College Hoops Tip-Off 2021: Big Ten Network Heads to Full Venues for 200-Game Schedule
The network’s ‘MICR’ workflow will supply remote support
The Big Ten Network tipped off its nearly 200-game (134 men’s, 60 women’s) basketball schedule last night with a men’s non-conference doubleheader featuring Eastern Michigan–Indiana and Jackson State–No. 11 Illinois. The schedule will take at-home viewers to venues with full crowds around the country, and the production crew will deploy new elements — notably, a graphics package — and pandemic-era production tools — such as a remote workflow.
“We learned a lot out of necessity last year,” says Alex Bertsche, senior coordinating producer, men’s basketball, Big Ten Network. “We’ll use some of these technological aspects moving forward, but, as we get closer to pre-pandemic normal, we’ll need to balance [new workflows] with what we did last year to give our viewers the best coverage possible.”
Broadcast Enhancements: Graphics Package, On-Air Rebrand Headline Additions
Both men’s and women’s basketball will receive a handful of upgrades this year. Similar to partner Fox Sports, productions of the men’s games will have a new graphics package that contrasts with what was seen last year and in prior years. The look of the broadcast will be distinctly different, with the new package developed with Fox’s help.
“It’s bright, bold, colorful and will convey a real sense of energy and excitement,” says Bertsche. “It has been fun to see it come together, and we’re very grateful to have the partnership with Fox Sports to get it implemented.”
On the women’s side, telecasts have undergone a rebranding. For example, every Thursday night will be referred to as “B1G Access Thursdays.” To generate extra buzz on each of the conference’s campuses, the network will tap into the production crew of each institution and will also use social media to drive interest.
“Our on-campus producers will continue to create content profiling players, coaches, trainers, and anyone else connected to the program,” says Sue Maryott, coordinating producer, women’s basketball, Big Ten Network. “We have also asked our teams to submit [suggestions] for a B1G women’s basketball hashtag. Similar to our #B1GBlockParty for volleyball, we will have a hashtag exclusive to our women’s-basketball coverage to create a dialogue with our viewers during the games.”
Cloud-Based Solutions: Remote Workflows Take Over Men’s, Women’s Productions
Essential production personnel will be onsite in the television compound and inside the venue, but, with the pandemic continuing, remote workflows will again be deployed throughout the college basketball season. This season, Big Ten Network will have its announcers and normal in-venue staffers — camera operators, courtside audio specialist — once again onsite. Starting in January, talent — including Kevin Kugler, Brandon Gaudin, Dave Revsine, Cory Provus, Jason Ross, Telly Hughes, Jeff Levering, Lisa Byington, and Jason Horowitz — will be onsite for every game.
A handful of men’s games will be produced via the at-home production workflow that the network calls MICR. Crew members will work from the network’s Chicago headquarters. Although others may see this approach as a drastic change that may hamper the production, Bertsche views MICR productions as a chance to keep the core of the production crew intact without worrying about travel.
“We don’t look at MICR productions as a downgrade but as an incredible advantage,” he says. “The ability to keep consistent crew, from the producer/director to other technical staff, has been beneficial for our on-air product. They’re also able to do a Maryland game on Friday night, a Nebraska game on Saturday afternoon, and still sleep in their bed in Chicago.”
The camera complement for the men’s-basketball productions will be fairly standard, unless it’s a marquee matchup. For example, a non-conference doubleheader (No. 21 Maryland vs. Florida and No. 7 Purdue vs. NC State) on Sunday, Dec. 12 at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, NY, and Iowa vs. Utah State on Saturday, Dec. 18 at the Sanford Pentagon in Sioux Falls, SD, will get a 10- to 12-camera setup including multiple super-slo-mo cameras and robos through and above the backboard.
In the later months of the schedule, Bertsche will assess what’s working and add technologies that have become synonymous with the Big Ten Tournament. This season’s will be at Gainbridge Fieldhouse in Indianapolis March 9-13, 2022.
“As the season progresses,” he explains, “we’ll continue to assess what additions we can make for our most important games. But, for some, we’ll also utilize Rail Cam or Skycam as we did at Lucas Oil Stadium last year for our coverage of the Men’s Basketball Tournament. We loved that a lot of people got to see a lot of different angles of the play on and surrounding the court.”
As for women’s-basketball broadcasts, the MICR model will handle more than 90% of games, with the producer/director duo as well as replay, graphics, and other crew members working from a control room in Chicago. These games will be called by newcomer Sloane Martin as lead play-by-play voice, Mike Hall, Chris Vosters, and Matt Schumacker.
“These shows will run as they have for years with cameras, video, A2s and a truck engineer onsite and the rest of the control room in Chicago,” says Maryott. “For most of our basketball shows, talent will be onsite, and there will be a small percentage of games being called from the studio.”
Starting with the beginning of the conference schedule, the productions will tap into the more intimate side of the game.
“As we get into the conference season,” she adds, “Big Ten Network will be working with our coaches and players to create a full-access experience for our viewers. This includes going into the locker room and team huddles and asking our coaches to wear a mic for a portion of the game.”
Logistical Hurdles: Crew Safety, Travel Cancellations Pose Tough Challenge
Twenty-two total non-conference games kick off the 2021-22 television schedule on Big Ten Network, but, starting on Friday, Dec. 3, the men’s-basketball conference slate begins with No. 7 Purdue vs. Iowa. Since the travel schedule will soon get busy, the production and operations departments will place additional importance on logistical needs of both crews.
“We’ll start at an incredibly loud Mackey Arena to get our conference play started the night before the Big Ten Football Championship game down the road in Indianapolis,” notes Bertsche. “That’s the first of nine conference games in an eight-day span on BTN and the first conference game in a long time with full crowds, so the health and safety of our employees are always at the forefront of everything we do.”
The network will also be dealing with uncontrollable factors, including the nationwide shortage of available flights and rental cars and other operational snafus.
“Like every company in America,” says Maryott, “the entire broadcast industry seems to be facing crewing challenges. We’ve also found that travel is not as easy as it was two to three years ago, with last-minute flight cancellations happening more frequently. We need to take all of this into account as we look at crewing and talent travel.”
Studio Programming: New Faces Join the Big Ten Network To Entertain Fans
The action on the court will provide high-quality entertainment, but, before, after, and between games, Big Ten Network’s slate of studio programming will keep viewers engaged. This year, a mix of new and traditional shows will air throughout the season: the 13th season of The Journey: Big Ten Basketball (airing every Wednesday night in January), B1G Basketball and Beyond (covering the latest news every Sunday night), Basketball in 60 (one-hour versions of top games running throughout the week), and The B1G Story: Naz Hillmon Story (a look at the illustrious career of Michigan women’s basketball player and reigning Big Ten Player of the Year on Jan. 4, 2022).
Some high-profile Big Ten names will be serving as analysts on the men’s side this season: three-year captain of the Purdue Boilermakers and 2015 Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year Rapheal Davis, former Michigan State co-captain Joshua Langford, and former Illinois guard Trent Meacham. Returning as analysts will be Robbie Hummel, Stephen Bardo, Shon Morris, Len Elmore, Andy Katz, Mike DeCourcy, Brian Butch, Jess Settles, and Nick Bahe.
Coverage of women’s basketball will also see new faces behind the desk. Martin is one addition, but 1999 National Champion and Big Ten Player of the Year Stephanie White will return to the network as an analyst after coaching collegiately and professionally. Another analyst new to Big Ten Network will be Autumn Johnson, who has previous experience with NBA 2K League, Bally Sports South and Southeast with the Atlanta Dream, and ESPN.
“[Johnson] will be heavily involved during the [conference] tournament but will also contribute as an analyst throughout the season,” adds Maryott. “She will also record segments that will be used within halftimes on digital [platforms] and as studio segments.”
Also returning as analysts are Christy Winters-Scott, Meghan McKeown, and Jantel Lavender. Winters-Scott and White will also call several men’s games during the season.
Full-Capacity Crowds: BTN Looks To Capture Passion of College Basketball Again
There are lots of reasons to get excited for this upcoming Big Ten season: 15 schools appearing in last year’s national basketball tournaments (eight in men’s, seven in women’s), 10 schools in each of the 2021 AP Top 25 Polls (five in men’s basketball, five in women’s), and, more important, the return of packed student sections at some of the most iconic venues in sports. Maryott is looking forward to that aspect of shows but also to the players who are playing another year on the court.
“We’ve thoroughly enjoyed the energy they bring throughout the fall and winter,” she says. “We also have some fifth-year seniors who have been granted an extra year of eligibility as a result of COVID. [We spoke] to many of them at Big Ten Media Days, and they’re grateful to have this extra season.”
Bertsche credits the work of the behind-the-scenes staff for making last season and this season possible.
“I was overwhelmed by what our remote-ops and engineering teams did last year,” he says. “My job was a lot easier because of their work. It’s borderline unfathomable what the women and men in these departments did not only to keep us on the air but to ensure our fans could watch the games of their favorite school in the same manner they always have.”
Women’s basketball on the Big Ten Network begins with No. 7 Baylor vs. No. 4 Maryland on Monday, Nov. 21 at 1 p.m. ET. The men’s side continues Wednesday, Nov. 10 with Buffalo vs. No. 6 Michigan at 6:30 p.m. and Youngstown State vs. Penn State at 8:30 p.m.