As spectators filed into TD Arena and basketball players from The Citadel and the College of Charleston went through pre-game warm-ups, members of the television production crew scrambled to make sure everything was set for the game to be broadcast live.
Tension was high. Directors in the College of Charleston's production van ran into some unexpected technical problems, and time was running out with tip-off just minutes away.
Yet despite some first-night glitches, the College of Charleston's new venture into television production was a success. College of Charleston athletics director Joe Hull was all smiles Thursday night, and not just because of the Cougars' 83-64 win over The Citadel. Hull was happy about the school's leap into producing its own broadcasts so Cougar sporting events can be viewed locally and worldwide.
The college is on the cutting edge of what could be the future of sports television for small schools.
The College of Charleston men's basketball program has proven it can compete with Atlantic Coast Conference and Southeastern Conference schools on the court. But the Cougars -- who have wins against Clemson, South Carolina, North Carolina and Tennessee during the last four seasons -- aren't even in the same universe when it comes to television exposure.
ACC and SEC teams have multimillion-dollar television contracts that guarantee coverage; the College of Charleston has to pay if it wants to be guaranteed a spot on the TV schedule.
The College of Charleston Sports Network will produce 11 games this season that will be broadcast locally on WMMP or WTAT. Those games also will be available on ESPN3, a streaming Internet service that reaches more than 70 million households worldwide and is available in 85 percent of U.S. homes. Some games also might be carried on ESPN FullCourt, a pay-per-view service available on cable systems.
By season's end, at least 23 of the team's 30 regular-season games will be televised.
"This is really a very positive step forward for the program," said Dan Shoemaker, vice president for collegiate development for ESPN Regional Television.
Shoemaker called the College of Charleston's move "cutting edge."
Being on television is important. College of Charleston men's basketball coach Bobby Cremins agreed to an 8 a.m. start for an early season game against Morehead State because it offered the Cougars an opportunity to be on an ESPN-televised game.
"It's exposure for our program. We're not the ACC. We're not the SEC. We have to recruit against those guys," Cremins said. "Any time you get an opportunity to play on national TV, you have to take a hard look at it."
Hull said he feels televised coverage of the school's athletic programs helps the institution as a whole. Prospective students see the athletic program and might take a closer look at the school.
The old deal
For a mid-major program, the College of Charleston men's basketball team has enjoyed its share of TV coverage. Last year, the Cougars appeared on television 21 times during their run to the quarterfinals of the National Invitation Tournament.
But seven of those appearances were games the school paid to have broadcast. CSS, a regional cable sports network based in Atlanta, charged the school a total of $28,000 to carry those games.
The relationship with CSS was great, Hull said, but there were coverage gaps. While CSS was readily available in Georgia and most of South Carolina, it was unavailable in Columbia.
The only market it reached in North Carolina, Hull said, was Asheville. College of Charleston basketball games weren't being televised in Virginia.
"We were telling people we were on TV, but they were saying, 'Not where I am.' To get on something like ESPN3 that would cover everywhere, that was the concept," Hull said.
With the school's seven-year contract with CSS set to expire after the 2010-11 school year, Hull several years ago began exploring possibilities for a new, more favorable television package that also might afford some television opportunities for other sports.
Last year, the school produced video streams of 135 men's and women's athletic events, and the school produced all those events, which were available for $50 for the entire year.
The College of Charleston already was in the video production business with its video streaming. But last spring, a new technology became available that produced a signal closer to high-definition television than the video streaming signal, and at a significantly lower cost. Hull said ESPN and the local television stations believe the signal is of sufficient quality for broadcast.
The school purchased a video production van and outfitted it with the necessary equipment. The entire expenditure for the van and equipment was about $200,000. Hull said he expects to have the expenses paid off in four years and begin generating a modest revenue stream.
Putting on a college basketball game is not a cheap proposition. Hull said he has been told the range is anywhere from $28,000 to $50,000 to produce a game, depending on which network is producing the event. He estimates the school will be able to produce the games for about $7,000, including getting the signal to a satellite.
Battling the big guys
Hull said the College of Charleston isn't breaking new ground in regard to producing its own broadcasts; the school is simply taking advantage of the latest technology.
Marshall University developed a network to carry its football program when it was in its heyday as a Division I-AA football power. The University of Connecticut, a national powerhouse in women's basketball, has a network to carry the team's games on Connecticut Public Television.
Hilltopper Satellite Sports was developed to carry almost all of Western Kentucky's men's basketball games as well as some women's basketball games. It reaches more than 13 million viewers nationwide.
The College of Charleston is the only school in the Southern Conference producing its own broadcasts.
"My personal thought is that TV has power and impacts people," Hull said. "ACC basketball was built on television. My guess is that SEC football wouldn't be what it is if people couldn't watch it on TV every week.
"We're just trying, to the extent we can, to get out there. It seemed like we had a better chance if we were producing our own picture."
He said the school pays to get the signal to a satellite, and the College of Charleston and local TV stations share in the advertising time. The school's advertising sales will offset the cost of producing the broadcast.
The College of Charleston isn't being paid to be on television, but it also is not having to pay to be on TV.
The plan isn't perfect. Hull said there are areas where ESPN3 cannot be accessed, including starting point guard Andrew Lawrence's hometown of London.
"We're not trying to make it less available. We're trying to make it more available. We've done our homework and we're ready to go. We believe it's going to be great," Hull said.
"Had we been ready at the beginning of the school year, I'm confident some of our soccer games would have ended up on ESPN3. I'm confident some of our baseball games this spring will be on ESPN3. What we're hoping to do is take what we were doing for seven men's basketball games and expand it so some of the other teams, whether it's volleyball, soccer, baseball, can have the opportunity to have some level of exposure beyond what they currently have."