On one screen LIU Brooklyn is surviving a Telvon Falzon jumper to edge out Sacred Heart. Another has Central Connecticut keeping its playoff hopes alive with a double-overtime victory over Saint Francis (PA). A third shows Robert Morris defeating Bryant to seal its Northeast Conference regular season title. No, this isn’t an NEC fan’s dream sports bar. It’s a typical Thursday night in February on NEC Front Row.
Online streaming has changed college athletics. Fans now have more ways than ever to watch their teams play. It’s become an especially invaluable tool for mid-major leagues. This fall the Ivy League will bring the league together in a streaming destination.
The Ivy League is pretty late to the party. The Horizon League, one of the standard bearers of online streaming, has been streaming since the 2005-06 season. Almost every league has signed up with an online streaming partner. The Ivy League’s new partner, NeuLion, lists 12 Division I leagues as collegiate partners.
Streaming is most important for the mid-majors that aren’t consistently televised. If you’re not trying to get on second screens across the country you’re missing out on an opportunity to grow your brand.
“I think it’s been invaluable to us,” said NEC associate commissioner Ron Ratner of NEC Front Row, the league’s online streaming platform that launched last season. “As something that unifies a conference, I can’t think of anything that does it better than a conference network. Whether it’s going to be the Pac-12 Network or NEC Front Row. It’s the same result going about it in a different way.”
Even though the Horizon League Network is entering its eighth season and has streamed more than 3,100 events, schools and leagues are still catching up to the curve. Here’s how three mid-major leagues and one aggregator are navigating the challenges of bringing games to mid-major fans online.
The Veteran Presence – The Horizon League Network:
Back before there was the Horizon League Network there was John Servizzi. The Butler graduate was experimenting with streaming the Bulldogs’ games on the Internet. At the same time, Horizon League commissioner Jon LeCrone was looking for a way to get more out of the conference’s Game of the Week broadcasts. Online streaming seemed like an option.
In 2006 WebStream Productions and Horizon League Network (HLN) were born. The online portal now provides a place for any Horizon League fan to catch conference and non-conference games. The site showed more than 450 events during the 2012-13 academic year and had more than 30,000 unique viewer streams.
“It’s become one of our chief marketing tools,” said Bill Potter, the Horizon League’s director of communications and new media. “From a marketing perspective we know that everyone around the country can find our games in one to two clicks. Coaches can tell parents, ‘You’ll be able to see your kids play.’ From a marketing, visibility, coaching and recruiting standpoint it’s been great for us over the past seven years.”
Servizzi is now the CEO of WebStream Productions, which is also working with the Missouri Valley Conference and Ohio Valley Conference. The Midwestern client base can be attributed to a corporate headquarters in Indianapolis. WebStream produces more than 1,000 streams annually.
“They’re great partners. There’s a trust that’s been built between their office and our office,” Potter said.
Throughout its entire history HLN has been a free service. It turns out that one of the hardest decisions a league has to make is whether its streaming will be free or have some sort of pay model attached. Potter said that internal discussions about making HLN paid come up, but that it would come at the cost of losing about half the league’s online audience.
“Initially we just wanted to expose it to as many people as possible,” Potter said. “From there once people caught on and they knew it was free and they liked that it was free, so we valued it more and more.”
HLN is still innovating. Their iPad application lets fans get to games almost instantly and has made the second screen an important viewing tool. The league has also embraced HD streaming. The rise in the numbers of online viewing options means every league must put out a top-notch product.
That includes the broadcasting teams as well. Most HLN basketball games rely on the home team’s radio broadcasters for audio. While it’s possible for away team fans tuning in to feel a little bias, Potter said that broadcasters have worked hard to be knowledgeable about both teams and that they use the technology to their advantage.
“What we’ve found is that our announcers, knowing that they are broadcasting both for a home and a road audience have really adjusted to being more neutral in their calls and they’re also using the HLN broadcast on their call as well,” Potter said. “It’s been another nice tool for our announcers and they continue to get better year in and year out.”
Put it all together and the Horizon League Network has become a model that other leagues are looking to follow as they move into online streaming.
The Young Upstart – NEC Front Row
Last fall, after a couple of years of discussions, NEC Front Row was born. The Northeast Conference and Pack Network teamed up to bring streaming athletics to fans not just in the NEC’s geographic footprint of Maryland to Connecticut, but around the globe.
“We were optimistic, but prepared to go through some growing pains,” Ratner said. “It really never happened. Everything went off without a hitch. Viewership was more than anticipated. When we moved into our championship seasons in the fall our numbers were through the roof, just beyond comprehension.”
Illustrating one of the challenges of starting an online league, the NEC only had 10 of its 12 schools in the first year. This school year the entire league will be on the platform.
The hardcore NEC fans seemed to appreciate it the most. Thursday nights on Twitter would light up with devoted fans talking about the league’s games. The league office even received a note of thanks and a $100 money order from one fan.
Two main reasons explain why NEC fans adopted the tool so quickly. One was that the conference was committed to making sure every student-athlete and fan learned about NEC Front Row. The second was that the NEC also decided to adopt a free model.
Even though it is free, the NEC has tried to mold in some of the features of paid services. Ratner said that the league looked at the Horizon League’s model as well as Major League Baseball’s MLB.tv in coming up with ideas for NEC Front Row. You can see some of MLB’s influence in the option to stream multiple games at once.
All of those features meant the NEC went through a two-year process with Pack Network to build up the multi-event viewing and social media integration. The improvements will continue this season, as the NEC plans to broadcast its event in HD quality.
“They’re like little mad scientists,” Ratner said about Pack Network, which had previously worked with a number of NEC schools. “They know what they’re doing.”
The increase in viewers brought more scrutiny of other pieces of the presentation, including the announcers. Some announcing teams certainly seem to have more bias than others. From his perspective, Ratner just expects the broadcasters to be prepared.
“Because the viewership has increased from what the school was getting before I’m looking for them to be prepared,” Ratner said. “I’m more concerned that they know the league inside and out.”
Ratner anticipates that NEC Front Row will remain a free service for the foreseeable future. Like Potter, Ratner estimated that the league would lose a large portion of its audience if it went to a paid model. Still, in just one season the league has created a unifying platform that helps get the word out in one of the most crowded media spaces in the United States.
The Rookie – The Ivy League
Coming this fall, the Ivy League will join the NEC and the Horizon League – and many other conferences – in offering an online streaming package to its fans. Unlike NEC Front Row and HLN, the Ivy League and its partner NeuLion intend for the package to be a paid service from the get-go.
The service has been in the works for a while. Scottie Rodgers, the Ivy League’s associate executive director for communications and external relations, said that the process really started picking up steam as early as the 2010-11 school year. During the past year the league’s eight athletic directors gave the go-ahead to form a cohesive streaming network.
After receiving bids from a number of providers, the league chose NeuLion because of its leadership in the space. It probably didn’t hurt that half the league’s members were already NeuLion clients.
While every Ivy League school had some sort of online streaming package in the past, they all lived in separate silos. A Columbia fan wanting to watch the Lions at Penn needed to subscribe to the Quakers’ streaming package or buy the game a la carte. Now all of those streams will be consolidated and fans will have multiple options.
“Our primary goal is to give our fans a quality user experience because I think many of them have talked about and have wanted to see a one-stop shop solution where they can experience Ivy League athletics online in one place,” Rodgers said. “People will still be able to have their affinity to their school, their alma mater on their channel, but if they want to have the ability to bounce channels there is going to be a league-wide subscription option. Because we’re all on the same network fans are going to be able to see games involving their team and on the road on their school’s channel. That in itself is a huge improvement.”
It’s likely that the Ivy League will experience some growing pains in its first year as a cohesive league network, but like the league’s deal with NBC Sports, the digital platform should also help augment the profile of the league.
“Being on the same platform people are going to be able to learn from each other,” Rodgers said. “We’re going to be able to share information. We’re going to be able to share best practices.”
The online league also comes with the ability to share marketing resources. Like the NEC, the Ivy League will try to make sure all of its fans know about the online streaming platform as soon as possible. Fall sports are starting soon and with them comes the push to get fans informed about their new options.
“We don’t have it all figured out,” Rodgers said. “We’re definitely learning day-by-day. Ultimately I think it’s going to be an unbelievable thing for the league. I think it’s going to put us in that conversation.”
The Aggregator – CollegeInsider.com
The role of CollegeInsider.com is slightly different than the leagues, but ultimately the site is dedicated to promoting mid-major basketball. One way they did so this past season was by offering streams from the MAAC, Atlantic Sun and Great West. The events offered the leagues another opportunity to spread their message and demonstrated one of the benefits of online streaming – how flexibly it can be used across multiple portals.
NeuLion and CollegeInsider teamed up this past season for the streams. The two groups had a relationship from the CollegeInsider.com Tournament (CIT), so it made sense to use the content of leagues that participate in the tournament during the regular season.
“The idea was to expose people to leagues outside of their geographic area,” said Joe Dwyer, co-founder of CollegeInsider.com.
Promotion was difficult sometimes, but the games gave mid-major fans a chance to see players like Canisius’ Billy Baron on a regular basis. Next season it might be expanding to include even more leagues. Considering how easy it was to get content on the site, it makes a lot of sense for both CollegeInsider and their mid-major partners.
“It was sort of turn key,” Dwyer said about getting the games going. “Media online isn’t what used to be even a few years ago. When we started the CIT streaming games online was almost comical. It’s almost commonplace, everyone has it now.”
Like all of the conferences, Dwyer also noted that it is important to have high-quality streams, or it doesn’t make sense to offer a package. Considering the work outlets like ESPN3 do, fans know streaming can look like broadcast television, and expectations are moving in that direction.
As online streaming becomes a trick in every league’s back pocket, it gives fans around the country a chance to see teams and players that won’t be on ESPN 20 times a season.
“It’s not just about putting a game on. You’ve got to package it. You’ve got to promo it,” Dwyer said. “When you’re at that level you have to work twice as hard. There’s a thousand things going on tonight, why do I want to watch this game?”
At least fans now have the option.
Note: This is the second of what will be a few pieces on the college basketball media landscape. The next piece in this series will look at Twitter analytics.