March 31, 2003
Ute-lizing the Net: U. sports, media deparments broadcast games on the Web
By Brice Wallace, Deseret News business writer
Well, howdy, fans, and welcome to the Deseret News and another thrilling season at the ol' ballpark. Business writer Brice Wallace here to bring you all the details of a new game in town, one featuring University of Utah students using the Internet to bring all the excitement of Ute baseball and softball games to fans around the world.
Yes, friends, for all you seamheads who can't get enough diamond doings, you now have an alternative to falling asleep to West Coast games drifting in and out of static from the nightstand clock radio. So settle in for a ball game or two in the seat of your choice, as long as it's within earshot of a computer.
"It's a great opportunity for us as well as the students, and that's the real key," says Marc Amicone, in charge of marketing for Ute athletics. "This is helping athletes get some exposure that don't normally have it, and it's helping students in the communications department get some real hands-on experience they might not normally get."
The university's athletics and communications departments have teamed up this spring, and cozying up to the mike will be students in a specialty reporting class calling home baseball and softball games strictly for the Web at www.UtahUtes.com.
The first broadcast was last week, when the Ute baseball team hosted Brigham Young University at Franklin Covey Field. The broadcasting newbies coped with some unusual circumstances, such as filling time during a game delay caused by a snowstorm. Home softball games will air beginning Friday, when the Utes take on Long Beach State.
In addition to the streaming live audio, the Internet lineup includes links to player bios, features and updated stats, a few digital snapshots of game action, a photo gallery, summaries of previous games and the opportunity to send the would-be Vin Scullys e-mail messages during the games.
The Web casts will be the first regular broadcasts of any sort for the Ute baseball and softball teams and perhaps the first Web-exclusive broadcasts of college baseball.
"We've practiced, so we're a little prepared," said junior Dan Clayton, the programming's executive producer who also will do some play-calling. He said he is both excited and anxious about the venture. "We're just champing at the bit to get out there and put all our practice to good use."
Longtime TV personality Craig Wirth teaches the specialty reporting class and said the 28 students' passion for the Web casts has been outstanding.
"The Web opens up new possibilities," he said. "Certainly, doing softball and baseball wouldn't be economically feasible on the college level on over-the-air broadcasting. A lot of things that don't have mass appeal and wouldn't be feasible on over-the-air broadcasting can be done on the Web. With just a Web address, there are things you can do, dreams that certainly weren't possible before."
Wirth said he has provided the students with guidance regarding ethics, principles and foundations of reporting and writing that they will apply to new media "and where they're going with dreams, hopes and possibilities."
"To be honest, a lot has been driven by the enthusiasm of the students. They come from very visual, Web-knowledgeable backgrounds, and they bring things to it," he said.
Ann Darling, communications department associate professor and chairwoman, said the course "creates an unusual and important experience for our students because it challenges them to blend a variety of journalist skills, like writing and editing, and apply them to the digital environment."
"It also affords them with a real audience, real broadcasts and real expectations to inform and entertain responsibly. These opportunities and experiences are invaluable for our students, and we are grateful to the athletics department for making them available," she said.
To make sure their bases are covered, listeners will need to download a free copy of Apple QuickTime Player, found at www.Apple.com/quicktime/download, and will need a 28.8 kbps modem connection or better to receive the audio.
"We're taking the audio feed and digitizing it and compressing it down so it is usable with modems and pumping it out to the Web," said Mike Gillilan, athletics information technology manager at the U.
Taking advantage of Web-exclusive features, such as the interactivity of e-mail messaging, is among the contributions of senior Matt McGhie, who designed the Web site. Those are among the features Amicone describes as the students' willingness "to certainly go above and beyond just play-by-play."
"When we had the test run, everything went surprisingly well," McGhie said. "We're just excited to get it out there and let the world hear us. It's not pressure, in my mind. It's just the excitement of breaking new ground."
The spring sports aren't the first foray into Web casting at the U., which has provided video streaming of women's gymnastics for three years. Also, U. sports covered by KALL 910 have been available on the radio station's Web site and the university athletic department's Web site.
BYU, meanwhile, has been providing text play-by-play over the Internet for several sports, and BYU Radio partners with the university's athletic department to broadcast about 120 games in various sports, with the broadcasts available on the Dish Network's "extended package" and on the Internet.
Those broadcasts obviously aren't Web-exclusive and have longtime announcers rather than a group of student rookies bringing their best stuff, although Duff Tittle, BYU's associate athletic director for communications, said a few springtime games in a few sports might be Web cast -- audio and video -- with student talent.
Potentially on the receiving end of these inside pitches are computer users from Midvale to east Timbuktu. "You're going to have, obviously, the friends and family of the players and maybe the old coach from the high school team that the kids come from," Wirth said. "Then there are the Ute fans and sports junkies from across the country."
Clayton, too, expects player parents to be among the primary audience but said the Mountain West Conference's interest in the Web casts could have some benefits. The conference recently featured the Web cast details on its Web site.
"Because of the exposure the conference is giving us, maybe some other conferences or schools will listen in and see if it's something they can do," he said. "That means extra pressure, but it also means excitement. We're doing what we can to make it a worthwhile product for everyone to listen to."
All the parties realize that, relatively speaking, this is just the first pitch of what could be a whole new ball game for Internet content.
"We hope in the future that we can do it for some other events, like women's soccer and volleyball in the fall," Amicone said, adding that the cost of the spring Web casts likely will be less than $1,500. If it is successful, it might lead to other Mountain West Conference schools doing the same, allowing fans of the teams to catch both home and away games via the Web.
"That's a goal for us that would be great," he said. "We'll be the guys on the front end and see if it will work."
Wirth wants to see it continue and expand. "The enthusiasm and the academic opportunities are there, to really look at how we can and should be communicating over the Web. We're learning lessons that should be in discussions in journalism classes. Every new media and technology represents a set of ethics and opportunities for editing and writing. All in all, I think it would be absolutely tremendous to continue this," he said.
And regardless of whether the Web casts strike out or prove to be a big hit, the students realize the Web casts potentially represent a step into the minor leagues of their professions and maybe a chance to shine for the scouts in the bigs. Sure, there might be an error or two along the way, but eventually broadcasting a ball game might come as free and easy as a lazy fly ball to right field.
"Most of us, either from a writing standpoint or from an announcing standpoint or a producing standpoint, are looking at this like, no matter what we go into down the line, this will help us out," Clayton said. "That's especially true if you're planning a career in mass communications."
"Their careers will be spent in some form of Web-based, electronic-based journalism," Wirth said. "That's going to happen. Their life will be in this ever-expanding Web-based technology, and this represents a remarkable opportunity that the athletic department came up with for them.
"It's so relevant, so pertinent -- to write for the idiosyncracies and the possibilities for the Web. And they realize the opportunity they have."