Most college-sports fans take for granted how easy it can be to see their alma mater play on television. It’s a luxury those who attended the so-called “mid-major schools” don’t necessarily enjoy. That is, unless you’re a Cougar.
This season, the College of Charleston has taken its television product into its own hands, establishing a production and distribution plan with ESPN3, the Southern Conference (SoCon), and local TV affiliates WMMP and WTAT-TV.
When all is said and done, 23 of the college’s 30 regular-season men’s basketball games will be televised, a number unfathomable to other mid-major programs, and they will all be produced and transmitted by college staff.
“We’ve been heavily invested in the video-streaming world for the last four years,” says Director of Operations Josh Bryson. “We felt this was our best opportunity to get our programs out for the world to see.”
To make that next step, College of Charleston became the first team in the SoCon with its own television-production truck creating its own live television games in HD.
The school invested in a 3500 high-roof 170-in. WB EXT sprinter van and stuffed it with NewTek gear, including a Tricaster 850 Xtreme switcher and 3Play 820 replay machine. The unit uses a traditional satellite uplink to transmit its signal to the local affiliates.
“We’ve used NewTek products here for the last three years, and this is our first move up into one of their HD switchers. We’ve been very pleased with what the 850 Xtreme has been able to do,” says Bryson. “We’re a mid major, and, when we started on this, we had a very realistic budget of what we were going to be able to do, and we’re able to put out for the viewers at home a high-quality high-definition broadcast.”
The mobile unit does more than give the crew at Charleston Sports Network an upgrade in equipment; it also adds the extra versatility needed to broadcast games from the school’s off-campus baseball, softball, and soccer facility, as well as carry road games, which the team did for the first time at last week’s game at Wofford College in Spartanburg, SC.
“This is where we feel we are doing the greatest service to our fans,” says Bryson, “being able to go on the road and send the game back to them when, ordinarily, they would be listening to it on the radio or wouldn’t be able to follow it at all.”
The crew now has five productions under their belt and are preparing for their next show, the Cougars’ home contest against Elon University in Elon, NC, on Saturday. A typical game is a four-camera shoot with a seven-person crew — producer, director, technical director, two graphics people, replay person, audio technician, and video technician — staffing the mobile unit.
The team dealt with some technological issues in their first broadcast on Dec. 1, but that likely had much to do with the fact that the school didn’t take possession of the production truck until the Saturday after Thanksgiving, giving the crew just a week to work out the bugs. Despite the quick turnaround, the first broadcast went to air, as well as globally to ESPN3.
“We felt confident, but we were a little nervous,” Bryson chuckles. “I’m not going to lie to you.”
With each broadcast, the crew continues to gel, and the final product continues to improve.
“We learn something new about our equipment every time we turn it on,” he says. “Obviously, with any kind of product or new mobile unit, you’ll have some hiccups the first broadcast, and we worked through those. They’ve gotten better each time. The one we did on [Dec.] 17 was quite good.”
“Doing live TV is a little tougher than we were expecting,” says Athletics Director Joe Hull. “We’ve been doing the video streaming at a pretty high level for several years, but this is a completely different animal.”
For a mid-major program like College of Charleston, the purpose of broadcasting games to a wider audience is a simple one: exposure.
“Producing and broadcasting our own sports programming gives us greater ability to market our varsity sports programs and our university,” says college President P. George Benson. “In addition to bringing priceless national and international exposure to our university through an innovative arrangement with ESPN3, these new capabilities enable us to broadcast our own ad spots, halftime interviews, and other in-house content during locally televised games.”
College of Charleston men’s basketball is no stranger to television: the school appeared on TV 21 times a year ago, when the program made a run to the quarterfinals of the NIT. The previous agreement, however, with Atlanta-based regional sports network CSS proved costly to the college — $28,000 to be exact — and offered no opportunities to expand and showcase other sports than men’s hoops.
“We had a great relationship [with CSS], but it was really only men’s basketball that we were able to get out with them,” says Bryson. “We’ve got some quality programs here, and this gives us the opportunity to give them a level of exposure that they’ve never been able to have before.”
College of Charleston, like other smaller colleges, is taking advantage of the opportunities that a platform like ESPN3 has to offer. A chance to broadcast games around the world behind the penetration and brand recognition of a name like ESPN is a hard proposition to turn down. When all is said and done, ESPN3 will carry a total of 15 live games.
“With the local package, it gave all of our local fans the option to be able to watch it,” says Bryson, “but, with ESPN3 on top of that, it gets us a lot more out there than we had ever been before.”
Although Hull acknowledges that the broadcasts are an expense line in his current budget, he is hopeful that, in the coming years, that they can become a valuable revenue stream.
“Certainly, that’s not going to happen in the short run,” he says. “but, for a smaller school like us, just being out there and being seen is a big deal.”