Student-Run Telecasts, New Stadium Video Displays Highlight Durham Bulls’ Summer of Tech
To find one of the most technologically advanced and video-friendly organizations in all of sports, you might have to look to the minor leagues.
The Durham Bulls of the International League have invested in video technology that few teams at any level can rival. This year alone, the team has remodeled its ballpark with large new HD video displays, built a multipurpose video-control room, and boosted the gear arsenal used by the team to produce its own television broadcasts.
Most notably, the Bulls — owned by the Raleigh, NC-based Capitol Broadcasting Co. — continue to make an impressive commitment to talent needed to make live television possible in the future. One of the most unique training grounds in the business, Explorer Post 50, is back for its 16th year of putting students behind the Bulls’ TV product.
“The [show] that our kids are putting out there is top notch,” says Scott Carter, director of marketing, Durham Bulls. “I’d put my money to say that, if you put ours up against any other broadcast, there’s no way you’d be able to tell that it was run by high school kids.”
Students Run the Show
What makes the Durham Bulls unique is not that it produces HD regional-network telecasts of all its home games but who is producing them.
Since 1998, the Bulls have hosted the community-outreach program Explorer Post 50, a youth-centered broadcasting outfit that provides students ages 14-20 the opportunity to learn the ins and outs of live event production while working on Bulls games.
This year, the program features a roster of 63 students from Durham County and the surrounding area, 35 of whom are in their first season with the group. Members get the opportunity to work in every aspect of a live event production: camera, instant replay, graphics, audio, producing, directing, and technical directing.
“If you’re a student who is interested in sports broadcasting,” says Brian Lorello, executive producer of Explorer Post 50 and one of two full-time staffers who manage the program, “this is your chance to get your feet wet and to really see if you want to do this for a living.”
After soliciting to all of the area high schools, the Bulls host an open house for Explorer Post 50 each January to show off the program to a new crop of high schools and recruit new staff for the upcoming season. To get those new members ready, the program works with Duke University, which streams live baseball games on weekends in March, to give the new members a chance to shadow veterans on the various camera positions to learn the ropes.
“At that time, the whole crew, for the most part, is pretty green, so we’ll station a veteran member on every position [to] walk people through the basics of the camera or the device,” says Rob Rowe, an advisor with Explorer Post 50 over the years, who is now on staff at Duke. “We give them enough to get a little bit dangerous but not give them too much detail.”
In addition, the first month of Bulls games, in April, are not televised. So Explorer Post 50 has a month’s worth of games that are essentially training sessions before the games go live to Fox 50 and the Retro Television Network.
“I think people learn by making mistakes,” says Lorello, “and … it allows our students to feel out the equipment so they can do something great with it in the time that they are here.”
Explorer Post 50 has proved to be a tremendous avenue for job placement for its members. Many have gone on to work locally with the NHL’s Carolina Hurricanes, local television affiliates, and the area’s three colleges: University of North Carolina, Duke University, and North Carolina State.
“When I was in college, I couldn’t get this kind of experience in terms of actually getting my hands on a camera or running a replay machine,” laughs Carter. “To get this kind of hands-on experience in a live environment where there’s actual pressure to perform is pretty cool.”
Control Room and Equipment Upgrades
This year’s crop of Explorer Post 50 students are benefiting from an entirely overhauled technological infrastructure, including a shiny new control room that brings major upgrades in production gear.
For Bulls telecasts, the crew deploys nine cameras, five of them manned. Four of those are Panasonic AG-HPX500 P2 HD cameras; the fifth, a Panasonic AG-HPX600 P2 HD. The manned cameras are positioned at low first, low third, high home, high first, and center field.
Additionally, a Panasonic AG-HPX370 is stationed in the third-base dugout and hardwired HD-SDI with a wireless headset, and two Panasonic AW-HE120 robotic units are set in each of the dugouts pointing at the corner bases for replays on pickoff attempts and other close plays.
Inside the control room itself, a Panasonic AV-HS450 switcher anchors the production with a NewTek 3Play 420 handling all replay. Durham-based enhanced-graphics developer SMT built an application that services the telecast’s graphics, including the scorebug and lower-thirds. On the audio side, the students use a Sony 12-Channel MXP-390 mixer. Everything lives on a Ross Video NK-3G72 3G/HD/SD router.
The new gear has raised expectations for Explorer Post 50. Not only has the quality of the television broadcasts gone up, but the group is now being asked to contribute more content to the in-venue production and the stadium’s new HD video displays.
“The great thing about having a parent company that is a TV company,” says Carter, “is not only can they help with the production and technical side of things, they are a company that is always looking to push the envelope from a technology standpoint.”
Celebrating its 20th season, Durham Bulls Athletic Park underwent an extensive $20 million makeover this offseason, including installation of three new video displays, highlighted by a 28- x 62-ft. board that is three times the size of the stadium’s previous primary videoboard.
The board is embedded in the stadium’s famous “Blue Monster,” a 32-ft.-high left-field fence that is MiLB’s equivalent of the Fenway Park’s Green Monster. So the video display is in play and is regularly struck with fly balls.
Two other video displays were installed in the makeover: a ribbon board running 315 ft. along the outfield wall from left center to right field and a smaller screen installed above the club level in the grandstand.
The renovation also added a robust WiFi system, energy-efficient and TV-friendly lighting, and 146 audio speakers.