SVG College Sports Summit: How Academics-Athletics Alliance Can Build the Next Generation of Producers

Not long ago, academic departments and athletics departments may as well have been living on different planets. Today, with the proliferation of athletics-oriented video-production and -distribution platforms around the country, many schools are finding there’s plenty of valuable common ground between academia and athletics. Meanwhile, conference networks, local RSNs, and streaming services like ESPN3 are presenting schools with new outlets not only to distribute a hoard of sports content but to expose their students to a real-world live-production environment.

“Crew members and production staffs are getting ready to retire, so where do these replacements come from?” asked ESPN Coordinating Technical Manager Jeff Willis during a panel as the recent SVG College Sports Summit in Atlanta. “I think they are going to coming out of the college ranks. Our technology is changing at a freight-train pace. This next generation of technicians and production creators need to have a base and a hands-on experience. I think the days of knocking on a door at a stadium and hoping to get a job are falling by the wayside. I think the combination of athletics and academics being able to provide the platform for content creation is what is going to lay that foundation.”

Creating On-Campus Harmony, Preparing Students
One prime example of athletics and academics combining forces for the better good can be found at the University of Dayton, where the athletics department has worked with the communications department to develop a program to live-stream events in eight sports. Since being introduced five years ago, the program has grown from 10-15 events to 60 annually, with students essentially working the entire production: camera, graphics, replay, director, producer, and so on. A representative from both the communications and athletics departments is present at each event to guide the students.

As a result of combining their athletics-communications efforts, Dayton has been able to produce these games on a tight budget, saving hundreds of thousands of dollars in production costs, and, having seen the benefits, university officials recently increased the program’s funding.

“The university loves this program for two main reasons,” said Michael LaPlaca, assistant athletics director, multimedia, University of Dayton. “One is, anytime you can have athletics work with another division of the university, it helps create a good harmonious culture and working environment. More important, we have been able to train students for the next level of their career. The training and new-age experience has been a boon for both parties, and the university is very proud of the program.”

Dayton has seen students from the program advance to full-time positions at the Big Ten Network, Fox Sports Ohio, and non-athletics entities like American Express and Carnival Cruise lines.

Getting the Right Students Involved
Not every school finds it easy to find students to populate their live-sports productions, however. There is plenty of on-campus competition for students looking to get into video production, and, even when you find students, they may not end up embracing the environment and participating long-term. The key, the panel agreed, often is having a champion of your cause on the academic side who knows how to steadfastly recruit students for the program and train them properly.

“When you see the schools that do it, you quickly see that they have one great person. It is really a full-time job to recruit and maintain students,” said Rex Arends, associate director, event operations, ESPN. “You have to get freshman or sophomore year so they can over-under [cable] in 100 degrees at the beginning. In the next stage, they are more prepared to be good audio people and camera operators. You have to have someone that understands that and understands that recruiting isn’t just going to the journalism school. The one thing we can’t teach these students is passion. You either have it or you don’t.”

Chris Taylor, director of digital sports production, Ball State University, added, “There is a difference between having students just work on the production and having someone in place to actually teach and help the students to prepare them to work on the production.”

The Sports-Information Department Connection
In addition to getting students and the academics side involved, any athletics video-production coordinator must have a close relationship with the sports-information department (SID) and coaches. By cultivating these relationships, video-production teams can often gain a level of access and trust that will make for a higher-quality product and the freedom to cover teams more intimately.

Taylor and his Ball State Sports Link team worked with the men’s-basketball SID to persuade the school’s first-year coach to agree to help produce a new behind-the-scenes program called Behind the Shadows.

“[Behind the Shadows] became a recruiting tool for us, and we just landed one of the best classes in the MAC partially as a result of that,” says Brian Hardin, deputy athletic director, Ball State University. “It starts at the top: the director of the program has to form a relationship with the individual-sport SID and then go beyond that and form a relationship with the coaches. You need to develop that trust, and, once that is there, they will allow you access to the locker room, which is where you can get that compelling footage to tell great stories and inform your fans of what’s going on behind the scenes.”

The ESPN3 Factor
Although major conferences like the Big Ten, Pac-12, and (soon) SEC have launched large-scale networks of their own, the ESPN3 service has become one of the strongest tools for smaller institutions to distribute their athletics events to a large audience. However, with a large audience also comes ESPN3’s mandate for satisfactory production quality. The network has assisted schools with a production-standards minimum that each program must meet before it carries their games on ESPN3. As a result, a host of mid-major and smaller schools have upped the ante when it comes to equipment and production workflows — all in the name of getting live athletics content to fans.

“It seems like five minutes ago that most video departments at a typical university was one guy with a camcorder,” said Arends. “And to look at where we are today with HD flypacks, mobile trucks, and control rooms, it’s just remarkable. I think you have to see how fast it’s changing and where we are going, because there is going to be a much clearer divide between people that are paying attention to this and those that are falling behind.”