Penn Athletics ready for its TV close-up
Under Steve Bilsky, the Quakers are trying to gain new national attention through online streaming
February 5, 2013, 9:01 pm·
Julia Ahn | DP
Now that Penn men’s and women’s lacrosse are both preparing for season-opening scrimmages this weekend, you know that spring is in the air.
And it’s springtime for television coverage of men’s lacrosse at Princeton as well.
The Ivy League Champion Tigers will play five of their 13 regular-season games on ESPNU, while the Quakers won’t be competing on any nationally televised games this year.
But for Penn Athletic Director Steve Bilsky, neither ESPNU nor NBC Sports Network — with whom the Ivy League landed a two-year television contract in May — holds the future destiny of Quakers athletics on the small screen.
For Bilsky, the future is streaming, and the future is now.
“We went out and bought a whole bunch of high-definition cameras,” Bilsky told the DP last month. “We put replay on it. We put graphics on it. If you watch our streaming, you’re gonna see as close to network quality as you can get. And I’m not a technology buff, but I know in a lot of cases you can hook your laptop into your television and watch it on TV at that point.”
Penn Sports Network is the live video channel of Penn Athletics and the pay-for-subscription service Bilsky values more than having a national television deal.
However, it costs $7.95 per month and $59.95 for an entire season to join Penn Sports Network, prompting critics of Bilsky’s broadcasting philosophy to charge that PSN only increases the visibility of Penn athletics for students and alumni who are already likely to pay to watch Quakers sports.
“But you’re gonna have every basketball game, every football game, every soccer game [streaming], you’re gonna have quite an inventory,” Bilsky said.
As a member of the Ivy television committee, Bilsky is currently involved in trying to get the Ivy League to have all streaming available under one package. In other words, if Bilsky gets his way, Quakers fans would be able to catch Penn playing at Yale as part of a universal package rather than being at the mercy of Yale’s streaming costs.
“If we’re able to do this league-wide, you’re going to have every away game,” Bilsky said. “And as a real fan, you might be interested in watching the Harvard-Princeton basketball game on your network for whatever the price is. It will find its right value.”
The one issue that remains with installing a universal Ivy streaming package is achieving comparable quality across all schools. As Bilsky noted, if one school has graphics, announcers and high-definition, viewers will quickly grow frustrated with other broadcasts that don’t.
Princeton’s deal with ESPNU, though, has been anything but comparable to the rest of the league.
ESPNU has given Princeton considerable national exposure in all sports, ranging from men’s basketball and men’s lacrosse to men’s water polo, making it the most significant of the Ivy League’s contracts while each school in the conference controlled its own broadcast rights.
Although Penn’s previous local TV deal with Comcast allowed more Quaker basketball games than Tiger basketball games to broadcast locally, Princeton has gained more visibility than Penn with its national TV broadcasts.
Now that Penn has NBC Sports Network to rely on for national broadcast coverage, though, Bilsky is content to tweak how Penn Sports Network streams games.
He wants the video channel to expand beyond the nine sports that are selectively covered, and he wants the TV feel of streaming to stick around too.
“[Penn Sports Network] is almost like our version of what the Big Ten Network is trying to do,” he said. “You can do shows around it, you can do coaches’ shows, it can be a network in and of itself. The quality is really crystal-clear quality. I think in terms of reach, people’s availability to watch something, I think it’s going to be our future.”
So with spring around the corner and Penn Sports Network preparing to bloom, Bilsky believes that the Quakers are competing on all the right stages.
“Have the network exposure with the NBC deal, and have your streaming,” he said. “The two coexist very, very well.”