St. John Television Network Produces Online and Television Sports Coverage
December 27, 2014 by Scott Carroll
While the quality of sports coverage at virtually every major college has increased significantly to keep pace with what fans see on network television, the budgets to carry it out still lag behind. That’s why integrated production systems, which bring all of the features and functionality of a traditional video and audio control room under the control of a single operator, have become so popular.
St. John’s University is located in New York City‚ the No. 1 media market in the nation that features 10 professional sports teams and 40-some colleges and universities, each fighting for headlines and broadcast space. The Athletic Communications unit within St. John’s Department of Athletics is responsible for generating publicity for the Red Storm’s 17 men’s and women’s varsity athletic programs.
To help carve out its place in the “media capital of the world,” a rotating team of seasoned freelancers and St. John’s Athletic Communications undergraduate and graduate students produce more than 120 live games in HD (720p or 1080i) each year.
Like many university-based operations, these multi-camera sports productions can be seen live via the school’s dedicated sports website (http://www.RedStormSports.com/). But taking it a step further, the school gives its alumni, fans and supporters the ability to keep up with their favorite Red Storm teams on television — via national networks, such as the CBS Sports Network, available to about 92 million subscribers, or SportsNet New York (SNY), a New York-based regional cable outlet available to about 15 million. ESPN also carries many St. John’s produced games on ESPN3, available in about 70 million households nationwide, online at WatchESPN.com, on smartphones and tablets via the WatchESPN app and through ESPN on Xbox LIVE.
The school has been using NewTek TriCaster systems for the past six years in standard-definition (SD) digital resolution, and, coinciding with its move to all high-definition (HD) production this year, is now using a TriCaster 850 EXTREME system. With it, anyone can simultaneously produce, live stream, broadcast, project and record HD and SD network-style productions. One operator or small team can switch between multiple cameras, virtual inputs and live virtual sets, while inserting clips, titles and motion graphics with multi-channel effects.
Easing the financial burden
For St. John’s, producing all of this content would be financially daunting without the cost-effectiveness of the TriCaster system. It offers various modules that address portable live production, video editing, 3D animation and special effects tools. This can include a fully loaded, 24-channel switcher as well as software to produce high-quality video, text, graphics, animations and virtual sets. In addition, each TriCaster system features networking inputs that allow users to send video and audio wirelessly from iOS devices, such as iPad, iPod or iPhone, into a live production. TriCaster also allows users to bring in displays from a PC or Mac, using NewTek’s unique iVGA technology. Those operating TriCaster at St. John’s include both professionals and students under the umbrella of the Athletic Communications unit. The St. John Television Network (STJ-TV) enjoys the versatility of the system, according to Mark Fratto, Senior Associate Athletics Director for Communications, St. John’s University.
TriCaster is used to produce home games across nine different sports seasons and is transported to campus arenas and stadiums in a fly-pack, with a series of related cases in tow. Fratto said the system can be used to produce a basketball game in the afternoon and a soccer playoff game at night on the same day. St. John’s students have grown used to operating the TriCaster system while courtside for basketball games or in the press box during a baseball game.
For its multi-camera productions, Fratto’s team uses four Canon XF305 and one XF105 HD cameras. The games are streamed live directly from TriCaster for Internet-based or cable TV network broadcasts. To get the signal to its TV partners, St. John’s has used traditional satellite transmission in the past, but Fratto’s team is moving toward a system to transmit live HD video as an IP stream over the Internet to ESPN, CBS and other broadcast outlets. Fratto said the combination of TriCaster production and IP transmission saves his department tens of thousands of dollars per event.
Mixed production crew
“We love that the system is so compact, portable and versatile that we can take it from venue to venue and not miss a beat,” said Fratto. “It’s so easy when it comes to set up and break down and so powerful that we’re able to stream content directly to the Internet as well as to TV networks and their mobile and Internet platforms. And we can produce instant highlights that can be ready for ESPN’s SportsCenter that night. It’s really amazing what we accomplish with TriCaster.”
Fratto and his staff had no previous video production experience before using the original TriCaster STUDIO system in 2006, he said. Six years later, Fratto oversees a STJ-TV team that produces high-quality telecasts that equal regional sports network broadcasts.
“We’ve come a long way, that’s for sure,” said Fratto, adding that STJ-TV now has one full-time person who is trained in traditional video production (Sean McCluskey the school’s new Director of Multimedia Services) and has also retained the services of sports production veteran Neil Gallow as a consultant.
“NewTek has helped us get to where we are today,” said Fratto. “We can’t say enough about the support we’ve received from the company. They really understand the revenue and exposure benefits of college sports coverage and are always eager to help us.”
STJ-TV has devised a production model in which some professional camera and graphics operators are teamed with undergraduate and graduate students. Students are therefore able to gain on-the-job training and experience by working in what is comparable to a professional setting. Fratto is quick to note that they will be competing in the professional job market soon after they graduate, and having experience operating TriCaster makes St. John’s grads more attractive to would-be employers.
Training future professionals
Of course, the downside to using students for production projects is a lack of work experience to begin with. Yet, Fratto said, most participating students at St. John’s are up and running on the system within a few weeks of training. That’s key because ESPN, CBS or SNY — all highly rated sports channels — won’t stand for second-rate production values.
“We have 18-year old producers who are creating content for national platforms like ESPN,” Fratto said. “That’s the biggest advantage. The live and on-demand video products that we are creating with TriCaster are professional grade. Realistically, we don’t foresee a multimillion dollar TV network truck coming onto campus and allowing a college freshman to run a sports production. Yet, we produce similar results every day here at St. John’s.”
The school likes TriCaster so much, in fact, that STJ-TV has been added to the curriculum. This year, for the first time ever, St. John’s made available a practicum class in live sports production. The course makes extensive use of TriCaster and the many workflows for which it can be used.
“TriCaster can do so much in such a small package,” said Fratto. “We can plug in a laptop and import graphics created with the TriCaster’s built-in LiveText 2 software that we created that afternoon. We now have multiple laptops loaded with NewTek software to create and manage professional on-screen graphics that are imported seamlessly into the game coverage.”
LiveText 2 software also is used to produce audio and video elements for the large arena video scoreboards on campus.
Original TriCaster still going strong
“We began in 2006 with the original TriCaster STUDIO product, and now we’re using the latest NewTek 850 EXTREME system,” said Fratto. His team also still uses the original TriCaster system for support, which can accommodate up to six camera inputs. “That original system is still in use for live online streaming and video scoreboard images. It’s been a workhorse for us,” he said.
The logistics of determining when and where the TriCaster systems will be used as well as who will operate them takes a great deal of coordination. While staffing and scheduling for these productions is complicated, especially when multiple events are going on, the performance of the TriCaster each and every time out is consistent.
“The newest system (purchased in August 2011) is the most reliable system we’ve had to date, although all have performed admirably,” said Fratto. “NewTek has really evolved the system’s operating software and got it right. We can create professional HD video productions at a relatively low cost, no matter who’s operating the hardware. It’s opened new doors for student-athletes and coaches to benefit from exposure and has unleashed potential for revenue streams through sponsorship, advertising and subscription-based consumption. At the end of the day, that’s pretty incredible.”
Discussing the limited funds the operation has to work with, Fratto said his team is happy to impress with their ability to replicate a $45,000 traditional truck production for only a few thousand dollars. “Our students, campus leadership and television network executives find that to be pretty amazing, and so do we.”
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