Director’s Cut: Game’s On!

Colleges and high schools are producing their own in-stadium video replays using new and affordable production technology to enhance fans’ experiences at the game.
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As the price of SD gear continues to drop, smaller organizations can now afford more and more powerful video setups. The latest niche market is college and high school stadiums showing replays of games and events on in-house monitors and stadium scoreboard big screens.

Just as professional sports recruiting has reached the high school level with players like LeBron James, video coverage of high school games is becoming more pro-like. The great catch, run, shot or tumble is instantly replayed for spectators—just like they do in professional stadiums.

To show how fast things happen, these college and high school institutions are installing gear equal to or better than that used by many local broadcasters on their smaller telecasts only a decade ago. One of the key components to the setup is the Sport integrated replay system developed by San Diego-based BUF Technology.

WHAT IS IT?
The concept behind Sport is basic but powerful. The unit is a controller with an internal hard drive that records and plays back replays, commercials or any other presentation elements as part of an integrated control room.

Coming up on its third birthday, the unit has come into its own and is now installed in dozens of school stadiums and arena control rooms. Along with the dropping cost of SD cameras, switchers and audio mixers, the system makes for an affordable way to show professional-looking replays at a fraction of the price.

Many schools use this for replay coverage during the game and to package the highlights on to a DVD for repurposing and additional revenue. System integrator Media Support Group installs almost two-dozen setups each year with a rapidly growing client list.

HOW IT WORKS
While the BUF unit is not the only way to go, it’s quite possibly the most practical and powerful. It avoids the need to purchase a separate server or VCR and is tightly integrated.

The unit allows operators to mark “in points,” record replays and quickly turn them around for the crowd. The disc technology inside is recorded at 5:1 Motion JPEG (M-JPEG) compression on drives that start at 40 gigabytes for 2.5 hours of record time.

BUF is quick to point out the superiority of the M-JPEG format as it essentially compresses 60 fields of video each second and, unlike MPEG, does not interpolate frames. That’s critical, since the exact field showing someone is out of bounds has to be a real image and not an educated guess derived by a computer formula.

BUF’s unit does not use time code but instead relies on cue points for operators to designate when and where something happened. Their user interface provides a fast way to recall a selected play and an easy way to lay off the best highlights after the game.

Operators can mark or play back with one button and have the option of varying slo-mo speeds using both preset speed buttons and a rotating controller wheel for variable speed changes. For more information on how the system works, see the sidebar on how to operate Sport interface.

THE STADIUM SYSTEM
Typically, Media Support Group installs small routing switchers to select which camera a BUF Sport records and it’s not uncommon to have two replay units in a control room. Along with the live cameras, the Sport replay server’s output appears on a small production switcher that feeds the stadium’s video boards.

“It’s a great unit,” said Greg Pare, Media Support Group’s president & CEO. “It’s extremely user friendly, cost-effective and the perfect solution for small to medium budget control rooms.”

Often the systems are run by student crews with some training provided by Pare’s company. “We teach our clients to package and sell First-Half Highlights, Post Game Highlights and so on,” he added.

The cost of an entire control room and camera starts at around $25,000 for a single-camera configuration, moves to $50k-$75k for a midrange system with two or three cameras and ends in the low-to-mid six figures for a fully equipped, five camera production package.

Pare uses a variety of cameras depending on the budget. They range from a Canon GL2 ($2k) to a JVC GY-DV550 ($12k) to a $30k Sony studio-configured camera. Most of their setups use 20X lenses.

For long cable runs Pare installs Camplex ProX1 systems. “It provides power, intercom and video down one piece of RG6 or 11,” he added. “The distance is usually good up to about 1,200 feet.”

THE PRODUCTION SETUP
The schools running these control rooms are big supporters of them. The University of Nevada-Reno has a setup in Mackay Stadium for football and women’s soccer.

Their system uses nine volunteers: Director, graphics, replay, graphics/animation, audio, three cameras and a grip. Their display is 18’ x 55’ and according to Kurt Esser, Nevada’s associate athletics director, marketing and communications, “The fans are now more involved in the game!”

Esser added that it’s important to plan ahead for staffing a game and for having content to play back when game action or replays aren’t being shown.

The University of Kentucky is using the BUF system for video board replays in Memorial Coliseum during Women’s Basketball, Volleyball and Gymnastics. According to Kip Perkins, Kentucky’s Athletics Association video director, they’re already planning for another system. “In the spring we will be using a second BUF server in our baseball stadium,” said Perkins. “In addition to in-game replays, we create playlists that serve as our game melts for archiving purposes. [As for the staffing], our operators are either full-time people or student workers. Some like the position of replay operator; others are intimidated by the machine.”

Asked what he’d change, Perkins said a two-channel unit would be desirable but funds did not allow for such a setup. He added that the compression quality does suffer a bit when highlights are laid off to tape.

THE RESULT
Like others who have the system, Perkins remains bullish about the results.

“As far as our teams, administration and fans, I think everyone is very pleased with the ability they have to see action replayed immediately. The system allows us to be able to enhance the game experience for our fans and student-athletes.”

Perkins said he hopes the setup also becomes a recruiting tool to attract athletes. He added that it changes the game and its environment, “Fans see a great play again and cheer louder or reevaluate a perceived bad officiating call. The replays can add momentum to the home team in the way of a bigger home-court advantage.”

So while sports television at the broadcast level is ever striving for something bigger, under the radar there’s a volume of production appearing at a rapid pace with results that rival what sports broadcasters put forth not so long ago.

The time is coming when star sports producers will have cut their teeth on a video control room in their high school gym. I wonder if NBC will ever “draft” the next Dick Ebersol out of high school...or might he go to college first?

Lee Henry is a veteran network sports producer/director. You can contact him at leehenry@silverknight.com.