IOWA CITY — Bringing sports back to West High has been one of the most challenging things the athletics department has had to deal with over the past several years.
In hopes of keeping athletes, coaches and fans safe during the pandemic, the school district has implemented spectator restrictions at all high school athletic events.
This leaves the majority of fans unable to attend games in person.
That’s when, like many other athletics directors around the country, West’s Craig Huegel got to work to try to bring sports online in the form of a livestream.
It all started when Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds announced on May 20 that high schools were allowed to begin their baseball and softball seasons on June 1.
“If we’re going to limit attendance, what do we do for those fans who want to watch baseball, but can’t, the next natural step was, well, how can we show this on video,” Huegel said.
Before the pandemic, the only West athletics events that were accessible by a livestream or cable television were state tournament appearances and the occasional broadcasts by the local news station KCRG 9.2. That was until Huegel made one of his most important purchases of the year, the Hudl Focus.
“I’ve learned a lot through this whole process … When I made the decision to purchase the Hudl Focus camera, it’s something we had talked about for a couple of years,” Huegel said. “But the pandemic really made it essential.”
Hudl is a scouting software company that has been used by almost every West athletics program for years. The website and app allows coaches to film practices and games so they can go back and watch to find areas that need improvement. Hudl also is home to the majority of athletes’ highlight tapes.
The almost invisible white box mounted to the ceiling of the West gymnasium is where all the magic happens. With the click of a button, the motion sensor camera turns on and starts livestreaming the footage to a labeled event on the YouTube channel named “Iowa City West Trojans.” In addition to livestreaming the game, the camera immediately uploads the footage to Hudl for coaches and players to access.
The channel now is home to all events in the West gym, including boys’ and girls’ basketball, wrestling and dance team halftime performances.
When it comes to events that are not in the main gym — like the swimming competitions held at the Coralville Rec Center — Huegel finds a way to livestream home meets with the help of some swim parents.
“During the girls’ season, I tried to livestream it with just an iPad,” Huegel said. “The quality wasn’t great, you couldn’t see the times, I did the best I could but this program is top-notch.”
With the help of a computer engineer from Waukee, Huegel now is fortunate enough to have an Olympic-like livestream that is equipped with two motion sensored cameras of its own and a microphone. The top-notch system makes it easy to know who is swimming and how fast they swam.
For the first two weeks of the football season, Garrett Hartwig’s team played with no spectators compared to the now two-per-athlete and coach rule. Not only did was this an odd on-field atmosphere, but it amplified the importance of a livestream. In 2016, a group of West football parents livestreamed their first event with everything from play-by-play announcing to replays in hopes of giving friends and family the ability to watch the game away from Iowa City.
“It never occurred to me to broadcast our games; however, when it was explained to me, I thought it was a fantastic idea and still do,” Hartwig said.
The crew led by Mark Karwal, father of two former Trojan football players, found a home in press boxes all over the state this season to make sure people could watch Trojan football.
“I personally have family and friends from different parts of the country who now log in to watch our games on Friday nights,” Hartwig said. “It has been a huge success.”
Instead of the bleachers, the popular spot to watch Friday night lights turned into people’s couches as they settled in and hooked up the livestream to their very own television. The production brought 7,034 total views on Oct. 30 when the Trojans faced off against Dubuque Hempstead in the third round of the playoffs and 4,592 for the annual Battle for the Boot.
Behind all livestreams are parents and athletics directors that love to see their kids and student-athletes compete no matter the outcome. Being able to watch competitions of all levels has never been so valuable. While trying to prevent the spread of COVID-19, family members still are able to enjoy watching their kids compete.
Byron Butler’s reigning state champions boys’ swim team is the only winter sport unable to have any spectators, leaving parents and fans with only one option: the livestream.
“Most facilities we go to have hardly any spectator seating, and it can be hard to make time to go to a meet on a Tuesday night, so it definitely makes it easier on people,” said senior varsity swimmer Nathan Deyak.
An added plus to having meets broadcast on YouTube is the aspect that swimmers and coaches can go back and watch races, a system that many other sports use on a daily basis.
“Without having a livestream posted on YouTube all you can go off of is what your coach tells you, how you feel during the race and at practice, and the actual time you got,” Deyak said. “So (the livestream) has been very helpful in improving your stroke, starts, turns, etc., by having actual evidence of what you looked like.”
As the spring sports season approaches and West athletes look to compete in track, soccer and tennis for the first time in more than a year, Huegel hopes to not only be able to allow more spectators as the pandemic settles but find a way to livestream these events as well.
“The spring is going to be a challenge … but we’re gonna do our best to make it a decent experience because I want people to see our kids perform,” Huegel said.
“I think livestreaming is here to stay. I don’t think there’s any way to go back now.”