12 has won almost twice as many national championships as other conferences, but people don’t know that.”
The student-athletes and coaches involved in sports that traditionally have not received exposure provide much of the enthusiasm on campuses. But Teresa Kuehn-Gould, deputy director of athletics, University of California-Berkely, said it was also important to collectively get the buy-in of school administration officials.
“The philosophy we have is built on advancing the common brand of the Pac-12 as well as academic and competitive excellence,” she explained. “And the reality is, getting the buy-in is a lot of work, not just a conference call. You need to work in the trenches with event management and the facilities. And Commissioner [Larry] Scott has been fantastic in positioning this network as a tool for the entire campus, not just an athletics-department thing. It’s about collaboration and cooperation from the chancellors to public affairs to the athletic directors, and on down.”
Because of that collaborative work, 50 of 92 venues that previously were not TV-ready have become TV-ready in just one year.
“Older facilities had not been renovated,” noted Kuehn-Gould, “and that motivated us to make long-overdue investments that, in the short term, are motivated by live TV and other benefits, like the fan experience.”
And the cooperation extends beyond the brick and mortar.
“From day one, we said our students would be involved with the productions, and, on every event, there is a student working, and students also work as runners and utilities,” said Schweir. “So they will spend a year running camera, assisting in audio.”
He acknowledged that those efforts have caused some problems, in particular with the union: “They struck because they did not care for us using students to do events, but denying student participation is not going to happen.”
Keyser added that getting students involved was something the presidents and administration at the schools wanted to do.
“This is also an educational venture, so students can get involved as interns, see how a media company is run, and collaborate with people from our headquarters,” he said. “We are just scratching the surface, and we want to do more and more with them in the future.”
There are currently three ways undergraduate students are involved with the network. In July, an internship program will be launched whereby former students from every Pac-12 school will spend three months working for the network with the opportunity for full-time work at the end. The second opportunity reflects the need to have more content on the linear and digital networks: additional students will be working in the creative side of the network. And the third is mentoring undergrads who want to get into the TV business.
“We have 12 amazing universities with students who can build apps,” said Ryan Currier, video product management, Pac-12 Enterprises. “So we are leveraging them and building out products. Students are not just content resources.”
Those apps allow the network to move beyond being a digital linear TV channel.
“People want to watch our content on the Web and mobile devices, so we produce a lot of digital videos, like highlight clips,” said Currier. “There is an enormous amount of content created all the time, and we help fans be passionate and embrace their passion. And establishing a framework so they can experience sports on different devices lets them connect with the sports, so we want to do more and more on mobile devices and the Web. We don’t have a legacy [technology infrastructure], so we were built with digital in mind.”
Schweir noted that the foundation that has been laid, both from a personnel and technical perspective, will allow the network to create an interactive network where venues are all connected and push and pull content back and forth.
“And not only for our digital platform but for the six regional networks with individual content for each,” he added. “So that means partnerships with the schools that make it easy to move content back and forth.”
Kuehn-Gould pointed out that the exposure from all the content being created is valuable only if it is a high-quality product telling the Pac-12 story in a way that connects with those on the campus. “We know the ratings will come and that, for the first few years, this is about exposing a community of people on campuses to our people so we can have a product that is consistent with the quality of the Pac-12 brand.”
Given the strong history of success the Pac-12 has had on the field, the quality of the brand is about as high as it can get. The question now is, can the Pac-12 Network build it even more?