New Broadcast-Control Rooms at UTSA Reflect College Sports’ New Media Realities

By Dan Daley, Audio Editor Tuesday, May 14, 2024 – 7:00 am

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College sports is looking and sounding increasingly like what viewers consume watching major leagues on national broadcast networks. The growing sophistication and capabilities of rapidly growing university-based production facilities reflect a combination of dynamics: the Moore’s Law effect (increased digital-technology power with declining costs), the use of broadcast sports as part of recruitment and outreach strategies in the face of double-digit decreases in four-year–school enrollments, and college sports-conference mandates increasing the minimum number of annual productions by member schools.

UTSA’s Katie Meyers: “[Pandemic-related delay] made it a little bit of a challenge to try to get current, but everything we have now is basically the current model.”What the enhanced technology can allow schools to accomplish is remarkable. For instance, live game broadcasts by University of Texas San Antonio (UTSA) Athletics last March launched two state-of-the-art broadcast-control rooms inside its Roadrunner Athletics Center of Excellence.

UTSA’s Katie Meyers: “[Pandemic-related delay] made it a little bit of a challenge to try to get current, but everything we have now is basically the current model.”

The new control rooms, built and fitted out at a cost of $5 million-plus, will allow UTSA Athletics to produce high-quality live productions that meet the standards set forth by the American Athletic Conference and ESPN. The new broadcast-control rooms will produce ESPN+ broadcasts or streaming for all UTSA men’s and women’s basketball home-game broadcasts, as well as the majority of home-game broadcasts for baseball, soccer, softball, and volleyball. The control rooms will also be used for live videoboard productions at events in the Convocation Center.

“Completing the broadcast-production project was no small feat,” says Assistant Athletics Director, Creative Services, Katie Meyers, who oversees broadcast production for UTSA Athletics. “It took more than two years of planning and execution by a number of parties: UTSA Athletics, the American Conference, ESPN, as well as our external partners who assisted us in the build and execution of the physical control room and the elements in our facilities.”

By the conclusion of the 2023-24 academic year, UTSA Athletics will have produced nearly 70 live broadcasts, both internally and in conjunction with Jeff Watts Productions, which previously handled UTSA’s sports-broadcast productions. UTSA Athletics expects to produce more than 100 live events annually through the new broadcast-control rooms.

The new facilities deploy Ross video-production platforms: Mira replay units, Ultrix routers, Xpression for graphics, a Tria for clip playback, and two Ross switchers. Audio gear — a Yamaha QL5 board as the main audio console, a smaller Yamaha DM3-D board for pass-throughs and Jumbotron shows — rides on a Dante network. The packages were provided by Dallas-based integrator Digital Resources, which built the facilities, designed over the past three years by a series of staff directors during that period.

USTA’s Elliott Griesen oversees day-to-day operations of the athletics department’s broadcast and videoboard productions.

A live broadcast is produced by a 12-person freelance staff: a play-by-play announcer, color analyst, producer, director, broadcast engineer, graphics operator, replay operator, camera shader, three camera operators, and an audio engineer. Having joined the staff on April 22, Director, Sports Production, Elliott Griesen oversees the day-to-day operations of UTSA Athletics’ live broadcast and videoboard productions.

“This all started in about 2020, so it has been a 3½-year process, partly interrupted by the pandemic,” says Meyers. The delay, she adds, affected technology choices — positively, as it turns out — as platforms changed and evolved during that time: “It made it a little bit of a challenge to try to get current, but everything we have now is basically the current model. Ordering in 2020, 2021, everything was very much delayed, which kind of helped us in the long run to get the newer models.”

An ongoing challenge for collegiate sports-production facilities is staffing, one exacerbated as the production-output scale increases. Obliged by the American Athletic Conference to produce a minimum of 50 games other than football and basketball annually and expected to produce 100 or more shows a year going forward, the school — in its first year as a member — had to hit the ground running after its March 16 opening. (ESPN’s minimum production requirements have been a challenge since the SEC and ACC Networks were founded in 2014 and 2019, respectively.)

At the moment, Meyers says, the facilities are between 15% and 20% student-staffed, with the rest handled by freelancers. However, journeyman broadcast technicians are not easy to find and keep these days.

“Probably my biggest challenge getting the studio up and running was to just find [staff],” she notes. “A lot of the students we talk to want to be on camera and not behind the camera. It has been a struggle to find people that are interested in doing this. A lot of the people that worked with us also work with the [NBA] Spurs, so, when there were conflicts with those games, it was definitely a challenge to find 11 people to run a show.”

Currently 15%-20% student-staffed, University of Texas San Antonio Athletics productions target 100% student-run by the end of the 2024-25 season.

Another big challenge was that the facility very rarely had the same people every day for every game, resulting, Meyers says, in a sometimes inconsistent outcome. The goal by the end of the 2024-25 season, she says, is to achieve a 100% student-run staff and establish consistent production values.

“It’s a national problem,” she continues. “I think, especially within the college space right now with the PAC 12 breaking up and all these schools now having to build their own production studios, it’s a huge challenge just finding people to do it and finding consistency in that. That’s what I’m hearing from people I talk to at universities all across the country.”

Putting the control rooms together was a formidable task, particularly given an accelerated last several months — “The [collegiate] conferences now are making [broadcast-production capability] mandatory to be a member of the conference,” she says. “I think that says everything — and the fact that Meyers herself became part of that effort only last January.

“I came in knowing that we were going to go on-air in two months, knowing I had to get it ready,” she says, recalling the facility’s fiber infrastructure and networking as the single biggest technical challenge during that period.

It also underscores the importance of home-based production for college sports, both for schools’ brands and to comply with conference mandates. Less obviously, they also need to meet the expectations of viewers who have dozens of network broadcasts to choose from.

The effort — and the more than $5 million spent — was worth it, says Meyers.

“The whole reason we moved into the American conference,” she says, “was that it was a step up for UTSA, because of the opportunities with the broadcast and the national attention. It’s the first time we’re gaining national attention for all of our sports; UTSA now would be in the public national eye much more than it primarily had been, with our football games and maybe 10 basketball games a year. I think this has been a really important step for the university and the athletics department.”

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