With Continued Expansion, Altitude Sports Stays at the Top of Mile-High Game
In a regional-sports-network landscape increasingly dominated by national broadcasters and MVPDs like News Corp./Fox, Comcast/NBC, DIRECTV/ROOT, and Time Warner Cable, Denver-based Altitude Sports continues to stand out as it approaches its tin anniversary.
Owned by sports-business entrepreneur Stan Kroenke’s Kroenke Sports & Entertainment (which also owns the Denver Nuggets, Colorado Avalanche, and the Pepsi Center in Denver), the nine-year-old RSN has gradually transformed itself into a Rocky Mountain regional sports powerhouse, producing more than 225 live events per year and distributing a half dozen cable networks around the country.
“In the beginning, we were really Altitude-centric, so everything was about Altitude and Nuggets and Avalanche distribution,” says SVP of Operations Dave Zur, who helped lead the Altitude launch in 2004. “But the addition of other franchises has made it so the [MLS’s] Colorado Rapids and [National Lacrosse League’s] Colorado Mammoth are equally important products for us. Since then, we’ve also made the transition to being a vendor of network services, which was a really big change. So as far as our operations are concerned, there’s been an awful lot of growth with content creation and delivery.”
Behind the Scenes at ANOC
From its Altitude Network Operation Center (ANOC) in Centennial, CO (17 miles southeast of the Pepsi Center in downtown Denver), Zur and his team are responsible for master-control, origination, and uplink services for five HD channels: Altitude 1 and Altitude 2, the World Fishing Network (50% owned by Kroenke), and Comcast SportsNet Houston (two feeds). Beginning in early 2014, Altitude will add the Outdoor Channel (acquired by Kroenke this year) to this list.
For a network like Altitude, which often has multiple pro teams in-season simultaneously, juggling the on-air schedule of two HD channels is a constant challenge. Approximately 40 nights a year, the RSN is tasked with orchestrating these “dual nights.”
“For us to juggle the pregame, intermissions, postgame reports, and the studio interaction with the live remote events is really a pretty amazing orchestration,” says Zur. “We often have live sports on both channels, but the distributions for the Nuggets are clearly different from that of the Avalanche, so our ability to not show favoritism in who’s on what channel with our affiliates and make certain the distribution is correct is quite challenging.
“It’s almost like the old assignment desk,” he continues. “Who’s in the hot seat right now? Who’s on deck? We are going to be juggling between this, maybe [the Avalanche game] has broken glass, and we have 20 minutes that master control has got to fill. You have to really be on your toes.”
Recently, Altitude began experimenting with a two-box format in which games were presented on a single channel rather than one on Altitude and the other on Altitude 2. For example, on a recent busy Saturday, Altitude started the Rapids on both Altitude and Altitude 2, and, a few minutes before the Avalanche coverage began, it switched to a two-box with the Rapids game showing in the larger box . Altitude presented information about where to find Altitude 2 on Comcast, DIRECTV, and Dish, for those fans wishing to continue with the Rapids after the Avalanche coverage started. This provided the Rapids with the largest possible audience for their key late-season game versus Vancouver.
More Than Just Altitude
Altitude also provides affiliate support for the World Fishing Network, which is based in Canada and has a satellite sales/marketing/postproduction group located at the ANOC.
In October 2012, Altitude added Comcast SportsNet Houston to its list of clients. The newly launched RSN delivers programming feeds and content via fiber, satellite, and FTP from its downtown-Houston headquarters to the ANOC. Altitude then packages the content and originates two channels, a primary 24/7 HD feed and an alternate HD channel to handle CSN Houston’s NBA territorial restrictions. Altitude also handles all affiliate-support service-replacement switching for the RSN.
Temecula, CA-based Outdoor Channel, available in nearly 40 million U.S. homes, is currently moving its technical operations to the ANOC, with plans to officially relaunch in first quarter 2014. Altitude will handle all of Outdoor’s frontend content acquisition, QC, closed captioning, channel origination, and uplink and distribution services.
At Pepsi Center and on the Road
With exclusive rights to all Nuggets, Avalanche, Rapids, and Mammoth games, the Altitude remote- and studio-production teams are busy year-round creating live 1080i, 5.1-channel–audio game and studio programming. In addition, Altitude carries college football and basketball, local high school football, Major League Lacrosse’s Denver Outlaws, minor-league hockey, and extreme/outdoor sports programming. The Altitude team also produces all St. Louis Rams (also owned by Kroenke) preseason football games.
Mobile TV Group’s 29HDX has served as Altitude’s primary mobile unit for Nuggets and Avalanche home games at the Pepsi Center for two years. Altitude uses 29HDX for dual-feed productions with Fox Sports RSNs and a handful of Comcast SportsNet outfits but produces an independent show with some others.
“Our truck has all the bells and whistles you can think of,” says Altitude Senior Producer/director Doug Menzies, who has overseen and produced AVS telecasts for 14 years. “They’re great facilities, and our engineers on that truck are great. They really know and understand our shows.”
Altitude boasts a robust production complement for Avalanche telecasts, with as many as 25 camera sources hitting the truck’s router on some games. In addition to eight dedicated game-coverage cameras within the arena, Altitude has access to several robotic POV cameras supplied by the NHL and the Pepsi Center production team. Altitude boasts six to 12 replay sources, depending on whether the game is a dual-feed show.
“We’re a really big show at home,” says Menzies. “One of the advantages with the dual feeds is that, since we’re in the same truck with the same EVS network, if I don’t have a great look at something, we can go into [the visitor-feed] record tracks and steal looks. While I may only have three EVS operators on my show with 12 record sources, we can still access some of their looks and pull them across, so it really helps bump up your coverage.”
Nuggets shows run the same eight cameras and take an additional five from the in-house show. Depending on how high-profile the game is, Altitude’s Nuggets-game productions can reach 18-20 cameras.
“Our coverage can get quite big,” says Altitude Senior Producer/director Scott Bay, now in his 17th year overseeing and producing Nuggets telecasts. “We actually use the duals to our advantage: instead of having the visitor put a camera in position, we have one right next to it, we will slide one to center court, and they will go underneath the baskets. So we share positions and cameras.”
Altitude produces the pregame show for all Nuggets and Avalanche games from an on-site location at the Pepsi Center. Intermission/halftime shows and postgame coverage are produced out of Altitude’s studios at the ANOC. In addition, the RSN produces a weekly news and features studio show for each of its four major properties: the Nuggets, Avalanche, Rapids, and Mammoth.
“The large amount of Altitude-produced programming requires lots of communication and a talented staff who possess multiple skill sets,” says Steve Hurlburt, VP, programming and production, Altitude. “We’re actually quite lean from a personnel standpoint in comparison to other RSNs, so we need people who can function while juggling multiple assignments simultaneously. We constantly have staffers moving back and forth between the studio and the truck. The number of studio shows we produce has allowed younger staff member to gain experience producing shows under the tutelage of veteran staff members.”
As Altitude looks ahead to its 10th anniversary next September, the network looks for continued expansion, with plenty of focus on new multiscreen offerings for fans.
“Everyone involved in production does a huge amount of content that we repurpose for the Web and mobile,” says Zur. “We’re constantly pushing clips and short form for Web delivery. I think, as we’re looking forward, we’re really looking at those second-screen opportunities. It’s a huge opportunity, I think, so how we look forward at packaging content for mobile delivery is very important to us.”