College sports fans are a demanding bunch.
In this age of second screens, digital platforms, multiple RSNs, and the like, it can seem nearly impossible to meet the needs of fans of not just the marquee sports — football and basketball — but many of the Olympic sports as well. Technology has brought the industry to the point where fans are no longer excited to see their team’s games on TV; they expect it.
Even a powerhouse like ESPN, which has three 24/7 linear networks — ESPN, ESPN2, ESPNU — at its disposal (four if you count the Longhorn Network), struggles to find airtime for games it has purchased under rights agreements with various conferences.
However, the Worldwide Leader thinks it may have the answer.
ESPN3 is undergoing an evolution. When the online service was born about five years ago, its purpose was to serve as the best available screen for events happening on ESPN networks or, in some cases, to serve as a destination for overflow programming. It wasn’t long until the company began granting additional exposure to the brand by locking up ESPN3-exclusive events. The number of exclusive games continued to increase each year.
Last year, ESPN decided to break apart the previously married pair of ESPN3 and WatchESPN. The latter will serve as the digital destination of content airing on ESPN, ESPN2, and ESPNU. That opens the door for ESPN3 to become a digital portal of exclusive live events, and the company plans to make college sports a cornerstone of that mission.
“With the distribution that [ESPN3] now has and the number of events that it has been doing up to date, we truly believe that it has now turned itself into that fourth network in line,” says John Lasker, VP, programming and acquisitions, digital media, at ESPN.
To program the digital platform, ESPN has begun striking content deals with ACC schools for some basketball and third-tier broadcast rights. To date, North Carolina, Clemson, Florida State, and Georgia Tech are on board, with a source at ESPN saying that more announcements are on the way.
The agreements offer an increased amount of content for fans and obvious recruiting advantages for the schools.
“We felt this gave us a great opportunity to broadcast some of our Olympic sports that wouldn’t otherwise be broadcast,” says Bubba Cunningham, athletics director at the University of North Carolina. “So we thought the investment that we could make and the investment that they were willing to make was very beneficial to the both of us.”
Investments made on ESPN’s end were to supply partner schools with essential equipment to create an ESPN-caliber broadcast. As a part of the deals, ESPN was looking to raise the bar on broadcasts made available on ESPN3. The goal is one of high-quality uniformity.
In recent years, ESPN3 or WatchESPN was a destination for many games from third-tier rights produced by outside entities: the schools or conferences or other production companies. The goal now is to make that a thing of the past, holding a game on ESPN3 to the same standards expected of a linear broadcast.
“Ultimately, we wanted this to look like an ESPN production to the end user,” says Lasker. “The reality today is, anybody can stream a live event. What we’re trying to do is bring television quality to ESPN3. We want to make sure that, when any of these schools produce a game that, when you turn it on, it’s going to look great. We think we’ve achieved that.”
As part of each agreement, ESPN3, on average, will distribute 35-45 sports events per school, and yet, no ESPN personnel will be on campus when the games are produced.
With a production package from Ross Video that includes both the company’s Carbonite switcher and Xpression graphics engine, ESPN can create a uniform graphics package that will ensure that a Seminoles game being switched by a student in Tallahassee will have the sharp look of an ESPN broadcast.
When ESPN was experimenting with this idea over the past couple of years, they ran a series of tests in which Ross Video took part. Xpression was able to deliver what ESPN would consider A-game–quality graphics, from lower-thirds to full-screens to wipes, opens, scorebugs, and more. What made this solution most cost-effective was that Ross Video technicians were able to develop a system allowing all of these graphics to be run off just one channel of the Xpression engine.
“Most people would think, how in the world is that possible?” says Brian Olson, marketing product manager at Ross Video. “What we’re doing is using the multilayered playout capability on a single channel of Xpression, combined with switching video and graphics on the frame by custom controls in Carbonite.
“So the TD is able to control most of this from custom controls on the switcher,” he continues. “For example, let’s say the TD has a clock and score up and wants to do a media wipe to a replay with a different graphic. He can trigger that, and the media wipe will actually happen on a higher layer than the score bug, and it will obscure the frame for two or three frames at full screen during its transition. During that period, we undercut the graphic with the next graphic, and we also switch the video source. So the effect is, the media wipe is revealing a new camera and a new graphic, but it’s all happening on a single channel of Xpression.”
Two other tech features were appealing to ESPN.
First is Xpression’s Data Link Server, which interfaces with both the scoreboard/clock (it’s compatible with boards from Daktronics, OES, and White Way) and the stats table. That allows ESPN to keep yet another piece of equipment at home.
Second is Xpression’s Project Server, a central collecting point for Xpression graphics templates. The server lives in Bristol, CT, and allows ESPN engineers to make universal updates to various graphics packages. All the school then has to do is log in to the Project Server and download the latest update of the package.
All pieces combine for a highly cost-effective production model and, most important to both ESPN and its partner schools, still give the look and feel of a game a fan would watch on the television.
“I think that, if it looks like an ESPN broadcast, that has great credibility and professionalism that we think has a lot of value,” says Cunningham, whose university has a centralized control room inside the Dean Smith Center, where all ESPN3 productions, as well as campus-wide videoboard productions are produced.
Bringing the School to ESPN Level
The process of getting to this point took approximately two years, according to Lasker. In discussions with the school and conference, ESPN does a survey analysis of what equipment it has and what kind of production capabilities it is deploying today. ESPN then assesses how it can augment what the school is currently doing to achieve a level of quality ESPN can be pleased with.
“What we found was varying degrees of capability, excitement, engagement, and experience,” says Lasker. “The folks that we’ve targeted in the outset, we did so because they were a little bit more ahead of the curve as far as what they were doing about their own platforms. So we were closer to getting them to the ESPN-level quality that we were expecting.”
The two core technological components that ESPN targets are the switcher and the graphics platform — which it has covered with Ross Video — and delivery and connectivity. To remedy the second concern, ESPN partnered with a third-party fiber company, which it did not wish to disclose, to establish direct connectivity from the schools to ESPN.
The result is better content and a whole lot more of it. With these technologies, ESPN3 is expected to stream 345 exclusive college basketball games, a record for the platform. Approximately 50 of those games will be produced through these partnerships.
“We think we have cracked the code on answering the bell of what fans and our partners are now expecting from media distribution,” says Lasker. “Technology has put us in a spot where UNC fans are now expecting that their UNC baseball games are going to be available to them somehow. What we’re trying to do here is to make sure that that does happen. It’s a fantastic feat for us.”