Colleges reduce cost of sportscasts

Classes put students behind the camera for baseball, soccer

Costly rights fees move sports goal line

With sports rights fees going through the roof, few are benefiting more than those with college football and basketball to sell. But for the so-called minor collegiate sports — including everything from baseball to soccer, women’s softball to lacrosse — the playing field is tilting toward a stripped-down, do-it-yourself production model.

Historically, athletic departments have taken rights fees and relied on outside professionals — whether they be regional sports networks, local television stations or national broadcasters — to do everything from camerawork to beaming transmissions from satellite trucks. And while universities aren’t about to give up the most lucrative paydays for their big-ticket sports, they are increasingly taking matters into their own hands everywhere else.

Oklahoma U. is at the top of the class in the DIY trend. Its television production capabilities for live athletic events would be the envy of many RSNs; the school recently completed a $5 million upgrade that includes two control rooms and state-of-the-art equipment. This gives its 60-person-plus inhouse staff (most of them students) the ability to create high-definition telecasts from any venue on campus. As a result, OU directly produces approximately 60 sporting events, including track and field as well as baseball and softball, for broadcast on Cox Cable’s CST network in Oklahoma City and Tulsa as well as other regional affiliates around the state.

“If we weren’t producing, we would have 20 games on (TV) that are contracted by our rights holders and that’s it,” says Brandon Meier, Oklahoma U. assistant athletic director for broadcast operations.

But by lowering the production overhead, OU hasn’t had difficulty convincing outlets to run another 40 or so events.

“We hire students and they help keep the cost of production down,” Meier says. “And we don’t have to tear down completely after a telecast if we are going to do, say, five straight games.”

Even for institutions without sophisticated video infrastructure, it is possible to take control of production and cut costs significantly. Earlier this year, sports media consultant Tom Buffolano convinced Rice U. and Conference USA he could deliver a high-def broadcast of a three-game baseball series between Rice and the U. of Memphis at a fraction of the cost regularly required by an RSN or local broadcast station. Normally, production costs would range between $45,000 and $75,000 for a single game, but Buffolano successfully produced all three matchups for around $45,000, with two of the contests airing on cabler CBS Sports Network.

Savings were realized by avoiding the use of a production truck (that work was done from a box inside the stadium) and a satellite (they were able to send the feed through an Internet provider).

Universities getting into the production game aren’t seeing returns on investment anywhere near those of the big conference television deals like the Atlantic Coast Conference’s 12-year, $1.9 billion agreement signed last year with ESPN. Yet bringing production inhouse hasn’t been a money-losing venture when done on a scale like Oklahoma and, more important, it gives schools the ability to get exposure for minor sports.

“Rice baseball has traditionally been a national powerhouse,” Buffolano says. “Conference USA and Rice didn’t have a TV contract in place that would get Rice baseball or Conference USA baseball on the air. The (claim) was it was cost prohibitive, but that didn’t make any sense. … Using the high-def, low-cost model for local over-the-air TV stations or regional sports networks can solve that problem.”

One concern these deals present is how the use of college students — who are becoming increasingly involved in all facets of these productions — might reduce opportunities for behind-the-camera professionals.

Buffolano, however, says that the DIY telecasts present games that might never otherwise be aired, and adds that, inasmuch as students generally can’t handle all aspects of a production, the broadcasts can create jobs for below-the-line freelancers.

“There is absolutely no downside to this,” Buffolano says. “When it comes to creating a high-quality, lower-cost economic model, you still need (professionals). While students are becoming more involved, they are not as experienced as people who have been doing (a job) for 15 years. You still need those experienced directors, cameramen (and) sound mixers.” nNevertheless, on a smaller scale, some production will completely bypass outside professionals.

At the U. of South Carolina, the athletic department, like most major programs, is crafting reality-based streaming video shorts about various sports programs for the Internet. Last year, students working with the school’s Gamecock Prods. created a series of five- to seven-minute features on the school’s new softball coach, Beverly Smith. Following the series’ Internet run, season ticket sales skyrocketed by 311%.

Buoyed by that success, South Carolina recently produced a pair of shows on their men’s and women’s soccer programs that caught the attention of Fox, though a deal to air them could not be finalized.

Paul Danna, director of South Carolina’s Gamecock Prods., believes there is a future for his school’s product on television

Many schools appear keen to expand their efforts, according to Buffolano. For most, that means edging into producing live events. But even at a school like Oklahoma where they consistently do just that, there’s room for growth. Meier hopes to produce more pre- and post-game programming and ramp up the production of documentaries and other longform fare.

“There is always other content that goes untapped,” Meier says. “We want to utilize all the access we’re given.”