Theresa Chillianis

General Manager, Cablevision’s MSG Varsity

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Overseeing the launch of a sports
network requires wearing a lot of hats—
programming, production, scheduling, marketing,
operations. But in 2009, when general manager
Theresa Chillianis helped start MSG Varsity,
Cablevision’s network for high-school sports in
metropolitan New York, she faced an array of
challenges beyond what might be expected.

For starters, there were the logistics of covering
700 schools within the Cablevision footprint.
“This is different than covering pro sports,
where rosters and schedules are smaller and
more straightforward,” Chillianis says.

MSG Varsity also had to assuage schools that
were wary of allowing cameras in, worried about
potential damage to children who perform poorly
in games. “They had an unsettled feeling, and
we had to make them comfortable,” she says.

The network explained that its agenda is
different than that of a typical sports network
(it shuts cameras off during on-field altercations).
“We don’t want to embarrass kids, and
the whole staff knows about our tone and our
approach,” says Chillianis, the mother of three
young daughters (who just finished her first
year coaching softball).

The network’s first 20 months were a resounding
success, as MSG Varsity reached 85%
of the schools in its territory and covered 3,000
games—mostly live-to-tape, with a weekly live
football game every Friday night—across multiple
platforms, including a quarterly print magazine
and online content, to which students contribute
as writers, producers and broadcasters.

The network has given schools video equipment
and grants for their media programs so
they can tell their stories themselves while giving
other students real-life media experience. “They
can cover a wrestling match we might not get
to,” Chillianis says, adding that 400 schools now
have sports Websites within MSG Varsity. “We’re
stretching our coverage and we’ve stepped up
the amount of statistics, pictures and highlights,
giving us more breadth and depth,” she notes.
The network also has established a sports information
director program that is like an apprenticeship
and also started the “V Awards” for
best game coverage, best on-air talent, and eight
other categories among the student sportscasters/
producers. Though just 700 entries were
submitted in the first year, by year two the
awards had grown to 3,600 submissions.

And the students weren’t the only ones winning
awards. In April, MSG Varsity captured
six New York Emmy Awards in its first year of
eligibility. “Winning the Emmys was such a
thrill,” Chillianis says.