Iowa State Director of Athletics Jamie Pollard was out to dinner with his wife and four children on a warm, late-summer night in Ames when it all came together. Pollard and his staff had recently struck a deal with Mediacom, the major cable provider in the state, to create a 24/7 television network dedicated entirely to Cyclone athletics. It’s believed to be the first such deal in college sports in which a university-produced digital network is given a linear-broadcast distribution home.
As the Pollard clan trooped into the restaurant, Pollard noticed three large television sets behind the main bar. One was playing ESPN, another ESPN2, and the third the new Cyclones.tv.
Pollard’s eldest son, Thomas, looked at the hostess and pointed, “Can we sit somewhere so we can watch that?”
“I thought to myself, ‘That’s it right there,’” says Pollard, now in his ninth year as AD at ISU. “For us, it’s about broadening our brand throughout the state of Iowa. I look at it and say the person that really wants to watch our volleyball match or wrestling match, whether they live in Florida or Alaska or Russia, they’re going to go find it if you’ve made it available. They just will. What this platform does for us is, the John Q. Public that’s in Iowa that is in the footprint of Mediacom, that’s the person we’re capturing with this.”
The 24/7 channel is a unique partnership of Mediacom, ISU multimedia-rights holder Learfield Sports, and technology provider Encompass Digital Media. The partnership will provide a solid statewide platform to subscribers of Mediacom’s expanded basic-cable package. The Cyclones.tv channel on Mediacom will be available on both HD and SD channels, and Iowa State fans in neighboring states could also benefit from living in a market where Mediacom’s service crosses state lines.
Since 2006, the ISU athletics department has run its own digital network, called Clone Zone before the platform was rebranded to Cyclones.tv last fall. The idea was that, if someday the Big 12 decided to create its own network, the network would need content from Iowa State.
Then, last September, the conference announced its new media-rights deal with Fox and ESPN, which temporarily put to bed any talks of a Big 12 network but also granted some first-tier rights to the universities themselves, including one football game and a handful of men’s basketball games.
“We started to realize we can do this ourselves right here in our state if we can convince the cable operator to take it,” says Pollard. “So when the Big 12 went with the new TV deal, … that’s what really opened the door because the cable operator came to us and said, We want those.”
Iowa State used those first-tier games as a bargaining chip and offered them to Mediacom when talk of a broadcast home for Cyclones.tv became a reality. Now the Cyclones have a channel to distribute not just those first-tier games but also many second- and third-tier live events as well.
The deal with Mediacom was relatively seamless technologically. The on-campus cable provider for Iowa State, the company had already invested in a fiber-line connection from the athletic department’s control room at the Hilton Coliseum in Ames to Mediacom’s broadcast center in Des Moines. It was just a matter of clearing up some bandwidth to allow ISU athletics to deliver a six-hour block of content that is run on a loop for 24 hours.
“Mediacom’s long-time partnership with the Cyclone athletic program has been strengthened by this unique collaboration that will elevate the success of student athletes across a wide variety of sports,” says Mediacom Group VP Steve Purcell. “We’re excited to use our Mediacom network to deliver quality programming from Cyclones.tv to fans in more than 300 Iowa communities and additional communities in neighboring states.”
To assist in production and transmission to Mediacom, ISU was directed to Atlanta-based Encompass Digital Media by Learfield Sports VP of Digital and Television Media Diane Penny. Encompass handles channel origination.
According to Tyler Rutherford, director of digital media at Iowa State Athletics, the department has a 1RU LTN device. Encompass sends ISU its channel over IP, and ISU sends the content via FTP and Aspera equipment. Encompass transcodes on its end and sends back the six-hour loop through the LTN device. In the case of live events, all ISU has to do is hard-patch in to override the loop.
“That’s our decision. We’re crawling, walking, and then we’re going to run,” says Rutherford. “We’ll get really good at scheduling the six hours, getting that organized, and turning around a lot of our classic content. Then we’ll get our arms around what we used to do for digital and then try to get more of that content onto the TV channel.”
Rutherford adds that the current Encompass workflow is a temporary setup. ISU is working on putting in a bidirectional EPL fiber that will come out of Encompass’s Atlanta office into the ISU campus over a VLAN. That new workflow could begin as soon as next month.
“We don’t want to bury ourselves,” says Pollard. “You can really get caught up and spend a lot of money and never get out from underneath it. So we always wanted to be realistic, but … it ramped up far sooner than any of us thought.”
With the digital rebrand last year came an investment in equipment and a new workflow that leveraged the university’s existing relationship with in-venue–video-screen provider Daktronics. Its Show Control System and a NewTek TriCaster enabled the ISU video-production team to stream in-venue video to Cyclones.tv.
Daktronics constructed a portable rack with an eight-input NewTek TriCaster 855, intercom system, and stats integration. The Show Control System combines display-control software, video processing, data integration, and playback hardware. Thanks to its portability, the workflow can be transported to various events across campus, including soccer, baseball, and softball.
Four Sony PMW-350 cameras feed the in-house productions at Jack Trice Stadium and Hilton Coliseum, each with a Daktronics video display feeding the online stream. Rutherford and his team also use a LiveU backpack on many remote broadcasts, including a football coach’s show that airs live from a local restaurant.
All this technology offers an opportunity for a university looking to make its mark not just in a highly competitive college athletics conference but also in a highly competitive college-athletics state. Nearly everyone in the state of Iowa is receiving ISU content. For Rutherford, it’s amazing to think about where it all started seven years ago.
“It’s been pretty cool just to see how much it has changed,” says Rutherford. “It used to be just me as a one-man shop, and now we’ve got four full-time people. We’re continuing to put more resources into it. I think the uptick in subscriptions in the online portal and now the number of people that are excited about being able to see it on their TV. It’s gotten rave reviews so far, and it’s only going to get better.”