What Comes First, The Sports or The School Year?

It seems like two things grow larger every year… the amount of time you are in the classroom and your school’s sports schedule. What used to be very defined seasons have now overlapped so much it’s hard to know when the spring sports end and the fall sports begin – not to mention that there is supposed to be a summer break in there. As you prepare for the school year, we wanted to share some simple reminders as well as some ways to upgrade your production.

When it comes to producing sports at the high school level there are a ton of factors that directly impact your final product. Not only do you have to wrestle with the technological infrastructure but you have to manage a group of teenagers and all that goes with that! Keeping your broadcasts simple as you start the only way you will be able to keep your sanity and keep the content coming.

At it’s root, a sports broadcast truly needs two things – a camera and a way to get signal out to the world – anything outside of that is a bonus. If you can pair those two things, you should consider your broadcast a success. We also know that the expectations of your audience is much higher but for you, take solace in the fact that just getting the gear, the connectivity, and the images out, is a win.
The next step in meeting the desires of your audience is to provide them with information about the game. That’s most simply done with graphics. Team names, scores, and are the basics when it comes to graphics. This is where your broadcast can go from one person to two or three people on your crew. Having someone dedicated to keeping graphics updated is more important than having a graphics system. If the information on the screen is wrong, it’s worse than not having the info.
There are several options for graphics. The simplest way to create a graphic for your broadcast is to use Google slides. You can use something like this and key out the background color. A student can update the graphic as needed. This is the simplest set up. If you wanted to add “down and distance” for football, that’s easily done with a couple of tweaks. If you are looking for more professional solutions, you could use ProPresenter and create graphics there. If your students have done any production work in a church, they know how to use ProPresenter. It’s essentially Google Slides on steroids. Sports and broadcast specific graphics engines are another great option as they have things built in to make your graphics more professional. For example, Captivate from NewBlueFX has a scoreboard tool so your graphics operator has simple button click options for changing the score or updating the game clock. There are also sport specific templates with Captivate. The biggest thing to remember that the higher up the chain you go in terms of quality there is a steeper learning curve… but often the payoff is worth it!

The greatest value add for your viewers is live announcers calling the action. This makes your broadcast stand out from all of the rest. BUT… this is often the hardest thing to do in terms of people and technology.

When it comes to getting the right people for your play by play (describes the action) and color (adds details – stats, etc.), you have two options – use students or find someone in the community. Both have their pros and cons. When it comes to using people from the community, it means you may have to dig deep. I have reached out to local colleges that have students that want reps but I have also had great luck with local adults that would volunteer their time. When it comes to getting your students involved, that is tougher than I imagined it would be. Getting students to overcome their fear of public speaking and getting out of their comfort zone is tough but once you get one or two to do it- the next on-air talent teams are much easier to find.

In terms of technology, there are several ways to get all you need. You will need a couple of things that a lot of people don’t think about when they are getting started. Obviously, you will need a program feed that includes your air talent and an ambient mic or two if possible. That’s the easy part… The other thing that you need is the ability to communicate with your air talent in a submix of some sort. This allows the producer to relay information like upcoming breaks, the need for a sponsor read, or statistics. Also your talent is going to want to be able to control the mix in their headphones. Some talent really like to hear themselves so they turn up their local feed but others don’t want that, they want just the producer and other talent. Either way, that can be a nightmare if you don’t have the right tools. The best tool for live sports production that I have found is the Sportscaster from Henry Engineering. The Sportscaster and Sports Pods allows you to do everything you would ever need to do in the field. The set up is simple – you can run up to three Sports Pods from the SportsCaster. The Pods receive power and return audio via an ethernet cable that can be daisy chained between the units. All that’s left to run is an xlr for each of the Sports Pods. If you want a field mic or another “auxillary” mic, just run the cables and you are good to go. The front of the 1RU SportsCaster allows you to mix your audio as well as work as the producer to talk to your talent, field reporter, or camera operators. The talent can control their mix via the SportsPod as well as use the cough button and trigger talkback to the producer or between the talent. The SportsCaster makes really complex tasks really simple.

After you have added graphics and announcers, the next step is more like stepping off a cliff. Adding multiple cameras takes your shows to the professional level quickly but comes at a cost financially and in terms of the need for more people. Adding a second camera means you now must have a switcher of some sort. This could be a software switcher like OBS or Vmix or a tactile switcher like a Blackmagic Design Atem or a TriCaster. With the addition of more sources, you must have a way to switch between or layer those sources at the speed of the game.

There are a couple of things to consider when it comes to selecting a switcher. The first is the number of inputs and outputs you need. All switchers will have a limit when it comes to the number of things you can plug into them and often it is easiest to buy more switcher than you need than to want more later in the season. The Blackmagic Design Atem Mini Extreme is a great switcher if you are just adding one or two cameras because it gives you room to grow in the coming years. For example, if you buy a 4 input switcher and you add 2 cameras to your existing plan, you may be out of inputs if you are doing your graphics externally (Google Slides, Captivate, etc).

The other main consideration when it comes to getting the right switcher for your broadcast is outputs. You are certainly going to need a Multiview so you can see all of your inputs at one time as well as your preview and program windows. If your switcher only has one output, you either have to switch blind or build a much more complicated set up with monitors for your TD (technical director) to see each input. Make sure you have at least 2 “switchable” outputs so you can select what goes where.

Live sports production can be the most rewarding experience for you and your students but it isn’t without stress. Other things you must be aware of include weather, connectivity, space at the venue and more. As you dive into your sports production program, I can not express that you have to tip toe in. Do a year of single camera; simple productions before you decide to go larger. You will learn a lot in that year that if you just go full bore may ruin your experience and cause you to not take advantage of this opportunity to build great experiences for you, your students, and your community.