By Brian Leopold
I am standing on the floor of the West Virginia University Coliseum, a giant, concrete mushroom of building, looking for Chris Ostien, video production director for West Virginia University’s Athletic Department. The facility seats 14,000, but at the moment, except for a stray janitor or two, the building seems deserted. I call Chris on the phone.
“I’m here,” I say.
“I see you,” Ostien says. “Look up.”
I look up, scanning the vast expanse of empty seats. Nothing.
“Look higher. No, even higher.”
My eyes drift up to the farthest reaches of the Coliseum, the crow’s nest, the very lip of the mushroom. There, up at least two hundred stairs, I see a minuscule shadow, outlined in a window, peering down at me through chicken wire. The shadow waves. I have found the television control room.
“I’ll meet you midway,” Chris offers. I begin the slow, torturous climb. So many stairs.
Welcome to what Ostien calls “hell weekend,” a three-day stretch of craziness during which the video staff at the West Virginia University Athletic Department will produce multiple game broadcasts originating from several venues across campus, some of them happening back-to-back, some of them happening simultaneously; like tonight, when a volleyball broadcast from the Coliseum will coincide with a women’s soccer broadcast originating from the University’s Dick Dlesk Sports Complex.
For the video crew at WVU, the challenge is a daunting one, either broadcast or live stream every home sporting event. “We’re doing 17 men’s basketball games and 17 women’s basketball games from the Coliseum this season,” Ostien tells me. “We’ll do seven wrestling events, five gymnastic events, and a dozen volleyball games. Each soccer team will play 12 home games this year, and we do 20 Mountaineer baseball games, and 40 West Virginia Black Bears games (a minor league affiliate of the nearby Pittsburgh Pirates).
“Our fans are passionate,” Ostien says. “It doesn’t matter the sport. The fans aren’t all able to get to the Coliseum, they can’t all get to the soccer pitch, they can’t all get to the new baseball facility, so it’s important for us to get them their Mountaineers.”
Volleyball from the Coliseum
Ostien will serve as Director for tonight’s women’s volleyball broadcast, as the Mountaineers take on the nationally-ranked Texas Longhorns. “Normally, a little more than a thousand people view our volleyball webcasts,” Ostien tells me, “but tonight, because Texas is so good, we’ll have several thousand viewers.” That’s a lot of pressure to get things right.
The crew begins arriving a few hours before the event to set up. They mill around down at courtside. None of them seem eager to make the climb to the control room, a small, unadorned broom closet of a room that looks down, not only at the Coliseum but also at the suspended scoreboard.
WVU uses three Panasonic cameras mounted on Vinton field tripods to shoot volleyball at the Coliseum. The cameras are run in studio configuration, equipped with power zooms and focus controls and outboard studio monitors. The main game camera, a Panasonic AG-HPX600, is located 20 rows above the main floor, slightly off-center from the net. It is equipped with the longest lens of the three cameras, a Fujinon DigiPower 55. The “high-end zone camera” is also located 20 rows above the Coliseum floor, looking straight down center court. It’s a Panasonic AG-HPX370, equipped with a standard field lens package. The third camera is also an AG-HPX370 that roams at floor level, connected to a NewTek TriCaster 8000 production switcher through a Teradek Bolt Pro zero-delay wireless video system. Both the 370’s are mounted on Vinten Vision blue5 tripods, and the camera with the big lens gets a Vinten HDT-1.
To complete the set-up, there are 2 announcers seated at the scorer’s table at courtside to narrate the action. Although the announcers are provided with a video monitor, they are not in contact with Ostien or anyone else from the production team throughout the broadcast. “We just tell them to pretend they’re doing a radio call, because they never know if they’re on the air or not,” Ostien tells me.
Once cameras are built and cables run, Ostien and I adjourn to the production control room up in the rafters. The Coliseum’s production control facility is equipped with a TriCaster 8000, paired with a NewTek 3Play 4800 for slow motion and instant replay. In addition to the live webcast of today’s game on the Athletic Department’s website, the control room will also provide the feed to the Coliseum’s massive overhead scoreboard. A separate scoreboard operator in the control room will cut between the output of the TriCaster and a series of pre-produced graphic animations designed to fire up the live crowd using a PC equipped with Blaze software. Once the show leaves the TriCaster, it is distributed over the Athletic Department website, wvusports.com. City Net Morgantown, one of the webstreams’s sponsors, facilitates the broadcast.
It’s important to Ostien that the crowd watching the game in the Coliseum gets a great show as well as the many Mountaineers fans watching the action online. Sports viewers these days have come to expect top-quality productions with all the bells and whistles, regardless of where they watch the games, and Ostien remains committed to meeting his viewer’s expectations.
Another big challenge facing Ostien in realizing this goal is the constant fluctuation of his broadcast crew. The University utilizes a skeleton staff of full-time employees to tackle their tremendous production load. To assist, they make extensive use of students, former students, and other freelance production help. That’s one reason the University has equipped all of its athletic venues with TriCasters and 3Plays. In addition to the 8000 and 3Play 4800 at the Coliseum, another TriCaster 8000 is permanently stationed at the baseball facility, equipped with its own 3Play 4800. The soccer venue is equipped with a refurbished TriCaster 850 with a third 3Play, a 440 this time. A fourth TriCaster, the oldest unit in the University’s video arsenal, a 300, is used to livestream press conferences and other athletic-based programs.
“We’re teaching students,” Ostien says. “So, when they go from venue to venue, everything is the same. The 3Play is the same at soccer, at basketball, and at the Coliseum. And for the most part, TriCaster is the same as well. Familiarity breeds confidence. You don’t have to bring in multiple engineering people. The TriCaster teaches crew members how to be a little bit of an engineer, but at the same time function as production people. You don’t have to time out sources, which is a big advantage. You can basically, as they say, plug and play.”
Three hours later, a boisterous crowd of over a thousand files into the Coliseum and Ostien leads his young charges through their paces. As the match progresses, the Mountaineer volleyball squad puts up a valiant, but futile effort to contend with perennial volleyball powerhouse, Texas.
But the volleyball match isn’t the only sports broadcast going out over the Athletic Department’s website, so midway through the second set, I find myself fighting off an attack of vertigo as I descend from the crow’s nest control room counting the Coliseum stairs as I go… (“38 – 39 – 40.”) So many stairs.
Off to Women’s Soccer
Out in the cool West Virginia evening, I hear Brad Paisley, AC/DC, and Miley Cyrus, all blending into an odd cacophonous mixture. Hundreds of football tailgaters are in full-on, party mode in the parking lot, getting ready for tomorrow’s big game, as night falls on Morgantown, In the murky distance, I notice a soft glow in the distance, my next destination, the soccer stadium. I dodge the barbecue crowd, the drinkers, and head bangers, as I thread a maze of parking lots to reach the venue.
At the Dick Dlesk Soccer Complex, the grass is deep green, and a guy dressed in buckskins and a coonskin cap shoots a rifle into the air to signal my arrival. Never fear, it’s just the University’s mascot. Beyond the edge of the stands, the Mountaineer marching band is running through their halftime show for tomorrow’s football game. For some reason, the band is playing AC/DC.
I find director Eva Buchman sitting inside a modest, unheated cement block building with one wall open to the elements. The booth looks out over the soccer field and an impressive grandstand structure on the opposite side of the field. Buchman is in the midst of her women’s soccer broadcast, a second simultaneous webstream available on the university’s athletic site. The grandstand is packed. The crowd is rocking. The Mountaineer mascot pounds the butt of his rifle on a metal bleacher, inciting the crowd, “Let’s go, Mountaineers.”
Soccer is huge at WVU. The women’s team is three-time Big 12 champions, and they’re currently ranked number-three in the nation. Thousands of people around the world will be watching tonight soccer livestream. Buchman is calling shots, seated in front of a TriCaster 850 that was recently refurbished by Production Consulting Group. Sitting to her right, a student operator runs the 3Play 440, and to Buchman’s left, two announcers are doing play-by-play and color.
“My job is to take the pressure off Chris,” Buchman tells me during a lull. “I want to be sure he can work on his show, and doesn’t have to focus on what’s going on here at the soccer stadium.”
The set-up for soccer is also fairly simple. The production control facility is located up a flight of stairs in a small, concrete block building. Just outside the door to the control room, the main game camera is set-up on a small metal landing at the top of the stairs. The camera is a Panasonic AG-HPX370 on a Vinten Vision blue5 tripod, once again in studio configuration with power zoom, focus, and an outboard monitor. The second stationary camera is reached by climbing a ladder to the concrete building’s roof. The roof camera is identical in configuration to the first game camera. The third camera used on soccer broadcasts is a wireless handheld, a Panasonic AG-HPX500 paired with a Teradek Bolt Pro zero-delay wireless video system. The wireless camera roams behind whichever goal West Virginia is shooting at in an attempt to catch possible scoring action. On this day, with the threat of rain hanging in the air, all three cameras are wrapped in garbage bags and gaffer’s tape to protect them from the elements.
Once again, the Mountaineers are taking on the Texas Longhorns, but here at the soccer venue, the Mountaineers are heavy favorites to win. Despite the fact that the squad from Texas is overmatched, WVU struggles in the early going. Even with the support of the enthusiastic crowd, the team is unable to score. Finally, just before halftime, the Mountaineers’ Hannah Abraham heads a ball into the goal, putting WVU on top. Then, midway through the second half, the team gets another goal to put the icing on the cake. The Mountaineer faithful begins to breathe easier.
Lower game camera at Dick Dlesk Soccer Stadium. This camera is located on the landing outside the door to the control room facility.
“I’m a huge sports fan,” Buchman tells me as the game winds down, “so I’m inspired by being able to tell that story to our fans. Mountaineer Nation is so big and so spread out, and I love it when I see a Facebook message that says, “I’m watching the game from London.” I’m so lucky to do what I do, with the people I do it with, and I know that if I’m on my ‘A-Game,’ TriCaster is going to make my broadcast run as smoothly as possible.”
With the soccer match safely in hand and the band done with rehearsals, I hear the sound of distant music floating on the air. Across the vast parking area, the smell of barbeque wafts in my direction. Man, that smells good. My hell weekend is coming to an end, but for the production crew at WVU’s Athletic Department, the long, grueling ride has just begun. The crew will still have to survive tomorrow afternoon’s football game against the University of Maryland, which will be produced with a full-blown, production truck, followed by a men’s soccer’s match in the evening. Then on Sunday, there will be a Mountaineers fall baseball game to be live streamed.
Mountaineers’ baseball is the fastest growing sport on the University’s athletic website. Live streams began from the new baseball facility in spring of 2015, and the audience continues to grow. “We’ve been able to bring Mountaineers baseball to everyone across the state,” Chris Ostien says. “They’ve never been able to watch the Mountaineers before. New ballpark, great conference for baseball; it’s been a great thing for Mountaineers fans worldwide to see baseball and all the other sports we do from campus via TriCaster.”
Faced with the long drive home, I decide that my best course of action would be to attach myself to a friendly tailgate party and try to blend in. Maybe I’ll eat some barbecue, maybe drink a beer, maybe even sing a few Brad Paisley songs. As I stroll out into the West Virginia darkness, I put a smile on my face and remember the words to the song, “Almost heaven, West Virginia.” And just like that, my hell weekend turns heavenly.
West Virginia University Bullet Points
- The West Virginia University was founded in 1867. Enrollment for 2013 was 29,466 at the main campus located in Morgantown, WV.
- WVU offers 191 bachelor’s, master’s, doctoral, and professional degree programs in 15 colleges. WVU Athletics competes in 17 sports, including winning 17 NCAA National Rifle Championships, including the last three years. This might explain why the school’s mascot, the Mountaineer, fires a rifle.
- While country music superstar Brad Paisley never attended the university, he remains its number-one fan. Paisley has been the featured singer of “Country Roads” at the football stadium several times. The singing of “Country Roads” is a tradition before every WVU home football game, and Paisley sang the song most recently in September of 2015, before the Mountaineers defeated Maryland… on a hell weekend. Paisley is frequently seen sporting WVU gear, both on stage and off. As far as anyone knows, AC/DC has never been seen wearing Mountaineers gear.
Coliseum Work Flow
- Panasonic AG-HPX600 with Fujinon DigiPower 55 lens
- Vinton field tripods
- Panasonic AG-HPX370, equipped with a standard field lens package
- AG-HPX370 that roams at floor level, connected to the TriCaster through a Teradek Bolt Pro zero-delay wireless video system. Both the 370’s are mounted on Vinten Vision blue5 tripods, and the camera with the big lens gets a Vinten HDT-1
- NewTek TriCaster 8000 multi-camera production system
- NewTek 3Play integrated sports production systems for instant replay and slow motion
Dick Dlesk Soccer Complex Work Flow
- Panasonic AG-HPX370 on a Vinten Vision blue5 tripod
- (second stationary camera is reached by climbing a ladder to the concrete building’s roof)
- Panasonic AG-HPX500 wireless handheld paired with a Teradek Bolt Pro zero-delay wireless video system.
- NewTek TriCaster 850 multi-camera production systems
- NewTek 3Play integrated sports production system
WVU Baseball Facility
- NewTek TriCaster 8000
- NewTek 3Play 4800