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Joining the Landmark Conference brought Lycoming into a league which is the first Division III conference to sign with FloSports, a pay-only service for live broadcasting. And Lyco has used the incoming funding to invest in its broadcast setup.
Lycoming athletics photo by Michaey Golay
 

By Ryan Scott
D3sports.com

Let’s get it out of the way up top: No one wants to pay.

We’ve been getting Division III live streams for free for a long time. D3sports.com’s official position is that free is better and I think the vast majority of fans would agree. There are a lot of downsides to adding paywalls and restricting access, especially for those of us trying to keep an eye on 42 conferences.

By the time you read this column, FloSports may have already announced the NEWMAC as the second Division III conference to sign a broadcast agreement with the subscription platform, adding to a five-year deal currently in place with the Landmark, estimated to bring in approximately $27,000 per school per year over the life of the contract.

The NEWMAC declined to comment for this piece. But it’s not likely to be the last conference to sign. FloSports sees real value in Division III and is reaching out to just about any conference who will listen.

“When the idea was first presented to me,” says Landmark Commissioner Katie Boldvich, “I knew my (conference) presidents were against a paywall and said ‘no go,’ but once the offer was explained to me, I felt not presenting them with a seven figure offer might get me fired.”

This illustrates a real struggle for Division III athletics: the desperate need for funding in an environment of higher-ed contraction and cost cutting, paired with a desire to promote schools and athletic teams to as wide an audience as possible.

“Once the offer was explained to me, I felt not presenting (conference presidents) with a seven figure offer might get me fired.”

— Katie Boldvich, Commissioner, Landmark Conference

It’s basic economics: revenue vs. expenses, but the decision is not as simple as grabbing the cash. A lot of variables — most of which aren’t easy to put a price tag on — factor into which choices are made by which conferences and when. In this piece, the goal is to provide a map, a lay of the land, across the division (if that’s even possible) to help everyone better understand the context.

Fans do not want to pay but the cat is out of the bag. It’s happening. There’s a general consensus that broadcasts need to improve — for enrollment, for constituent relations, for the ability to monetize them — and that means more work for athletic department staff. This is the first key factor.

You may have seen articles about the lack of available athletic trainers across Division III, because the pay and the demands are not allowing them to do their jobs properly. The same is true for College Sports Communicators (the new blanket term for the Sports Information Director position), largely because the scope of what’s expected from them has risen so much faster than available resources.

“When I started,” says CWRU Associate AD for Communications and Media Relations, Jon Schwartz, “Wednesday was my stats day, regardless of when the game happened. Stats were updated on the website on Wednesday. Now, if a livestats goes out during the game, it’s a disaster.”

Anyone who has been around sports information for more than a decade can trace the massive expansion from websites to live stats, to audio broadcasts, to livestream, and now social media. Everything is vital to keep your school front and center and it’s what parents, student-athletes, and fans expect.

“Broadcasts rely on people, more than just technology,” adds Lycoming Associate AD for Communications Joe Guistina. “When you commit to broadcasting three events at once, as often happens on a Saturday, you need three laptops to run production, often multiple cameras at each event. You might spend, at minimum $20,000 just for basic equipment, but you need people to run all of that equipment. In the most basic two-camera system you need 4-5 people to run a broadcast for each event.”

“That [FloSports deal] has helped a lot,” says Guistina. “No one likes to pay for something that was free, but a lot of the initial shock has faded away already. We’ve been able to buy two new cameras, lots of cords and smaller equipment, pay the play-by-play people more, and I’ve been able to give my [part-time] assistant a raise.”

The Landmark, of which Lycoming is a new member, might be among the best positioned Division III conferences to take advantage of what FloSports is offering (which may be why they were first to sign up).

“We already had the Landmark Network,” says Boldvich. “We had established standards for broadcasting conference games, elevated for conference championships, all our schools were on the same streaming platform, using largely the same technology. Most important, we were not required to add additional capacity to our broadcast capabilities to sign with FloSports. I did not want to add to the workload of our athletics staff.”

Guistina confirmed that FloSports has not required much additional work on his part, but with a paid subscription comes the pressure to improve performance — after all, everyone wants the presentation to be the best it can be.

“You have to do what you have to do,” he says. “If that means relying on students more, at the D-III level, our students are pretty bright and capable, so you can do it.”

“Our presidents … feel we’re already asking students to pay their own way; they were very uneasy asking parents to pay to watch games on top of tuition. Many of our students come from low economic areas to begin with.”

— Jeff Ligney, Commissioner, Northern Athletics Collegiate Conference

The inherent pressure for a specific level of broadcast is what’s kept some conferences from accepting a broadcast deal. The Northern Athletics Collegiate Conference, comprised largely of small private schools in Wisconsin and Illinois, decided against going with FloSports, at least at this juncture.

“I was in favor of the idea,” says NACC Commissioner Jeff Ligney. “The level of investment we would have had to make right away — in cameras, equipment, and especially training — was prohibitive. Our presidents are also committed to the D-III model. They feel we’re already asking students to pay their own way; they were very uneasy asking parents to pay to watch games on top of tuition. Many of our students come from low economic areas to begin with.”

Still, Ligney notes, broadcasting on this level and the potential revenue from high quality broadcasts, is the future. The NACC presidents are working to implement a plan to invest, over time, and get the conference to the level where a broadcast deal might not be so far-fetched.

The same is true for what is undoubtedly Division III’s cash cow. “Last year we had 450,000 unique views of 40 minutes or more for our events and we’re on pace to top 500,000 this year,” reports WIAC Commissioner Danielle Harris.

However, while the WIAC is wildly popular, given the size of the institutions and their place within local communities across Wisconsin, the level of and investment in broadcasting varies nearly as widely across the membership.

“We’ve had the WIAC Network for a year now,” notes Harris. “There were some very basic standards the first year and those will increase gradually. We’re putting ourselves in a position where we can consider all options.”

Those options are indeed quite vast. FloSports is the first large company entering the space with a subscription and support model, but Hudl also offers the ability for schools to charge for broadcasts as part of the package many Division III schools already use.

Susquehanna and Lycoming on FloSports from Wednesday, Feb. 7.
 

Hudl was the broadcast partner for the early rounds of Division II NCAA Tournament for football this year, and will be expanding into men’s and women’s basketball and women’s volleyball in the future.

“I think it was a natural fit to pilot these programs,” says Julie Kimmons, NCAA Director of Championships and Alliances Broadcast Services. “Most of the Division II conferences already have a pay model in place for the regular season, so it makes sense for the NCAA to explore these options in the postseason.”

There are no current plans to move this pay model to the early rounds of Division III championships, largely because there’s such a wide variety of broadcast capabilities across the division and the revenue doesn’t justify the spending it would require to bring them up to speed. However, the option to do so is already built into the broadcast contracts.

Another option that might be unique to the WIAC is simply going it alone. Either keeping the WIAC Network as a free service, supported with ad sales and sponsors or moving to charge a subscription fee to access those games. As Harris reports, “Everything remains on the table.”

“If we can provide this service for free, we’re going to do it. I would never want to do anything that would put fewer eyes on our games.”

— Jon Schwartz, Associate Athletic Director for Communications & Media Relations, Case Western Reserve

One of the big questions surrounding pay-per-view or subscription models is what it does to access.

For Schwartz, at Case, it’s pretty clear. “We’ve got a strong alumni base that is incredibly supportive and tuition is already pretty high. If we can provide this service for free, we’re going to do it. I would never want to do anything that would put fewer eyes on our games.”

In reality, it can be a bit more complicated.

“So many of our free views were just someone tuning in for a play or two, to check the score,” says Boldvich. “With the subscription model almost all of our viewers are watching the entire game and the number of people watching entire games haven’t decreased all that much.”

No one I’ve encountered will report raw viewership numbers and the Landmark does not openly share them, but anecdotally, a school can generally expect a 60-70% drop off in total views moving from free to subscription viewing. Boldvich reports “a number close to that range,” although for sports outside of football and basketball, where there is less interest outside the immediate fan base, “it’s a lot closer to 50%,” rather than 60%. Other league sources confirm the same.

The Landmark has also negotiated the rights to have free on-demand replays of all their events after 72 hours of FloSports exclusive access, and schools get up to 120 seconds of free highlights for use and distribution on local and social media.

“I’m not sure how many recruits are watching games live anyway,” Boldvich posits. “We are paying extra to keep our Landmark Network operational to give people as much access as they want after the fact.”

That brings us to the literal million dollar question: How much are Division III broadcast rights actually worth? Is there money to be made here?

“No one has done a study of how much D-III broadcasts are worth. Until it’s done, we just won’t know,” Harris said, from the WIAC perspective.

Division III regular season rights work just like Division I conferences do, in that the conference has control over how those rights are assigned or sold. Collecting rights for all 42 all-sports conferences, to bring all of D-III under one umbrella, requires 42 agreements. FloSports charges $29.99 a month or $150 annually for access to its content (with discounts for students and family members available through each conference), which might be worth the price, if it included every Division III contest. With a piecemeal system, though, it’s very expensive to follow any sport from a national perspective.

Conferences signing up with FloSports are doing so as a wager on the future. The more content FloSports can add to their service, the more willing viewers will be to subscribe and the more eyeballs, potentially, might fall upon the Landmark or the NEWMAC or any other conference that decides to sign up.

With enrollment decreasing, along with the decline in the college-age population in general, budgets are only going to get tighter. There will be more repercussions to mistakes or bad investments. Will requiring a subscription to watch games decrease fundraising for the athletic department? What if the investment in equipment never sees a return? What if it’s impossible to measure the value of exposure and public relations and goodwill that comes with keeping broadcasts free?

One thing I’ve discovered reporting this piece is simply how different each individual school really is when it comes to answering these questions. I thought I could generalize among different tiers of investment — be able to say a school with one camera and no announcers spends roughly X dollars, while a three-camera production with professional color and play by play costs Y.

As diverse as Division III in mission, vision, academics, finances, and situation, so are the myriad ways it pays for broadcasting athletics. There is no one singular model that can serve as an example to others.

Case Western Reserve is a large enough institution that they have an on-campus production vendor that does broadcasting and video across departments. It might cost them $1,000 or more per home football and conference basketball game, but they also reside in Cleveland and possess a large constituency where ad sales can offset some of these costs, with little required equipment purchases.

A rural school may get paid by the local radio station to broadcast games, while other schools may have to shell out for airtime, if they want to go that direction. Some schools have professional-level announcers on staff, while others hire out and still others rely on students.

There’s no one way to do this right.

Still, after all this time and research, a dozen phone calls, and hundreds of emails, I’m not sure this subscription broadcast model is best for Division III — at least right now.

I can see the logic for the Landmark — and any conference comfortable with its level of broadcast quality. Alums and supporters of each institution might grumble a little, but they’re willing to fork over some money if it’ll help the school. Likewise parents, as much as they are paying in tuition, are already used to paying for access to high school and travel sports broadcasts, pretty standard across the country.

It stinks for a national audience, though — if there are a dozen or more paywalls that make viewing the scope of the division prohibitively costly. I asked, time and again, if this group is even sizable enough to factor into the plans of an individual conference or FloSports itself.

“If we could have every D-III competition on our network today, it would be great for us and great for the schools.”

— Phil Wendler, Executive Vice President for Global Rights Acquisition for FloSports

FloSports Executive Vice President for Global Rights Acquisition Phil Wendler says, “We’re not going after Tier 1 rights. We want to be in spaces where there’s a good fit, with opportunity and demand, where there’s a need for a holistic media partner. I believe there’s not only a national market (for Division III), but an international market — we’re pushing these feeds around the world. If we could have every D-III competition on our network today, it would be great for us and great for the schools.”

Perhaps I’m just not seeing the bigger picture, but these deals still strike me as provincial or short-sighted. They’re piecemeal with lip service to a national strategy, but there’s no clear path to making a unified market that increases attention and exposure for Division III at large. There’s also no one, outside the NCAA, responsible for thinking in that direction — and, of course, the NCAA is made up of representatives from individual schools and conferences, without much incentive to do so.

I don’t like the pay model. It doesn’t sit well with me and it makes my engagement with and enjoyment of the sport more difficult. At the same time, I see the pressures on athletic department staff, the demands of enrollment and revenue and overall institutional budgets that can only supplement athletics so much. I get that we need to move forward, I just wish there was more attention and intention placed on moving forward together.

In an ideal scenario, subscription broadcasts could solve a lot of problems and bring Division III together. I’m not sure, though, in the actual world, it isn’t going to create just as many problems as it solves and help to drive us apart.

I’d love to be wrong, but only time will tell.

[Click here to read full column]


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