Harvard Students Game-Ready for Live Sports Production
March 16, 2018 by Ellen Camloh
“If a production system is too complicated, it doesn’t really matter if it has amazing quality or a large number of inputs. If students can’t figure out how to use it quickly, then it’s really not for us.”
That’s the viewpoint Imry Halevi takes as Director of Multimedia and Production at Harvard University Athletics.
And he has 275 reasons why.
Ivy League Math
Harvard has more Division I sports teams than any other school in the country.
For each of those teams—except the ten that are not suited to live streaming, because of logistical challenges or site issues—the department is responsible for producing and broadcasting all home games.
That means his department covers 32 teams throughout the academic year.
With an athletic season that begins in late August and ends in early May, this tallies up to an annual average of 275 games to produce. Often, several at the same time.
Case in point: a recent winter weekend with enough sports programming to rival the PyeongChang Olympic games.
“On Friday, we had men’s and women’s track and field, men’s swimming and diving, women’s basketball, and women’s hockey,” says Halevi. “And Saturday, we had women’s tennis, women’s squash, men’s squash, men’s tennis, men’s swimming and diving, women’s swimming and diving, wrestling, women’s hockey, and women’s basketball.”
And this is where the math breaks down. Because there’s only one full-time professional on staff to produce these games—Halevi himself.
Like many college sports video programs, he enlists a rotating crew of interns, recent graduates, and part-time student assistants. To ensure the highest-quality coverage, even with a lot of beginners and frequent turnover, Halevi has developed a two-pronged approach:
First, production equipment that new crewmembers can quickly learn to operate.
And second, workflows implemented so instinctively that neither beginners nor experts have to think about the technology behind them.
For both, he turned to NewTek.
Capability on a Collegiate Budget
At a previous role in sports production at Northeastern University, Halevi was tasked with finding a live production solution for the video board.
“I started researching to see what we could afford, and came across NewTek,” he says. He met with local resellers and attended conferences to get a hands-on look at the TriCaster, and, he says, the system clicked with him right away. “I understood immediately the NewTek equipment was easy to learn. It provided the output quality we were looking for. And It was clear that NewTek was committed to this industry and would advance with time,” he says.
Four years later at Harvard, Halevi found himself faced with outdated control rooms, no HD capability, and archaic systems. So when his new employers told him, “We can’t stay with all this old SD equipment. It won’t work for us. What should we go with?” he didn’t hesitate.
“I said, ‘I don’t even have to do the research. I already know it’s NewTek. I know their equipment. I can train people on it easily. And they are going to help us expand in the future.’ It didn’t take a lot of convincing to make it happen.”
Halevi is the first to acknowledge that an institution like Harvard has the resources to provide a high-quality multimedia experience. Yet the live production investments he’s made, with workflows largely centered around NewTek systems, did not come with high-ticket prices or even one additional headcount.
“We have budget limitations, just like any other college,” Halevi says. “We just made a conscious decision to be outstanding.”
Keeping that commitment meant developing a video program that looked as professional as possible.
The department’s productions range on the smaller side, for example, from flypack-style live streams on a field hockey sideline, to mid-size water polo productions that need more camera angles— and that are simultaneously streamed live using a TriCaster Mini, recorded for highlight packages, and fed into a video board..
When it comes to the largest productions, they don’t just add a few extra cameras and a bigger switcher. A separate video board show, instant replay, and highlights packages bring Harvard Athletics’ programming quality into the professional broadcast ballpark.
These flagship productions include football, lacrosse, basketball, and hockey, all large live programs that are produced from two control rooms.
Both control rooms—one located at the hockey rink and one located at the basketball facility—are configured for two simultaneous workflows: a broadcast and live stream of the game; and in parallel, a video board production for in-house fan engagement.
“The basketball control room has a TriCaster TC1 for our streaming and TV production, and TriCaster 860 for the video board show,” Halevi says, along with a NewTek 3Play 4800 that feeds into both TriCasters, so the television TD and the video board AD can independently call for replays.
Across the complex sits the hockey arena and its control room, shared with football production. “In the hockey control room, we use a TriCaster 8000 for streaming and for TV broadcast, while a TriCaster 460 is used for the hockey and football video boards,” Halevi says.
It also has two NewTek 3Play 4800s for instant replay; the second one used for those rare occasions when the school has both hockey and football at the same time.
It’s a lot of professional-level production—without a lot of professionals on staff.
“I’m the only full-time person, and I have three full time interns who rotate through each year,” he says. They are supplemented with a crew of part-time game day assistants, local students or recent graduates from local colleges.
“We rarely have people who come to us and already know how to operate everything,” says Halevi. “During the middle of the year, some students go abroad, graduate, or become overwhelmed by schoolwork, and they leave us. In this environment, we have constant churn so we’re constantly bringing in new people.”
He trains new operators through shadowing. Before anyone operates the TriCaster or 3Play, they have to shadow someone who’s experienced in handling that position.
“That person will show the new operator how to set up the TriCaster, how to switch live, and how to run all the functions, and the new person will observe and ask questions during the first half of the game,” says Halevi.
During the second half, the new person takes over, while the experienced crew member provides feedback and corrections if the rookie makes any mistakes.
This is where NewTek’s software-driven ease-of-use comes in handy, says Halevi. “You have to have equipment that’s easy to learn. Otherwise, with such a quick turnaround in training time, you couldn’t make that happen.”
Running Across Campus
With easy-to-learn equipment in place, in 2017 Halevi made a change in the video technology running behind the scenes.
His goal was to centralize the production capabilities for all programs—small, medium and large. This would make it possible to add new sources to live productions, maximize equipment use across multiple locations, and increase production value even more.
But he still had constraints.
For one thing, connecting sites across the campus would be expensive. “It would have required us to lay down fiber, and that would have been financially limiting,” says Halevi.
The video equipment itself had physical I/O limits, so accommodating more hardware connections was logistically out of the question.
What’s more, his crew was made up of students and freelancers, not broadcast engineers. Expanding their workflows with gear and cabling would shift their game day focus to analyzing signals and troubleshooting connection failures.
But what Halevi did have was access to Harvard’s campus-wide Gigabit Ethernet network—and IP video enabled in his production systems, courtesy of NewTek NDI® technology for sending and receiving video over standard IP networks.
Using a combination of TriCaster’s built-in NDI support; 3Play’s ability to send replays over IP to TriCasters; and 3rd-party NDI integrations, Halevi’s crews could take any video source on the Harvard network and use it in their productions.
“We can now send and receive video feeds over our network, without any special equipment, or any additional thought during setup,” Halevi says.
“I can’t begin to describe how much easier NDI has made our lives.”
In the larger productions, he’s maximizing the feeds both control rooms can access.
“I don’t have to use the SDI inputs on my router or my switcher, which are very limited, and I can bring in all my replay feeds or graphics into the switcher using NDI. I can share cameras between the broadcast and video board switchers using NDI,” Halevi says.
He’s also using NDI to share inputs between control rooms. This allows him to display hockey action on the video board in the basketball arena during time outs, and vice versa, extending audience engagement across two games simultaneously.
The smaller sports benefit, too. With the mid-level productions’ tabletop setup, his crew can take in any other Harvard Athletics competition’s live footage, and feed it to the large video board at the Blodgett Pool during breaks in swimming and diving meets. They’ve also added cameras to supplement the TriCaster Mini’s input connections, using NewTek Connect Spark hardware-to-IP converters.
Even their smallest laptop-based Wirecast workflow, which previously needed graphics loaded into the laptop, now taps into graphics over the network instead, through an SDK integration with sports graphics provider AJT Systems.
“It’s difficult to remember how productions were before NDI,” Halevi says. “It’s implemented in such an easy way that we don’t even think about it.”
What’s equally important is the quality of the video, he says.
“Bringing an NDI feed in, as opposed to bringing in a feed in from a camera that’s physically plugged into a switcher, is exactly the same. We don’t see a difference.” And quality is a factor he is constantly paying attention to.
“People pay to watch our games,” Halevi says, since the Ivy League Network, the commercial platform that streams the department’s productions, is a subscription platform. “We make sure they get their money’s worth.”
It goes further than fan experience for Imry Halevi. He wants to ensure his interns and freelancers gain tremendous experience, as well.
“The interns direct games if I’m not there, and I give them the opportunity to be creative. They have the flexibility to think about innovative ways of producing their games. And it’s their job to come up with innovative ideas and then implement them,” he says.
“Having TriCaster equipment with NDI in the background really helps. They don’t have to worry about the technology limiting them. They have to be creative, and the NewTek technology enables them to do that.”
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