College Sports Production in the COVID era

Olivia Stomski, far left. Live Producer for ESPN, Director of Sports Media at Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University. 

By Dani Lyman, Crew Connection

If you’re that special kind of weird that’s happy to spend 16 hours in a production truck elbow-to-elbow with a team of misfits, you might like that very special world of college sports production.

A day in the life.  

You’ll jump on a 5 AM flight, pop your earbuds in, pull your beanie down over your eyes and pray the sweet old lady next to you stops talking about her grandkids so you can catch one more hour of sleep. You’ll land in a small airport–maybe in Utah–drive a rental car 90 minutes to a quiet town you’ve never heard of, and spend the next ¾ of a day bickering, laughing and BS-ing until showtime. You and your team, which has now become a family, will deliver an ALMOST flawless broadcast, pack up the truck without a complaint, and grab a beer at a hole-in-the-wall to discuss how to make it flawless next time. If you’re lucky enough for the adrenaline rush to die down, you’ll crash at a cheap hotel and run out the door with the sun just to do it all again. 

If that kind of life gets your heart beating a little faster, then you may be one of the “weird” ones who is attracted not just to the production life, but that extra wacky world of college sports production. In the words of my favorite producer, Olivia Stomski, it is a “weird person.” If that’s you, you know it. You know the special kind of weird you are. 

David Heil – Broadcast Freelancer

Okay, so that was pre-COVID. What’s it like now? 

Unfortunately, the hot mess we call 2020 is changing the way America goes to work and the field of college sports production is no exception. I recently caught up with two of my favorite experts in the field of sports broadcast, Live Producer for ESPN Olivia Stomski and broadcast freelancer David Heil. We discussed the changing landscape of college sports and how to create a successful broadcast career post-COVID-19.

Stomski, who is also the Director of Sports Media at Newhouse School, explained how COVID has impacted Sports Media students’ education, “In their Senior year, students usually travel. It’s something they earn. But now, because of COVID, everyone is in-house at the college’s field.” Instead of getting a taste of “life on the road” and learning from encounters with other colleges, students are making the most of their education by learning from the in-house professionals and hands-on experience at home. “Newhouse utilizes more students in the production process than most universities do,” but still the roles are limited. There is no longer the physical space available in production trucks or the Control Room. Positions are being moved and re-considered as safety precautions like installing plexiglass and social distancing become priorities. “But, right now, just playing is a win.” 

It’s not only students who are affected by the pandemic. For freelancers like David Heil, who has a beautiful wife, a young son and a baby on the way, it hits close to home. “I’m in limbo. With COVID and many sports being cancelled, it put freelancers in jeopardy. Unless you were a local in a city that reopened in a bubble (like Las Vegas opened boxing), it’s difficult to land a gig. They aren’t bringing in large teams anymore. Now you have a skeleton crew and, like Olivia said, an in-house team. College sports are up in the air. Some conferences are moving forward, while others are saying ‘no’.” For example, Mountain West–games David, Olivia and I frequently worked on together–waited until just last month to announce a revised schedule for 2020 which delayed the start of their fall sports programs and left room for ongoing modifications based on COVID-19 developments. “If you’re a freelancer it’s always feast or famine, but this is different. It’s quite terrifying, honestly.”

Even though we are facing unprecedented challenges, the industry is resilient and the people who work in it are filled with stubborn and passionate hearts. Necessity is the mother of invention and professionals are finding a way to adapt and evolve faster than ever before. 

“The expectation of quality has changed.” David pointed out. Now, freelancers and independent broadcast companies aren’t expected to arrive on location with a large production truck packed with the latest high-tech equipment. “Content filmed with just your iPhone and a light is acceptable to clients. Content is king.”

“There is not a finite number of spots where people can be successful in this industry.” Olivia stated as an important thing for students to remember, especially during these uncertain times. It’s no longer just the “big names” like ESPN or FOX Sports offering opportunities, but TBS, Bleacher Report, YouTube, Amazon and various streaming platforms offer jobs that weren’t available previously. 

“I was brought on board to cover a post-game show a former pro baseball player hosts. I bring my equipment to his house and we shoot it there.” David emphasized that while the landscape of college sports is shaky at the moment, there are various positions available that utilize a similar skill set. Live-streaming of diverse content is an excellent way to supplement income while college sports production finds its legs after the pandemic. 

Both Olivia and David stressed the necessity for maintaining connections and networking, especially when the world feels so inconsistent. LinkedIn, ProductionHub, Meetups and staying in touch with other professionals are key to landing gigs as they become available. It’s working those connections that are going to afford seasoned freelancers and newbies career opportunities post-COVID. 

David notes, “During COVID, continue to stay connected and involved. Keep working your network. If you have an opportunity to learn something; learn it. You never know, in this industry, which door will open.” And this comes from the man with the most versatile production knowledge I have yet to encounter. I have been witness to his excellent producing, directing, technical directing, graphics coordinating, replay operating and engineering skills. He never stops learning and he never stops excelling. This has opened countless doors and allowed him to build a truly impressive career. We can’t all be David Heil. But, we can strive. We can strive. 

Let’s talk about diversity. 

When we talk about 2020 we cannot, with good observation and in good conscience, ignore the outcry from marginalized communities for diversity and equal opportunities. In production, especially sports, I was often the only female in the truck – that is, until I met Olivia. Olivia was not just the first and ONLY female Producer I worked with over my sports broadcast career, but she was also, undeniably, the BEST Producer. She has a reputation for cracking the whip, making solid calls, expecting the best and pulling the best out of her crew. If you’re privileged enough to sit in her truck you fear her, in a healthy way. You want to do your best for her because she brings her best for you EVERY. DAMN. SHOW.

Since becoming the Director of Sports Media at Newhouse School she has put great focus into growing a diverse student base. “Diversity is because of effort. I actively recruit. Of 40 students this year, 29 come from diverse backgrounds. And that is just in our grad program. That isn’t even talking about our undergraduates.” 

Olivia is also focused on helping first generation college students succeed. As a first gen-er herself she understands the challenges, “It can be a difficult road.” These students do not usually have mentors to set proper expectations or provide connections that can help form the bridge from education to career. Instead, these students forge their own path, picking up the lingo and culture along the way. They are the dreamers and the warriors and their unique path can often leave them feeling like the outsiders. That’s why an environment of hard work and acceptance goes so far to create success. “It’s not about inclusion, it’s about belonging. It’s not enough to be included, but everyone should feel like they are one of the team. Everyone has to earn their seat. You belong here. You matter.” 

The bottom line.

We’ve explored the trials, tribulations, brutal schedules and continual fight for opportunities in the land of college sports productions, but what are the perks? Why in the world do these “weird” people dedicate their lives to such a high stress, inconsistent and demanding career? Despite the grainy Zoom screen, the sparkle in both Olivia and David’s eyes is easy to see. The answer is simple. They love it. 

For Olivia, the most rewarding part of the job is the team atmosphere that can’t be replicated in other lines of work. “It’s the family you create and the friendships you form. You are only as good as the people around you. You trust each other. If one of us makes a mistake, we all make a mistake and we grow together. The kind of relationships you form under this kind of pressure aren’t attainable in many other fields. Look at us! We haven’t all seen each other, since I don’t know when, but the minute I see your faces pop up on my screen, I get excited. You can’t get that anywhere else quite the same way.”

While David agrees, he’s more of the adrenaline junkie than the sentimental type. “I love the excitement and insanity of putting on live sports. It’s one and done. If you make a mistake, you learn and move on. There’s something about it, the finality of it, that I love.” 

And when I asked Olivia what she loves the most about teaching sports media students, her response is heartwarming, “Seeing students fall in love with this industry. I love this industry. I’ve missed holidays, weddings.. all the late nights.. we all have. Because we love it. The only thing better than that is when a student comes to say they got a job. That’s my favorite.”


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