Guidance Counselors: How ESPN Led 14 Schools to the SEC Network Promised Land
Today is launch day for the SEC Network. For Scott Hecht, it feels more like the first day of school for his 14 children.
When the industry’s newest sports network hits the air at 6 p.m. ET, it’ll be more than just a big moment for ESPN. It will be a culmination for the 14 SEC member institutions that have invested a tremendous amount of money, resources, and hard work over the past 15 months to get themselves ready for their new frontier of live event production.
“I’m so unbelievably proud of all of them,” says Hecht, senior operations manager for the SEC Network. “This has been a daunting experience for a lot of these people. I honestly can’t tell you how excited I am for them and how proud I am for all of them. They’re all going to do such a great job with it.”
Hecht and broadcast-infrastructure specialists Rex Arends and Jeff Willis have been the technology and production shepherds for the video teams at all SEC schools since the network concept was announced in spring 2013.
Although many of the network’s 450 linear telecasts of football, basketball, and other marquee events in Year 1 will still be produced by ESPN, a whopping 560 events on the digital network will be produced by the institutions’ own video teams with the help of students and local freelancers. That has meant massive upgrades in production facilities at all 14 campuses. According to Sports Business Journal, SEC schools spent a combined $25 million-$30 million to ensure that all SEC Network productions — linear or digital — are the highest ESPN quality.
Most of the athletics departments had control rooms already, but they were dedicated to in-venue videoboard shows. Most of them had live-streamed events to the Web, but, typically, that was with one or two cameras and a feed of the local radio announcers. Naturally, with the level of production ESPN was looking for, there was an intimidation factor for on-campus video teams at first.
“Once we explained the vision for what we wanted this to be across the board, the schools had to do their own analysis of all of the things that they had to take care of at their respective campuses,” says Chris Turner, senior director, programming and acquisitions, SEC Network. “I think, when they processed the amount of events they would be asked to produce, they understood the benefits. … The exposure opportunities for the schools became very apparent very quickly.”
ESPN went above and beyond to ensure that the schools were all in a position to succeed and reach the necessary level technologically. That was a challenge given that a school like Florida — which needed to invest only $700,000 to prepare its already impressive facilities for the SEC Network — wasn’t running at the same pace as, for example, Arkansas — which ponied up $7 million to catch up with the pack.
“Working with all the staff from ESPN has been a great experience,” says Justin Brant, director of Crimson Tide Productions at Alabama, which recently put the finishing touches on a 46,594-sq.-ft., $14.6 million Digital Media Center at Bryant-Denny Stadium. “From day one, they made us feel like we were a part of the ESPN family.”
Hecht, Arends, and Willis held biweekly conference calls for the duration of the 15-month process, and the three made numerous visits to each of the campuses to check on the progress.
“This has been a very unique process to go through for me,” says Arends, associate director of remote production operations, who made his first tour with Willis early last summer to assess the basics, such as fiber infrastructure. “We really needed to figure out what the level was and what each school was capable of. We also had to ask how could we work with them to get them to the point that it’s a level playing field. No other collegiate network has done this at this level, and I’m very proud to be a part of [what they have accomplished].”
During the tours, Hecht, Arends, and Willis surveyed 14 control rooms (or potential control-room sites, in some cases) and more than 150 venues to check camera positions, fiber capabilities, and more. At this point, approximately 23,400 miles of fiber-optic cable has been laid to connect all 14 SEC campuses internally and with the SEC Network hub in Charlotte, NC, and ESPN headquarters in Bristol, CT. That includes 96 newly connected venues. On average, each campus has laid 3.95 miles of cable.
“We knew that on Aug. 14, every school would be up and ready to go,” says Hecht. “The question would just be at what level. We knew everybody was going to hit the minimums. We had no worries for them. From the day we set foot on the campuses, everyone was digging in, and they let us know they were going to get this done. The schools have been fantastic; they have all done a terrific job.”
Once the technology was in place, the attention shifted to production. The ESPN contingent laid out a minimum standard that all SEC Network Digital Network productions would need to meet. All events would require four HD cameras (one with a 40X lens), a replay device capable of six-in and two-out, a graphics engine capable of running the ESPN-designed graphics package, a production switcher with at least 16 inputs, and an audio board with at least 32 inputs.
Those standards are designed to ensure that all events have a television-production level and to ensure that every SEC Network production would be of a similar high quality. Although most school-produced events will air on the digital network, ESPN has stated that, when time on the linear network needs to be filled, it will absolutely take the feed of an event on the digital network and bump it onto the linear network.
“It’s a digital network, but it’s still the SEC Digital Network,” says Arends. “We didn’t want things to look different at Tennessee than they did at Vandy. You should be able to turn it on, and it should all look the same.”
In the spring, Hecht hit the SEC tour hard, using the baseball and softball season to test out the schools’ new control rooms and, more important, the production teams working inside them. Many crews were used to producing videoboard shows, but a television-style broadcast was a whole new ball of wax. Hecht, an industry veteran who has produced and directed everything from SportsCenter to Major League Baseball games, laid out all the responsibilities in a live event production and got the crews the early experience they needed to get comfortable.
“Scott has been our teacher, mentor, and friend with a boots-on-the-ground approach that has encouraged and challenged us to step up our game on how we approach each event,” says Andy Richardson, senior director of big screens at Texas A&M’s 12th Man Productions. “He has given our full-time and our student staff the tools and direction needed to do things the ‘ESPN way.’ Scott and the ESPN team’s help have been outstanding. Our goal is to produce content that is seamless from any other ESPN production.”
Through it all, Hecht hasn’t lost site of the big picture: the true thrill this will be for all the schools involved and the tremendous opportunities ahead for the staffs and students at each of them. The most exciting moment for him, he says, is when he’s in a control room and the crew rolls the ESPN open for the first time prior to a production.
“It really hits them,” he says. “‘Oh, my God, this is really ESPN.’ The electricity in the control room is just so neat. I remember what it was like the first time I ever got to produce or direct a show, that feeling the first time I produced or directed a SportsCenter, Baseball Tonight, or a Major League Baseball game. I remember how excited I was. I get 14 more of those experiences.
“I’m nervous, as any parent would be,” he continues, “but I can’t wait to light this thing up on Thursday.”