Venue Q&A: Alpha Video’s Jeff Volk
By Rick Price, president, moeBAM! Venue Media Services, and director, SVG Venue Technology Committee
Jeffrey Volk has been with Alpha Video since 1992. He founded and currently leads the Sports & Entertainment Group, a department within the Systems Sales Division of Alpha Video.
He has been instrumental in consulting, designing, and negotiating systems-integration contracts for cutting-edge technology solutions for all Sports & Entertainment Group clients. Some of his key projects include those at Fox Sports Net; Sprint Center; BOK Center; TD Ameritrade Park; Baylor University; Florida State University; Illinois State University; the Universities of Central Florida, Iowa, Kansas, and Nebraska; Minnesota Wild (Xcel Energy Center); Minnesota Twins (Target Field); Boston Red Sox (Fenway Park); and many others.
With years of experience in the professional audiovisual industry, Volk excels at development of solid, long-term relationships with clients, architects, and consultants, as well as specializing in creating quality solutions for all budgets using “best-in-class” emerging technologies.
You have been with Alpha Video for 20 years. Tell us about your career.
I started at Alpha 20 years ago as an inside sales person. Before that, I had worked for NewTek for a couple years, and, before that, I actually worked in scouting and player development as an associate scout for two seasons for the Chicago White Sox and as an associate scout for one season for the then-Anaheim Angels. I thought that baseball scouting and player development was really going to be my passion and just couldn’t make a full-time career of that. As it turned out, I went to the University of Nebraska and have an architecture background, so, naturally, that meant that I would get into video [laughs].
Between architecture and scouting and player development, I got in the video business. As it worked out, I went to work for NewTek. At the time, Alpha Video’s owners were on a contract basis as the sales managers for NewTek. When NewTek closed their Minneapolis sales office and moved everything to their headquarters [at the time] in Topeka [KS], they asked me if I wanted to move there. I had grown up in Nebraska so I wasn’t really interested in moving to Kansas.
Alpha Video offered me a job [as an] inside sales person, [where I] handled small-market television. After [working in] inside sales for a couple years, I handled the cable and telecommunications market, dealing with cable-access facilities. Minnesota has a very active cable-access community and guys building huge facilities and multiple 26-ft. trucks, and Minnesota’s really a [center] of cable-access activity, so we did a lot of that kind of work.
Tell us about the launch of Alpha Video’s Sports & Entertainment Division, which you oversee.
Around 2001, I just saw all the stadiums, arenas, and facilities that were being built. I thought that would be a natural synergy with the broadcast and production stuff that we were known for. At that time, we were really sort of isolated to the upper Midwest, and it was a chance for me to get back to dealing with sports, which is something that I wanted to do long term anyway.
So I wrote the business plan for our owners to launch our sports and entertainment group within Alpha Video. They signed off on it with the caveat that I still had revenue targets to make and was responsible for those numbers. So, for the first three or four years of that time, I split duty between growing the sports group and maintaining the cable and telecommunications stuff that I was doing. Then, around 2005-06, I turned over that cable and telecommunications market to some of our other sales staff, focusing full time on sports.
The sports side has really just exploded from there, growing to what it is today. We started with zero customers, zero visibility, and zero revenue, and now we have a lot of very high-profile customers in professional and collegiate sports, and we’ll do roughly $18 million-$20 million or so in revenue this year. It’s been a great journey, and it has been very satisfying, not only because I love the sports aspect of it, but it’s really been great to have the support of my ownership group to develop my own company within the support structure of Alpha Video.
What is the Sports & Entertainment Division’s percentage of revenue for Alpha Video?
From a revenue standpoint this year, because we’re having such a good year, we should account for somewhere in the neighborhood of 35%-40% of our overall revenue as a company. Our company is really split into a couple of different divisions, or a couple of different revenue buckets, and the sports group is a part of a bigger bucket that contributes a large amount of that revenue.
Must be a great sense of accomplishment conceptualizing, pitching, and growing this division. Congratulations!
Thank you, it’s been a lot of fun. It’s a great market. There were times in those first two or three years where we were new to the market and didn’t really have any references; nobody knew who we were; we didn’t have any experience. At first, it is a very closed-door market until you get some people who believe in you. Once you get a couple people who believe in you, that certainly does help to open some doors, but, those first couple of years, we weren’t 100% sure if it was a good idea or if we were going to be able to make it go.
What’s the best part of your role with Alpha Video?
For me, it really is game day. When I say game day, it’s when you show up the first time a new major technology upgrade is rolled out or a new facility is opened and you are part of that. To be there and to walk around the concourse, walk around the facility, and see fans’ reactions to what you’ve helped a team put together. Helping [venues] realize the fan-engagement and game-presentation experience that they’re hoping for, and, to see fans react to that, that’s probably one of the most rewarding things that we do.
What is the most exciting development or trend that you have seen in control-room design and functionality over the past 12 years or so?
For a long time, the incremental steps were pretty slow. It was SD, we were still tape-based. Then, even when we went to HD, it was tape-based. Now HD [is] tapeless and all digital. The exciting part — and the technologically challenging part at times — is really the integration of second-screen technology and [creating] a more immersive in-game fan experience. That’s been really exciting for us as we work with teams to do that on the pro level.
On the college level — we do a lot of college work as well — I think the trend is the same, except those facilities now are being used not only to present their in-venue presentation but also to provide third-tier rights, whether it be [with] ESPN or Fox or their own Website if they have the rights to that event. Actual television-production repurposing the same gear, maybe even repurposing the same control room, can create a lot of technological challenges.
Based on your experience, look into your crystal ball and tell us what the next BIG development for sports-venue audio/video technology is going to be?
With today’s current LED technology, we’re not 100% certain that 4K is going to become a very prevalent in-venue opportunity, simply because the LED could really benefit greatly from that 4K technology, with some limited exceptions. We really view [4K] more as a continued conversion.
For every HD upgrade that we do on the control side now, we’re engaged more and more on IPTV, digital signage, digital menu boards, and second-screen delivery of not only video but how do we engage fans with menu ordering and other things.
At the very high end of the market, there’s some companies that have that covered. If you’re a Major League Baseball facility, you have BAM [MLB Advanced Media] that can help you with app development, but, for a lot of our smaller customers, they need to deliver the same in-venue experience that maybe their major-league counterparts down the street are delivering.
For example, we did a project for the University of Texas Arlington. They opened a new 8,000-seat arena in 2012, and they’re in a situation where their campus is literally 4 miles from AT&T Stadium, so a lot of their students [and] fans go to Cowboys games. They’re the same distance from [Rangers] Ballpark in Arlington, [which has] undergone a lot of major technological renovations. So the university, as they built their facility, wanted to be very progressive in providing their fans an HD-video experience, an IPTV solution, [and] digital menu boards. They obviously don’t have the budgets to go to the high end of that, so they need to be a little bit more creative in what they choose to be able to deliver the same sort of experience on a different budget.
I think, as that technology continues to evolve and become more accessible to more and more end users, that’s really going to be what continues to drive the market: how the experience extends not only from the videoboard but [from] their handheld device and interacts with menu boards and digital signage and all of those things.
We’re also involved in some things on the digital-signage front because we have our own digital signage platform involving Near Field Communications [NFC]. We can make signage interactive to help increase ROI instead of somebody just looking at a screen and trying to tell a sponsor what the ROI is or what their impressions were. Using NFC, these screens really become interactive. Continuing to develop those types of things that can drive revenue for the team as well as enhance the experience for the fan, I think that’s where it’s going to go. I think, at some point, videoboard size will max out and really be focused more on what’s happening for the individual fan in their seat and as they move throughout the facility.
Over your career, do you have a most memorable accomplishment or moment?
There’s been several. Our very first control-room customer was our friend Bryan Bray, formerly at Baylor and now at Blue Scout Media. When we did their control room — and, looking back, a pretty simple analog control room — being there for that first game day and having our first control room under our belt was really a highlight.
Our first real, major project was the University of Iowa when they renovated in 2005. Being there for that was a big career moment. In 2009, we were fortunate enough to do a project, and we’ve continued to do all of their work now, at the University of Nebraska, and me being an alum and that being where I grew up and being a huge fan, being involved with that project with Nebraska Athletics on an ongoing basis has certainly been a highlight.
Beyond that, our project at Fenway Park was also a real big highlight of my career, Fenway being one of the iconic venues in the world. To be entrusted to do that project and deliver something that everyone, including the Red Sox and their fans, really loves and that fits nicely into the charm and character of Fenway without really blowing people out of the water, that was also a pretty big highlight.
Tell us your purpose for serving on the Venue Technology Committee and what you hope to accomplish.
As a company, we always want to be on the forefront of what’s going on in the industry and would rather be a company that helps shape what’s going on as opposed to just reacts to what’s going on, mostly so that we can better serve our customers.
Being involved in the committee really benefits us in two ways and benefits the committee in two ways. We can bring some of our expertise on the control-room side and the venue entertainment side and blend that with the folks who are actually doing the entertainment, [building] trucks, and doing all those things to help guide best practices for venues.
It also helps [when we] go back to our customers and, through our involvement, say, “Here’s the things that the Venue Technology Committee is talking about. Here’s the kind of things that we’re hearing from the group that are important to other teams and things that other teams are doing.” We can take some of that knowledge back to our customers, so it’s really a two-way knowledge transfer: we can bring some of that knowledge to the committee, and then the committee allows us to bring some of that knowledge back to our customers to make their facility as great as they possibly can be, whatever their technical needs or budgets are.