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University of Kentucky Athletics Puts AV Tech in the Spotlight Pt2

Technology competition among schools requires smooth mobile setup and strike for away games

Photo by Quinn Foster | UK Athletics

On this edition of the SVC Podcast, Contributing Editor Bennett Liles concludes his talk with Tim Asher, Director of Athletic Team Video and Technologies for the University of Kentucky about their mobile video coverage of university sports events. Tim discusses his reallocation of resources between sports seasons, equipment setup, production crew training and technology competition between Southeastern Conference schools. He also comments on the challenges of getting good sound on live sports events.

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Televising live collegiate sports events is a huge job with cameras, sound and lots of production people to manage. Tim Asher handles it for the University of Kentucky and he’s back this week to tell us how he sets it up, takes it down and shifts gears between sports seasons. That’s all right up ahead on the SVC Podcast.

Tim, great to have you back with us this week from the University of Kentucky in Lexington, Director of Athletic Team Video and Technologies. Huge job and we were talking about all of the stuff you have to get into. But I know that between seasons your operation has to shift gears. How do manage to reallocate all of your tech resources as the sports seasons change?

Yeah, that’s a big challenge every year. We’re currently in a situation where the basketball seasons are starting to crank up and at the same time you’re almost a little over halfway through with your football season. Your soccer teams are in their last couple of weeks of their seasons. So you’re taking that equipment that maybe you were using at soccer and then you’ll bring it over to the basketball arena here called Memorial Coliseum on our campus. And so it’s a challenge to have, first, enough equipment to cover multiple events at the same time because we do have a lot of different sports that are starting on a Saturday at, let’s say, noon and then another sport will start at 2:00 or something like that. And both of those are being broadcast in some way, shape or form on either the SEC Network, the SEC Plus Network, or they’re being streamed on the SEC Network also. So pretty much every single game on our campus is at least at a minimum being streamed. [Timestamp: 2:04]

Tremendous number of things to have to reset and reorganize in addition to a lot of equipment being moved around from one venue to another.

Yeah. We’re very fortunate in that we have an athletic director, Mitch Barnhart, who understands and gets what we are trying to do and he understands the importance of us spending money for another camera and another lens so that we can have two sports going on at the same time and have both of those different telecasts looking like they’re supposed to. Obviously we talked last week about the glass and how important it is to have really good glass to be able to get those close, tight shots and the emotion that’s actually happening during the event. But audio is something’s that’s huge too. A lot of people, they don’t think about audio a lot of times, but audio on a broadcast is huge. Absolutely it’s huge. I mean we spend a lot of time and effort miking different areas of the fields or backboards. Or in football we’re using some Klover Parabolics and stuff like that. The soundboard in both of our control rooms are Soundcraft digital audio boards, 96 input, 24 bus. So obviously we’ve got a lot of audio out there and that’s one of the things that’s probably the hardest moving from one location to another. It never seems like you have enough audio stuff to cover everything that you want to do and everything you want to capture sound-wise. So I find that to be one of the big things that when there’s a crossover in seasons and you’re moving things from one place to another that audio stuff seems to be the stuff that is being run around to multiple spots more than any other thing. [Timestamp: 3:53]

Kirk Hanselmann works the sidelines at the UK – Vanderbilt game. Photo by Chet White | UK Athletics

Yes, I think it’s widely underestimated the training that you have to put people through to get good sound operators. A lot of this is student produced and that ensures some continual turnover. How do you handle the technical training and the particular jobs that you start people on?

We’re doing a lot of different things for – like for instance, the SEC Network and our production people. The SEC Network will probably hire close to 50 students for this school year. Of those they will start some of them out on our videoboard productions so that they can get some training on how to use the cameras and what we’re looking for coverage-wise. But that’s a constant training scenario because as you know college students, they change their mind quite a bit. They may love something for one or two games and then they get bored of it and they go away. Then you’ve got to bring another kid in and try to teach them the things that you’re trying to get out of their labor. So it’s a constant battle. On our production side I think it’s a little easier because he’s normally picking up kids that are in our communications department who already have a bunch of resume-type material that he can go through and see yeah, I see a lot of potential in this kid. Or I’m going to bring him in; I think he’ll be good at this portion of the stuff. It’s funny, we were just talking about audio. That’s one of the hardest portions of us trying to find people. Nobody wants to do audio. Everybody wants to do the video stuff, they want to do the editing stuff, but they don’t want to do the audio and the audio is one of the most important components of the broadcast. Obviously the character generation and all that type of stuff is also another area that you’re constantly having to retrain people and you’ve got multiple people that you rely on. But the student labor aspect of this is huge. We are unusual in that a lot of the schools do internships and stuff like that. We prefer to pay them. So they’re getting an hourly wage, so we try to schedule them to come in an hour-and-a-half or so before just to make sure everything is good before a show. And then they’ll help us with the teardown. It allows them to get a little money as a college student in their pocket. You try to give them enough hours to where they’ll keep wanting to come back but some of them don’t. It’s just the nature of the business unfortunately. We do hire a lot of freelancers for our ESPN games and our more high-end stuff where we feel like we need to supplement what we have student-wise. And I think that most of the people I’ve talked to in our league are doing some of the same thing. They have a core group of kids that they know they can get a certain product out of and will be good for a streaming show, but when you’re going up to the big network then I need better here or I need better there. I’m going to need this. So we pick and choose and try to figure out what people’s strengths and weaknesses are. It’s a constant thing here and it really is amazing the juggling act that we’re able to do over the course of a season. [Timestamp: 7:15]

I can sure imagine with so many resources both human, hardware and software to keep up with. Where do you handle your studio productions?

Our studio productions are done here in Memorial Coliseum. We have what they call a bureau cam, which is a small studio that’s mainly controlled out of Charlotte. There’s a small camera in there, a chair, microphone and they can change the actual backgrounds from Charlotte. They can go from the SEC Network to the ESPN logo or whatever we want to do. So we do a lot of the coaching cuts where they’ll sit down and talk about a game or stuff like that out of those smaller studios. We also have a studio for production. We have a light grid and we have a lot of different stuff in there, but I will say that we don’t like to do a whole lot of sit-down interviews in the studio. We like to get people out there in their natural environment and shoot a lot of stuff in that way. We do a lot of our introduction stuff. We may rent a industrial warehouse here in town and get a fog machine and have multiple things going on. So we do some things that are not necessarily just stick them in front of a green screen or stick them in front of a background type stuff. Our production people are always looking for new and different types of things to do that keeps them engaged as well as our student athletes. [Timestamp: 8:47]

University of Kentucky circular locker room with video board headers.

And when you go on the road for your away games, what all is involved in setting up your production gear there and how do you have to accommodate visiting schools video crews setting up at your home games.

Well that’s the good news is that all of our people in our conference were like a brotherhood, and I truly mean that in every way, shape or form. Yeah, we want to beat them on the field but at the same time we all know what we’re going through and if somebody has a problem with a piece of gear or something we’ll step up and help them. I’ve had people step up and help me on the road so I really love that about our conferences that yeah, we definitely want to beat you on the field but we also know that it’s a business and we’re all trying to do the same thing and we will help each other our if we need to. The setup is crazy on the road, I’ll just say that. Because we’re taking multiple cameras. We’ve got a Blackmagic Ursa. We’ve got the Arri cameras that I was talking about. We have VeriCams. We’re using long lens, we’re using wide-angle lens right in the face in the coaching area. So it’s a whole different lot of stuff. Two hours before a game we’ll get there and we’ll start to unpack our stuff and get everything figured out. It’s a process and people do not realize how much equipment we’re taking on the road with us. [Timestamp: 10:10]

And that’s a lot of physical labor, too, hauling all that stuff around. You’ll know you’ve done a day’s work on an away game.

Yes. Yeah, I like to work smarter rather than harder. I have a lot of dollies to carry my stuff. [Laughs]

Yeah, I know there’s a technology competition going on and we mentioned some of that before. Describe the technology competition among SEC schools. They all want bigger scoreboards, production facilities. There’s a lot of money going into this.

Yeah, it’s really crazy. I guess you would say in some ways it’s keeping up with the Joneses, but it’s what you’re trying to do is you’re trying to better your facility. It’s not necessarily trying to keep up with whoever has got the latest and greatest because quite honestly we don’t really do that. Right now we’re looking at our soccer facility which has an older Daktronics video board in it. And we’re looking to replace that in time for next year’s season. We would like to at least double, probably triple the size of the current one that’s in there. We feel like it’s a little too small. So we’re always looking at how can you improve those facilities and how can you make the fan experience better. That’s what we’re really trying to get to. [Timestamp: 11:24]

UK Guard Keldon Johnson in post-game interview. Photo by Chet White | UK Athletics

For sure that’s the key. So what impact did the formation of the ESPN SEC Network have on the UK Athletics video operation?

Well, it had a huge, huge impact on us. We went from about seven full-time employees to 11 full-time employees. And then our student labor went from approximately 10-12 students up to roughly 75 I would say at this point. So the number of people that it takes to do all of the things that we’ve talked about is a huge amount of resources and it’s constant from the beginning of your season in middle of August right up until the last softball game or baseball game in late May. It doesn’t end. It just goes on and on and on and you have to stay up with it. You have to keep up with all the different pieces of gear and all the moving parts. And it’s a challenge, to be quite honest with you, to try and keep up with some of it sometimes. But really we’re not trying to outdo, let’s say, Georgia or we’re not trying to outdo Florida. What we’re trying to do is to help our fans and try to give them a better in-venue experience. A lot of times that includes a larger videoboard or a different piece of gear. Like one of the things we’ve added for football this year is more stats on our videoboard and stuff. So you’re constantly getting feedback from the viewing public and you’re making changes based upon some of that feedback that you’re getting and it’s an interesting race, actually. [Timestamp: 13:03]

Yes, I’m sure it is and as the resources are available what sort of tech upgrades are coming down the road for UK Athletics? Sort of the next things in line.

Some of the stuff that we’re looking at, obviously, is we’re probably two to three years out for replacement of our videoboards over in our football stadiums. That’s going to be about a $10 million hit [Laughs] is about the only way to say that. We’re looking, like I said, at our soccer. We’re also looking right now at our softball. We’ve just upgraded our Memorial Coliseum facility. We have probably the largest indoor board in any of the facilities in our conference right now in that venue. It’s 58-foot wide by 32-foot tall. It’s a huge board in an indoor venue. So having all those kind of discussions as we speak about where we’re headed, I know on the production side we’ve actually started looking at some new forms of technology. The NDI technology we’re starting to incorporate for press conferences over across campus at our football stadium, we’re able to cover those press conferences now without having to send a crew over there all the time. We’re doing the same thing now in basketball and I think we’ll probably continue to do some of that type stuff, which is – it’s pushing the infrastructure on your facility and that’s one of the things that we’ve got to try and stay on top of is make sure we have enough bandwidth going forward into the future. I see that as a possible bottleneck and no one wants to talk about bandwidth until you don’t have any, obviously, so it’s hard sometimes for people to realize how important those types of things are. [Timestamp: 14:52]

Certainly, a lot of it is that you don’t fully realize the importance of it until it’s not there.

Correct. You are correct.

Well, it’s always fun for us finding out more about this kind of thing, Tim. We’ve been talking with Tim Asher, Director of Athletic Team Video and Technologies for the University of Kentucky Wildcats. With all you have going right now it’s great of you to take time out to let us know what you’re doing and how you do it all behind the scenes. It’s really interesting stuff and we appreciate your being with us.

Thank you. I appreciate you having me. I really enjoyed it and I can talk all day as you can tell. [Laughs]

Live sports events don’t wait on the video gear and having all your tech ducks in a row is always a must. Thanks to Tim Asher for keeping it all in line for the UK Wildcats. Get back with us next week for another AV tech talk and production project right here on the SVC Podcast.

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