A game changer? High school football live at theday.com
New London - A planning meeting at The Day last week featured talk of compressions, Ethernet lines, bit rates and upload speeds.
Story ideas and deadlines were on the table, too, but the focus was clearly on the medium as much as any message. And that medium was video. Streaming video. Live streaming video.
In three weeks, The Day will embrace that medium as it never has before when it streams live video coverage of the Nov. 10 New London-Ledyard high school football game on the newspaper's website, www.theday.com.
Given the high-level production team and the on-air talent engaged in the project, it promises to have the look, sound and feel of a network broadcast. The crew that occupies the 35-foot production truck that Saturday next to Ledyard's Mignault Field will work the next day at an NFL game at Gillette Stadium in Foxboro, Mass.
"It's an experiment," Gary Farrugia, The Day's publisher, said of the project, a "pilot" that could lead next year to a full 10-week season of live football coverage as well as other streaming video projects.
Expectations are high.
"We think it's going to be a 'wow' moment," said Timothy Dwyer, The Day's executive editor.
The Day and Outthink, the Essex marketing agency whose co-owner, Ralph Guardiano, is a member of The Day's board of directors, are equal partners in the project, according to Farrugia.
Guardiano, a self-described television producer with a background in sports and news, is the driving force behind the streaming-video venture. His industry connections have enabled him to secure the participation of such major players as Thistle Communications, a Pelham, N.H.-based company that produces network news, sports and special events. Innovative, a marketing company based in Indianapolis, has created graphics, and audio technicians and network television producers and directors have signed on to the project.
Michael Ratte, a former sports anchor at NBC Connecticut who worked with Guardiano at Channel 26 in New London in the late 1980s, will provide play-by-play on the webcast, teaming with local color man Casey O'Neill.
Perhaps no one involved in the project has a higher profile in the television sports business than Wally Bruckner, the coordinating producer responsible for the project's pregame, halftime and postgame shows. A freelance producer for NBC Sports, he's been commuting from his East Lyme home to 30 Rock in Manhattan, where he's one of the postgame producers for NBC's coverage of Sunday night NFL games.
Bruckner has worked behind the camera at the last three Olympics in Beijing, Vancouver and London, and before that spent 22 years in front of the camera as a sports anchor, including 16 years at the NBC station in Washington, D.C.
Farrugia, who got to know Bruckner through their daughters, who are best friends, pitched the concept of The Day's streaming video project in an email Bruckner received while working in London during the Summer Games.
"I'll always take a meeting," Bruckner said. "You never know."
Intrigued by the project's novelty and the promise of its network-quality production values, he agreed to join the team. "It was a chance to do something different, to see where this goes," he said.
More than a game, an event
Guardiano and The Day's top editors believe this could go far.
"We have one chance to do this," Dwyer said. "If it works this one time, we have a chance to do this kind of thing in our market, and other people who work on it may have an opportunity to do it in other markets."
Having dabbled in live video streaming with coverage of political debates, high school basketball and its "Live Lunch Break" concert series, The Day began contemplating video coverage of football earlier this year. It was Guardiano who ran with the ball.
"When you think about it, who's in a better position (than a newspaper) to produce a game?" Guardiano said. "If a local TV station does a game, they've got one or two cameras with no replay capability. It's a minimal effort, and they're not going to do human interest stories. The Day's good at telling human interest stories."
And while cable stations typically lack the know-how and resources to execute network-quality game coverage, achieving that level is precisely The Day's goal, he said.
On Nov. 10, at least half a dozen cameras will be trained on the New London-Ledyard action. Slow-motion and instant replays, student reporters on the sidelines, strategically placed microphones, statistical updates and music will be part of the presentation, as will print and online publication of feature stories about the athletes, their parents and the two schools during the week leading up to the game.
"We're creating an event - and covering a game," Guardiano said. "… Who doesn't want to see their kid in slo-mo from three different angles?"
Guardiano believes many in the media will be monitoring The Day's experience.
"A lot of the people I've leaned on have said you're going to lose your shirt," he said. "Now, they're so intrigued. They want to see this game. … When it's over, I want them to say, 'That was unbelievable - did you see it?'"
Dave Gellar, The Day's sales development manager, said advertisers have been receptive to the project. The Day has sold sponsorships to segments of the webcast, including the pregame, halftime and postgame shows, he said, and will market the project in print, via email and on theday.com and radio. Advertisers' commercials will air during breaks in the game action.
At halftime, the cameras will focus on the band and a Ledyard Hall of Fame ceremony. The Day also will enable viewers to pick the game's outstanding players - one from each team - in online voting.
Gellar and others expect the project to drive a young audience to the website, which would be another plus for The Day.
'The next frontier'
Mike DiMauro, The Day's assistant sports editor, served as the color man on theday.com's live streaming video of high school basketball, including a state tournament game last March in which New London beat Windsor in double overtime at Central Connecticut State University in New Britain.
"This was as well-received as anything we've ever done in the 20 years I've been here," DiMauro said, referring to the public's response to the webcast. "And this was with just one camera. We started thinking, 'What if we could get to a hard-wired press box with two cameras - one on the field - for football?'"
Discussions among Dwyer, DiMauro, Peter Huoppi, The Day's director of multimedia, and others at the paper preceded a meeting with Guardiano.
"In June, Ralph flew in a guy who'd produced the Indy 500," DiMauro recalled. "We were in a meeting and somebody asked how many live viewers we had for the basketball video and I said about a thousand. I'm thinking they're going to get up and leave right now. But the guy said, 'With one camera? That's great.'"
From that point, DiMauro said, the project began to take shape.
By now, an almost palpable buzz surrounds it. Why such enthusiasm?
"It's the next frontier, that's what makes it exciting," said Bruckner, the freelance producer. "There's some trepidation and anxiety, too. There will be a wonderful sense of accomplishment and relief when it's over."
At Ledyard High School, Jim Buonocore, the head football coach and athletic director, said he's been trying to keep a lid on things.
"We try to shield our players as much as possible from distractions," he said. "I believe our players are aware of the upcoming coverage, but in terms of what the project really entails and what's going to be presented to the public, they don't know. Certainly, our administration and our coaches are well aware and they're very excited to be a part of it."
Buonocore said The Day has chosen a good matchup for its experiment.
"First and foremost, these are two of the most tradition-rich programs in southeastern Connecticut, if not the whole state," he said. "Both communities love their football and produce tough, hard-nosed athletes year after year. It's a great game for The Day to publicize."
The mayors of the two towns - New London's Daryl Justin Finizio and Ledyard's John Rodolico - got caught up in the spirit of things last week, agreeing that the "losing" mayor would sport the winning school's colors for a day after the game.
At The Day, "all hands are on deck," with employees in the news, advertising and marketing departments contributing to the effort, said Gellar, the ad sales manager.
"We're making a statement with this," he said. "We're not dipping a toe in the water - we're jumping in."
If you watch
What: New London-Ledyard high school football game live streaming
When: Nov. 10, with the webcast beginning at 10:15 a.m.
Replays: 8 p.m. Nov. 10 and Nov. 11. Available free on demand beginning Nov. 12
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