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Online channels feed college sports fans

UCLA and USC are among universities streaming games, including events that go beyond high-profile sports

December 24, 2007|Greg Johnson and Larry Stewart | Times Staff Writers

USC's Mike Garrett is studying game film on a screen in his Heritage Hall office -- but there's nothing secret about what the athletic director is watching.

It's Trojans football -- on his computer.

The game is a replay of an FSN telecast that is being streamed through the USC website. The Trojans' online channel, however, intends to go live as often as possible when teams are playing -- including volleyball, tennis, golf and baseball.

Trojan TV All-Access is USC's version of sports webcasting. Anyone who has a computer, a fast Internet hookup and is willing to pay a fee can enjoy the growing schedule of USC games, news conferences and other athletic events that the university began streaming in August.

Last Monday night, for example, the Trojans' basketball game against Delaware State wasn't televised -- but it was streamed live at usctrojans.com, as will Saturday's game against UC Riverside.

USC is not alone. UCLA and hundreds of other colleges and universities are streaming games live. There can be glitches, though, as UCLA found last month when basketball fans, knowing the debut of center Kevin Love would not be televised, signed up for streaming -- only to see a choppy feed or a blank screen because of a firewall.

When streaming works, however, its reach is worldwide.

The Horizon League, which includes Butler, Cleveland State and Loyola (Chicago), will stream more than 400 sporting events this year from member campuses.

"On any given night we've got people in 25 or 50 countries watching," Horizon League Commissioner Jonathan B. LeCrone said. "We get e-mails from people all over the world, including a number from the front line in Iraq telling us to keep this up."

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"Look how clear that is," USC's Garrett said as Rich Rodriguez, the channel's executive producer, punched a computer keyboard to bring the football game into focus. "This is cutting-edge stuff."

Not long ago, the cutting edge was pretty dull. Video streams were fuzzy, soundtracks were out of sync and the picture filled little more than a postage-stamp portion of a computer screen.

Though web streaming was a hit with some techies, its limitations were enough to drive away fans who grew up watching seamless sportscasts on television. The bigger obstacle, though, was the question of whether the expensive process could pay for itself.

The NCAA showed the way two years ago during March Madness, streaming the early rounds for free, but with advertising. Last season, 1.4 million fans registered to watch online.

Such fare as March Madness, which is recoded for online use from high-quality CBS Sports broadcasts, looks and sounds the best online too.

"It's all gotten much easier to do online," said Greg Weitekamp, director of broadcasting for the NCAA.

And that means immediacy.

A case in point: UCLA's All-Access channel, accessible through uclabruins.com, went live with the Dec. 3 news conference in which Athletic Director Dan Guerrero confirmed he had fired football coach Karl Dorrell.

Meanwhile, sports that rarely attract network attention are enjoying a surge in online coverage, thanks to a dramatic drop in the cost of equipment.

When the NCAA covers one of the 150 sports championships it streams every year, it buys an airline ticket for a producer who carries along a sophisticated computer that serves as a television control booth and three small digital cameras that typically are operated by students.

USC's operation, for example, has two full-time employees -- Rodriguez and producer Mark Haas -- and nine students who work on a part-time basis.

Some colleges and conferences make do with a single camera that is stationed, say, at midcourt to capture a women's volleyball game. Others piggyback on video images captured by cameras that feed the JumboTrons at basketball games or offer an audio feed provided by a campus or local radio station.

Basic digital cameras cost as little as $500, though a $3,000 camera will produce better results. A rudimentary editing system costs about $3,000. Once equipment costs are covered, the cost of an online stream is but a fraction of the $50,000 or more that a television crew will charge to provide a no-frills broadcast-quality feed. And it is far from the $100,000 or more that it costs to provide that game with standard and HD feeds.

Streaming clearly can't match CBS Sports or ESPN broadcasts, "but what's important to us is that institutions or conferences are able to provide coverage of events that they've never been able to achieve in the past," Weitekamp said.

Much of what is streamed now flows through CSTV, a CBS-owned operation that manages about 215 college websites including Trojan TV All-Access and UCLA's All-Access, both of which have a monthly or yearly fee. CSTV also has a yearly fee that offers thousands of events around the nation.

CSTV also offers single games as well as a more expensive package that gives fans access to thousands of games each year.

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