Facing spectator bans, Upper Valley high schools delve into livestreaming sports

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Valley News Sports Editor
Published: 12/25/2020 8:26:52 PM
Modified: 12/26/2020 9:17:13 PM

Megan Sobel has been getting an education that she didn’t first anticipate.

Knowing Hanover High School wouldn’t be admitting fans to its home games at the outset of the fall season, Sobel took up an offer from the National Federation of High Schools to install livestream cameras at Merriman-Branch Field for the Marauders’ football, field hockey and soccer contests as well as the Hanover gym for volleyball. The NFHS provided two cameras free of charge, making up that cost with a subscription program for interested viewers.

Sobel, Hanover’s third-year athletic director, sees plusses and minuses from livestreaming, which is making greater inroads in the Upper Valley in the face of pandemic-fueled spectator restrictions.

It’ll be a part of the winter regimen, with fans banned from basketball gyms and hockey rinks for the coming campaign.

“They are fully automated cameras; we don’t have to have anyone to run them,” Sobel explained last week. “You just set them up on a website, and they follow the action. It’s pretty cool.”

Many Upper Valley high schools will dive into livestreaming when schedules commence in January. Some vendors offer services that include statkeeping and social media posting. Some require exclusivity agreements with the buildings in which they are installed.

It’s enough to make anyone’s head spin.

“I don’t know if it’s an obligation, but most people would say they feel it’s real important that outside entities see the games,” Hartford High boys hockey coach Todd Bebeau said. “I don’t think you’ll find a place not offering some kind of video stream. In a lot of cases, the parents are hurting more than the kids because they want to see their kids play.”

Livestreaming is nothing new to Upper Valley sports. The pandemic has simply accelerated its use.

Three area skating rinks — Woodstock’s Union Arena, West Lebanon’s Campion Rink and Wendell A. Barwood Arena in White River Junction — have all joined the LiveBarn streaming network in the past three years. A Montreal-based company, LiveBarn installs a mid-ice camera capable of following action; it makes its money through monthly or yearly subscriptions, with host rinks getting a portion of each signup.

LiveBarn debuted five years ago and now works with more than 1,000 facilities across North America. Union Arena general manager EJay Bishop likes what it provides.

“The rinks are allowed to control what’s being viewed,” Bishop said. “For instance, if a high school team wants a closed practice, we can close that out. It does have some security from that perspective. …

“It’s been helpful from a rink perspective, for when you have an incident with a league, you can go back and check what happened. You can adjust and make an accurate decision on what needs to take place for any incident. It’s been, for us, a positive thing.”

Stevens High athletic director Doug Beaupre is looking to another company, Hudl, for livestreams of the Cardinals’ basketball games this winter. Several Upper Valley football coaches have worked the Lincoln, Neb., company for video, scouting and statistics, and its video service apparently can serve in a streaming capacity as well.

“I’m not a techie; we were just talking with them last week,” Beaupre said. “Once everything is finalized, they’ll send us a camera that actually follows the ball. You can do a number of different things: follow the ball, have a panoramic. It’ll be interesting. It looks impressive.”

It hasn’t always been problem-free.

Visiting webcasters who try to connect with a host school’s internet sometimes lose that connection mid-broadcast. Sobel reported difficulty reaching the NFHS when she needed technical guidance.

Rinks or schools that have ample space to back their cameras away from the playing surface have a better chance of capturing a full-field view, Bishop reported. Some visiting fans grumbled on social media about having to pay to view their teams’ games when they played at Hanover during the fall season.

There have also been unexpected benefits. Sobel said she’s enjoyed being able to watch early season basketball practices in the Hanover gym at a distance. She also sees livestreaming as a future opportunity for students to try out play-by-play announcing, although it’s not likely to happen this winter.

Bebeau will make use of both LiveBarn and Hudl when his Hurricanes start their hockey season next month. The former will serve live game feeds at WABA; the latter can’t be used for streaming because of exclusivity rules, but it will provide highlight packages Bebeau can forward to parents after the conclusion of any contest.

As athletes are learning skills on the floor or ice, administrators and coaches will be learning how to livestream on the fly.

“It’s something that we should provide,” Sobel said. “Not all of us have the resources to do that, but whatever we can do to let families and friends and students and the community be part of it is important.”

Greg Fennell can be reached at gfennell@vnews.com or 603-727-3226.

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