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Texas A&M's 12th Man Productions could help SEC broadcast football games this season
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Texas A&M's 12th Man Productions could help SEC broadcast football games this season

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E. King Gill would be proud.

In true Aggie tradition, Texas A&M’s 12th Man Productions could help the Southeastern Conference televise football games if needed this season.

The SEC has a larger inventory of conference games after opting for league-only games due to the coronavirus pandemic. The SEC probably didn’t envision scheduling seven league football games per weekend when it launched the SEC Network in 2014, but each school having proven state-of-the-art broadcast control rooms could come in handy. The SEC’s television lineup for each of the first two weeks will feature three games on the SEC Network, two more on ESPN networks and one each on CBS and the SEC Network’s alternate channel.

“Every school has been tasked with just discussing where you are with the ability to possibly help with a home football game,” said Andy Richardson, A&M’s associate athletics director in charge of 12th Man Productions. “It doesn’t mean we are going to do it ourselves. It doesn’t mean that [the network] won’t pull a TV truck up and do it. The reality is they are exploring their options.”

The award-winning 12th Man Productions would be an option. A&M’s broadcast outfit has handled hundreds of live events for the SEC Network and ESPN over the last six years, including in baseball, men’s and women’s basketball, soccer, softball, swimming, track and field and volleyball.

Televising football games, though, has always been done at the network level.

“But in the COVID-19 world, there are a lot of challenges with travel restrictions and the challenges with testing and quarantining and free-lance labor that would be your traditional crewing,” Richardson said.

The quality work done by production teams at each of the 14 SEC schools make them a viable option to help this year.

“As the world of TV has evolved, the networks have been able to utilize each school’s production facility,” Richardson said. “[They’ve] grown and matured to give the schools some flexibility to allow them to do more what you would call the traditional broadcast for like a men’s basketball game or a regular online baseball game that you would see on the actual channel where ESPN would have a blended crew. It would be part the 12th Man Productions crew and part the ESPN crew with an ESPN producer/director, associate producer and associate director and part 12th Man Productions crew. Some of that has been going on throughout the years.”

While A&M’s group is capable of producing a football broadcast for one of the bigger networks, it might not be in everyone’s best interest. Football games already are all-hands on deck for 12th Man Productions with all 15 full-time staff members and 40-45 students working to produce and monitor content.

“Our busiest days are home football games, because our biggest day is a video showboard for Kyle Field,” Richardson said. “So to do a broadcast for a network would be the biggest single challenge, because whether there’s 25% in a stadium or 100% in the stadium, we’re still obligated to do a show for our stadium. That doesn’t change. So that would be an extreme day for us to do that. Those are some of the things we’d have to vet as to what those challenges would be before we could commit to doing something like that.”

In essence, the main challenge would be running two shows at once.

“If you think about a whole other element of there being another control room running a broadcast for the fan [at home] watching with the graphics and replays and the announcers and all the things that are different than what is going on watching a stadium environment, it’s an entirely different experience,” Richardson said. “That would be hard for any facility to do that, do that kind of side-by-side —doing a total different show at the same time because you’re doing it with a lot more people involved, technically, a lot more challenges going on.”

Each of the 14 schools’ production teams also have different facilities and capabilities.

“So we’re all sort of looking at what we can do and what we might be able to do and how we can help,” Richardson said. “Some might be able to help in ways that are easier and some might be able to do it all and some might say, maybe you ought to bring a truck.”

A chance to help

Games that feature the SEC’s top programs like No. 3 Alabama, No. 4 Georgia, No. 6 LSU and No. 8 Florida will continue to be handled by traditional TV crews in all likelihood this season. But when other SEC teams host Arkansas or Vanderbilt, for instance, it may be the type of matchup school-run production teams are asked to handle to lighten the overall weekend load. Vandy and Arkansas are picked to finish last in their respective divisions, increasing the chances games involving them would be down on the pecking order of importance. Both of those schools play at Kyle Field this season — Vanderbilt for the opener on Sept. 26 and Arkansas on Oct. 31.

It would be somewhat fitting if 12th Man Productions was picked to broadcast an SEC football game on a network platform. The Aggies played South Carolina in the first live football game on the SEC Network on Aug. 28, 2014, exactly two weeks after it launched. Before launching the network, the SEC tasked each school to have a minimum of four HD cameras, control rooms with replay capabilities and fiber connectivity to all its athletic venues. Schools combined to spend $25-30 million to broadcast events, the Wall Street Journal reported in 2014. Florida had to invest only $700,000 to meet the minimum standards, while Arkansas had to spend the most at $7 million. A&M was ahead of the curve by building a $11.8 million facility in the south end zone of Kyle Field as part of the facility’s redevelopment.

“When we built this facility in 2014, our ESPN friends came through here knowing that we were going to be doing SEC Network broadcasts from this, so we built it in that mindset,” Richardson said.

Most schools have a control room to run their football stadium’s video board. A&M went one step better by building a full broadcast control room.

It was all about timing.

“When we joined the conference in 2012, we had a really good freshman quarterback that year [in Johnny Manziel] and oil was $100 a barrel,” Richardson said. “And we said we need to redo this football stadium, and we built a really nice broadcast production facility.”

A&M touts it as one of the nation’s best. Richardson oversees nearly 100 student workers who help run it. The students are majoring in all types of things from the obvious communications to unrelated fields like engineering.

“They are just kids who think this is a cool job to have in college, and or they might be interested in a job that’s involved in athletics that’s something technical,” Richardson said. “I always tell people that we want you — you just have to have a passion to be involved in and around athletics and have an ability to work at night and on weekends and on holidays, because that’s when sports happen, and we’ll teach you the technical side of things if you can do those things.”

That technical side on some spring days include all four control rooms going when there’s a baseball and softball game.

“Two of those control rooms are doing a video board show for Blue Bell Park and a video board show for Davis Diamond,” Richardson said, while the other two are producing “an ESPN show for softball with our talent sitting over in the booth at Davis Diamond and an ESPN show with our talent sitting in the TV booth at Blue Bell Park. Those are the days you sit there and say, ‘This is pretty cool.’”

It’s even cooler when you think it’s basically evolved from a one-man operation. Richardson is a 1983 Bryan graduate who has been at A&M 30 years. He was hired by athletics director Wally Groff in 1993.

“I was doing the R.C. Slocum Show and I was shooting football practice,” Richardson said. “And in 1996, they built a Jumbotron in Kyle Field and they let me hire another guy. And in 2003, they brought Bill Byrne here [as athletics director] and Jeff Schmahl [as senior associate AD] and we hired a few more people.”

The production facility eventually was named 12th Man Productions in 2005. A&M joining the SEC meant 12th Man Productions did more. In their final season in the Big 12 Conference in 2011, the Aggies had three baseball games televised on Fox Sports Southwest, Richardson said.

“In 2014, the first year of doing the SEC Network, every home baseball game you could watch on TV,” Richardson said. “We’re in a world in which if you’re a fan of A&M, now every home game we play is on TV; you can watch it if you got an Apple TV, a Roku device. You got a smart TV, you can stream every home game.”

Richardson marvels at how far things have come.

“It’s a really cool deal that we’ve got going on with this whole SEC Network, but are we going to be doing a football game this fall?” he said. “I don’t know. That’s a hard one for us to do. A football game is truly the hardest thing to do in television because there’s so many moving parts to a football game. That’s why ESPN puts so much money into it. There’s a lot of cameras on it. And there’s obviously, a lot of eyeballs on it. We’ve spent an enormous amount of money doing a really quality show for Kyle Field’s video board, so we will not want to do anything to take away from what we do for the fans in the stadium. We’re going to do our due diligence — and we haven’t even been officially asked yet if we would do it.”

Big TV year

A&M produced a record number of events from its control rooms last year that appeared on network broadcasts. That work earned A&M money under the arrangement with ESPN when the SEC Network was launched, reimbursing schools from $2,000 to $4,000 per game based on schools’ expenses, the Wall Street Journal reported. That’s in addition to the rights’ fee ESPN pays the SEC as part of the broadcast agreement that runs through 2034.

“As Steve Martin said in The Jerk, ‘It’s a profit thing,’” Richardson said. “It’s nice that they pay us for these things. It helps the bottom line, too. It’s all a good thing, and we help educate young minds.”

A&M students are learning from one of the best. Richardson’s concept for the 12th Man Productions’ documentary recounting the 1999 Bonfire tragedy and A&M’s game against Texas in its wake titled The Burning Desire won numerous awards. 12th Man Productions also has won multiple national awards, including College Sports Media Awards, Telly Awards and a regional Emmy.

“Andy and our 12th Man Productions staff define ‘best in class’ in the college athletic space because of their ingenuity, technical expertise and long-term experience,” A&M athletics director Ross Bjork said. “Andy was a trendsetter before trends were even being set around video content and broadcast production in college athletics. I’ve been in the SEC since 2012 and Texas A&M has always been viewed as the best staff and the most robust resources and now I see why. Andy and his team epitomize excellence in all facets.”

Some schools hire free-lancers to help with live events, but A&M uses its large crew of student workers.

“I’ve always thought this is our charge,” Richardson said. “We are a college and [should teach] kids who are energetic and are passionate and want to learn and have the ability to be involved in a live broadcast of Texas A&M sports. I mean, where else [is that possible]? I would have loved to have a place like this exist when I was in school at A&M. I was class of ’87 and I was thrilled to work at KBTX with Jeff McShan, Ron Crozier and Darryl Bruffett and cover the Aggies, going to Cotton Bowls in the late 1980s, watching the Aggies stop Bo Jackson and all those things.

“I mean, this is awesome,” Richardson said. “To take that and pass it forward and have kids be able to learn this and do this, it’s a fun deal, man. It’s fun.”

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