It’s bright and sunny on a cool Saturday morning in Brookline, Mass. The Northeastern University football team is warming up at Parsons Field to take on the University of Rhode Island in the teams’ final game of the season. At 11 a.m., an hour before kickoff, there are already many fans at the field, with more of them on the way.
Meanwhile, in the press box, the game has already begun for Adam Polgreen and his dream to expose Northeastern athletics to the online community. Setting up for two hours already, he is getting ready to webcast the NU football team online almost completely by himself.
Polgreen, who is associate director of creative services at Northeastern, has his MacBook (believe it or not, not a MacBook Pro) set up on the ground level of the press box with one camera standing next to him fixed to shoot the scoreboard and two more on the roof to capture the action. He will use his computer, which is hooked up to the Internet via a DSL line, both to stream the video and direct the two roof cameras. Unfortunately, he has no one with any experience working cameras or directing sporting events. He in fact does not even have himself available. With an understaffed sports information crew working the game, Polgreen, a former sports information director at NU, has been enlisted to run statistics for the contest.
It’s an uphill battle for the upcoming webcast and the game has not even begun. However, this is what it is normally like for Northeastern athletics. Faced with a smaller budget, few employees and fewer fans, the department has always had issues keeping up with the Joneses. Now, trying to keep up with the technology that is making the Internet so popular, Polgreen is lending his time to try and bring the department’s Web site GoNU.com, what was once the leader of the pack in online content, back up to par with the rest, and live webcasting is his ticket to doing it.
Northeastern first put up an athletics Web site in the fall of 1996, back when people were still trying to figure out how to use the medium of the Internet to their advantage. Josh Sedin, an NU student and the team manager of the men’s basketball team at the time, put up the first page on the Division of Academic Computing (DAC – http://www.dac.neu.edu/athletics) server. The site did not last long, thanks to Polgreen, who worked for Jack Grinold, the associate athletics director for communications and the head of the NU sports information department. In 1997, Polgreen convinced Grinold that athletics needed its own site and it needed to blow away what they had now.
“I started learning HTML and replaced the old site with the new one. We chose GoNU.com for the brevity. Now today, it’s impossible to get a four-letter address.”
Polgreen built GoNU.com and began developing it to perform functions that no other college athletics site had. In 1998, Stat Crew, the official program used for recording NCAA statistics, came out with software that allowed users to post live statistics over the Internet while the game was going on. Polgreen took it and ran with it, and Northeastern became one of the first schools to provide the service to its fans.
“With the live stats, you have to know how to work servers and how to upload,” he said. “Most didn’t, so we were doing it and no one else was doing it.”
For the 1999-2000 season, Polgreen made the largest advancement in the school’s Web site. Prior to that time, the sports information staff could only update from the office, using file transfer protocol (FTP) to send HTML files to the Web. Polgreen studied up on PERL, which is a programming language, and learned how to manipulate Common Gateway Interface (CGI) scripts to produce a way for the staff to update GoNU.com through a Web browser. When he succeeded, Polgreen had given his office an advantage. Now, the site could be updated from any computer with an Internet connection, including times when the team and its sports information representative were on the road.
“In 2000, this was unbelievable because we’d be updating instantly,” Polgreen said.
It’s now 35 minutes until kickoff and Polgreen is trying to finalize his crew. He has sports information work-study Jake Strickland and his friend Gerry Brown, but he needs a third. He asks if I could lend a hand, and I oblige. He gives me the task of handling the main camera. Strickland will take the auxiliary camera, which will be used for close-ups, and Brown will direct from inside the press box. Polgreen will only be a few feet away working stats, but he won’t have a lot of input on what goes on screen during the game. Polgreen gives me a two-way radio so that he can communicate with me during the game. He also sets up a light bulb between the two cameras. Brown will turn the light on to signal that the feed is on Strickland’s camera. While the light is off, the feed will be on my camera. The team, consisting of a director with no directing experience and two journalism students with no camera experience, is ready to broadcast. Kickoff is on its way.
“Innovation,” said Polgreen. “You wait one month, get behind, and you miss everything.”
Six years after Polgreen developed his way for the staff to update GoNU.com through a Web browser, the same system remains in place for the sports information crew. Polgreen left the office in 2003 to take his current job in creative services, but no one has come in with the ability to update the content management system. Associate director of sports information Jon Litchfield now runs GoNU.com, but while he is editor of the content, the design and the updating system has not changed.
“There are no technical people in the office now; just sports information people,” said Polgreen, who does still volunteer his time to the office and GoNU.com. “This new thing I’m working on is great, but I have no time to finish.”
“We put effort and resources into the information,” Litchfield said, “but no resources onto the actual site. Our site hasn’t advanced since Adam left…now we’re behind. Other schools are putting their resources towards Web development.”
These “other schools” have gone a much different route. More and more athletic departments these days are outsourcing their Web sites to companies who can provide easy user interfaces, servers large enough to allow new amenities, such as streaming audio and video, and technical support day or night. Two of the bigger companies that provide this service are CSTV and XOS, which combined host four Colonial Athletic Association (CAA - NU’s competitive conference) Web sites, including the league’s official site. As of now, five of the 12 CAA schools have outsourced their site to one of these companies. It’s a wave that is catching on with athletic departments, but one that Polgreen finds tough to accept because of the flaws.
“Some of these sites are very overwhelming,” he said. “You go on and you don’t know where to click. I have a newspaper background and to me the most important thing goes on the top. Also, they all look the same. We don’t want GoNU.com to be a cookie-cutter. However, the appeal of an XOS and a CSTV is that they an afford people the opportunity to stay on the cutting edge.”
One man who can attest to the appeals of outsourcing is Matt Brady. Only 25, he already has experience working on three different college athletics Web sites, all with different content management systems. He is currently a staff assistant in the media relations department at the University of Indiana, which uses CSTV, and a former intern at Northeastern and at Division II school Eastern New Mexico University, where the site was so primitive, he was forced to use Dreamweaver to code HTML into the site.
“CSTV’s technology allows you to fill in stuff on a browser and it will update things automatically,” Brady said. “The system is prone to errors, but there are technicians at CSTV whose sole job it is to fix problems that come up. The support system is its biggest advantage.”
Despite the lack of Web development or the support that CSTV offers, the Northeastern community is proud of what GoNU.com has to offer. The site provides information for each of its 19 varsity sports, has live stats for six sports, gives access to all of its media guides through PDF files and offers bios for every student-athlete on each roster.
“What we do is as good as anyone,” Litchfield said. “We provide up-to-date and accurate information and we have a great staff doing it.”
“Content-wise, it’s one of the best sites,” Polgreen said. “It’s the one thing that we can be on the level of a top school, like a Stanford.”
“It’s our daily newspaper and it’s great,” said NU athletics director Dave O’Brien. “I think our site is more attractive and it has a feel for being unique and local.”
Unique and local it is. It’s a Web site that is the one-stop shop for all things related to Northeastern athletics. In fact, it does more for the athletics department than any of the local newspapers do. The Boston Globe does not cover NU athletics extensively, and while you’ll hear about Boston College sports on one of the local television newscasts, you won’t hear much about NU. Could this style of presenting information usurp traditional journalistic coverage of college athletics on television and in newspapers?
“I think it poses no threat to journalism because it’s merging with the Web,” Polgreen said. “Two guys and a camera are doing for the Web what professionals are doing for television. What it really does is offer another vehicle for being a real entity.”
“The Internet was supposed to replace the newspaper, but they’ve survived,” said Brady. “Your diehard fans will read everything online, but the casual fans won’t. They’ll read the paper in the morning and get the score and recap while they’re eating breakfast. Journalists are still the experts.”
It’s halftime at Parsons Field and the Huskies lead URI 31-17 in an offensive slugfest. On the roof of the press box, Strickland and I are a little tired from standing in the spot for an hour, but we’re happy because we haven’t messed up anything major yet.
“I’m having a hard time spotting Rocky Hager (head football coach) on the sidelines,” Strickland says. I tell him that I had trouble zooming in on whoever had the ball at the time.
I decide to go to the inside of the box and find Polgreen working on getting the webcast back online. The video had crashed with a minute left in the first half. Thinking that maybe a lot of people were logging onto the webcast, I ask how many people were watching.
“Only about 40 people,” he says. “It’s probably indicative of the game.”
There are only 40 people, but with the DSL setup, it’s enough to crash the system for a minute. Polgreen learns about the good and bad things about the broadcast through some feedback from people watching online; they send him text messages. Earlier in the broadcast, he received a text message from Mark Harris, an assistant director in the sports information department, that read “Video looks great.” The second half approaches and everyone takes their positions. Polgreen gets the webcast up and running again and there will be another 30 minutes of football shown on GoNU.com.
Experimenting with video might be GoNU’s last stand against the larger schools that shell out thousands to outsource their site to companies. Not many schools provide live video streaming. The larger Division I schools like a Florida or a USC have television contracts and thus have no need to stream online. The smaller schools, including Division II and Division III schools, don’t have the budget or the audience to sponsor it. That leaves mid-majors like Northeastern and other CAA schools to act on the opportunity to attract more viewers, and maybe more student-athletes.
“If you have the resources and you’re a mid-major, then [video] is a really great resource for fans, media, alumni and parents,” Litchfield said. “It’s also a great recruiting tool for coaches and players.”
“It gives mid-major schools like Northeastern a competitive advantage because not all the schools at NU’s level do it,” said Brady. “One of the real advantages is when a recruit wants to go to your school, he’ll go to your Web site and be able to watch the game online. Also, providing multimedia like video highlights or audio clips will keep people at your site. ”
“It’s an absolute necessity,” O’Brien said. “It’s the wave of the future and a new and better way to communicate with fans.”
O’Brien wants the video experiment to succeed so that NU can better communicate with its fans, but the department is concerned with the business model for this. As of now, Polgreen is paying for everything out of pocket. He bought all the equipment and the server space in this trial run. That won’t continue if NU does video full-time.
“We’re trying to figure out the economics about it,” O’Brien said. “It’s so much in its infancy. What’s the business model for it? One thing we do know is it’s got to be subscription based.”
“People who use it regularly will pay,” Litchfield said. “But it has to be affordable. It becomes a fundraiser for the program.”
“We want to make it easy for an NU fan to get a subscription,” Polgreen said. “Maybe we’ll make it so that if you donate, you’ll get it as a perk or if you subscribe to Diehard Dogs (an independent Web site run by NU fans), you’d get it for free. The key is getting people to watch it now and then wait for the technology to improve.”
How much fans will have to pay will not be determined until the costs of actually producing and streaming the video are determined. Producing the webcast may be the hardest part of all. Manpower at Northeastern is in limited supply and the sports information office is too busy with its own duties to handle the cameras and computers. That leaves volunteers and students to help out.
“Manpower is the main issue,” Litchfield said. “That’s the misconception with CSTV. Administrators think that they are getting their games on television; that CSTV will come into your place and produce a game. CSTV just streams the game. We can stream it, but with student help, you have to understand that it is what it is.”
Nonetheless, it might be the only way that GoNU.com could be come flashier in attracting fans. The site itself has not been changed and will not be changed in the near future. The reason lies in the fact that the department does not have anyone who can devote time to re-designing the site or adding multimedia features nor does it want to outsource the work to a company for a large yearly fee – at least not yet.
“To sustain something that’s homegrown, you have to invest in it,” Polgreen said. “Schools like NU have no way to leverage their most profitable marketing tool. It’s better to be in control, but maybe it’s not the best idea. I hope [GoNU.com] stays independent, but they need to figure out how to sustain it. If Litchfield left or if I left, I could see it going to another company.”
“It’s not a cheap alternative,” Brady said. “But in order to compete with the upper echelon schools, it’ll have to be an option.”
“There’s benefit to doing it ourselves,” O’Brien said, “but there’s benefits to doing through a company; mainly national visibility. [Right now] Is it worth doing differently? Not for the cost.”
With cost an issue, Northeastern could look to a fellow CAA school for a different look. James Madison University runs its own site, JMUSports.com, but also has become more adept at providing multimedia for viewers, attracting people to its site for more than just a game story. Much of the credit can go to Curt Dudley, who has worked at JMU Media Relations since 1988. Dudley was recently promoted to assistant sports media relations director for electronic communications and is now in charge of the development of JMUSports.com, broadcasting the JMU sports radio network and facilitating specialty communications, both internal and external. Though he still works in the media relations/sports information department, he focuses on the Web and not the day-to-day operations that a normal sports information staffer would work on.
“I think it’s a hybrid of sports information and new media,” Dudley said about his position.
Dudley runs JMUSports.com and the site is evolving from a tool for the media to a tool for the fans. There are the usual schedules, game stories and game notes, but there’s also marketing and promotion things to go with it. In the early days of his new job, Dudley is in the research and development phase of figuring out how to improve the site.
“The site does not have a lot of bells and whistles,” he said. “We want something that looks good and keeps people informed. We want to figure out what we want to provide, what’s premium (subscription content) and what’s standard (free).”
With each passing day, Dudley is advancing JMU’s multimedia capabilities. Right now, the site’s biggest asset is its radio network, which broadcasts many of the school’s sports including the major ones: men’s and women’s basketball, baseball and football. The network also provides much original content, such as interviews with coaches and news updates. Dukes Sportscenter is one of Dudley’s more popular features on JMUSports.com. It’s a type of podcast that fans can listen to and get all of JMU’s news in a matter of minutes.
“It’s news stuff, sound bytes and preview info for people to sit and listen to,” Dudley said. “During football season, we’ve had upwards of 300 people click and listen. It’s just trying to get people engaged to get them to come back to the site. With [the site], we can drop stuff to our constituents without the media, which is the middle man.”
Dudley is also working on experimenting with video, though nothing significant has happened quite yet. Earlier in the summer, Dudley put a camera on JMU’s Bridgeforth Stadium and allowed online viewers to watch the change of the field’s surface from AstroTurf to FieldTurf. Soon, JMU will try webcasting games, though that may lead to a major change in how JMUSports.com operates.
“There are plans on experimenting with video next semester, but server space is a problem,” Dudley said. “JMU does not have a full-time technician so I think eventually we’ll move to outsourcing. That way you get more bang for your buck.”
It’s the fans that will also want to get bang for their buck if and when they have to pay for video on GoNU.com. However, as of now the student and alumni fans seem into the idea.
“For me personally, I don’t have the time to watch,” said Craig Shames, a 2004 graduate of Northeastern, “but it’s a great idea, especially for men’s basketball.”
“I haven’t seen any video, but the Internet is growing everyday, so it makes sense that they are trying to do it,” said Anthony Morse, a senior who says he enjoys going to an occasional men’s hockey game.
“It’d be huge for me, especially if I was in Maine when there was a game,” said Kendall Conant III, a 2006 graduate who would watch video of men’s ice hockey online.
“I don’t care about all the sports, but I’d watch men’s basketball while I’m here,” said senior Mike Hernandez, who was referring to San Diego, where he lives while he is working on co-op.”
The game ends at 2:55 p.m. and Northeastern has soundly defeated Rhode Island, 45-31. Strickland and I are sore from almost three hours of camera work, but it went well. Polgreen and Brown both applaud our efforts, which were watched by a total of 70 users, a number that was significantly down from the 260 people who logged on to watch NU vs. Delaware and the 200 people who caught NU vs. New Hampshire. However, Polgreen attests that that probably was more indicative of the fact that it was the last game of the season and Northeastern is a sub -.500 team. Polgreen is proud today because there was only that one crash, which is a miracle considering that the webcasting was done through DSL. He truly believes that this could work.
“My theory came true today,” he says. “I had two guys on the camera, who have never done it before and a director who had never done it before and yet it went well. With more practice, it’ll get better. I’m encouraged because here we worked with the worst possible setup and the worst connection.”
Polgreen finishes his stat work and then he and I review the fourth quarter, which he taped so that he could analyze everything. We talk about the camera work, when the right time to cut to another camera is and the issues with the sun. He then breaks down all the equipment that took him hours to set up in the morning. The webcast was a success and though there was not a large crowd online there to watch it, it’s a step in the right direction. The fans now have a taste of what video can bring to them; it has whetted their appetite. It’s just like in 1998 when NU’s new live stats feature gave fans a taste of the online future then. If Northeastern can implement the video permanently, whether it is in-house or through outsourcing, then GoNU.com does have a chance of running alongside the major college athletic Web sites.