Jim Mayfield is a freelance writer for M Magazine.
From outside there’s no hint of the buzz humming inside Ball State University’s television production truck.
Inside, resembling more a combat information center lit by console lights and wall-sized arrays of video screens, split and cubed into several simultaneous images, the intensity is palpable as eight sets of eyes laser-lock on their assignments and BSU senior Kevin Thurman snaps off camera calls while coaxing the action with his hands.
“Ready one. Take one!”
Thurman calls. “Ready three; take three.” Then quickly, “do we have a replay on that?”
A few feet away through the double doors of Worthen Arena, the Indiana State men’s basketball team is hammering the BSU birds, and the beating is being televised live across the state on Comcast Indiana 81 and streamed to the world by Ball State University Sports Link, an immersive, student-produced sports media program found nowhere else in the country but Muncie.
“We are the ESPN of Ball State,” says Chris Taylor, a Ball State University instructor of telecommunications/sports immersion & media.
Immersion being the key word. The concept is simple and straightforward: find a BSU sports story, take a deep breath and jump in.
Though unofficially launched by four TCOM professors after hours in 2008 as a pilot offshoot of BSU’s award-winning student-produced NewsLink, the original idea sprouted from necessity back in the late ’90s when Taylor, then assistant director of athletics communications and marketing, needed web content for the university athletic department.
“It started with 10 students and a digital camera,” he said.
Earning his BA in telecommunications followed with a master’s in sports administration in 1998, Taylor embarked on a 10-year stint working in and eventually directing the Ball State Athletic Communications and Marketing office.
He left college briefly for the crucible of private practice public relations, “but I just wasn’t wired that way,” he said.
In 2009, he returned to campus on a 10- month contract to shepherd the then-officially sanctioned Sports Link, and though he’s technically still on a 10-month contract, “CT,” as his charges call him, has never looked back.
“Personally and professionally I’ve never been happier. I really wanted to be here. I’m from here, I went here. I missed BSU,” Taylor said.
Earlier in the week, during a Monday evening class session/chalk-talk, the program’s 28 men and women review feature packages, looming deadlines – including the upcoming Sycamores- Cardinals basketball broadcast - and critique work in progress.
Assessing a “13 in 13” video segment, featuring 13 players in 13 days for BSU men’s basketball, Alex Kartman, a Sports Link alumnus now graduate assistant, urges the class to keep pushing for the summit.
“It was a good start,” Kartman says after playing the video on the smart board. “From our standpoint it’s good, but the next step is the one that will make it great.”
On top is clearly where the program wants to be.
“Subtle tweaks,” Taylor tells them, “are the difference between us and everyone else in the department.”
The difference is there, and as with most things sports, the numbers don’t lie when measuring performance.
Four Emmy nominations with one win; 23 state or national awards; nine Indiana Association of School Broadcasters first place awards; five Society of Professional Journalists first place awards; 2 ADDYs.
And that’s just the top half of the page.
Sports Link content reaches four Indiana television markets, cuts a large swath across every known social media platform and is the only student-produced college program in the country to be featured regularly on Fox College Sports, putting the school on the same field as journalism school heavies such as Missouri, Syracuse and Penn State.
“There is nothing like this,” said Josh Blessing, senior and TCOM/News major from Wakarusa, Ind. “It’s the only place in the nation where students can get hands-on experience. We’re so unique because we do everything here. There’s nobody holding our hands.”
And this isn’t any drill. Wise beyond his years, Blessing understands with all the competition for a broadcast job out there, one better have some punch in the portfolio to back up four years of head knowledge.
“Real-world projects for real-world clients,” Taylor said. That’s where Sports Link delivers in spades.
The program not only helps those who write, shoot and edit the content; it benefits the athletes on the other side of the lens as well, university officials said.
“We absolutely love these guys,” said BSU Athletic Director Bill Scholl. “With the volume of work and the quality of work they do, it’s a major asset in our ability to help get the word out about what we do here.”
Last month, Sports Link upped the ante by pitching the BSU administration to expand the program into the school’s digital sports media production sequence in the TCOM department. Lending some academic bona fides to Sports Link’s already pervasive practical attributes is widely supported by current program participants and has gained early departmental support.
But that’s a decision to be made by other folks at another time, and with the fourth quarter waning, there’s no time to think about it now.
Inside the arena, the clock ticks away on any rally the Cardinals might have buried in the nest, and out in the video-illuminated truck, Taylor urges his charges to keep swinging until the final bell.
“Relax. Have fun. Finish strong,” he coaches calmly as he leans over Thurman’s shoulder.
The Sycamores continue hammering the hoop, and the buzzer ends the thrashing as senior play announcers Pat Boylan and Tim Fogarty wrap the action with analysis from another Muncie boy-madegood, Bonzi Wells, whose red No. 42 BSU jersey hangs high in the arena’s steel and who went on to a 10-year NBA career.
Twisting his neck and tweaking his tie a la Dangerfield, the 6-foot-5 Wells said there’s little not to like about coming home and providing color commentary for a Sports Link broadcast.
“These guys are excellent. I kept clearing my throat to sound as professional as they sounded,” Wells said.
The fans file toward the exits, another night closer to turkey dinner. The campus, officially on Thanksgiving break, is quiet and virtually empty. But tonight’s crew still has to strike the production and secure the gear. It will be close to morning before they’re finished.
Tomorrow’s another day, and like the athletes they cover, many of the Sports Link team will work through the break, planning, shooting and editing features, video and multi-platform packages to feed the information beast.
For the Sports Link sports-media junkies, it’s life in the deep end. And they clearly wouldn’t have it any other way.