SVG College Sports Summit: Networks, Athletic Departments Have Developed a True ‘Partnership’

Amid the boom of college sports networks and content distribution, the relationship between athletic departments and the broadcaster has altered dramatically. It’s no longer a one-way street, and the two sides are working together to create more content than ever before. And it’s working to everyone’s benefit.

At the SVG College Sports Summit, professionals from both sides of the industry discussed what each can do to help each other do their job better.

From L to R: UCF's John Kvatek leads the conversation between Clemson's Rick Bagby, Michigan State's Rick Church, Pac-12 Networks' Scott Adametz, BTN's Mark Hulsey, and ESPN's Stos Hall.

From left: UCF’s John Kvatek leads the conversation between Clemson’s Rick Bagby, Michigan State’s Rick Church, Pac-12 Networks’ Scott Adametz, BTN’s Mark Hulsey, and ESPN’s Stos Hall.

“The key word here is partnership, and we’re finding out that it truly has become a partnership,” said Rick Bagby, director of athletic video services, Clemson University. “Ten years ago, I don’t think anybody would have sat up here on this stage and say that the institutions and the networks were partners. There was always a road there between the two. There’s a lot of give and take that was not there five years ago.”

One of the biggest contributors to this evolved relationship has been ESPN, whose linear networks, speciality channels (Longhorn Network, SEC Network), and digital platform ESPN3 has created a stage for thousands of collegiate events to be spotlighted on a national scene. In many cases, especially for Olympic sports, the schools are producing the content themselves and leaving distribution to the network.

“The biggest thing would be just the [schools’] ability to generate content across the board with all sports, not just the ones traditionally covered by TV,” said Stos Hall, coordinating producer, ESPN. “The coaches love it, the schools love it, and it’s definitely something at ESPN3 that we love. We love having all of the Olympic sports, and that helps us generate conference channels. It’s very, very valuable.”

One of the main catalysts for the boost in content has been realizing that there is a great hunger for content beyond the traditional football Saturdays and big men’s-basketball clashes. Athletic departments have seen the marketing value in the televising of all their sports.

“I think the schools now realize how important television is,” said Mark Hulsey, VP, production/executive producer, Big Ten Network, which streams more than 600 events per year and televises more than 450 on its linear network. “There is no better marketing tool than television. It doesn’t matter whether it’s football, basketball, or any of the Olympic sports. With the rise of the Big Ten Network, the Pac-12 Network, and the soon-to-be SEC Network, there’s more content being produced now than at any point in our lifetime, and I’ve found in my five years at the Big Ten Network that the schools know how important it is.”

That marketing opportunity has made the national network broadcast a top priority for athletic departments. At Michigan State, Rick Church is director of broadcast technology and serves as the primary liaison for all network broadcasters coming in to produce Spartans events. As he says, it’s crucial to have “one person with a cellphone full of numbers” to provide a contact point with the networks.

“TV is how you expose your university to the entire country,” said Church, “and the easier we as universities can make it for the broadcaster to come in, plug in, have all of the cables, have Internet, have electricity, have bathrooms, whatever they need, the more they are going to want to come back to our university.”

Bagby agreed: “That’s something to build towards at every institution: try to have that one person that’s the main contact. That helps you build those relationships, and I can guarantee you that you will want something from that TV truck as well. It’s important to build that personal relationship. You’re doing your walkthrough on Thursday [for a Saturday football game], and, when you see that EIC [engineer-in-charge] on Saturday morning, they know you’re the person, and they’re a lot more willing to help you out.”

The panel noted that the relationship is still an evolving one and that, specifically in the realm of venue technology, there’s a still a way to go to get everyone on the same page.

“Even though we’ve made a lot of progress, I think we still have a lot of work to do,” said Hulsey. “I have worked in the professional ranks, too. Here everything from camera positions to lighting is regulated. If you don’t meet certain standards, you have to answer to the league. In college, we still have venues where lighting isn’t up to NCAA standards. Camera positions are not as intimate as they could be. So I think it’s up to a lot of the individual institutions to decide what’s important: is how my product looks on television important? The good news is, at least in the Big Ten, whenever institutions look at upgrading venues, they contact us and ask for our input. It’s taken us a long time to get to that point.”

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