College Sports Tech | Feature
Putting the IT in Team
Here are CT's 5 top picks for how IT shops can help athletic departments increase their visibility, improve efficiency, and develop more winners.
- By Barbara Ravage
For better or worse, college sports are a big, big deal. To get a sense of the money involved, consider this: In 2011, Forbes magazine ranked the University of Texas Longhorns football team as the most valuable in the country, worth $129 million. But the value of sports on campus goes far beyond gate receipts, sponsorships, and TV revenues. Regardless of the size of a school, sports are a key element in spurring alumni giving and involvement; they play a major factor in helping prospective students select a college; and they help unite the campus community in common cause.
Consequently, schools have ample motivation to make their athletic departments as successful as possible. And whether it's ticketing, broadcasting, signage, or coaching, IT's involvement is growing as technology becomes integral to college athletics. At schools where intercollegiate sports are mega-business, most athletic departments field their own IT operations. At the other end of the spectrum, however, are scores of small- and middle-sized schools that must rely on central IT for support.
For IT departments, it's not always an easy relationship to manage. Athletic departments tend to have their own culture, their own needs, and often their own tech tools. For CIOs and IT managers, the secret--as with every other department on campus--is to focus on the client's needs first. "Think about all the technology coaches have acquired in the last five years, and the level of knowledge they need--that's only going to accelerate," advises Mitch Davis, CIO of Bowdoin College, a long-established school of 1,750 students in Maine. "Try to find ways of working with them to develop that knowledge quickly so they can utilize the tools effectively. If you're making decisions that make your job easier but their job harder, then you're probably going to be outsourced."
Here, in a highlight list that would make ESPN proud, are CT's top five picks for where IT and athletic departments can team up to make their sports programs a success--both on and off the field.
1) Cost Savings
In the current fiscal environment, few schools need motivation to save money. "Whereas big-time schools have big budgets, we don't have a lot of resources and funds," notes Jack McDonald, director of athletics and recreation at Quinnipiac University, a private Connecticut school with 5,900 undergrad and 2,000 grad students. Like sports administrators at many small schools, he's attempting to do more with less.
Fred Tarca, the school's chief information and technology officer, believes that central IT can help McDonald stretch those dollars. "At Quinnipiac we are fortunate enough to understand that Athletics and Information Services are a team sport," says Tarca. "We are not necessarily looking to have the most technology on our campus or even the latest and greatest. Rather, we are looking to technology as an enabler to make the Quinnipiac experience more enriching."
As an example, he cites the installation of digital signage in Quinnipiac's sports arena, with several large-screen displays featuring player and coach profiles, game schedules, scores, footage, and other content of interest. To obtain the biggest bang for its buck, the athletic department is using AxisTV digital signage software from Visix, which is already in use in the cafeteria, library, and other campus buildings. "Having digital signage in the athletic areas is nothing more than a natural step," explains Tarca, since there's no need to reinvent the wheel or acquire additional software.
Economies of scale--both in equipment and staff--can play an important role in keeping costs down in athletic programs, but only if departments are prepared to work with central IT. "If there's a separate IT person within Athletics, there's going to be a lot of duplication," notes Jeremy Whaley, director of information systems and network services at Claremont McKenna College (CA), which supports a unified athletics program comprising Claremont McKenna, Harvey Mudd College, and Scripps College (known collectively as CMS)."We see economies of scale, especially in terms of the number of hours of support, by standardizing workstation models, for example. That means they've been vetted by IT and are fully supported in terms of the applications installed on them."
It's a point echoed by Quinnipiac's Tarca. "Having separate or multiple IT departments invites redundant personnel, technology disparities, and expense," he says.
2) Smart Outsourcing
Sometimes the most valuable service IT can render is deciding what not to do. A prime example is the school athletics website. At Bowdoin, IT initially designed and hosted the site, but outsourcing relieved IT staff of the ongoing responsibility for maintaining and updating content, while at the same time giving Athletics more direct control.
When the athletic department at CMS was considering alternatives to its campus-hosted site, IT stepped in to provide advice and assistance. The athletic department ultimately chose PrestoSports. Among the attractions offered by PrestoSports are plug-ins for live online scores and "ways of dealing with live streaming online that are very attractive to our Athletics department," explains Whaley. "We spoke with their technical people and it was really a quick thing on our end to configure our DNS servers to point to PrestoSports. The Athletics group worked with them directly on the rest."
Quinnipiac tried several other design and host services before also settling on PrestoSports. The school uses Glitnir Ticketing, which links from the PrestoSports site. In fact, ticketing is another area where outsourcing probably makes sense. Although Bowdoin--also a PrestoSports customer--doesn't use ticketing software now, Davis would not hesitate to go out of house if the school ever decides to change course. "I could see outsourcing that in a second," he says. "There are so many companies that do that well, there's no reason we would take it on."
3) Network Infrastructure
Given the cost and complexity involved, athletic departments usually avail themselves of their campuses' wireless infrastructure, although challenges specific to the sports arena must still be resolved. Bowdoin's experience is particularly illustrative. Back in 2004, when the school installed high-speed wireless across the entire campus, it was way ahead of the curve. "We put in a 1-gigabit network, which a lot of institutions are only putting in today," says Davis. The high-speed network made it possible to broadcast events at all indoor and outdoor venues.
That was then. Now, more than 3,000 mobile devices are in constant use on campus, creating a major drain on network resources. And the problem is particularly acute on the playing fields. According to Davis, "Our games are being saturated with people trying to send pictures and video from their mobiles," interfering with the quality of the official video feed to the web. Over the 2011-12 holiday break, Davis implemented an upgrade to 2 Gb, and brought fiber optics and new cameras and audio systems to all athletics spaces, enabling flicker-free high-definition video broadcast of events.
When it comes to facilities planning, it's imperative that IT and the sports group work closely to map out needs. At Quinnipiac, IT was involved from the earliest stages in a four-year project to construct the TD Bank Sports Center, a hockey and basketball venue that opened in January 2007. "IT and Athletics worked hand in hand during the design and construction of the building," says McDonald. The result is state-of-the-art wiring throughout the facility and the capacity to live stream all events.
At Claremont McKenna, on the other hand, only some of the 1950s-era athletics facilities are wired, while another few can tap into the campus wireless network. Baseball, softball, soccer, and football--all major sports--are out of range of both networks. The challenge was how to bring connectivity to these outlying areas. "As it turns out, it's pretty expensive when you do it retro," says Michael Sutton, CMS director of athletics. Although network access is being built into all new construction, Sutton and Whaley needed an immediate and economical solution for existing facilities.
The answer turned out to be a handful of Verizon Wireless 4G hot spots. "I'm very happy with the flexibility," notes Sutton, while acknowledging that it's a temporary patch. "We're actually streaming games and it's worked out quite well." One limitation is that there are often multiple events at the same time, requiring multiple hot spots and the associated costs.
Even so, CMS was unwilling to invest heavily in a fast-evolving tech environment. "Rather than dive into this thing headfirst, we decided to go as inexpensive and low-maintenance as possible while we figure out what our capacity and needs are," says Sutton, who credits Whaley with coaching him on simple but effective solutions. "Things change so quickly that we don't want to get locked in. We want to stay nimble so we can quickly adapt to whatever comes next."
A decade ago, the idea of a small school being able to broadcast its games was almost laughable (remember when PBS showed an Ivy game of the week?). Today, the ability to stream games live to widely scattered alumni, parents, and prospective students is a key element in building a school's brand and forging a strong sense of community.
"Our players come from all over," notes Quinnipiac's Tarca. "Friends and relatives can't all come to every game, yet they want to see and feel a connection to Quinnipiac. The technologies available to us mean we're able to reach an audience beyond the campus." The school's first foray into streaming--an audio feed of a cross-country event--took place seven or eight years ago. Now, live video feeds of basketball and hockey games played in the TD Bank Center are pulled in using Telestream's Wirecast 4 technology, and broadcast on the web via the Pack Network, under an agreement with the Northeast Conference, of which Quinnipiac is a member.
And the school's broadcast efforts are not confined to mainstream sports. Monday night acrobatics and tumbling meets are broadcast on QUTube, a student-run YouTube channel that also airs pre- and post-game analysis and interviews with players and coaches. "IT helped them set it up and they've taken the ball and run with it," says McDonald.
Students trained by IT provide audio streams of 15 other sports, using iPads linked to Skype. McDonald estimates that as many as 125 games a year are streamed as either video or audio. Access to archived games and other sports features is free through a link on the Quinnipiac Bobcats website. Most recently, IT and Athletics worked together to build an app that makes schedules, results, photos, and live video available to smartphones and other mobile devices.
At Bowdoin, the idea of broadcasting games actually originated with IT. The initial reaction from the athletic department was, "Nobody will watch," but the group decided to give it a try. Davis proudly recalls an early event that beamed a Bowdoin hockey game across the globe. "One of the coolest things is that it made it possible for a parent in Kosovo to watch his son play," he explains. "The video was the size of a postage stamp, but he heard the sound of his son actually skating out on the ice at Bowdoin."
Since 2007, all games have been broadcast via Ustream, a free web platform. The next step is HD, which will require a move beyond Ustream. In addition, Bowdoin wants to be able to connect to major television stations, so faculty can appear as expert commentators. "We can use the same feed for distributing our games," explains Davis, noting that it's one more reason why Athletics shouldn't pursue tech solutions in a silo.
CMS started out with Ustream too, but Sutton thought they could do better with a paid service that offered more features with no advertising. When he was approached by several vendors, he asked Whaley to help him sort through the options. They ended up with First Team Broadcasting, which has an open live stream of games and a password-protected archive for students, parents, alumni, faculty, and coaching staff.
5) Niche Services
All three schools use a variety of specialized coaching software and web-based services to capture and analyze plays, including Dartfish, DVSport, Hudl, and Steva Pro, but sometimes there's a special need that campus IT can fill better. A trainer at Bowdoin, for example, developed a series of exercises that he demonstrated at each training session. IT videotaped the series, edited it, and put it online where athletes could watch it whenever they needed a refresher. Davis envisions augmenting the series so students can use an iPad to videotape themselves doing the exercises, then compare it side-by-side on screen with the trainer's demo to see if they're doing it right.
Bowdoin IT also built an app that allows students to sign up for physical therapy. Students key in details of their injuries and schedule an appointment. The trainer can refer to the details and match it with a list of materials and procedures. The app is paired with Workflow, a web-based service that stores players' medical records and other HIPAA-compliant data, tracks and reports rehab procedures, and monitors medications.
Building a Winning Team
It's a sports cliché, but teamwork usually trumps raw talent. In the world of IT and school sports programs, the same holds true. And while the needs of athletic departments differ in many ways from other divisions on campus, CIOs may be surprised at how eager IT employees are to work with the sports staff. "It's a little bit outside the traditional day-to-day responsibility of technology folks," notes Fred Tarca, chief information and technology officer at Quinnipiac University (CT). "But we feel a connection to the department, the coaches, and the players, and that's very inspiring."
It's a sentiment that cuts both ways. With technology playing an ever-greater role in sports today, Mike Sutton, director of athletics at Claremont-Mudd-Scripps Colleges (CA), appreciates having the ability to call on tech experts. "Having a point man in the IT department to just call and get an answer I can actually understand is really key," he says.
The relationship is worth cultivating for other reasons, too, advises Jeremy Whaley, director of information systems and network services at Claremont McKenna College. "If, for some reason, Athletics didn't want to come to us, we would see a lot more third-party involvement without our knowledge, which might not work with our infrastructure and could cause friction between the two groups."
For his part, Whaley sees his group's role as that of integrator as well as adviser. If someone from Athletics asks how to use technology for tracking staff or filming practice matches, for example, Whaley will work with them to find a solution. As for products that the athletic department is evaluating, says Whaley, "We'll perform a discovery with them and determine if we're able to support it."
And, at the risk of raining on everyone's parade, IT can help manage expectations. "A lot of times people want perfection when they sign up to get services," notes Mitch Davis, CIO at Bowdoin College (ME). "It's my role to let them know that it's not going to be perfect, but we'll negotiate with the vendor until we get it as close to perfect as we can."