NEW YORK — After a whirlwind season that could be described as the greatest in school history, this Yeshiva University team will soon bid farewell to its do-it-all leader, a savant who took the program to new heights.
But this upstart bunch of bochurs doesn’t wear jerseys — unless you count their custom white polos — and its star senior looks more like a chess champion than a basketball whiz.
We are talking, of course, about MacsLive, the crack student broadcast crew that livestreams every Yeshiva men’s basketball game, and its indefatigable executive producer Akiva Poppers. They have flourished in lockstep with YU’s basketball team: As the Maccabees rode a 50-game winning streak to the top of Division III this season, their leading scorer Ryan Turell gracing the pages of ESPN and The New York Times, MacsLive and its team captain won national acclaim as the greatest show in Division III.
“They brought a Division-I, almost like a professional feel to the broadcast of our games,” said Elliot Steinmetz, the Macs’ head coach, adding that it has helped him recruit. “We’re getting kids who are calling us and being like, ‘Yeah, I watched your games online because they’re so much fun to watch.”
The production quality goes beyond expensive 4K video cameras — though there are four of those — and the audience includes more than just Macs fans. The typical broadcast features not only a play-by-play announcer and a color analyst, but also slow-motion instant replays and sideline interviews, prepared segments on both teams, and even commercials for Jewish businesses. A few dozen students — videographers, writers, statisticians, runners; most but not all male — scattered across YU’s Max Stern Athletic Center produce the games; thousands of viewers regularly tune in.
In addition to hosting the broadcasts, MacsLive.com posts game previews, recaps and highlight reels. These too are created by student volunteers who, like their lodestar Poppers, are logging countless hours lishma (meaning for its own sake — or to be more specific, for free). They are meeting the insatiable demand of an Orthodox community that has become obsessed with the sport, partly due to the on-court success of the movement’s flagship university.
“Our goal is to make it such that when you watch, you say, ‘Wow, that is a great broadcast,’” Poppers, 20, said. “Because then you’ll enjoy it more.”
Behind the cameras
Seated at the bay of computer screens in a converted utility closet that is the MacsLive booth, Poppers and assistant director Aaron Traurig called directions into their headsets Monday afternoon. It was the final day of Sarachek, the annual high school basketball tournament hosted by YU and largely organized by MacsLive; on the other side of the wall, a pair of Orthodox powerhouses, Valley Torah and DRS, were duking it out for the championship.
At the end of a five-day, 29-game streaming marathon, the booth looked, sounded and smelled every bit like the inside of a real broadcast truck, littered with picked-at comfort food, water bottles and rolls of electrical tape.
As a crowd of 1,200, maybe more, shook the gym into a froth, Poppers toggled from shot to shot over the headset — “Ready two, take two; ready one, take one” — as Traurig worked the control panel. When he needed a replay from camera three, in the court’s far corner: “Three, did you get that?” If camera three had indeed caught it, Poppers and Traurig cued up the replay, which — after the MacsLive logo flashed on screen — played in slow motion for some 5,000 online viewers.
‘People who aren’t in YU who hear the name Akiva Poppers are like, it’s chashuv,’ one MacsLive commentator said. ‘It’s a big name.’
Though MacsLive started a decade ago as a passion project for sports-obsessed YU students, and became a public service to the Orthodox community as interest grew in the school team, some of its biggest fans today are people from outside the Jewish world.
After YU’s season-ending defeat to Johns Hopkins, SJ Tannenbaum, the lead sideline reporter — whose bespoke suits add an extra splash of verisimilitude to the broadcasts — was cornered by a few of the winning team’s players, he recalled later.
“It was a bunch of six-six, six-seven guys — I’m six feet. I was very intimidated,” Tannenbaum said with a smile. Their message: “‘You guys have the best broadcast in D-3.’”
No one on the MacsLive staff has academic training in broadcasting. YU doesn’t have a communications program and MacsLive doesn’t have a faculty adviser, or alumni involvement. Yet the club is a well-oiled machine. Cameramen receive detailed schedules for battery and memory card changes. There are production meetings for on-air talent. Technical hiccups pass unnoticed by most viewers.
The other big man on campus
In charge is Poppers, who said he got a total of 11 hours of sleep outside of Shabbat during the four nights of the tournament.
A soft-spoken senior double-majoring in finance and business analytics, Poppers is a lifelong college hoops junkie who started at MacsLive play-calling and writing recaps during the Sarachek tournament. He was promoted to head of content as a sophomore; his junior year he started running the show. Along the way, he mastered the technical aspects of production — and, thanks to five-figure sponsorships from alumni, parents and other fans of the program, dramatically improved the hardware. MacsLive’ full-time staff has jumped from about a dozen students to around 50 since he took the helm, with another 40 or so volunteering during Sarachek.
He’s also become a skilled prognosticator of both D3 and yeshiva league hoops, and is an official voter for Division III men’s basketball rankings.
“People who aren’t in YU who hear the name Akiva Poppers are like, it’s chashuv. It’s a big name,” said Aharon Weiden, a sophomore game announcer. “Whether he meant to or not, he’s like a Ryan Turell in a way. He’s a guy who people look at and get inspiration from.”
Turell and Poppers, who are friends and mutual admirers, are twin case studies the YU admissions office surely likes to tout: They are Sabbath-observant Jews who have thrived in their chosen pursuits not in spite of, but because they have pursued them at an Orthodox Jewish university. Students who love basketball or sports broadcasting know they’ll never have to play games or hold a camera on the Sabbath; with the freedom and belief that they won’t be held back for that, talent and dedication can take them pretty far.
But whether YU is selling a four-year fantasy or a fast-track to the pros is another matter. A six-foot-seven forward who led the nation in scoring this year, Turell made national sports headlines earlier this month when he declared for the NBA draft, seeking to become the first Sabbath-observant player in the league’s history.
The greatest show in Division III is a student-run sports broadcast
Yet the graduating Poppers is preparing for a different reality — that the professional world is unlikely to accommodate a six-day workweek like YU did — and thinks he will work in data analytics. His MacsLive crew mates mostly feel the same way.
“Live sports, for an Orthodox Jew, is not feasible,” Poppers said. “I enjoy doing it, there’s no question about that. If someone at ESPN offered me a job in sports directing or production, or anything like that, and could make it work, obviously, I’d probably take the job.”
Late in the final, a DRS guard stole the ball and raced upcourt to attempt a go-ahead layup — only to have it swatted against the backboard in stunning fashion by a Valley Torah forward. The gym erupted; in the booth, Poppers and Traurig did, too.
Only a minute earlier, with the game knotted and the clock approaching three minutes remaining, Poppers had set up all three secondary cameras to record replay. When the block happened, he shouted to each camera — they could hardly hear over the pandemonium — to see if they caught it.
Inside the gym, which was still buzzing at the next timeout, a high schooler in the third row pulled up the MacsLive stream on his phone. He knew what it would have. Everyone in the vicinity watched over his shoulder as the replay rolled.