By R.L Bynum
Duke ahead of the game as schools race to prepare for ACC Network
When the ACC Network was announced in July 2016, the scramble began at nearly every league school to get the needed facilities built.
There was no such scramble at Duke.
Its facilities were part of the planned Blue Devil Tower construction and, partially thanks to Athletics Director Kevin White being the chairman of the ACC Television Committee, were completed a month after the announcement.
“He had a feeling that what happened would happen, and so he told us to plan for eventual ACC Network,” Duke’s Chad Lampman, the executive director of Blue Devil Network, said of Dr. White. “We knew it was coming. We were the first ones to make a major build, and that was more of a perfect storm of that whole construction that we did in 2015 and 16.”
Meanwhile, much of the rest of the ACC, including North Carolina and N.C. State, put plans in motion for on-campus facilities soon after the announcement. The facilities at UNC and State will be ready well ahead of ACCN’s Aug. 22 launch but still are not complete.
Duke’s head start has allowed it to produce 18 linear (for a TV channel) broadcasts this school year, but UNC and State will have to wait until the next school year to do it for the first time.
While the ACCN’s production will be centered in Bristol, Conn., and the business offices will be in Charlotte, each ACC campus will have dedicated facilities that will serve as hubs.
According to the Sports Business Journal, the $110 million to $120 million league schools will collectively spend on facilities is four times the amount SEC schools spent preparing for the SEC Network’s 2014 launch, with individual schools spending between $6 million and the $10 million spent at UNC, Georgia Tech, Notre Dame and Virginia Tech.
“Their facilities needed to be linear standard so that they could produce games on campus, or any type of programming on campus, of the quality that it needs to be to go on a linear channel,” ACC commissioner John Swofford said.
The 24-hour channel is expected to televise 450 live events during the 2019–20 school year, including 40 regular-season football games, starting with Georgia Tech at Clemson on Aug. 29, and 200 other regular-season competitions. It will combine with the digital channel, ACC Network Extra (ESPN3), to produce more than 1,300 events next school year.
During the ACC Tournament last week, the league and the ACCN made many programming announcements. The networks’ anchor show will be the weekday morning “Packer and Durham,” and documentaries are planned on Mike Krzyzewski’s 1982 recruiting class at Duke as well as one on the ACC Tournament.
“We were given a platform and an opportunity, and it was definitely up to each individual school on how much they took advantage of this opportunity, and it has varied a ton throughout the ACC,” said Josh Monk, N.C. State’s assistant athletic director for video, broadcast and network services. “I would like to think, locally here, we have three of the best schools that are producing games out there in the ACC. It was definitely a school-by-school basis.”
One of the biggest projects in the league is at UNC, where a building was torn down and another one is under construction in its place. The facility, next to the Koury Natatorium and across the sidewalk from the Smith Center, will be the two-story, 13,000-square-foot Carolina Athletics Media Communication Center. Construction is expected to be completed by early July, which is when system integration and equipment installation will start.
“We’re probably the only people that had to demolish a building and build a new one,” said Ken Cleary, UNC’s assistant athletic director for emerging media.
“Our goal is to be great at helping the goals of the network, which is to create greater exposure for our athletes and our programs and to generate revenue,” Cleary said. “But also, this facility should be available to us to do a lot of other really cool things, in terms of having a studio to easily generate content for multiple platforms and to have a radio room where we can host podcasts and communicate in modern and more effective ways with Carolina fans.”
UNC’s complex will include three control rooms. Two of the control rooms will be linear with 13 seats that closely replicates what crews use in TV trucks.
Carolina also will have a production studio that will help with pregame and postgame programming that is called “shoulder content.”
“In the production studio, we’ll have a TV set, we’ll have a couple of different green-screen areas that will help us for producing shoulder content around our sporting events that will help us capture video for social media, for video boards to build animations, all that kind of stuff,” Cleary said. “The facility will not only give us all the production horsepower that we need to do what the ACC Network is asking of us, but give us the ability to produce content for other platforms at a much higher quality.”
At N.C. State, space for its ACCN facilities was retrofitted within the Murphy Center next to Carter-Finley Stadium, at a price tag of $6 million.
Many other schools used existing spaces. Virginia Tech found space behind the south end zone at Lane Stadium and Pittsburgh retrofitted Petersen Events Center lobby space, spending $12 million on Pitt Studios. Virginia spent $7 million to modify existing facilities at John Paul Jones Arena.
At the time of the July 2016 announcement, N.C. State renovations to update production facilities at Reynolds Coliseum for digital broadcasts weren’t yet complete. That facility wasn’t going to be adequate for the linear ACCN broadcasts, so State set out on its Murphy Center plan.
“We were just finishing one project when the next project was announced,” said Monk, who started at N.C. State in the 2011-12 school year, the year it did one ESPN3 game.
Space formerly used as an old conference room will now have two eight-seat control rooms, an audio room for a ninth operator, and a studio. What once was a racquetball court has been converted to two levels, with a rack room, video-shading station, an engineering office and a couple of work stations on the first level and a second control room on the second level. The rooms are ready, but the system integration and equipment installation still need to be done.
“This new work space will definitely allow us to raise the bar with the type of shows that we’re producing,” Monk said. “The types of equipment that we’re bringing in will allow us to produce shows at a top-tier level on par with what trucks are doing when they’re going out to any ESPN-level event.”
The downside of the Murphy Center location is that only football and men’s basketball games are played nearby.
“We’re definitely going to have geographical challenges that not lot of schools will have, just because of the distance between our control booths and the rest of our facilities,” Monk said. “But I think we’re up for the challenges.”
Facilities at every school will significantly reduce the need for TV trucks. But while TV trucks are pretty standard, school facilities will vary.
“My control room is going to be a little different than Ken’s control room at Carolina or Josh’s at State,” Lampman said. “Trucks are basically built the same, school control rooms are going to be a little bit unique at each venue you go to. I’d say that’s the biggest challenge, the ESPN personnel that they send in is … just having a hard time adjusting to our school control room. They’ll do a great job, it’s just different for them.”
All three schools still expect TV broadcast crews to use TV trucks for football broadcasts because they all also have in-house productions to produce during the game. Their ACCN facilities should be used for virtually every other sport with the exception of high-profile basketball games.
“It’s absolutely still going to happen in football,” Monk said of the use of TV trucks. “We just don’t have the manpower to be able to produce a football broadcast and an in-house show at the same time. That may change in the next few years. But we would need a small army to be able to produce in-house and the broadcast at the same time.”
Before the Blue Devil Tower facilities were completed, Duke depended on a production trailer that it pulled with a pickup truck.
“With the trailer, we could do only one facility at a time,” Lampman said. “When lacrosse, basketball and baseball all play on the same day, which happens way too often, now we can now produce all three of those events. We have the capability now. We don’t have to turn things down.”
Why did facilities have to be upgraded at every school considering that each has been producing plenty of broadcasts for ACC Network Extra? It’s because linear broadcasts (for the ACC Network) require much more technical capabilities than the digital- or institutional-level game broadcasts that have aired on ESPN3 since 2012.
At all three Triangle schools, the ACCN launch won’t change the number of games that are broadcast, just the production value. It simply means that there will be more linear broadcasts, which involve more people.
“Production levels and the requirements and the depth of resources required to produce them will increase quite significantly,” Cleary said of the linear broadcasts. “Linear production is significantly more complicated than a digital production, which is significantly more complicated than an institutional one.”
Institutional broadcasts are the ESPN3 productions that sometimes include only one camera and often simulcast the radio call of the game.
“If you’re doing a two-camera, one-announcer or a single camera or you’re using a version of your video board with your video board production with your radio announcer on it, that would all be institutional level,” Cleary said.
Before ESPN3 came along, all three schools were streaming games on their athletics websites. For most schools, about 75% of their broadcasts this school year are digital level.
“The ratio of institutional-level broadcasts to at least digital broadcasts, they will be more digital-heavy,” Cleary said. “It will trend in that direction, but I don’t think they’ll ever be a point where there are none of those single-cameras just because we have too many sports.”
Institutional broadcasts are more common during the spring season when each school could have several games going on at the same time, stretching resources.
Monk doesn’t plan to do any one-camera broadcasts.
“I see our broadcasts as being a major recruiting tool,” he said. “I’m trying to give each of our programs the best show that we possibly can. It doesn’t matter what recruit or what parent tunes in to watch our games, they’re seeing the best game possible no matter whether we’re playing a local rival in the ACC or if we’re playing some non-conference team.”
There are clear contrasts between digital and linear broadcasts.
“If I do a women’s game for digital broadcast, that’s going to be five cameras, a director and a producer. Probably 15-16 people.” Lampman said. “A linear show would be about between 20 and 25. And then for a digital show, if the game starts at 7:01, we go on air at 7 and we’re playing.”
There are a lot of extra duties for linear broadcasts as well. For that Duke-Wake Forest game, Duke was told to be ready to set up a live report with Rece Davis for ESPN if Zion Williamson has been cleared to play in that game.
Monk said there is more preparation required for linear broadcasts.
“Tons of pre-produced segments of players will go into each game to where, no matter what ways that each game turns, we’re ready to roll elements to go along with those storylines,” he said. “There will be more promotional content that we’ll have to get it to promote other events around ESPN and the ACC Network.”
State will have a “bureau cam” that quickly allows it to set up interviews.
“Anytime ESPN asks any of our coaches from any of our various sports, they’ll be able to come over to our studio and come into our new area where the bureau cam is and be connected right to Charlotte for live interviews,” Monk said.
Virginia became the 10th league school to do a linear broadcast late last month with its home men’s basketball game with Georgia Tech. Virginia Tech expects to do its first linear broadcast later this spring.
“We’re making money on those linear shows now, so I got a head start on training my freelancers and everything else. They’re ready to rock and roll,” Lampman said.
While being the first with linear capability meant more money sooner, there is a downside.
“We’re doing more linear shows than probably anybody else because we were ready first,” Lampman said. “Now people have seen what we’ve done and did what they should do: They’ve built it bigger and better. We don’t have the eye candy that other schools do. We’re more practical in what we do.”
Duke’s facilities are hidden to the public, but Louisville (which is spending $8 million on a 7,850-square feet facility) and Pittsburgh will have setups to allow fans to see the studios through windows.
“We’ll have a big video board on the plaza outside the communications center,” Cleary said. “We’ll rebrand the entrance coming into the Smith Center and entertain people. To bring what’s going on inside outside a little bit so that your experience of Carolina basketball doesn’t start when you sit in your seat. It will start when you’re walking up to the venue and when you’re getting off the bus. It doesn’t end when you’re leaving the concourse. It will extend out as you’re walking out of the building. As you’re taking the Tar Heel Express bus, you can watch potentially a postgame show.”
UNC has been adding staff over the course of the last few budget cycles and will add two more positions beginning in the next fiscal year. State has hired two additional people in the last two months, and will hire another in early summer.
“We’re going to add staff at launch,” said Lampman, who added that they’ve added staff since he came to Duke from Clemson as the only full-time Blue Devil Network employee in July 2010. “Now I’m in charge of two departments: I’m in charge of live broadcasts, which is ACC Network and video boards fall under that, and I’m in charge of the digital side of Blue Devil Network, which is all your social media and website content. All told, including me there are 12 people.”
By the time the August launch happens, all the schools will be ready.
North Carolina-related sports stories of note
In Sports Illustrated, Laken Litman wrote about the interplay between coaches and referees in college basketball.
In a story before the Big South Tournament, Andrew Carter, in The N&O and Herald-Sun, wrote about how Campbell’s Chris Clemons, the nation’s leading scorer, compensates for his small stature with creativity.
There were several stories about the end of Raycom’s run of airing ACC games on TV at the ACC tournament. Two of the best were this one by Brant Wilkerson-New of the News & Record and this one from Luke DeCock in The N&O and Herald-Sun.
In The Ringer, Jesse Washington looks at how more college basketball fans who are black are identifying as Duke fans compared to college basketball fans overall. That’s changed dramatically in recent years and he lays out the reasons why.
In Sports Illustrated, Josiah Turner wrote about Kenny Williams’ path to UNC and then becoming a major player for the Tar Heels.