A New Partnership With ESPN+ Opens Skyhawk Athletics to the World
Story by Ryne Rickman| Photos by Steve Mantilla
You’ve put in a hard day’s work and you’re settled into your favorite chair to watch your Skyhawks go for another victory. You pull up the game on ESPN+ and notice that it looks the same as the Southeastern Conference game you just watched last night.
That’s the result of a new joint effort between the Ohio Valley Conference and ESPN, who reached a partnership in August 2018 that allows member institutions to broadcast their home contests exclusively on ESPN+.
UT Martin’s transition from OVC Digital Network to ESPN+ has been seamless, thanks in large part to two people: Rodney Freed, instructor of communications, and Trudy Henderson, coordinator of external operations in the Office of Intercollegiate Athletics.
“The communications department has always had a good relationship with athletics because we look at that as an avenue for a lot of our students to get experience,” said Freed, who is in his 22nd year at UT Martin. “Then in the spring of last year, we found out that the OVC was going to go to ESPN+ and it kind of sped up the fact that we really needed new equipment.”
The ESPN announcement led to a state-of-the-art equipment upgrade in Gooch Hall. A Skyhawk sporting event on ESPN+ is now being produced, directed and streamed to ESPN’s headquarters in Bristol, Connecticut, live from room 214 in Gooch Hall on UT Martin’s campus.
“Our setup now is not only the best in the OVC, but it rivals any production studio in college athletics,” said Henderson, who has worked on campus for a total of 34 years. “We have accomplished several ‘firsts’ throughout the league, and other schools in the OVC have tried to pattern their productions using our techniques. We are very fortunate to have such a strong working relationship with our communications department – they really made all of this possible.”
Freed and Henderson, who both have live directing experience, collaborated on the best way to produce live content when the OVC Digital Network launched in 2012. After months of research, they settled on a production trailer modified from its original purpose of cable splicing. They ordered racks, installed equipment from flight cases and also built storage units for cameras. One of its biggest advantages was mobility, as the trailer could be moved from location to location within minutes.
When news of a potential ESPN commitment hit, the duo envisioned the studio that is currently in Gooch Hall. The space was stripped and the equipment – which includes new replay and graphics systems among other items – was ordered, installed and rewired during a two-month span.
“We figured out pretty quickly that all of the new equipment was not going to fit in our little trailer,” Freed said. “So we can either buy a bigger trailer or we have a central control room and then we ship all the audio/video back to that one location. And from there it goes out to ESPN. In terms of wear and tear on the equipment and just for the ease of having it all here in a climate-controlled environment, we explored the Gooch Hall option. It was definitely the right decision to make.”
Not to say there weren’t unforeseen issues throughout the process. Freed quickly discovered the data was having problems getting from point A to point B and enlisted the help of the campus Office of Information Technology Services.
“One of the biggest challenges that we originally faced was connectivity from the different venues back here to Gooch Hall,” Freed said. “The system that we are using relies on essentially the Ethernet to move audio and video back and forth. We found out there wasn’t enough bandwidth on campus to support eight or nine different streams of video that we were trying to push. I have to say that our information technology services department here on campus has been really, really helpful in helping us figure out the connectivity issues. So with football and basketball, we’re moving all the camera, audio, intercom signals through fiber optics.”
One advantage Henderson and Freed could count on was the production crew. Approximately 15 students have worked various live sporting events since OVC Digital Network’s inception in 2012, but the same core of five part-time workers has been there from the beginning. Mac Doran (‘18), Matthew Henderson (‘17), Alex Hansen (‘16), Chris Patterson and Zack Roberts (‘16) were the original group who helped launch the OVC Digital Network.
Doran, who also works part-time at WLJT-TV on campus, has served in almost every position needed during a live broadcast – director, producer, graphics manager and camera operator. He was also part of a five-person UT Martin contingent that attended an ESPN training seminar hosted by the OVC and the equipment manufacturers this past October in Nashville. ESPN also offered sport-specific webinars throughout the year so each broadcast can be as polished as possible.
“The ESPN+ switch was stressful at first because we were having to learn all new software in a different surrounding,” Doran said. “On the flipside, I think we handled the adjustments very well because it helped that we had all worked together in the past. We knew what to expect, and once we got the hang of the new equipment, our broadcasts steadily improved throughout the year.”
Freed echoed Doran’s sentiments about the benefits of familiar faces during a production.
“I have to say that the crew that we have now has always been good about jumping in and getting things done,” Freed said. “Everybody pitches in to do all jobs – whether it be typing in rosters in the graphics system or pulling cables. That’s what you want to see. It’s been a learning curve, but I’m very pleased about our progress, too. From where we were in September to what we can do now is night and day.”
A typical ESPN+ broadcast begins with a call to Bristol to “fax the truck” – a technical term for making sure everything is in order. The call – which usually takes place a few hours before the broadcast goes live – is to ensure all the camera angles are sufficient, the lower-third graphics are placed correctly and a lipsync test to make sure the audio matches up.
The crew is then patched through to ESPN master control, which assists with running commercial breaks on the network. A dedicated staff member is in charge of staying on the line with ESPN throughout the broadcast, coordinating the timing and counting down the seconds for the broadcaster coming in and out of breaks – thus creating a new level of game management that was not a responsibility on OVC Digital Network.
UT Martin’s first live game on ESPN+ took place Sept. 15.2018, during football matchup against UT Chattanooga at Hardy Graham Stadium. There was a level of excitement and nervousness among the crew leading up to kickoff.
“I was scared to death – I’ll be honest with you,” Freed said. “I was really nervous. I think everybody was. I had done some freelance work several years ago for ESPN, and I knew that this was not going to be anything like what we had done in the past. When we were streaming OVC Digital Network, we may have 300-500 people watching that stream. It was important for our people to realize that this is not just a conference audience now – this is a global audience. ESPN has expectations about how they want their games to look because they want consistency. The bar had been raised – not only in terms of production but also what the expectations were.”
All jobs are equally important when working with multi-faceted components during a live production. However, Freed is quick to point out the importance of the lens capturing the moments the viewer will see.
“The camera operators make or break any game that you have,” Freed said. “The first game that we had, we had two or three people that had never done camera work for a football game. Some of them, while they may have casually watched a football game, they really didn’t even understand the game, and that is a huge challenge when you have people that don’t know what to anticipate. So my assignment to a lot of the camera people was to go and watch an ESPN game so you can see what they’re doing. That helped a lot because people were like ‘oh, now I know why we do that.’ It’s that lightbulb moment.”
Through its first year, the viewership numbers have been impressive not only at UT Martin but throughout the OVC. Kyle Schwartz, the conference’s assistant commissioner for strategic communications, has received encouraging feedback from all member institutions – which combined to stream more than 600 ESPN+ events during the 2018-19 academic year.
“We’ve seen nothing but positive results from our debut on ESPN+,” Schwartz said. “Moving forward, the conference is excited for the opportunity for growth by showcasing the talents of OVC student-athletes to viewers through a worldwide platform.”
Henderson and Freed have already identified several ways to upgrade future Skyhawk broadcasts. That includes a new interface to combine the Gooch Hall telephone and intercom systems and a potential new graphics interface intertwined with the scoreboards at both Hardy Graham Stadium and the Kathleen and Tom Elam Center, automatically updating time and score.
“The sky is truly the limit for us here at UT Martin,” Henderson said. “We have worked out several kinks through this first year that will only help us down the road. We are extremely proud of the progress we showed, and with a first-class production studio like we have now, I am confident that our broadcasts will continue to get better.”
“For students, it was important to understand that this is not just a class project, we’re doing this for real,” Freed said. “As long as you’re using students, there’s always going to be that ebb-and-flow with quality because you have new people coming in all the time. But that’s part of what we do. I use the analogy that it’s just like our teams – the players may come and go but by the end of conference season, you want to be doing your best. It’s the same principle for our crew. ESPN has been very gracious and supportive – they have gone out of their way to develop a good partnership with us.”