Owls Hit the Internet With Fast Break Broadcasting
There was a time when you had to be in attendance at either Spaulding Gym or Sumner Joyce Field, or, more recently, Owl Athletic Complex, to catch all the excitement of Keene State College athletics in real time.
However, these days, whether you’re on the other side of campus or on the other side of the world, you can keep track of your favorite Keene State teams thanks to the internet and Fast Break Broadcasting.
This past season, Fast Break broadcast 117 Owl games, including all home and selected away and tournament contests for KSC’s 18 varsity sports.
“You’re always trying to promote your program, and we felt this was the wave of the future for Division III athletics,” said Athletics Director John Ratliff. “People are going to their computers to watch games, and we wanted to provide not only parents, but alumni, fans, and recruits, an opportunity to see our games.”
Ratliff said that the College also made a conscious decision not to charge people to view the games. His reasoning: It would generate revenue, but limit the audience. “Is a recruit going to plop down $10 to watch a KSC game? I doubt it,” he said.
Implementing a system to broadcast Keene State games didn’t happen overnight. It involved many people with vision, not to mention the financial resources to get the Owls on the air. If radio has its Marconi, and television has its Philo Farnsworth, then Keene State internet broadcast has its Gino Vallante ’97. The Keene State grad, who serves as the Student Center program coordinator, moonlights as the broadcast boss and unofficial voice of the Owls.
The Keene State men’s basketball team got the internet ball rolling in 2004 when Coach Rob Colbert approached Vallante with the idea to do their games. “We wanted to try to do something different,” said Colbert. “Radio was great, but it wasn’t reaching our targeted audiences.”
Fast Break Broadcasting, named for Vallante’s longtime rapture for round ball, was born. One doesn’t just bring a computer to a game and begin broadcasting. Gino set about the task of integrating internet terms into the Keene State athletic lexicon. Set plays and speed on the court were accompanied by headsets and upload speed off of it.
With Kyle Provost, a Franklin Pierce grad, and Vallante at the mike, Fast Break did 27 audio broadcast its first season. While plugging into the internet at Spaulding Gym was relative easy, the same can’t be said when the duo hit the road. Sometimes running 200 of feet of cable around baskets and bleachers, Vallante would begin many of his broadcasts with the phrase, “If you only knew what we had to do to get on the air.” As much as they tried to troubleshoot and foresee problems, a Radio Shack run wasn’t uncommon.
The positive response to the basketball broadcasts brought other teams on board and eventually led to video streaming. “We try to treat every program with equal access and equal respect,” said Ratliff. “If we broadcast one team, we’re going to broadcast the others as well.”
Expanding the number of broadcasts meant more equipment, more announcers, and more importantly, internet upload speed to handle multiple, and sometimes simultaneous, broadcasts.
While the department allocated more funds for equipment, Vallante began to scour the campus for talent. A former basketball recruit, Adam Skibek ’07, as well as Christian Harrison ’10, who was plucked out of the stands while doing camera work for a television production class, soon joined the arsenal of announcers.
Both Skibek, currently an account executive for NBA D-League Maine Red Claws, and Harrison, who moved into a job in the Keene State sports information department after graduating, speak highly of the experience. “It was my start in sports. If I hadn’t been involved with Gino, I wouldn’t be working for the NBA today,” said Skibek. “I was able to progress in my career, go back to school, and work in sales full-time for a pro team.”
Creating an academic opportunity for students to get first-hand, live announcing experience, Vallante also dipped into the large pool of journalism and communication majors by setting up internships with Mark Timney, an associate professor of journalism at KSC. “Internships like these are often the most important stepping stone for getting professional work or an internship at a higher level,” said Timney. “Because of their practical experience, the students are not starting at square one.”
Needing an announcer to handle the men’s lacrosse broadcasts, Vallante turned to former Owl club coach and present director of campus purchasing Jim Draper. A one-man announcing team, Draper was initially concerned about doing the games. “I spent 15 years on the sidelines pacing and swearing at the referees, I don’t know if I’m going to be good on the air,” said Draper, who has connected with many of his former players through the broadcast. “Gino said it’s no problem – it’s the internet – but I watch my P’s and Q’s.”
Several announcers are KSC student-athletes who need to get up to speed before getting behind the mike. "My fisrt game was a field hockey game," said Eric Perrault, a junior on the Owl baseball team. "I never watched a single game, so it was tough. I did a little studying and tried to figure it out and make it sound like I knew what I was talking about."
While EZStream provides Keene State with an easy and cost-effective way to get its games to its ever-growing fan base, there have been some complications. One of major obstacles the College has confronted has been the need to get high-speed internet capability at Keene State’s remote athletic outdoor fields, which host Owl baseball, softball, lacrosse, and soccer teams. With the cost of hard-wiring the facility prohibitive, Ratliff said interruptions and quality of the broadcast from the fields will continue to be a concern.
What hasn’t been a problem, but rather a pleasant and unexpected surprise, is the response to the broadcasts. Audiences, including parents, alumni, and recruits, are clicking on in record numbers to watch the Owls in action. According to Vallante, the listener numbers, which began in the hundreds, are now in the thousands. It might not be up there with the Nielsen ratings, but the most-watched broadcast was a men’s basketball game between the Owls and St. Lawrence in the championship of the KSC Tip-Off tournament on Nov. 19th that had 6,694 hits.
A local radio signal that barely made its way out of the Monadnock region has been supplanted by internet technology that has sent Keene State games around the world. Vallante said he heard from a parent in Japan and alums in California and Washington.
The Keene State men’s swim team has several athletes with fathers in the military. Dick Harris, whose son Austin is a member of the KSC swim team, was able to tune in and watch a meet when he was in Amman, Jordan. “I give it two thumbs up,” he said.
Tony and Noelle Dormio, who reside in Leesburg, Va., said the broadcasts allow them to watch their daughter Sammy play for the Owl women’s volleyball team. “We’re down in Virginia, and it’s a nine-hour drive to get up to Keene,” said Tony. “Watching it on the web is the next best thing to ESPN, as far as we’re concerned.”
You don’t have to convince Colbert that the broadcast helps his recruiting efforts. “It’s hard to bring kids to campus, but if you can bring the campus to them or the environment to them, you’ve accomplished a big goal,” he said. “It’s easy, accessible, and their preferred method of watching and communicating. We’ve been able to recruit a different level of player.”
It’s also become a new way to sell the school. KSC coaches and alums are frequent guests on halftime shows, which might also include an admissions video.
Meanwhile, the Keene State baseball team uses its broadcasts as a fund-raiser by selling between inning ads. “It’s worked out very well for us and helps to defray the cost of our spring week trip,” said Coach Ken Howe.
ESPN Radio (1220 AM) in Keene also hooked up with Fast Break this spring to simulcast a few Owl baseball games – a collaboration that might continue into the upcoming season.
The past few years, Fast Break has sent an announcer with the team during its spring trip. Skibek readily recalls his week in Arizona when it was so hot his headset melted to his hat.
A front-runner in the rapidly changing and evolving world of internet broadcasting, Keene State has just scratched the surface of providing Owl fans with the best possible product. “Keene State made the commitment to be in the forefront and has followed through on that,” said Vallante. “We’re always looking for the newest and latest way to do it – but because we’re trying new things, we’re the ones that have to solve the problems. Any time we add another layer, we have work through the glitches.”
“It’s gotten to the point where college programs don’t have to wait for television and production companies to come to them,” said Colbert. “It’s going to become much more dynamic, and I think before long you won’t notice a difference between a streamed game and a televised game.”