Harvard University consistently ranks among U.S. News and World ReportBest Colleges not only for its academic stature, but also for its top-notch collegiate athletics program. The institution is home to 42 NCAA Division I teams spanning basketball, hockey, football, squash, tennis, and many other sports. To keep its students, alumni, and Crimson fans up to speed on their favorite teams, the athletics department’s multimedia and production arm produces and broadcasts home games in high-quality H.264 to ESPN+, regional outfit NESN, and the Ivy League’s international streaming platform, and also creates ancillary content, all using a host of gear from AJA Video Systems.
In preparation for streaming to multiple CDNs, the department ramped up its production workflow over a year ago—adding more cameras, graphics, and audio equipment and other tools to its arsenal, including the AJA HELO, U-TAP, and Ki Pro Ultra. “Streaming to ESPN+ has taken college athletics production to a new level, with standards that are higher than ever before,” said Imry Halevi, assistant director of athletics, multimedia and production at Harvard. “To keep pace, we needed equipment that’s reliable, affordable, and easy to learn and use. If you do the math, we’re churning out more than 300 broadcast-quality streams a year. Having tools like HELO, Ki Pro Ultra, and U-TAP that tick all these boxes gives me confidence that we’ll be able to consistently meet the production standards expected of us without ever missing a beat.”
While workflows vary slightly depending upon the sport, the tennis and squash workflows are quite similar. Each squash or tennis court features mounted POV cameras with HD-SDI outputs and a mic output. The audio and video signals go into a rack holding a switcher, video unit, and six AJA HELO H.264 recording, streaming, and encoding devices.The switcher, with an Intel compute stick that captures scoreboard data, outputs the camera and mic feeds for each court via HDMI to a video unit for Harvard’s international stream while the SDI outputs are fed to each of the six HELOs, one per court, and streamed to ESPN+ in H.264 via RTMP, as well as recorded for archival.
"Most anyone who is streaming is using RTMP because it gives you the highest quality stream at the most affordable price point,” Halevi said. “We could use a satellite truck, fiber, or managed IP transmission to get our signals from point A to point B, but none of these would be as practical or cost effective as RTMP. This is in part why we have 14 HELOs and are eager to add more; they make it easy to change RTMP information, which is crucial when we’re getting new RTMP stream information for every tennis and squash match. We can easily log into each HELO via the web UI, and create a new RTMP URL and ID, which is unique to HELO.”
All footage that the team captures is archived and has been since the 1920s, partially as a means of preserving Harvard’s history, but also to aid in content creation. “We want people to know what makes Harvard Athletics special and to do that we need to create great content, which often means we lean on archived footage,” Halevi said. “We never know what footage we’ll need, when we’ll need it, and how we’ll use it. By giving us the ability to stream and record at the same time, HELO gives us peace of mind in that we know we’ll have a high-quality file accessible as you can set different compression levels for each stream.”
Halevi and team also deploy two HELO units across their basketball and hockey/football control rooms for streaming needs outside traditional live production. Connected to DirecTV receivers, the devices come into play when the team needs to capture footage from away games in H.264. “We love having HELOs in our control room,” he added. “It’s great to be able to schedule recordings with HELO’s built-in calendar support, stream and record at the same time, preview videos, and be able to see the video signal coming in.”
To meet requests for uncompressed ProRes and/or DNx footage, should melts be needed, the team also keeps a Ki Pro Ultra 4K/UltraHD/2K/HD recorder/player in its hockey control room. Additionally, Halevi recently added AJA U-TAP SDI USB 3.0-powered SDI capture devices to his collection of gear to double the number of feeds that his team could capture when live streaming with Wirecast on MacBook Pros. “Most capture solutions available today come with Thunderbolt ports, which is partially what made U-TAP so appealing,” he said. “It allows you to take advantage of the MacBook Pro’s USB 3.0 ports to double the amount of inputs and outputs you can tap into. The units were super easy to get up and running on, and we didn’t need to adjust or install anything; they just worked out of the box.”
When the department needs new technology, Halevi often looks to AJA first because of his experience with the gear and the company’s reputation for building reliable products. “I love that AJA engineers are listening to the industry and building tools that really meet our needs and always work—and that they’re open to and accepting of customer feedback. You speak up about what you’d like to see and often it pops up in a firmware update down the line.”