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Michigan State’s award-winning sports broadcasting getting an upgraded Breslin Center

Jason Laplow

It takes a lot of tech to make Big Ten Student U broadcast games from the Breslin Center, and by fall, big improvements will have been made.

This summer, Michigan State University’s Breslin Center is getting an upgrade. It’s not an exterior renovation, a new wing being added on, or anything that will be remotely noticeable to the general public. To those involved though, it will represent a marked shift in the ways things are done and open up the door to so many more possibilities than ever previously imagined.

Breslin is getting brand new, state-of-the-art production control rooms for its videoboard and Big Ten Plus productions.

The Big Ten Plus control room currently occupies the office of Matt McCulloch, who since 2016 has been in charge ofBig Ten Network Student U, a program that teaches students nearly every aspect of live sports production, from producing to running replay to play-by-play announcing. For the first three years with McCulloch at the helm, there was no permanent control room. Instead, everything was set up on a per-game, per-venue basis.

Jason Laplow

“All of the equipment was in a bunch of cases,” McCulloch said. “We’d have to load all the 15 or 18 cases onto a trailer and then tow the trailer with a golf cart – which I’m not even sure is legal – take the equipment to the venue, build a control room on tables under the bleachers, produce the show and then pack it up and move it to wherever we were going to next. Logistically, it was difficult, especially with the weather. You can’t build a control room while it’s raining sideways.”

Seeking to move away from the golf-cart-and-trailer system, he researched how existing fiber optic infrastructure on campus could be used to transfer video signals from every venue on to a central location, which could act as a permanent control room. In 2019 his vision solidified into the current setup in room Z-22 at the Breslin Center. A Windows-based video switcher called a TriCaster sits in the middle of the room. While very helpful for lower-level productions due to its all-in-one nature, advanced production techniques can push the machine to its limits. As the StudentU program continued to grow and produce game broadcasts at a higher level, the TriCaster becomes less of an ideal option.

Jason Laplow

This summer, a much more robust, hardware-based Ross Carbonite switcher will replace the TriCaster. Ross Video’s products are quickly becoming industry standards and can be found in professional sports venues and broadcast trucks all across the world. Combined with a new, three-channel XPression graphics system, McCulloch says that storytelling abilities will be unlocked through features that were previously either unavailable or much more difficult to execute.

“Technology wise, I am excited to get away from the TriCaster system and get to the Ross system,” McCulloch said. “I think the ability to do a lot of things like transitions and double boxes and graphic beds and animations, and just being able to make real macros on the switcher is going to be able for us to do a lot more network-level elements.”

Another big aspect will be audio. Currently, a small mixer in the middle of the control room is the final line of defense before the announcer and natural audio reaches your home. The audio operator sits about 10 feet away from the only speaker in the room - which leads to them sometimes just guessing an accurate level for all of the audio elements. A much larger mixer with professional monitoring tools will be at the back of the new control room.

Jason Laplow

“The ability to listen to and monitor the audio and get a much better mix – that’s the one thing when I’m looking at our show versus a network-level show, the audio definitely sticks out like a sore thumb,” McColloch said. “Us being able to dial in and mix the audio with a way that is on par with studio shows will be the most noticeable difference of the new control rooms to the viewer.”

The video board side of things has been on a journey of its own since the Breslin Center got its first center hung display in 1998. Room 40J, adjacent to the arena’s loading dock, has been a live video production hub ever since. The room’s current iteration has been tweaked slightly in the past year, but has more or less remained unchanged since new video boards were installed at Spartan Stadium in 2012. Upgrades in the last year were made to accommodate the new, much larger video board at Breslin that was installed last summer.

Getting the new video board – a much more public-facing project, last summer – helped to convince those providing the funds that this project was necessary. Essentially, a 2023, full-HD display doesn’t look nearly as good when running off of 2012 equipment as it potentially could.

“Getting the video board redone last year helped us a lot in the argument,” Nick Baker, Assistant AD of Spartan Vision, Creative Services, and Brand Management said. “And the argument with a lot of it was ‘Hey, we’re still using cameras that have been in service since 2012, and then you want to put up this brand new video board’.”

The new video board control room will be installed on the side of Z-22 opposite to where the new Big Ten Plus one will be. They will be nearly identical, with the hope that students will be able to learn the equipment in one room and easily transfer their skills to another one. The current video board setup has used a Carbonite since 2012, so it is similar to what the new one will be like, although it will use a larger switcher from Ross, called an Acuity.

Jason Laplow

The biggest upgrade on the video board side will be the ability to natively send full-quality HD video to the three different video boards on campus – at Breslin, Spartan Stadium, and Munn Ice Arena. The current system maxes out at 1080i – an interlaced signal that only updates every other line of pixels at a time, as opposed to a progressive 1080p signal which is much better for quick action like what is found in sports.

“It’s not that our current cameras aren’t HD,” Baker said. “The cameras that run the video board right now - that model maxes out at 1080i, so we’re sort of faking the signal to get to 1080p – we’re up-rezzing, essentially.”

The current replay system, Dreamcatcher, was installed a few years ago and will remain the same in the new control rooms. McCulloch lobbied heavily for the Dreamcatcher because it is becoming an industry standard and he knew that it would directly translate to students getting jobs. Since the upgrade, he said, at least 10 of his students have gotten jobs out of college as a direct effect of Dreamcatcher knowledge. He hopes that the new equipment in the new control rooms will have a similar effect. While at the end of the day it is more about what students do with the equipment than the equipment itself, the effect of exposing them to machines that wouldn’t be out of place in a linear control room can’t be understated.

Jason Laplow

“The Ross stuff is in a lot of production trucks, it’s in control rooms at higher levels, so when I talk about this program and I talk about walking onto your first job with confidence as my goal, well this will allow for more technical positions like TD (technical director) to be able to get your hands on equipment that you’re gonna see, rather than just understanding the concepts and then using a different tool. I don’t want to diminish the experience they’re already getting, but it is nice to have tools that they’re gonna see in the real world.”

For both productions, students remain the key to their success. While the shiny new control rooms will be nice, it’s really all about the people who will make them work.

“As an organization, we are setting people up for success,” Baker said. “We have employed students since the beginning of times, like, Spartan Vision is unique in that aspect. There’s a school down the road – they hire freelancers for all their video board stuff. We’ve hired students from the beginning and that also creates a workflow of people that goes out into the world.”

Jason Laplow

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