Back to School: Our Growing Sports Media & Analytics Program at Virginia Tech

 

We are three semesters in to our project to build a world class Sports Media and Analytics program at Virginia Tech, which has been a really unique project and – to be candid – a lot of fun.

Why did we do this? Well, we have an incredible brand-new digital television studio and control room at Virginia Tech in the new Moss Arts Center.

We have the culture at this institution and in this community where sports are important. 

And we have the passion among kids in Virginia High Schools who are interested in a career in Sports Journalism. In fact, keep your eyes here, because you’ll see some of their work on this site in the coming weeks.

We have a tremendous faculty at Tech, led by Department Head Dr. Bob Denton.  That faculty includes IMG’s own Andrew Allegretta who heads up the IMG internship program which has been invaluable for so many of our students.

So what are we doing with the 100+ Virginia Tech students who are taking various classes this semester?   

 Virginia Tech students take a quiz in the Intro to Sports Media Class at Virginia Tech, Fall 2017.

Virginia Tech students take a quiz in the Intro to Sports Media Class at Virginia Tech, Fall 2017.

Intro to Sports Media:  This is a basic intro class where we cover everything from Sports Marketing, Sports Writing, broadcasting, PR, crisis communications, and more.  Among the assignments: Each student is assigned his or her own NFL or NBA team and assumes the role of social media director of that team for the entire semester.  They have to design, maintain and stay current with their real team and tweet as needed. They also learn about Grantland Rice and Roone Arledge and Pete Rozelle and why those people were so impactful on the sports they watch.  They learn how to write a press release, how to handle a crisis, and how sports marketing campaigns are designed and executed. Plus, on the analytics side, they learn to understand how the Neilsen ratings work, and how to use that data to create made-for-TV events.   I tell the kids that this class is like the “Golden Corral” of Sports. It’s a buffet. You’ll get a little taste of everything. 

(Note:  These are college kids.  Most of ‘em have never tried the Buffet at The Bellagio. They don’t know about the all-you-can eat Crab Legs, the slabs of kabobs, and the endless supply of fruit-filled crepes at Vegas’ top buffet.  So, in this instance, Golden Corral works. #KnowYourAudience.)

Broadcasting Performance: This is where we turn on the lights, put kids in front of the cameras and let ‘em try to pronounce Andrew Motuapuaka’s name

(Note: Andrew, Virginia Tech’s terrific linebacker, is in the Comm. Department and is probably going to take this class, which will give him a somewhat unfair advantage in this particular assignment.)

That being said, I believe that people learn and get better from getting out in front of the camera, doing interviews, standups, and more.   We even bring in wardrobe experts like Meg Weddle of  Meg's in Radford, Virginia who provides tips for both the ladies and the guys on how to dress on TV, and so – when you get the first TV job in Steubenville, Ohio, you can get a bunch of nice outfits and look terrific without spending a zillion bucks. We even do mock press conference where we bring in a coach (that would be Billy Hite) who simulates a post-game press conference.  

Whether we are doing play-by-play of a game, reporting from the field, or writing a column, we are in the story telling business.
 Roanoke Times Sportswriter Andy Bitter visits with a Virginia Tech student in the Sport Journalism class at Virginia Tech.

Roanoke Times Sportswriter Andy Bitter visits with a Virginia Tech student in the Sport Journalism class at Virginia Tech.

Sports Journalism:  Writing and more writing.  Both for print and for broadcast.  Lots of ethics, analytics here too, but tons of writing.  We’re in the story telling business.  Tell me story.  That’s what I say to ‘em all the time.  Whether we are doing play-by-play of a game, reporting from the field, or writing a column, we are in the story telling business.   We bring in speakers for this class, look at press conferences, and teach ‘em how to be creative when shooting a story, writing a story, and then producing a story. 

Sports as Entertainment: From that singular first ever radio broadcast of a baseball game to the days of 24 hour sports networks and streaming digital platforms, sports has been an integral part of American culture. The delivery methods have evolved, but the passion, entertainment levels, and financial returns have grown through the decades. They hear Red Barber and Vin Scully and Jack Buck and watch the Gillette Cavalcade of Sports.  They get to pick their all-time favorite sports movie, then propose their own.  They get to study Super Bowl Halftime shows over the last 50 years, then design their own Super Bowl LII production.

(Note: Prince at halftime of Super Bowl XLI in 2007 was the runaway winner as the most popular Super Bowl Halftime show among the Fall ’17 students. These kids loved that halftime show. They loved Prince.  Their selection usurped my personal favorite: 2001 when Aerosmith and N’Sync were joined on stage by Brittany Spears, Mary J. Blige, and Nelly for “Walk This Way” (which is perhaps the greatest four minutes in our country’s history.) 

Why the Halftime Show? Well, these kids know the data.  They know the analytics. And they know that-- believe it or not -- in each of the last four years, the Halftime Show has been the highest-rated part of each Super Bowl telecast.  Ask anyone in this class “Who won Super Bowl LI?”  They’ll tell ya: Lady Gaga.

Play-by-play: This class launches in the Spring of 2018 and we’ll go through the basics of play-by-play: From preparation to theory to actually calling games. Guest speakers will be included during the semester, but the biggest thing here is the actual on-air experience, with follow-up critiques and workshops.  

Schools like Syracuse, Miami, Fordham, Northwestern and Missouri have long had really terrific journalism programs that have produced outstanding sports broadcasters and sports writers.   In recent years, we’ve seen Penn State, Oklahoma State, Arizona State and Alabama get into the game in a big way.  Now, Virginia Tech is joining the fraternity. 

Perhaps the biggest change in the last 12 months is that schools have brought in working sports journalists as full-time faculty, not just adjunct instructors.  We can stay on the air on weekends, but also be in classrooms during the week.

Jay Crawford, formerly of ESPN, is back working on the program at Bowling Green

J.A. Adande left ESPN to head-up the program at Northwestern

Paola Boivin, a terrific sports columnist for the Arizona Republic, has joined the program at Arizona State University. 

Olivia Stomski, an executive producer at ProAngle Media in Los Angeles, is the new director of the program at Syracuse. 

We have the passion among kids in Virginia High Schools who are interested in a career in Sports Journalism.

Fun Fact I: The students like it when they discuss something in class on Wednesday, then watch their professor call a game on TV a few days later.  (Of course, that professor gets a full critique of his work the following Monday in class, trust me.) 

Fun Fact II: We play warm-up music before each class to get the energy going.  Is that odd?  Yeah, probably. But I want to bring the passion from the stadiums and arenas into the classroom and inspire young people to pursue their dreams. That’s what we’re trying to establish here in Blacksburg. 

And so far it’s working.  This fall, Virginia Tech students started their own chapter of NSMA, the National Sports Media Association.  They arranged to bring in ESPN’s Rece Davis and producer Jim Gairo to speak to the group the day before the Virginia Tech-Clemson football game. They’ve also started their own weekly podcast.   Last summer, six different Virginia Tech students called play-by-play for minor league/collegiate summer league baseball teams from Green Bay to Martinsville to Bluefield and beyond.  It’s those extra-curricular experiences that really make the difference and that’s what we’re pushing.

We’ve got some very talented Hokies in the sports journalism business who are currently in TV, covering teams, writing for newspapers, blogging and even working for pro teams. And those people are reaching out to our current students to help them along the way, serve as mentors and build a solid professional network.


Three semesters into the SMA program at Tech, we’re on our way to building something really special. 

 

 

William Rothpast