[WHITE PAPER] Inside Penn Sports Network’s Winning Streaming Strategy
When a businessman needed to be in Singapore on business, he was elated that he could watch live HD video streams of his daughter playing lacrosse for the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. In fact, Penn alumni, fans and students can subscribe to www.pennathletics.com where they can watch their school’s home and away conference games—including live coverage, on demand programming and premium content—from anywhere on any Internet-connected device.
This streaming media service, known as the Penn Sports Network (PSN), feeds one of nine channels delivered by Ivy Digital at http://www.ivyleaguedigitalnetwork.com. The nine channels include one for each of the eight Ivy League schools—Brown, Columbia, Cornell, Dartmouth, Harvard, Princeton, University of Pennsylvania and Yale—as well as Ivy Digital’s main site.
Subscribers that choose PSN can watch 13 of the more than 35 varsity sports that Penn offers, while Ivy Digital’s broader coverage lets viewers watch athletic events offered by this prominent intercollegiate conference. While each Ivy League school is responsible for streaming its own home games, as members of Ivy Digital, they maintain the same high quality broadcast standards even though they don’t all use the same video production and streaming technology.
The University of Pennsylvania has built its streaming production operation on a platform of systems from NewTek, including a TriCaster 460 multi-camera video unit for camera switching, multi-layered graphics, virtual sets, web and stadium scoreboard streaming and a 3Play 4800 integrated sports production system for slow motion, instant replay, multi-angle previews, in-game highlights and social media publishing. PSN bought its first NewTek units—the original TriCaster 300 and 3Play 330 systems—over six years ago, and upgraded them from SD to 1080i HD in 2010, which is downconverted to 720p HD for streaming.
“Last year, we did better than 150 events using our TriCaster and 3Play systems, most of which were multi-camera video productions as well as some audio-only shows accompanied by data-rich graphics. And this year we’re trying to exceed that level,” said Dan Fritz, broadcast coordinator for the Penn Sports Network, which is located on the University of Pennsylvania campus in Philadelphia, PA.
“This is an especially impressive feat considering that we rely on student interns to move, set-up and strike the equipment at several different on-campus venues—including Rhodes Field, Franklin Field and the Palestra—where University of Pennsylvania sporting events are held,” he added. TriCaster 460 paired with 3Play 4800—which Fritz considers their marquis production system—is the primary system deployed for live events, depending upon the schedule and the equipment’s availability.
One of TriCaster’s program outputs sends the HD video at 1-gigabit per second to NeuLion, Inc., the content delivery network (CDN) that enables the live and on-demand streaming across all eight schools as well as championship events on the Ivy League Digital Network. Besides their own home and away conference games, viewers may also watch non-conference away games if that school’s events are streamed over the NeuLion College Platform and their operations are compatible with Ivy Digital. There’s also a new feature to enhance the viewing experience: those subscribed to Ivy League Digital Network can watch either one single game or use its quad view feature to watch one or up to four events at one time.
TriCaster’s auxiliary program output also sends the 1080i HD-SDI program being used for streaming to the big video board in the venue so spectators can see the same game coverage, replays, highlights, graphics and ads as viewers on connected devices. If the venue has an alumni suite, where alumni and other VIPs are seated, TriCaster also sends the signal there
During the games, three to five Sony NX5U HD cameras, including one at the 50-yard line, one at each 30-yard line and one or two operated as handhelds, cover the game action. “We might have one camera operator focus on the line of scrimmage, while another is responsible for following the play or the ball itself. The third camera operator might lock in on key players or get shots on the fly that the director would like,” Fritz said. As one of PSN’s more manpower-intensive events, football requires several camera operators, a 3Play operator doing replays and a director/TD who pulls the entire production together using TriCaster 460.
“At the time we chose to go with TriCaster, we were captivated by its workflow and the way that the functionality of a television production studio or high-end video truck was integrated within one box that a student could operate,” said Fritz. “You don’t have to piece different components together. Everything’s accessible from a single user interface, and that’s invaluable.”
While PSN does not have a dedicated studio, a small office in the athletics department is used to produce pre-recorded coach’s shows, during which each coach discusses the strategies and news related to their Penn team or sport. TriCaster’s integrated virtual set system keys graphical backgrounds and video clips into the green screen background as well as keying a virtual desk into the foreground. This gives the illusion that Penn coaches are sitting at an anchor desk in a broadcast TV studio.
When Fritz joined the University of Pennsylvania’s athletics department in 2009, they were already using TriCaster Pro (SD) for single-camera productions. (While NewTek no longer actively markets this model, it continues to be supported.)
PSN upgraded to the TriCaster 300 in 2010, and added 3Play in 2011. The next-generation HD systems—TriCaster 460 and 3Play 4800—were added in 2013 because of the high number of events PSN wanted to cover, some of which are scheduled at the same time in two different venues.
TriCaster 460 and 3Play 4800 are used in tandem to cover basketball and volleyball, which are played at the Palestra. Like football, the productions range from three to five HD cameras—one underneath each basket, one in a high perch for a wide shot diagonally across the court and two in elevated positions mid-court.
When the event is in the Palestra, PSN can take a live feed from the scoreboard through Live Text—NewTek’s graphics and character generator for TriCaster—so that TriCaster can display the score, time and shot clock. In the other venues, where it’s not possible to take a live feed from the scoreboard, an operator must enter this data manually into graphics templates.
Since the Palestra is an older, historical building that poses some limitations on how the camera crew can maneuver, PSN has pre-cabled the building. Now cameras can be plugged into connector boxes in the floor and the signal is routed up to a perch—where the production crew operates—and it’s brought into TriCaster and 3Play via patch cords. PSN hopes to pre-cable Franklin Field in the near future, which will also be a logistical timesaver.
PSN often puts TriCaster and 3Play equipment on a golf cart and drives it over to the venues, which are on the outskirts of campus. There are also instances where they hand-carry the equipment and get in a workout walking it over to the venues. Since none of the venues has a control room or studio space, the PSN crew must set up the equipment and pack it up after each event. While the work areas are space-challenged, they are furnished with tables and chairs that can be set-up to serve as temporary control rooms.
“PSN is committed to uncompromised production quality, and have been since we first started this streaming media initiative,” Fritz continued. “We’re going to do it right or we’re not going to do it at all. Fortunately, the entire staff is in agreement about this.”
When it comes to finding ways to boost production quality, PSN has been very proactive and creative in its quest to empower a single operator to manage a complex fast-paced series of production events. They’re also always seeking ways to present a higher quality broadcast look, including adopting broadcast design graphics created for Ivy Digital, data-driven and data-rich graphics as well as exceptional quality replays and highlights clips that can be rolled in during the live show.
“The scope of the work that’s being done in and around our TriCasters has gone beyond what we originally envisioned when we bought the first unit,” said Fritz. “We’re now using them for live streaming, to produce coaches shows, as well as to promote our student and recent alumni athletes.”
Replays and highlights—created with both 3Play systems—are also embedded into social media posts, which are issued by the University’s media relations department. And game video—archived in H.264 MPEG4 by TriCaster 460—is often repurposed into highlights reels for student athletes who are being considered by pro sports teams. Also, during the games, referees often ask the PSN director if they can see replays from 3Play before making an official call on close plays.
And on one notable occasion, a highlights clip of a buzzer-beater during a men’s basketball game at the Palestra was picked up by ESPN for use on SportsCenter. When the PSN clip played on this national sports show, Fritz said it was his little kid on Christmas morning moment.
“That’s our team. Those are our kids, and that’s our video product on SportsCenter,” Fritz said. “More importantly, it’s heartwarming to know that our families, fans and alumni can depend on us for high-quality live HD coverage of University of Pennsylvania collegiate sporting events.” Since PSN began its streaming initiative, HD video of a men’s and women’s buzzer beater both made it onto SportsCenter on separate occasions.
At University of Pennsylvania, there are also two other venues where events are held: Rhodes Field for men’s and women’s soccer, and Vagelos Field for field hockey. When Vagelos Field was built and opened in 2013, Rhodes was renovated, and that upgrade included a video board that is shared by both fields and fed by TriCaster during live events.
For events taking place at Rhodes Field and Vagelos Field, PSN deploys the original gear—TriCaster 300 and 3Play 330—because their compact size is particularly advantageous in this venue’s space-challenged work area. The production configuration for soccer and field hockey is usually just two to three cameras, including a wide shot of the field and medium/close shots centered on the players.
“The fact that we’re still able to use our original systems—TriCaster 300 and 3Play 330—is a testament to their longevity,” said Fritz. “We’re still maximizing our investment every time we use these systems. Nothing on the market comes close to the price performance of these NewTek systems.”