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Ahead of the curve: OCHS already prepared to stream sports ahead of pandemic

Ahead of the curve: OCHS already prepared to stream sports ahead of pandemic

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Sports-JL-boys basketball v. Fluvanna

Orange County High School’s Sihle Mthethwa battles for a basket amidst a slew of Fluvanna defenders during the Hornets’ season-ending loss to the Flucos last Wednesday. While OCHS athletic competitions are closed to spectators and fans, games and matches are streamed online through a subscription service. 

Like everyone in the past year, Orange County High School athletics had to learn to roll with the changes. The pandemic shut down all school sports in the county last March and not a single minute was played again until December. Luckily, Orange County Public Schools had already chosen to adopt a new video streaming system for games before COVID-19 ever existed. The Virginia High School League (VHSL) recently partnered with the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) to stream member schools’ sporting events through an online network.

NFHS utilizes an automated camera from the tech company Pixellot. The camera is small and can be installed almost anywhere. NFHS is currently offering a deal to schools that includes the installation of two free Pixellot sports cameras. The only requirements for schools are that they don’t already have a Pixellot system installed and that they are members of an NFHS-affiliated state high school association.

Mike Neeley, activities director at OCHS, was overjoyed to be able to get the Pixellot system set up before demand for the cameras shot up after the pandemic hit.

“We were actually very fortunate at Orange, because there are school systems that are still waiting on the equipment since it’s become such a hot ticket item,” Neeley said. “But we had our equipment delivered before the pandemic and early on in the summer it was installed before the big pandemic rush.”

According to Neeley, the Pixellot cameras operate in a relatively simple manner. He said there is no cameraperson required and that it automatically zooms in and out and follows movement on the court or field.

The designated camera for the Porterfield Park football stadium is attached just below the windows of the press box overlooking the field. The camera inside the Hornet Sports Center that broadcasts basketball games is set up at the half-court line, high above the stands. Both cameras are used to film other sports, such as track (indoor and outdoor), lacrosse and wrestling.

“It has its pluses and minuses, just like every system,” Neeley said. “I think some of the other schools that have been using YouTube or Facebook might have certain advantages. NFHS and Pixellot have different advantages. Our system links with Hudl, which is neat, and it’s a very easy way to share film. It also has video on demand. If you can’t see the game live, then you can go on there and watch the game from a week ago.”

Hudl is video hosting service that gives coaches and athletes the ability to review and edit game footage and film. The game recordings created by Pixellot cameras can also be viewed on the NFHS Network website.

Neeley said the NFHS streaming system doesn’t cost the school any money and has helped balance out the budget shortfall caused by not having fans in the stands for the time being.

“We get a portion of the subscription fee. So, the NFHS charges each subscriber $10 per month, which is less than the price of two adult tickets to one event. Right now, we are using the proceeds from it to offset lost revenue from ticket sales.”

Bryan Seal is one of the coaches whose team has been broadcasting its matches on the new system. Seal, who coaches varsity wrestling at OCHS and is also an investigator with the sheriff’s office, said he is mostly satisfied so far with his experience using the streaming service and hasn’t received any complaints from parents of his wrestlers.

“We have a wrestling Facebook page and I’ve tried to stream some of the matches on there to give them a mat side view,” Seal said. “It’s a second option. But I haven’t heard any grumbles yet.”

However, Seal did mention that he has had issues with the cameras not zooming in enough to see the action on the mats clearly during matches.

Clarity isn’t the only problem that has cropped up with the NFHS system since its debut. The cameras occasionally have trouble following sports that don’t use a ball, such as wrestling.

Another series of issues was brought up by Orange County school board vice chairman, Jim Hopkins, in a letter addressed to his colleagues and the school system. Hopkins shared the contents of the letter in an email.

Hopkins pointed out in his letter that there have been technical glitches with the virtual scoreboard during some game broadcasts. According to Hopkins, occasionally the score doesn’t show up at all. He suggested that someone could enter the score manually into the computer to fix the concern or the school could provide an announcer to read the score instead.

Despite these hiccups, Hopkins remains a proponent of using the NFHS Network and its system.

“I believe there is a bright future for the Orange High School sports program using the NFHS Network, but Orange County needs to strive to improve the broadcasts’ performance,” Hopkins said.

OCHS Principal Wendell Green said that having a reliable option for broadcasting games and events to families and friends of students outweighs whatever downsides come with the new technology. He is confident that the setup can be tweaked and improved moving forward.

“Having this service in place this school year, could not have occurred at a better time due the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and the limitation that has been placed on spectators not being able to attend games in-person,” Green said. “We will continue to explore more ways to utilize the NFHS streaming service in order to make better connections with our community with our sporting events and other activities.”

Orange County High School recently concluded its first sports season (traditional winter sports) for the 2020-2021 school year. It is transitioning to its second sports season (fall sports).

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