Durham company is fast with the stats, quick with the clocks

Durham company is fast with the stats, quick with the clocks

Staff WriterMarch 20, 2010 

  • Gerard J. Hall

    Position: Founder and president, SportsMedia Technology

    Place of birth: Scotland, but family moved to New Jersey when he was 3.

    Date of Birth: Sept. 20, 1958

    Education: Bachelor's degree in economics, Harvard University; subsequently studied computer science at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland and the University of Central Florida

    Family: Wife, Laura, owns and runs two restaurants on Duke University's campus called the Refectory Cafe. Four children: Alex, 16; Elizabeth, 13; Olivia, 11; and Halcyon, 6.

  • The SportsMedia spotter who sits at courtside provides a running commentary of the on-court action into a wireless headset.

    At the receiving end is a SportsMedia technician sitting in a CBS Sports mobile studio parked outside the arena. The technician inputs the data with a specially designed keyboard. If Duke University's Kyle Singler takes a shot, for example, the employee hits a blue key - Duke's team color - and keys in the number 12, which is Singler's number.

    From there the statistics go to monitors used by network talent as well as the announcers who make pronouncements over the public address systems at the games. They're also routed to SportsMedia's data operations center in Durham, which in turn relays them to CBS Sports studios in New York for on-screen display.

    Staff writer David Ranii

— As John Wall swishes another three-point shot, an employee of a little-known Durham company sitting courtside speaks quietly into a wireless headset. Almost instantly, Kentucky fans watching the game on television know it's Wall's third three-pointer of the night.

That bit of data is part of a steady stream of up-to-the-second statistics that CBS Sports announcers will reel off during the NCAA Tournament broadcasts, courtesy of SportsMedia Technology. So are the shot clocks, game clocks and scores that appear on screen.

SportsMedia's software creates the raft of stats that is key to analyzing and appreciating the 64 tournament games. Its software has the capacity to keep running totals of, say, shots attempted and made, as well as the ability to mine historical data to highlight trends, records and milestones.

But it all starts with a spotter at center court and a technician in a van outside the arena -- both of whom are SportsMedia employees.

Incorporated in 1990 by founder and President Gerard J. Hall, a Harvard University graduate, the 65-employee company is in the business of making televised sports more entertaining and more informative. Its data and graphics products include "augmented reality," such as inserting a yellow line on a football field to show the first-down mark.

SportsMedia has been working for CBS Sports on the NCAA Tournament for more than a dozen years.

"With this data, with this information, you have to be very accurate and very fast," said Harold Bryant, vice president of production for CBS Sports. "They have met that criteria - and they continue to meet it."

SportsMedia's goal is to make it look as automatic as a slam-dunk. But it requires a sophisticated mix of technology, advance planning and built-in redundancies to beat Murphy's law.

"We don't assume things ought to work," Hall said. "So we're constantly trying to come up with procedures and methodologies that drive Murphy back into a corner."

The clock and score data are entirely automatic - if all goes well. The real work is done ahead of time and requires making electronic connections to the arena's systems - multiple connections, actually, as a safeguard in case wires are accidentally cut. If that feed fails entirely, a SportsMedia technician can manually synchronize the on-screen clocks and scores with the official versions.

"The key ... for us is, when it does happen, the switchover is instantaneous," said Don Tupper, vice president of business development. "The audience demands that graphic is on the screen 100 percent of the time."

Feeding the sports beast

Viewers have a seemingly insatiable desire for data that, if anything, has been enhanced by the advent of fantasy leagues, Hall said. "They want to know the trends. Who's winning? Why are they winning?"

SportsMedia provided data and graphics for NBC's Sunday Night Football broadcasts last season. It's working NBA games for Turner sports, and NASCAR races and X Games for ESPN. When baseball season starts, it will be providing major league games for regional networks that televise the New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox and other teams. And the list goes on.

Hall, 51, got the idea for what eventually became SportsMedia when he was a graduate student studying computer science in Florida. The catalyst was a call to the university from a PC maker that wanted to promote its computers by displaying a running tabulation of pro golfers' scores at PGA events.

Hall created software to make that happen, but by the time he was ready to start SportsMedia he had moved to the Triangle to become marketing manager at a local company.

In the early days of the business, Hall wrote the software code himself. "The first constant on-air graphic was our lap counter for NASCAR races," he said.

SportsMedia's annual revenue has been growing at a double-digit pace, even during the recession, Hall said. "In a down economy, people still want to be entertained and watch sports," he said.

The advertising slump has hurt broadcasters, and that is putting a crimp on the company's latest multi-year contracts. But Hall is so confident about the future that he has added 10 employees in the past year in order to be more aggressive in marketing and to overhaul the company's software so it can handle more business.

Although SportsMedia thrives on data, Hall can be stumped on occasion.

For example, is there a local company that has won more Emmy awards than SportsMedia?

Hall doesn't think so, but admits he doesn't have any statistics to prove it.

For the record, SportsMedia has won 15 Emmys for technical achievement and performance.

david.ranii@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4877

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