WAC Launches New Digital Network With Help From Piksel, VISTA Worldlink
It has been a wild four months for Robby Gabrielli.
Since he joined the Western Athletic Conference as executive producer of the brand-new WAC digital network, his days have been a cyclone of programming decisions, gear deployment, branding, marketing, and so much more. Building a new network is no easy task, regardless the level of production.
The debut of the latest digital network in college sports video is a breath of fresh air for the Colorado-based WAC, which switched from a fractured subscription model to a streamlined and synergistic free platform that spotlights each of the conference’s eight member institutions, many of which are new to the family.
“When the smoke had cleared from all of the conference realignment prior to the 2013-14 academic year, the WAC essentially was brand new, as six of its members were beginning their first year,” says WAC Commissioner Jeff Hurd. “A strategic decision was made to invest in the conference’s future by developing a versatile means of distribution that could immediately increase exposure for all of its member institutions, that could assist in building the conference’s identity, and that also could further expand the use of an already very recognizable brand.”
Through a partnership with Piksel, a developer of over-the-top (OTT) video and monetization technology, VISTA Worldlink, a transmission-services provider, and Rockbridge Sports, a multimedia-rights manager, the WAC digital network officially launched last month and, through some innovative technology and workflows, has raised the quality of the overall productions, increases the number of productions available throughout the year, and makes live events more accessible to viewers.
The conference estimates that 270 live events will be featured on the digital network this academic year, with 70 produced by the conference in the form of championship events and “game of the week” formats for men’s basketball. The other 200 events are produced by the schools themselves, which have received gear and programming support from the conference office.
“All of our schools knew it was coming, and there’s always an adjustment period,” says Gabrielli, who joined the WAC with a decade of production, programming, and management experience with Alitude Sports and Entertainment in Denver and the Phoenx Suns. “Our hope is to create a network that our fans, alumni, student athletes, and coaches can really be proud of. Everyone has bought in, and everyone just wants to do their best to create the kinds of productions we’re looking for. I’m very happy with where we are. That’s not to say that we don’t have a lot of room to grow, but it’s impressive how far we have all come since August.”
The current network setup allows four events to be streamed simultaneously. Now that the network is off and running, Gabrielli continues to develop his vision for what he thinks the digital network can become. Most digital networks offer a list format with live events available to click on and view, along with a blizzard of on-demand content. His vision is more a hybrid approach with a linear-esque channel available.
“My goal is, by sometime next year, to mold that all into one channel,” Gabrielli says. “Much like how you would press Guide on your TV, the viewer will be able to select from four different channels at any given time. That’s the goal: to have it look and feel like a traditional sports network, just on the Web.”
The WAC began to build its digital network more than a year ago when it opened up conversations with Piksel, which helped build, from the ground up, the digital platform that became the WAC digital network. Piksel has deployed its Digital Stadium solution, a production-to-revenue ecosystem developed with college and high school sports properties in mind.
Piksel Digital Stadium opens up accessible channels to both live and on-demand content from the WAC and its eight member institutions through all Internet-connected devices ranging from computers and mobile apps to a ROKU channel expected to launch in the next month. According to Robert Coletti, director, client services, Piksel, the company believes that, although an OTT strategy is crucial to greater availability for fans, the value of the living-room television can’t be understated.
“We really want to liberate their viewing content for their audience,” says Coletti. “Their previous system was very limiting and they couldn’t get content out in the way that they would like.”
Piksel also spent three months traveling to all WAC schools making a deep assessment of technical capabilities, staffs, and equipment.
“At Piksel, we specialize in helping non-media companies understand how they can enhance their business through the launch of online video services,” says Kevin Joyce, chief commercial officer, Piksel. “Our work with the WAC illustrates our ability to combine our strategic knowledge with first-rate technology and managed services. We have helped roll out a service [that has] strong growth potential and connects sports fans with the content they care about.”
The overall workflow begins feeding WAC content to VISTA Worldlink via direct IP transport. According to VISTA, this digital network is the first-ever digital backhaul distribution network. VISTA developed a proprietary IP solution that transports each game to VISTA master control in Dania Beach, FL. VISTA then pushes the content back out on the Piksel Video Platform. The chain relies on the VISTA Transport Appliance (VTA by VISTA), a new product available through VISTA Worldlink that meets the needs of new and evolving transmission requirements.
“VISTA Worldlink is proud to provide the streaming-powered missing link that has existed for far too long between die-hard fans and WAC sporting events,” says VISTA Worldlink VP Josh Liemer. “Technology is constantly changing, and it’s exciting to be able to create a network along with our partners to offer consumers more content in the convenience of their home.”
The new digital network will boost all WAC member institutions to HD. To help the member schools meet minimum requirements and production standards, the conference supplied a flypack of gear to each school, including one Canon XA25 HD camera; a 1 Beyond StreamMachine (a production box featuring Telestream WireCast and a Matrox I/O card); a Scorebot from Sportzcast, which plugs into the scoreboard to retrieve data for graphics; and an IP appliance from that connects to VISTA’s master-control center in Florida.
Games that appear on the WAC digital network are expected to feature at least two cameras, a WAC-branded score bug, audio, and a play-by-play announcer. Gabrielli and the WAC build the programming schedule, and any game that the conference has designated a “WAC Digital Network Game” must be produced by the host institution and meet the minimum standards. From there, schools are allowed to continue streaming any other events on their own Websites at whatever production level they choose.