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Positive Point of View© March 2009
For 20 years, U.S. Sports Video has provided football programs nationwide with technology that gives coaches better ways to analyze their teams.
Mike Bokulich was reflective as he looked over the shipping boxes that contained 125 new EagleCam SkyHawk elevated camera systems ready to be shipped to customers from coast to coast. “There was a time,” he said, “when we weren’t sure we could sell a single system, let alone hundreds.” That time was the late 80’s when, like most small companies just starting out, newly-formed U.S. Sports Video faced an uncertain future.
Today, with the company celebrating its 20th anniversary, Mike takes pride in knowing that his products, specifically the EagleCams, have helped hundreds of football programs capture video of games and practices from a superior point of view that, before he started manufacturing and selling elevated camera systems, was only available to a select few.
Before there even was a U.S. Sports Video, Mike was finding ways to use his background in electronics from a 28-year career at Honeywell and his experience as a coach to improve the way that game video was captured. “One of our local schools, Lorain Catholic, had lost their videographer and needed someone to record their football games,” Bokulich recalled. “Jim Lawhead, who was the athletic director, asked me to help, so naturally I did.” This was in the era of full-size VHS camcorders that were very bulky and hard to use. When Mike tried to shoot his first game, he was frustrated. “It was really hard to get good footage of the game action looking through that small viewfinder. Trying to follow the ball and zoom and pan at the right time was almost impossible,” he remembered.
Mike’s solution was ingenious. “I took a tripod with a plate on it, attached a small color TV set and, on top of that, mounted the camcorder. I set it up so you could see the video you were recording on the TV set, which made it much easier to shoot the games and get good quality video. It was all held together with Velcro straps.” Although he didn’t know it at the time, Mike had actually created the first integrated camera system specifically for sports.
When two other schools who saw the system asked Mike to make one for them, the idea of starting a business was hatched. “That’s when Dr. John got involved,” Mike said. John Fakan is Mike’s friend and neighbor as well as fellow ham radio operator. He also happens to be a Ph.D. and a former NASA Engineer who is experienced in business – not a bad guy to have on your team. Dr. John and Mike refined the camera system – getting rid of the Velcro straps – and started to strategize about how to market it to sports programs. “We knew that football would be the biggest market,” said Dr. John, “and we also knew the value of the endzone view, which was unavailable to all but the largest universities, and then only during games and not practices.”
But to get good footage of practice or games from an endzone camera, it had to be elevated. So Mike and Dr. John, with help from their friend Jim Goodell, also an engineer who had a machine shop in his garage, mounted the camera system on a tripod that could be extended high enough to capture great views and remain stable enough not to be affected by the wind.
Most successful companies can point to a single event in their early years that was a turning point on the road to profitability. For Mike Bokulich and U. S. Sports Video, that event may have been when representatives from Texas A&M met with them in New Orleans and basically said, “We need you to build us one of those.” The result was a custom 50-foot tower with a remotely-operated camera, painted in A&M’s colors and transported on a small trailer. As good as it was, the system was far too expensive for any program other than a large university. Mike realized the product would need to be modified to meet the needs and budgets of small colleges and high schools.
Dr. John recalled how he and Mike sought input from coaches as a way to learn how to improve their camera systems and noted how that philosophy has stayed with the company ever since. “They teach us what they need and then we figure out what we need to do to help solve their problem,” he said. Coaches like Larry Kehres from nearby Mount Union were particularly helpful. “Coach Kehres emphasized the importance of having the elevated camera operated by remote control and also being lightweight and highly portable,” according to Mike. Remote operation would mean that the camera could be controlled from inside the press box or another location protected from the elements. Portability and ease of set-up would help make the unit appealing to smaller programs where limited manpower was a concern.
Stability also became a key issue in the design process for the new camera system. To maintain the quality of the video, the unit needed to be stable in wind gusts to avoid blurry image. “We had to find the right combination of height and stiffness to provide a stable camera platform and also factor in the weight of the unit to maintain its portability and, finally, keep materials cost in mind to ensure affordability,” recalled Dr. John. The large-diameter aluminum aircraft tubing they would eventually use was strong, yet lightweight. The large 10-foot footprint of the unit’s base provided great stability and the auxiliary weight that could be added in a strong breeze made the unit even more stable and safer.
As a final touch, they built in an actual football helmet to cover and protect the camera and make it more aerodynamic. The helmet, when elevated up to 30 feet and moved by remote control, gives the system an almost-human “eye-in-the-sky” appearance.
The new system was christened the EagleCam SkyHawk and put into production. Like all other products in the U.S. Sports Video family, its final design was influenced by input from coaches and perfected by the in-house engineering team. Today, the EagleCam SkyHawk is the most successful elevated endzone camera system ever made and U.S. Sports Video is the longest-running sports camera systems company in the country. Others have copied it, but the SkyHawk’s features, stability and portability have never been matched.
While the SkyHawk has been the U.S. Sports Video’s best-selling system, they also market a manually-operated elevated system called the EagleCam Raven that has great appeal to smaller, more budget-conscious football programs and a wall-mounted system called the EagleCam Falcon that can be permanently installed in fieldhouses or gyms. They also still sell the original EagleCam Eagle unit and an entire family of studio camera systems called the Mark series that evolved from the Velcro-strapped device that Mike originally built to help out Jim Lawhead at Lorain Catholic.
To round out their product portfolio and enable them to supply virtually all of a football program’s video needs, the company also markets a proprietary line of editing systems that are customized on a program-by-program basis and even state-of-the-art DLP projectors.
Twenty years of success has not spoiled Mike Bokulich, John Fakan or the rest of the team at U.S. Sports Video, which includes Mike’s son Todd, who oversees operation and software and Jim Boldy, who is President of the Northeast region. Nor have they strayed from their original focus on the customer that they first practiced with Texas A&M. “We have been very fortunate to have helped so many football programs with their video,” said Mike. “Our customers are our friends, and we’ll do whatever it takes to take care of their needs.”
For More information: 800-556-8778 www.ussportsvideo.com
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