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.