SVG Sit-Down: Jamie Pollard, Director of Athletics, Iowa State
Now in his ninth year at Iowa State University, Director of Athletics Jamie Pollard heads a department that is at the forefront of video-production technology. ISU launched its digital network, Clone Zone, in 2006 and now — just seven years later — has landed a distribution deal with Iowa’s major cable provider, Mediacom, to launch a 24/7 linear network, Cyclones.tv.
Pollard sat down with SVG to discuss the excitement of Iowa State’s having its own TV network and the value that video production brings to a university athletic department.
Going back to when Cyclones.tv started as a digital network, was it part of the plan to get it up onto a linear network?
I’ll even take it back a step further: When it was just hiring [Tyler Rutherford] to run the Website, we had Clone Zone, and video was premium content so you could charge for something.
When we started loading up and getting the idea that you can do some really neat digital stuff on the Internet, in the back of our minds, we always took the approach that we don’t want to bury ourselves. You can really get caught up and spend a lot of money and never get out from underneath it. So we always wanted to be realistic but [said] let’s work on having great quality content that maybe someday somebody would want. And it ramped up far sooner than any of us thought.
We figured that, if the Big 12 ever went to a consolidated “Big 12 Network,” they would need content from Iowa State. Well, as it’s evolved, we started to realize we can [develop content] ourselves right here in our state if we can convince the cable operator to take it. So, when the Big 12 went with the new TV deal [and] the school’s got one football game and so many basketball games, that’s what really opened the door because the cable operator came to us and said, We want those. We used to shop them among network affiliates, and we said, Well, you can get them, but here’s what you’ve got to do to get them. That’s what started the discussion about MediaCom’s carrying all of our other live events, and that morphed into, Can we get a whole station 24/7?
Has anything had to change during the summer? In making the leap, did you have to make any additional video-production investments, or was this network really ready for linear television?
A couple of things came into play. Learfield Sports [VP of Digital and Television Media] Diane Penny was instrumental because she got us hooked up with Encompass [Digital Media] in Atlanta. Basically, we do content, Encompass does [transmission], and Mediacom does distribution. Now, I’m simplifying that as significantly as an AD would.
You make all this wonderful content that you have digitally sitting out there on the Website, but it’s not television-ready. Some people don’t fully grasp that; I didn’t. That’s where Encompass came into play. They are a television station in a box, essentially. So we feed them all this content, and they work with us to put it all together, drop in the ads. We’re basically creating a six-hour block that we give to Mediacom and that runs on a continuous loop absent break-ins for any of our weekly live press conferences and other live events. We will continue to grow and build more content so that six-hour block can always be updated.
So, live events will be produced by your athletics staff?
Correct. What we’ve capitalized on is two things. One, Mediacom is the cable provider for our campus. So they made an investment in fiber from Des Moines up to Ames and into our production-control room in our basketball arena. We use that production room to run everything that we do for our videoboard for football and the boards for basketball, volleyball, wrestling, and gymnastics.
Student involvement will be a big part of this as well?
Oh yeah, there’s a lot of involvement from the students.
We did hire John Walters, who is the sports anchor at the local ABC affiliate. John came over to really give it creditability about a year ago. Then we moved Tom Kroeschell, our longtime sports information director, into Cyclones.tv to work with a lot of our history, archive, and to go out and get a lot of interviews for shoulder programming. We also have a production group that we use out of Daktronics, and they hire a lot of students.
What is it about video that is appealing to athletic directors and athletic departments? Obviously, it’s blowing up everywhere whether it’s digital networks or linear networks or conference networks. What makes these platforms a valuable investment for an athletic department?
For us, it’s broadening our brand throughout the state of Iowa. I look at it and say the person that really wants to watch our volleyball match or wrestling match, whether they live in Florida or Alaska or Russia, they’re going to go find it if you’ve made it available. They just will. What this platform does for us is, the John Q. Public that’s in Iowa that is in the footprint of Mediacom, that’s the person we’re capturing with this.
The other night, when we were doing our Coach’s Show at Applebee’s, they had multiple TVs on, and the Big Ten Network was on one of the TVs next to us, and during the whole time we were there, I didn’t see one Iowa athlete. On the TV next to it, it was all Cyclones. That’s the brand you’re going to get because that sports bar now happens to have it on.
That’s what all of the video and digital stuff will do. It’s going to be there. It’s presence. It’s branding.
When it comes to financially investing in video gear, who is making those decisions? Is it someone in the video department selling it to you? Is it you selling it to the university president? How does an initiative like this go about being sold internally?
Well, it really started with having a lot of really good, talented people. It was a labor of love for them. Two years ago, I made the directive to our staff that I want us to take this as far as we can, but I want to grow it at a rate that works for us. I didn’t want to make this huge, huge capital investment and then die on the vine because we buried ourselves. So let’s grow it in a way that works for us. They’ve been really good about utilizing things we were already doing.
For example, we have Daktronics videoboards in all of our venues, and we have a contract with them to run all that video during the games. We’re filming all of our games in HD. Now let’s try to figure out how to use that. That’s where the [NewTek] TriCaster came into play. That was a capital investment, but it was a minimal capital investment given what it allowed us to do. We worked with our athletic communications staff and [told them], instead of doing game notes, we want you taking mini cams and [creating] video content. If you create that content, we can turn that around for the digital network and now the TV station. So we’ve done it in a way that the production costs are incremental versus monumental.
The Encompass piece was where we could have buried ourselves with production. We’re basically renting their services, but that’s OK because it’s manageable.
So the short answer to your question is, having a very talented staff that can sell it to their athletic director.