Several months ago, I wrote that automated sports production “ is real and around the corner for high school sports.”
Several weeks ago, that became reality for me. As I look back, I don’t know how I would have survived this holiday season without it.
Our basketball teams host an annual holiday tournament called the Sweet South Classic - 16 teams play 3 games each over 3 days. That’s 24 games in 3 days. The average basketball game from start to finish is about 90 minutes each. Our first game tipped off at 10am and we usually walked out of the gym around 11pm each night. We produced all 24 games with no problem and I only used 1 student. I know, I know…”but Tom that’s not what you are supposed to do…. You are a teacher and you are supposed to use as many students as possible….” Here’s the deal on that: We are on semesters so I technically have no students right now. True - grades haven’t been posted as final by the county but they have been posted by me so the bribe of extra credit is out of the window and to be honest, I haven’t built a program strong enough for an army of volunteers… So I went automated.
We worked with the NFHS Network to use a Pixellot camera in our gym. The camera is about the size of a shoe box (If you wear a 13...) and is mounted as high at mid court as you can get it. It’s connected to a computer which is paired with the internet and a Sportzcast Scorebot, for time and score updating. After some set up, the magic happens. I call it magic because it really is. I have no idea how it works but it does. I remember talking with the NFHS Network guys and asking them what people are most surprised by with the Pixellot and their response was “that it works.”
If you are looking for a simple, easy way to get your sports on the air, it gets no easier that the Pixellot. Let me say though that if you are in a district or organization that is leery of new technology, you may want to wait a bit on this. There are a couple of things that you have to know before going any further. The key to this working is that the Pixellot/NFHS Network people, have to be able to log in on the base computer at anytime so there are some network security things that have to be addressed. We found a way to make it work that to our great IT staff. There are also some ports that aren’t normally opened that must be so you MUST have a conversation with your IT folks before going too far.
I also imagine you are thinking, how good can the footage be? It’s probably a locked in wide shot like to the right. Actually the video footage is much better. The Pixellot actually tracks the motion of the ball (I think) and knows to zoom in and out on the action at the right time (somehow) so it looks like there is a camera operator working the game. The footage is not perfect. There are people who will say that it doesn’t look as good as if you had a “real” camera but to that I say; it is a real camera... It does make mistakes… and… it will get better as the technology improves.
I do feel bad that this is the best screenshot I have of the camera actually doing it’s job as it is not the best representation. This was during a fast break and screen captured from my ipad…. As you can see the camera does a great job of getting the action. This is really great for coaching footage.
Now back to the Sweet South Classic…. 24 games in 3 days and I only touched a camera 1 time and only used 1 student. We scheduled the entire tournament through the NFHS Network Console, which is the control hub for all of our broadcasts. All 24 games were scheduled and set for 3 hour blocks to account for the tournament running late or overtime. The first game did not go as planned but it was not the fault of the Pixellot or the NFHS Network. Our county is going through a major overhaul with the building of 2 new schools, demolition of 1 and the normal day to day changes and operations that is public school IT and one of the ports needed to get the signal out to the web was closed. Luckily for me our staff isn’t like most and they were not only working during they break, they were working the media center adjacent to my studio and after about 10 minutes, we were on the air.
The remaining 23 broadcasts went off without a hitch! Seriously, it just happened. Scores were correct, time was perfect. The only other issue we ran into was something that no one expected because as far as we knew, no one had done 8 live broadcasts a day for 3 days with the Pixellot, the team names needed to be updated each game and sometimes there was a lag between the game time and the team name being updated. We took the easy way out and just set the game graphics to “home” and “away.” This worked as basketball has very specific rules regarding jersey color and we made sure our play by play commentary covered who was home and away regulalary for those who aren’t basketball aficionados.
Speaking of play by play, once again, I can not say enough of the SportsCaster from Henry Engineering. We used the system the entire tournament and it was great. The one student that I used, I used for play by play for the games. He did a great job but as with all students needed coaching. Too often when it comes to coaching students on anything dealing with being on air, it has to come after the fact and often is something that is repeated throughout a broadcast. Because, I could use talkback with the SportsCaster, I could correct, assist, and prompt the student in order to get a better on-air product. I also did the same thing with the adults that volunteered their time. Having another set of eyes helps with any broadcast but having another set of eyes that can give input on the broadcast instantly and off air is invaluable. We had 2 Henry Engineering Sportspods set up - 1 for play by play and 1 for color analyst - as well as another headset for the “producer.” All of this and 1 ambient mic were mixed in the 1RU system.
We ran the program feed from the Sportscaster to the computer for the Pixellot and had multiple microphones running down 1 long run (75’) to the closet. I only had to tape 1 cable and had 4 microphone total! It’s hard to beat that!
Overall, the Sweet South Classic was another great event put together by an amazing group of volunteers, the basketball team’s tip off club, and for many the only way they got to watch the games was through our leveraging new technology to produce a high quality broadcast using only 1 student, a couple of on-air talent, and myself.
*After writing this, I did feel the need to add a couple of other things. First, I am a control freak and this scares me to death. I am worried that it won’t work. I experienced that in the first game but after that is was gone. Also, with the NFHS Network, HUDL uploads are automatic once you set up the relationship… seriously… I didn’t have to upload a single file for our girls team!
Tom White is the digital media instructor at Morgan County High School in Madison, GA. Currently teaching TV production and animation pathways, Tom's programs have received state and national honors including the 2016 NFHS Network School Broadcast Program Of The Year.
Prior to teaching, Tom was a marketing, promotions, and online content director for a major radio corporation in Atlanta. Tom studied exercise science at High Point University prior to his radio career. Despite his winding career path, his mother still thinks he is special.