Streaming from St. John's: Inside the University Network, Powered by NewTek
St. John’s University in Queens, NY, has a reputation for excellence, with a history of academic distinction dating back to 1870 and an intercollegiate athletic program that was founded in 1907. In May 2012, St. John’s added yet another distinction by producing the first college baseball games to be broadcast in full HD on CBS Sports Network via a public IP connection.
St. John’s is no stranger to homegrown production. Some six years ago, Mark Fratto, now senior associate athletics director for communications, proposed that the university embark on a program of streaming home games online. In the intervening years, St. John’s has produced some 120 home games annually in various sports.
Even more to Fratto’s credit was his role in establishing undergraduate coursework in radio/television production as an outgrowth of webcasting the games. Students have the opportunity to gain valuable practical experience in real production scenarios in addition to their academic training.
The operation, now referred to as St. John’s Television Network (STJ-TV), produces and streams these games with a combination of an in-house director of multimedia services, Sean McCluskey, various hired directors, producers, camera operators and sportscasters, and a significant body of student crew drawn from the school’s radio/TV program.
All home games are streamed live on the university’s sports site. The site’s business model allows free previews and highlights, and subscription access to entire games. Games are archived for on-demand viewing.
Fratto notes the tremendous success of this model. Families, alumni and other viewers provide a revenue source to defray web site costs and equipment purchases. Further, webcasts provide families, fans and alumni a greater connection to the school. Even more important for the athletic program, web availability of games serves as a recruiting tool.
St. John’s turned to NewTek to provide the core technology. Webcasts are currently switched via NewTek’s TriCaster 850 Extreme; NewTek’s 3Play 820 provides instant replays and slow-mo effects.
“We can hardly wait for the arrival of the TriCaster 8000,” Fratto adds.
The St. John’s baseball games broadcast on CBS Sports were shot with four Canon XF305 cameras: one over first base, one over third, one atop the stadium over home plate, and a fourth camera in a lift outside the center field wall. The three closer cameras were connected to TriCaster via SDI, while the center field camera was connected with a TAC-12 fiber cable and a Sony NIPROS system. While the NIPROS was designed to work with a Sony camera, there were no problems encountered running it with the Canon XF305. The university also has access to Sony PMW-EX3 and PMW-350 cameras with Canon 20x lenses, but these were not in use for the games broadcast on CBS Sports.
McCluskey supervises professional and student crews and is in charge of all hardware configuration. Consulting executive producer Neil Gallow and freelance producer Michael Rosenblum coordinate production aspects.
A significant production value added to the CBS Sports baseball broadcasts was play-by-play called by the late veteran announcer Warner Fusselle, of This Week in Baseball fame.
TriCaster’s strength is its ability to record and ingest video and still graphic material to be switched into the live program. For the May 2012 games broadcast on CBS Sports Network, a pregame intro was recorded before the opening pitch and stored in one of the TriCaster 850 Extreme’s DDR positions for recall during the live broadcast. Likewise, titles and on-screen graphics were generated in TriCaster. A separate operator controlled the NewTek 3Play unit, and producer/director Rosenblum called up 3Play shots as needed. Still graphics were run out of Livetext 2 and the CBS Sports Network bug was saved in TriCaster’s still store.
The production team used a VidyoCast encoding and transmission solution for the CBS Sports broadcast. The university had carved out a dedicated VLAN with a static IP for transmission to CBS Master Control in Manhattan, according to McCluskey.
VidyoCast representative Eyal Hillman explains that the VidyoCast encoder provided a 15 Mb/s 1080i feed of video encoded in H.264/SVC standard. VidyoCast contends that its encoder allows transmission over public internet without sacrificing quality. I watched a couple of innings on the athletic department’s LCD HDTV connected to a local cable provider and can attest to the quality. Of course, we cannot compare the footage from Canon XF305 cameras to 2/3” broadcast cameras with long box lenses, but the quality was perfectly acceptable.
CBS Sports-branded graphics were incorporated on the site and updated by undergraduate student operators.
In the case of this broadcast, an interesting synergy emerged between CBS Sports and St John’s—one that could be emulated by other athletic programs. St. John’s provided the feed for free to CBS Sports. In turn, CBS Sports sold a designated number of advertising spots and gave an undisclosed number of slots to St. John’s University. This provided a revenue stream for the athletic and webcasting programs.
The total hardware investment made by the university is somewhere around $200,000. Broadcasting over public internet instead of renting a satellite transmission truck and personnel immediately saved $5,000 per day.
For a minimal investment in hardware and low production costs, St. John’s is able to broadcast events that promote and help monetize its athletic program.
Fratto was pleased with the cooperation and assistance of his vendors in making this solution work; NewTek and Canon were invaluable, he says, in their support and provisioning of equipment. McCluskey adds that when he required the fiber cable to connect the NIPROS-configured center field camera to TriCaster, Bexel delivered the cable overnight.
The TriCaster platform is central to the flexibility and accessibility of broadcasting and webcasting capabilities at St. John’s. The fact that it could handle whatever material was uploaded to it and whatever camera was connected to it—and feed its output to any encoding solution (VidyoCast, in this case)—demonstrates NewTek’s leadership in hardware-based live streaming products at affordable price points.
The St. John’s success story shows that an academic institution of any size can be fully independent in delivering sports content, which in turn provides both exposure and a revenue stream. And those student-athletes can always hope a pro recruiter is watching!