Turns out my first trip to the Kohl Center for a men's hockey game was merely an appetizer for an invitation I received through my alma mater's alumni program. One of our alums now works in the Kohl Center and decided to offer local alums a chance to go behind the scenes - count. me. in.
The invite read, "[an] Illinois alum and videoboard production specialist for UW Athletics will be giving the Madison Illini a very special behind the scenes tour of the Kohl Center. Get in the spirit for March Madness and see some of the same cutting edge technology that is being used in the new State Farm Arena."
I immediately clicked their sign-up link and added my name. Sweet, I was in. Once the day arrived I donned some orange and blue and left work a little early to get back into town on time. Upon arrival at the Kohl Center it was clear the alumni in the area, or perhaps merely the ones interested in this event, skewed toward retirement age. However, this mix provided us young whipper-snappers a chance to ask them about their history on campus in Champaign and hear their stories about being in Wisconsin.
The tour began in the Nichols Club-level seating area, which was as swanky as swanky gets, imo.
Then we headed over to the Women's Hockey stadium, via an underground tunnel/path/hallway.
The official name of this arena is the La Bahn Arena and is where the Men's and Women's teams can practice and all Women's Hockey games are played. This stadium holds about 2,200 fans, where the Kohl Center holds 17,000 for basketball and about 15,000 for hockey. The increased seating occurs when the basketball court is laid out over the normal ice hockey playing surface.
The Women's team has all of their coaches and other staff offices in the same building, with a nice reception area. We also got a glimpse in some of the other sports lounges, cafeteria, weight room, etc. It was pretty interesting to realize that all this is housed in a relatively compact place. Student-Athletes can spend much of their day doing what they do best, train and study. There's even a studying center in the Kohl Center for the student-athletes.
Now the main gist of being on this tour was their in-house video production services. The main outlet for this product is the big video board in the center of the Kohl Center that plays all the video segments during an event (Men's Hockey or Men's/Women's Basketball in this case). One small room/area in the Kohl Center handles the video feeds for the Kohl Center, Memorial Stadium, and other venues. The feeds now go through miles and miles of cables spread in and out of the facilities. They even send their feeds into special trucks that back up to a dock during basketball games. Networks then choose which camera/angle to show during games, picking from the UW staff's feed, or using their own.
Below is the heart of their production area, with up to 10-12 people taking part in the production of a single game. They use sheets that guide everyone through the games, much like a musician in an orchestra and their sheet music.
Finally, after about an hour of walking around, we got the chance to head out on the basketball court, ready for the high school state championships that were about to start that week. I think the most surprising thing that struck me was how bright it truly was under the many many light on the floor.
You can see a whirlybird camera right in the middle of the American Family Insurance sign, used or all kinds of special views and angles, like a perfect tip-off of face-off shot for the start of all games.
We also learned that the company that makes virtually all stadium scoreboards, Daktronics, is already working with the University on a major scoreboard and "LED Ring" update for the Kohl Center. LED Rings are the ring or rings that go around the stadium's seating areas, which provide further cheering prompts (Charge!!!) and sponsorship real estate. You can bet that the new version will be even more impressive and make games even more fun.
I had a great evening walking around these incredible spaces and getting a different view into the lives of UW Student-Athletes. Thanks again to the Madison UIAA president for making it happen, and our host and tour guide for the event.