Big South Set for Summer of Upgrades as Conference Digital Network Preps To Enter 12th Season

Pioneering network builds new gear package with help from NewTek, Vizrt

The Big South Conference is one of the trailblazers in college sports-video production, having launched a digital network in 2005 at a time when only the Big Ten Network existed. This summer, the league is looking to keep itself ahead of the game, making the commitment to substantially upgrade its production capabilities.

The Big South Network produces more than 900 events annually through the production work of its 11 member institutions.

The Big South Network produces more than 900 events annually through the production work of its 11 member institutions.

Entering its 12th year, the Big South Network will undergo a sweeping technological upgrade that will take its productions to “TV-ready” levels.

“The Big South has always been pretty progressive in this space,” says Big South Conference Commissioner Kyle Kallander. “We are proud of what we’ve been doing, and we are being very aggressive in trying to continue to enhance and improve.”

At the core of this latest upgrade is the NewTek TriCaster 8000 production switcher with TriCaster Advanced Edition software and the NewTek 3Play 440 replay engine. In the past, the conference, which has an agreement with ESPN3 for selected games, has used outside production companies on games distributed via ESPN3, whereas games on the Big South Network were handled by the schools. This new gear package hopes to place that power in the schools’ hands, pointing them down the path of maintaining ESPN3-level standards across all productions regardless of distribution.

“We want the Big South Network to be something where you know you have a base expectation at a certain level,” says Mark Bryant, director, multimedia development, Big South Conference. “Hopefully, that is only exceeded by a given institution’s production.”

All in all, the Big South Network and its 11 institutions produce more than 900 events annually. The conference’s arrangement requires its schools to produce all home football games and all home men’s and women’s basketball games for streaming through the Big South Network. Other sports face a minimum number of games as the department’s schedules allow. For example, men’s soccer might require three games per school per year, while baseball or softball may require a six-game minimum. All schools meet those minimums, and many exceed them, particularly for sports whose programs are especially successful. In return, the conference purchases the gear for each school and maintains oversight of the entire Big South Network.

Throughout the years, the Big South has, on two occasions, acquired a package of equipment to meet a minimum standard, distributing the gear to each member institution to deploy and use in its streaming productions. As Bryant says, the schools are certainly free to enhance those packages and add their own bells and whistles — and many do so — but the kit allows all schools, at minimum, to put on a three-camera shoot with multi-angle replay and a solid graphics package for every production that hits the Big South Network player.

The conference has long had a strong relationship with NewTek, and many of the tech advances the company has made of late —including the new Network Device Interface (NDI) — have Bryant particularly excited about new opportunities down the line, including giving schools the ability to do live look-ins at other Big South events going on simultaneously.

“The possibilities given the new capabilities of what NewTek has are very intriguing,” he says. “We’ll be exploring how we can continue to expand what we do based on the gear’s ability to take in other sources from other places. For us, where we don’t have limitless production budgets, [we do have] the ability to make a de facto central control room without building out a full control room, because things can be networked to various locations, Those sorts of possibilities are very exciting and could give us some great places where we might go.”

Another key in this universal upgrade is a new graphics workflow built around a solution designed by graphics giant Vizrt. It takes use of the IP integration of Vizrt’s graphics engine with NewTek’s TriCaster.

According to Richard Einstein, head of sports, Americas, Vizrt, the company took its Trio solution back to the drawing board and came out with a package of the platform that offers the ability to raise the horsepower of the conference’s graphics, bring it consistently to the level of an ESPN-caliber graphics package. It will integrate, as well, with the schools’ statistics providers and scoreboard systems.

As with any conference-wide digital network, the graphics package was a major strategic focus from both a production-quality and a branding and marketing perspective.

“To have that consistent branding is extremely important to us,” Kallander explains. “When we first started this, the only other conference that had its own network was the Big Ten, so we always looked at this as our Big Ten Network. The Big South Network is our ‘television network.’ That’s always been our approach, and, with this next step, we are truly ensuring that all of our productions are ‘TV-ready.’ We don’t want there to be a difference between what’s being done on campus and what we do with some professional partners.”

The graphics package allows every member of the conference to instantly have an up-to-date design and keeps all member institutions synced and working off the same design and templates.

The unification of the conference in this endeavor over a decade ago is a model seen in many instances across the country today, but it showed tremendous foresight at a time when nothing quite like it existed.

“[Kyle] got ahead of the game in terms of getting everyone together before they started breaking out on their own [in live video streaming],” says Bryant. “Everyone agreed there was strength in unity on this. If you give viewers one place to go and they always know that’s where they go for this programming, that it would be to everyone’s collective advantage.”

Says Kallander, “As I look at the future of this, and media in general, this is a place where we need to be. Media rights are a big question now, and this platform is will serve us very well in the future and give us the opportunity to provide content to numerous outlets.

“It’s not just Big South Network or ESPN3,” he continues, “but other outlets that will begin taking these productions. “So we can do more and provide greater distribution for our events and bring more exposure to our student athletes and our institutions.”

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