My name is Imry Halevi, and I am the associate director of video production at Northeastern University athletics. For those of you who don’t know, Northeastern is located in the heart of Boston, Mass., in the congested media market that includes the NBA’s Celtics, NHL’s Bruins, NFL’s Patriots, MLB’s Red Sox and MLS’s Revolution, not to mention NCAA’s Boston University, Boston College and Harvard University (more on that later).
I was asked by Stretch Internet to provide a little insight about our video productions, talk about our typical hockey and basketball video streams, and provide any best practices that we’ve picked up over the last few years.
Well, here we go – Video production at Northeastern University Athletics started quite a few years ago. It all started with a couple of Sony Handycam cameras, a Macbook Pro laptop and a microphone. That’s it. Back in the day (2006-ish), streaming home games online was an achievement within itself, and the fact that Northeastern was able to do it on a very limited budget was impressive.
Four years ago, I joined the Northeastern Athletics department (after a stint at Boston University’s Agganis Arena). That’s when the department decided that it was time to kick the production into gear, and invest some resources into the streams. As I mentioned earlier, we reside in a very busy media market. Even when we have a big athletics-related story or video we want to release, it often feels like we’re a little kid jumping up and down and screaming, trying to get people’s attention. Therefore, we decided we needed to differentiate ourselves and get attention by putting together the best video production around.
Here’s how we do it:
Game day begins four hours before game-time for the broadcast director. The director shows up at our Matthews Arena control room, and turns on all the equipment. The next 60 minutes are spent testing out every single thing we own. We run a test audio signal through our mixer, we play video animations through our video switcher, we play back highlights of previous games through our replay machine, and make sure that our on-campus internet connection is up and running. We strongly believe that if you fail to prepare, you are preparing to fail.
Full crew call is three hours before game time. That’s when the 12-17 Northeastern students who run all the technical equipment show up, and we start our set up (commentators show up 60 minutes prior to game time). The director gathers everyone outside the control room, and reviews the setup for the game. Where the cameras will be set up, where the announcers will be stationed and what kind of graphics we need to create ahead of the game. The next 60-90 minutes are spent setting up for the game. Camera operators set up their cameras, graphics people create all the graphics that are relevant for the game, the audio operator sets up the announcers’ station, etc.
We usually have the following staff on hand: A switcher operator, replay operator, audio operator, two graphics operators, four camera operators, three commentators, a director and a producer.
(The video showcases both our hockey and men’s basketball productions, which I discuss in this post, as well as our productions for other sports, which we stream using all-mobile equipment.)
As you could see in the video, our control room makes the common walk-in closet look huge. The room was built 20 years ago, to hold the one laptop that played music out to the arena sound system. We have since stuffed a tremendous amount of equipment and people into that one tiny room. However, we still cannot fit everyone on our team in there, therefore our graphics operators, the ones who look up stats and enter them as on-screen graphics, are placed next to one of our cameras out in the arena:
Over the years, we noticed that with such a complex production, some parts of our set up are often forgotten or missed (making sure that all audio sources are balanced, that cameras are leveled or that there are no spelling mistakes in our graphics). Therefore, we’ve come up with a checklist to make sure that we remember all our pre-game procedures. The list (which has increased in length from two paragraphs to three pages) includes everything from where the cameras go, to how we route our video signals, to what must be done before we can un-mute our announcers.
I always tell my directors that they MUST cross off every item on the list before they can start the broadcast. Just glancing through it means that you’ll often forget to do something. For example, during our first game, we forgot to press “record” when the game started. We also forget to white balance our cameras (so I guess it’s a good thing we forgot to press “record”).
Once all our equipment is set up, we are ready to begin our broadcast. To help us keep the show interesting and tight, we work off a timeline that lists every single thing we do (except for actual game play coverage). Since we are also charged with providing the content for the arena’s video board and sound system, we must make sure that everything we do is in sync. This is a sample first page of one of our timing sheets:
Even with all our preparations, procedures and checklists, we sometimes have things go wrong. Equipment doesn’t work, cameramen forget to follow the ball/puck, announcers don’t follow their scripts, and many other things. Additionally, even if everything goes according to plan, this is still a live sporting event. We have to expect the unexpected. Therefore, we try to roll with the punches. Follow our timing sheet as much as possible, but be ready to improvise and deviate from the plan. Keeping that in mind, we usually end up with a successful broadcast.
For those of you who were brave enough to read through my long post, I’m sure that this can seem a little daunting. We’ve been very fortunate to get our university and department’s financial support, and purchase a lot of good production equipment. I realize that not everyone can match this kind of control room setup. Regardless, I think that everyone can have first-class professional-looking broadcasts. Here some tips I can offer to achieve that goal:
1. Preparation is extremely important. Spend some time thinking about your broadcast ahead of time. How will you fill the obvious gaps in play (halftime, intermission, etc.)? Do you have pre-recorded content, live interviews? Anything but static to keep fans engaged.
2. Mind the little details. I’ve seen numerous productions that use amazing equipment, but look horrible. That usually happens because they don’t take the time to level their tripods, white balance their cameras, or equalize their announcer audio levels. The more time you spend paying attention to the little details, the more professional your production will look.
3. Trust your team. My team is made up entirely of Northeastern undergraduate students. The vast majority of them don’t have any production or live-broadcast experience. But with pre-season training, and plenty of on-the-job guidance, they do an amazing job. I always try to remind them of our target audience, and our overall plan. I let them make the technical decisions that help shape the end product.
4. You don’t need a large budget to have a first-class production. With only $15 million, you too can have the production of your dreams. I’m just kidding (though $15 million would be great). We started our productions with a very limited budget. We just improved our equipment in an incremental way. Overall, we’ve probably spent a little over $200K over the last four years. But I can promise you that you can do a production that looks just like ours with less than $20K (though don’t tell my boss that!)
5. Try new things. We try to improve our productions every season. We do that by trying new camera locations, creating new graphics, changing the way we use replays and many other things. Some things fail. We tried some new graphics last year that I really liked, but our fans immediately complained that the text was too small for iPhone viewing. This past year we tried to put one of our basketball cameras on the floor by center court. We didn’t really plan on our fans jumping up and down and blocking our shot. That’s all OK. If you don’t try new things, you’ll never know what works for you. We succeed more than we fail.
6. Finally, find a good partner to help you with your streams and customer service. We’ve been very lucky to partner with Stretch for the last two years. Ryan and his crew have helped us serve our fans, and have always been ready, willing and able to try new things (like HD streaming).
I hope this has been interesting (if not a little helpful).
We will continue to strive to improve our productions, and better engage our fans. This year, we’re looking into in-game social media video highlights as a way to draw more people to watch our productions. We’ll be posting in-game highlights on Twitter, and trying to get people to start watching our games mid-way through. We’ll see how it goes.
If you have any questions about our productions, please don’t hesitate to reach out. I’m always happy to help.