[WHITE PAPER] Patriot League Takes On Free Streaming With NewTek TriCaster

This year’s graduating class of Midshipmen from the U.S. Naval Academy may be remembered for its many honors by professors, parents and fellow students, but one of its least-known accomplishments will go down in the history of the Patriot League as that collegiate athletic conference’s top achievement of 2013-14 –at least in one category.

This record-setting feat had nothing to do with athletics, however. Rather, the class’s graduation ceremony from Annapolis, Md., came in as the single most viewed live streaming event of any member university on the Patriot League Network this year when nearly 10,000 unique viewers looked in on the commencement from their computers, tablets and smartphones.

While streaming commencement exercises isn’t the primary task of the Patriot League’s online video network, the Naval Academy graduation is significant because it powerfully illustrates how a major enhancement of video production and streaming capabilities undertaken at the beginning of the academic year has reaped sizable rewards for member schools.

Foremost among those benefits is an enhanced showcase for the colleges and universities of the Patriot League and in particular their athletic programs. Students, parents, alumni and –perhaps most importantly– prospective athletic recruits can now watch more league games in higher resolution than ever before.

“The league’s upgraded video streaming capability has further engaged alumni over the past year, and our member schools are using the digital network to reengage alumni with their programs,” says Richard Wanninger, Patriot League senior associate executive director for external relations.

Time for a change
The beginning of the 2013-14 academic year saw big changes in how the league’s schools produce and stream games on the Internet as well as what is required of fans to watch online. “Previous to 2013-14, the vast majority of our schools were on the pay subscription model,” says Wanninger.

Hoping to attract larger online audiences, Patriot League schools distributed all of their game coverage for free this year. While not lightly taken, the decision has had the desired effect, more than doubling viewership since upgrading the network.

At the same time, the league undertook a significant revamp of the video production and Internet streaming technology used to cover games with an eye towards supporting the free streaming distribution model.

“After a couple years of planning and research, we decided to go HD with a full-on digital network,” says Wanninger. Previously, the league’s digital package included about 150 live events while the schools produced hundreds of live events on their own separate platforms. During the 2013-14 academic year, the Patriot League Network – www.patriotleague.tv – included nearly 800 live events in addition to more than 300 video –on demand pieces, he adds.

Increasing online coverage to supplement the schools’ national and regional network television visibility demanded new HD production technology, new production skillsets and a lot of additional effort devoted to covering games on the part of member schools.

To tackle deciding what technology best fit the schools’ needs, the league turned to technology consultant Applied Video Technology of Kimberton, Pa. “We went with our wish list of what we wanted to accomplish, and they helped us navigate through all of the equipment to find what was going to be the best fit within our budget,” says Wanninger.

The package of equipment ultimately chosen included three JVC high definition cameras, Manfrotto tripods, Telex communication systems, Shure sound mixers, NEC monitors and the NewTek TriCaster multi-camera live video production system. A fourth camera from Sony was added for schools with scoreboards that lacked a usable data feed to drive on-screen graphics of the game clock and score.

To help equip the schools’ production personnel with the skills needed to use this new production technology effectively, the Patriot League conducted a boot camp in early August 2013. During the event, each school received its new equipment and training on how to use it. “We did a walkthrough of the equipment with representatives of the vendors involved so the schools’ multimedia staffs could get some hands-on experience and knowledge about the technology,” says Wanninger.

Jamie Reynolds, director of video production at Patriot League member school Holy Cross, was at the boot camp. He recalls that while the experience was brief, it was also valuable. “At the boot camp, I learned some general things about TriCaster and the other equipment. From there I started exploring on my own and pretty much trained myself on TriCaster with the help of NewTek’s YouTube tutorials.”

The TriCaster Touch
The NewTek TriCaster serves as the nerve center of the Patriot League’s production and streaming setup. Besides providing traditional live video switching of 720p HD source video from the three JVC cameras deployed by each school, TriCaster plays back previously recorded player and coach interviews, highlight packages, school promos and even a limited number of commercials from its integrated DDRs (digital disk recorders) during game introductions, half-time breaks and other pauses in the action.

For Patriot League productions, TriCaster also drives source video previews used to make switching decisions from its built-in Multiview output, keys in titles created with NewTek’s LiveText character generator software running on Dell laptops and seamlessly feeds program switcher output to the Internet to support live game streaming.

Reynolds, who produced, directed and ran TriCaster for Holy Cross this past season, says he has been especially pleased with the integrated production switcher’s separate control surface. “I am the one making production decisions and physically hitting switches on the switcher. The fact that we have the control surface made it easy to learn how to use TriCaster and to take control of productions,” he says.

Unafraid to experiment, Reynolds frequently used TriCaster’s DDRs for replays during games and created a custom animated transition for the switcher with Adobe After Effects. “Basically, our secondary logo flew in. I used it anytime I was going to a replay, so throughout the year, that was our way of branding our broadcast,” he explains.

Doug Birdsong, radio/TV coordinator at Bucknell University, says an important aspect of TriCaster for Patriot League schools needing to meet a commitment to produce substantially more games than in the past is its relatively small, portable form factor.

“In the spring, we might have to do a women’s lacrosse game, scheduled for about two hours in length, and then have to pack everything up and cover a men’s lacrosse game at another facility across the road,” says Birdsong. “Even if there is only an hour window between games, we will do both with the same equipment.”

When Applied Video Technology put together all of the equipment for the league, mobility was an important consideration, says Birdsong. “Everything from TriCaster to the distribution amp to the Shure mixer –all the pieces of the puzzle- are in self-contained racks on wheels,” he explains. “We have been able to roll the package to a van, drive it across campus and be ready to produce another game from another location within an hour.”

Fade to Black
While the 2013-14 school year marked a significant milestone in the Patriot League’s approach to live video streaming, the league is not content to stand still. With the start of the 2014-15 season, the league plans to roll out a major sponsorship push, aggressively selling available commercial spots into the streaming coverage of games.

“We wanted to make sure we had a high-quality product before launching a coordinated sales effort,” says Wanninger.  “We didn’t know what the viewership was going to be, but we knew that if we were to be successful selling spots, we had to produce a high quality product for both the viewer and prospective corporate partners.”

Unlike any sponsorships individual Patriot League schools happened to sell last year, this year’s approach will be a unified effort with Campus Insiders and Learfield Sports, the league’s marketing partners, along with the member schools, he says.

To enhance the production and live streaming skills of the video producers at conference schools –skills that are so essential to building an Internet audience desirable to sponsors, the Patriot League will once again conduct a boot camp in August before the start of the academic year.

Wanninger says this year’s training will focus on how to apply more of the features within TriCaster and other production equipment. “The quality of productions we have put on this past year has been great across the league, and going forward we will get even better and fully employing all of the features of TriCaster,” adds Reynolds.

As pleased as Wanninger is with the growing number of Patriot League fans watching streaming live game coverage, he is gratified by the support the upgrade and business model evolution have received from member college administrators.

“We have had the full backing and support of our Council of (university) Presidents and athletic directors every step of the way,” says Wanninger. “They really are the ones who have enabled us to move forward with this project. In addition, the multimedia staffs at each of our member schools did a tremendous job all year long with the level of the live event productions. Finally, Campus Insiders has done a tremendous job as a partner for one of the most significant initiatives in the history of the Patriot League.”

For Birdsong, that backing has translated into remarkable support and encouragement from everyone involved with Patriot League athletics. “Everybody –from coaches to administrators, fans to other league schools that I have heard from– everybody has been blown away by the production quality and the high definition resolution of our productions –every aspect,” says Birdsong.

“We in the Patriot League are doing it all for free,” he adds, “They love that, too.”

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