BTN ‘Olympic sports’ tourneys a coverage challenge

Mark Hulsey knows his production crew is fortunate in televising the Big Ten’s men’s soccer tournament championship game being played Sunday on Northwestern’s lakefront field in Evanston.

“It’s one of the finest soccer facilities in the country,” said Hulsey, the Big Ten Network’s VP/production and executive producer.

Under his direction, the BTN annually produces more than 400 live events and 250 hours of studio programming a year.

“Lake Michigan in the background provides an incredible backdrop for any live event.  The broadcast booth is roomy enough for the announcer to sit in. If we get a nice, sunny day, there’s not a finer facility from a TV standpoint that looks better visually.”

Mark HulseyHulsey’s crews usually don’t enjoy such production advantages.  As the five-year-old, Chicago-based Big Ten Network expanded its coverage this fall to conference tournaments in men’s and women’s soccer, field hockey and cross country, the producers faced obstacles they normally don’t encounter with football and basketball games.

“Producing some of the ‘Olympic sport’ telecasts, like track and field, gymnastics and field hockey, are far more challenging vs. a football and basketball telecasts,” Hulsey said, “as they are held on uncabled venues.

“Our technical crew has to spend hours before the event running audio and video cables to the event. You don’t necessarily have to deal with that when you’re televising from a college football stadium or a college basketball arena.”

Hulsey’s crew often must set up makeshift broadcast booths  “Some of these outdoor soccer and field hockey (fields), for example, they don’t have traditional announcers’ press boxes. We have to set up a temporary location, maybe under a tent in the stands.”

Moving camera precedes cross country runners

The most creative coverage came in taping recent cross country championship races on a golf course.

“It’s a large coverage area,” Hulsey said. “You need to raise the cameras as high as possible on portable lifts. We put a steadicam on a cart that drove in front of the runners. We got great visuals, but operationally you would never run into these kinds of challenges on a football or basketball event.

“The traditional left to right sports, the cameras pan from left to right in basketball, football and soccer,” he noted.  “But when you’re covering events like cross country, it makes you think outside the box to try to come up with different ways to cover the events. 

“Operationally, it’s incredibly challenging, but it can be incredibly rewarding.”

The two-hour taped cross-country race was edited down to an hour show, with lead BTN editor Monica Kowalski given a week’s turnaround.

Extra camera coverage of men’s soccer added cost

For the men’s soccer championships, Hulsey planned an extra sixth camera near the field for the sideline reporter – who was added for the tourney – and color shots. That added an estimated 10% to production costs.

Normal camera complement for soccer is five: two elevated cameras panning the field, a camera behind the goal on a scissor lift and two handhelds.

George Castle is a longtime Chicago-based sportswriter, author and radio talk-show host.  Contact him at