Behind The Scenes In Sports Media: Big Ten Tournament

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Behind The Scenes In Sports Media: Big Ten Tournament
(Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

 

Let me tell you a story.

And although it may seem like a fairy tale, trust me—it’s all true.

The journey begins in August 2007 during my tour of Ford Field in Detroit; I think that’s where this all started, anyway. 

You see, imitating the Heisman pose on the field was fun.  Taking a picture of the door to the general manager’s suite (or “the room where Matt Millen destroys the Lions”, as we called it then) was good for a laugh.  Leaning against Calvin Johnson’s locker was neat.

But my favorite part, by far, was wandering through the stadium’s press box.  As I tried to wrap my mind around a job that involved watching sporting events for free, talking to players and coaches about anything and everything, using an Internet connection and phone line to describe the action to the outside world, and of course, all the while taking advantage of free food and drink, my mind raced with the excitement of it all.

What a life.

You have to understand that I had always been one of those sports fans that dreamed of getting closer. 

I’m the guy that wants to believe he’s destined for more than armchair quarterback greatness.  The fan who knows he’d make a great color commentator if the network ever gave someone besides ex-players a chance. 

The kid whose weekly letters to his far-away grandparents spent more time recapping the NCAA tournament scores than explaining his schoolwork and activities.  The college student who practiced his rapid-fire answers to each Around the Horn topic, just in case they ever called.

(Editorial note: they never did.)

Anyway, as I took the tour at Ford Field, I had no legitimate aspirations of playing in the NFL or running a professional franchise.  But I could at least daydream about what it would be like to cover a big-time game, even though the odds of that happening seemed about the same as the Cubs’ chances at a World Series pennant (and no, I don’t plan to live another hundred years).

Then I found Bleacher Report.

I don’t even remember how, to tell you the truth.  Maybe the marketing gurus in the San Francisco office have a better idea of what ad caught my attention or what link brought me here first.

But some how, some way, I ended up writing articles on the Open Source Sports Network—despite having no idea how it would change my life.

The first few months were slow.  I wrote my first article, and was pleasantly surprised when complete strangers commented on it, and even seemed (or pretended?) to like it. 

I tried to think of story angles that no one else would cover.  Ideas like “Mega March Madness Marathon”, which involved watching the NCAA tournament literally all day and publishing an article every hour. 

I claimed that this was journalism at its finest…although it was a lot closer to simply being an excuse to watch television all day.

“Sorry, honey, can’t take out the trash tonight.  The game’s still on—and I’m ‘working’ on my series.  Can’t let down everybody in cyberspace.”

As fall approached, I brainstormed how to cover college football, one of my favorite sports.  At that point, Bleacher Report was gaining a small foothold in the media world, and barely a year after my Ford Field visions of glory, I found myself in a real live press box with a real live press credential.

The hallowed inner sanctum was everything I thought it would be.  I covered games at Louisville and Purdue for Bleacher Report, and didn’t think anything could top my wonderful October.

I was wrong.

Fast forward our fairy tale to March 12, 2009.  That was the day I walked into Conseco Fieldhouse in Indianapolis with a credential to cover the Big Ten men’s basketball tournament for B/R. 

Those steps took me even farther down the bridge from lifelong fan to serious journalist—if there is such a bridge at all.

Personally, I think the best journalist is a fan.  I hope and pray that no matter where my adventures into sports media take me, I never lose the love for the games I’m covering. 

I don’t want to become hardened, calloused, or take this access and experience for granted—ever.  It may be work, but it also has to be fun.  Quote me on this: I’m not willing to trade my passion for privilege.

The bridge I’m on is one that can connect the message boards and the locker rooms, the press conferences and the nosebleed seats. 

In a decade where print media seems to be undergoing a permanent re-invention, maybe I can operate on both sides of the gulf. 

Fans want details—and insider knowledge.  They dream of asking just one question of their favorite athlete (or in many cases, least-favorite coach).   My goal is to get that close—and stay there—but at the same time, to never leave the realm of the diehards, the bandwagons, and the fanatics.

I know there are other writers on Bleacher Report who are traveling the same bridge.  Some may be steps or light years ahead of me, while others have barely started across. 

When I was dreaming of what life would be like behind the scenes in sports media, I had way too many questions—and not nearly enough answers.  I wanted to know how it all worked, what it all looked like—I needed someone to describe the sights and sounds on the other side of the security guard. 

That’s why I created this list of some of the greatest experiences and memories from my trip to the Big Ten tournament.  For you.

Eleven items—one for each team in the Big Ten.  (No, math people—I don’t quite understand that either.) 

And before I go any farther, let me say a heartfelt "Thank You" to Aron and everyone else in the Bleacher Report office who made this possible.  It was everything I hoped for (and that's saying a lot).

So now, without further ado, this is what life with the “golden ticket” looks like.

11.  Yes, the Perks Are That Great

I don’t even want to count how much money I could have spent on food and drink while basically living in a sports arena for four solid days. 

Those five-dollar small beverages tend to take a toll on the wallet rather quickly.  As it was, I think I bought one ice cream the entire time I was at Conseco—that was it.

Near the court entrance to press row, an entire restaurant was shut down and blocked off for media hospitality.  This was the place for free snacks and drinks all day, as well as fine dining for lunch and dinner. 

The best perk about this area was a bathroom with no real lines to speak of; the sports fan in me is used to trying to sneak out quickly during the game action, thus avoiding the halftime rush when 10,000 other people all make a beeline for the same two restrooms. 

Let’s just say I could get used to the media treatment.

 

10.  Yes, The Hours Are That Bad

On Friday (the quadruple-header day), I arrived at the arena at 9:45 am.  The next time I even looked outside, let alone stepped outside, was when I finally headed home at 12:45—the next morning.

I made the comment to the shuttle driver that Indy could have gotten two feet of snow during the day and I would have had no idea, buried deep in the event level of Conseco Fieldhouse. 

Fifteen straight hours of watching and writing…writing and watching…watching and writing.

The schedule claims a dinner break between quarterfinals No. 2 and 3.  But for the sportswriter, that merely gives enough time to catch up on (and actually proofread) the articles that should have been posted already.

Of course, I loved every minute of my fifteen-hour marathon.  No complaining from this aspiring journalist.   But I was definitely exhausted when each day’s work was over. 

Thank goodness we didn’t see a six-overtime game.  I might have fallen asleep in the fifth extra session!

 

9.     The Elevator is My Friend

Each day, a new list of assigned seats is posted on press row and in the media workroom.  Every chair at the familiar tables behind (and across from) the teams’ benches is designated and accounted for.  Row 2, seat 45: Columbus Dispatch.  Row 1, seat 13: ESPN. 

On Thursday and Friday, I didn’t rate high enough for one of the coveted reservations, leaving me to make the long trek to the media overflow area. 

The view from my seat actually wasn’t bad at all.  We had several tables, complete with television monitors and power outlets, at one end of the arena behind a basket. 

The overflow area was actually in the middle of the three levels, just below the upper deck. 

The only problem was that the entrance to this section was in the main concourse.   This meant that to get to the court, the media workroom, the locker rooms, or the hospitality area, I had to exit my section, walk partway around the concourse, take the elevator down to the basement, and then hike to whichever area I was trying to visit.

The amazing part is that it was still quicker to get a snack or use the restroom by making the trek downstairs (instead of waiting in line with the fans that sat around me).  Go figure.

Anyway, before I had been in the building two hours, I think I was on first-name basis with every elevator operator in the arena.  (Hi James!) 

Up and down.  Down and up.

My feet still hurt.

8.  The Reserved Seat is Really My Friend

On Saturday and Sunday, I was overjoyed to find my name (well actually, the website’s name) on the reserved seating list.  If I thought the first two days had been “living the life”, this was really the big time. 

The pop machine just a few steps away—close enough to hear every word the coaches yelled on the bench (not that I can repeat many of them in this family-friendly article)—and an amazing view of the three most important Big Ten basketball games of the season (semifinals and final).

If you had told me as a basketball-crazy teenager that I would be sitting in front of the front-row fans for the Big Ten basketball tournament someday, I would have been ecstatic.

Actually, I’m still ecstatic.

 

7.  Did You See That Dunk?

While our tournament didn’t have a lot of last-second buzzer-beating heroics, it had more than its share of gravity-defeating, high-flying throwdowns.  The front row is a pretty cool place to watch dunks from, in case anyone was curious.

Michigan State’s Travis Walton threw three highlight-reel alley-oops in less than ten minutes against Minnesota to catapult the Spartans to a comeback win—that was nice. 

But the moment of the weekend was Chris Kramer of Purdue absolutely posterizing a Penn State defender on a 2-on-1 break.  The poor guy thought Kramer was going to throw an alley-oop; instead, Kramer exploded down the lane and dunked on him.  Big time.

This was one of those jaw-dropping plays that sent “did he just do what I think he did?” looks up and down press row.  Talk about a memory that won’t soon be forgotten.

 

6.  Coach-speak: There’s Nothing Like It

On my first morning in Indianapolis, I spent about an hour sitting in the completely empty press row watching the different teams’ pre-game walk-throughs, drinking in every moment and straining to hear as much as possible.  Almost without exception, my entire focus was on the coaches.

In college basketball and football (maybe more than any other sports), the coach really seems to be the star.  We’ve all heard how much more Jim Calhoun gets paid than any other employee in the university (or state); well, one of my favorite memories from Indy was getting to listen to and interact with the Big Ten’s brightest minds. 

As a high school basketball coach, I treasured the privilege of listening to Bruce Weber explain pick-and-roll defense, watching Tom Crean convince his team they had a chance, and discussing game-changing moments with Tom Izzo, Matt Painter, and Tubby Smith in press conferences.

(Although, in the interest of full disclosure, I must admit that I got a little tired of listening to these guys act like they couldn’t care less about the NCAA bubble.  Every time I heard a middle-of-the-pack coach say “we’re just taking one game at a time—I haven’t even thought about the NCAA tournament," it seemed like I could actually see their Pinocchio noses growing another inch or two.  Just admit the obvious—you’re as concerned about the RPI as Freddie the Fan is, probably even more so.)

5.  Accessibility To the Common Fan

I’m still a common fan, despite the occasional dream weekend with a press pass hanging around my neck. 

Who knows if that will ever change on a permanent basis?  I’d like to think it could, but I’m realistic enough to not hold my breath waiting for that “will you come try out for a broadcast position” phone call.

With that in mind, I tried to enjoy press row, do my job professionally, and make myself accessible to fans at the same time. 

Little things like turning the television monitor next to me so the guy behind me who wondered about the Duke score could watch the last two minutes on ESPN.  After all, if our positions were switched (and they usually are), I would really appreciate someone “on the inside” helping me out—or even simply caring what I think. 

For example, I know from first-hand experience that the guys on (insert your team’s message board here) know more about their favorite school than a big-time writer who might only have watched them play one game all year, so I kept an eye on the message boards all weekend.

During Sunday’s championship game, I was getting instant feedback and analysis from Purdue and Ohio State fanatics as they posted on their respective websites.  I used the fans’ insight to understand the game from each team’s point of view, develop storylines, and better summarize the trends and events of each day. 

As a longtime Purdue supporter, I solicited other Boilermakers’ fans help in brainstorming questions for the coaches and players after each game.  Some of my best angles and interview topics came as direct results of suggestions from other longtime fans—and that was exactly what I had expected and hoped for.

I’m not a Twitter guy yet, but it sure seems like a great example of how this real-time back-and-forth capability has forever changed sports journalism.  Shaquille O’Neal and Rebecca Lobo now, everyone eventually. 

No matter where in media I might end up someday, I plan to be as accessible and in-touch with the “common fans” as possible—because I know what their view is like from the cheap seats (or the couch, for that matter).

 

4.  Rubbing Shoulders With Celebrities

I know “celebrity” is a relative term; I also know I couldn’t help but marvel at the number of people I knew only from television who passed me in the hallway over a four-day span. 

For some reason, I didn’t get star-struck at all while talking to the players or coaches, but crossing paths with Jim Nantz, P.J. Carlesimo, Larry Fitzgerald (Senior), Jim Jackson, Erin Andrews, Eddie George, Dave Revsine, Ralph Sampson (Senior), Charissa Thompson, Gene Keady, Clark Kellogg, and others made me feel like I was a member of some ultra-exclusive club.

I didn’t ask for a single autograph, of course.

But I thought about it constantly as we rubbed shoulders in the media workroom.  I’ll get over it soon.

Right?

 

3.  Ask the Players AnythingAnd I Do Mean Anything

My credential not only gave me access to the media workroom where the postgame press conferences were held, but it also let me into the team locker rooms after each game concluded. 

The protocol went something like this:  when the game finished, the winning team enjoyed a five-minute “cooling off period”.  After the five minutes ended, the winning coach (and two or three players) were brought into the press conference room. 

Reporters could ask questions of the players first, then the coach.  That team’s locker room was opened to the media simultaneously for a maximum of 30 minutes (although I doubt it ever got to 30). 

The losing team received a 15-minute cooling-off period, then their press conference began (shortly after the winners’ had ended).  They also opened their locker room to the press for 30 minutes.

The tricky part of this whole system is that the next game started 20 minutes after the conclusion of the previous one.  Without developing omnipresence overnight, I was hard-pressed to get to both news conferences, each locker room, and then still see the next game I was going to write about. 

I usually ended up going to one team’s press conference, then running to both locker rooms to grab a couple of quick quotes before trying to make it back to the arena and see most of the next game. 

I gave a little more priority to being there for the start of the Purdue games, but in general, this approach worked out well.  If I wanted to ask a coach a specific question, I made sure to go to the press conference.  If not, sometimes it was best to just hit the locker room, because I could ask as many questions as I wanted of each player without having to ‘”wait my turn”.

It helped that the Big Ten media staff provided us with a transcript of each press conference, so if I had to leave early to visit a locker room, I still had the coach’s and players’ quotes available to me.

Talking casually with the players in the locker room about the just-concluded games was one of my favorite parts of my weekend in Indianapolis.  Getting to ask Robbie Hummel how his back really feels, chatting with the son of the most famous basketball player in history (Illini guard Jeff Jordan), and laughing with Chris Kramer about his parents’ lack of sympathy (“Suck it up, Christopher!”) gave me great insights into how much fun sports media can be.

There were some interesting moments too.  I thought watching Hummel struggle to come up with a politically correct answer to another reporter’s query, “Who is the better interviewer—Erin Andrews or Charissa Thompson?”, was hilarious.

Ask away, fearless journalist.  I’ll stick to basketball questions, personally.

2.  Way Behind the ScenesBig Ten Network Style

Of all the amazing experiences in Indianapolis, this might be my favorite.  After trading a few e-mails explaining my desire to learn how sports media works “behind the scenes”, Big Ten Network lead anchor Dave Revsine graciously agreed to let me watch his crew tape a live edition of their 30-minute pre-game show.    

I met up with Dave Friday afternoon in the media hospitality area, introduced myself, and he invited me to come check out the 6:00 show that night, just before the Michigan-Illinois quarterfinal tipped off. 

He was extremely friendly and helpful, and took several minutes to explain how he prepared notes and talking points for the show (since they don’t use a telestrator or anything like that).  

I was ready and standing in the corner at 5:58 that night, curious to see how a taping with Revsine, Jim Jackson, and Gene Keady all came together, when Dave came over with a question that blew me away. 

“How would you like to watch in the truck instead of just standing here?  You’d probably learn a lot more there than watching us talk here in the arena.  It’s completely up to you, of course,” he told me.

I missed the last few words, because I was already nodding emphatically while trying to digest the privilege he had just described.  One of the producers escorted me to the loading dock, where the BTN truck was sitting.  It basically looked like a medium-sized mobile home.  We opened the door—and stepped inside to sports media heaven.

At least that’s what it seemed like to me.  In a small room (about the size of the kitchen in my parents’ travel trailer), ten people sat in front of a zillion screens, showing every possible image from inside and outside Conseco Fieldhouse.  Talk about technology overload.

(Okay, so it wasn’t a zillion.  I actually counted 70-plus different monitors.   Close enough.)

A producer sat front and center, barking orders into a headset, while everyone else was preoccupied with the activity and chatter of getting ready to beam a live television show all over the globe.

If you’ve seen Apollo 13 or visited NASA headquarters, this is the television production version of mission control.  That’s the closest I can describe it. 

The main producer called the shots, while the other staff members cued up B-roll video, counted down the seconds left in a segment, added in the font and music overlays, and who knows what else.  All the things I never really think about in a sports broadcast were happening mere inches away, one spectacular detail at a time.

There was really no spare room or extra space at all in this cramped trailer, and since I felt extremely out of place and in the way, I tried as hard as possible for 30 solid minutes to take up as few cubic inches as possible.  That was job No. 1. 

Task No. 2 was to try and take it all in—easier said than done, with a dozen people talking at once for a half hour straight.  I managed to understand most of what was happening, including the guy who raced past me with “the tape of John Beilein’s locker-room speech a few minutes ago”.  Within seconds, the tape had been viewed, edited, timed, cued, and described to the producer (as well as host Revsine inside the arena).

At least, it was supposed to be described to Dave.  Turns out that his headset wasn’t functioning right, so he narrated the whole first segment “flying blind," unable to hear anything the mastermind producer was saying a few inches away from me. 

During the first commercial, a crew member switched his headset with Jim Jackson’s (“He doesn’t need to hear anything anyway”), and things improved quickly.

Afterwards, Revsine was disappointed with how rough the broadcast went, but if anything, that made it even more impressive to me. 

Seeing the team’s plan B and C implemented on-the-fly when things didn’t go according to script only showed how intensely detailed every millisecond’s display really is. 

No, Charissa Thompson wasn’t talking to the coaches live about their keys to the game.  That 49-second feature of her and Bruce Weber was paused on the “Gold” screen, waiting for the producer to slide it in. 

No, the cameras don’t pan randomly around the arena looking for crazy fans.  That shot of the student section was recorded twenty minutes ago, and is sitting on the Blue monitor, ready to be added at a moment’s notice.

Highlight reel from earlier today?  Got it.  Add the music.  Overlay the stats.  Use the BTN logo to fade to Izzo’s press conference.  “Dave, we’re back to you in five.”

This was everything I’ve ever wanted to know about sports media summed up in one glorious, whirlwind, crazy, fast-paced, exciting, off-the-cuff, wonderful, immensely detailed thirty minutes—and I had the best seat in the house.  (Well, there wasn’t really room for me to sit, but you know what I mean.)

I hope it’s not my last experience in a big-time sports television broadcast, but I know it will remain one of my most memorable.

Thank you, Dave Revsine.

 

1.  We are the Champions

I spent four solid days trying to be a neutral, unbiased columnist.  I succeeded until my longtime favorite school, Purdue, won its first-ever Big Ten Tournament title in a thriller over Ohio State on Sunday afternoon. 

As the trophy was presented and the T-shirts passed out, I quietly moved from my seat on press row to stand on the corner of the court and watch.  “My guys” were all sporting matching hats and getting ready to cut down the net for the first time ever—and I was on the floor. 

Talk about a memory that will last a lifetime.

The Purdue locker room didn’t open to the media until after the selection show; that way, the team didn’t have to be interviewed twice.  Despite that fact, I stood just outside the door after the game and watched the Boilermakers players running past me into the locker room, trophy aloft and screaming with delight.

Eventually I would get to interview Hummel with the precious hardware sitting behind him in his locker.  I would get to talk to senior Marcus Green, the lone holdover from Coach Painter’s first recruiting class, as the championship net rested around his neck. 

But for now, I just observed, smiled, and took it all in.

The security guard told me, “You know their locker room’s not open yet.”

“Oh, I know,” I replied.  “But I’m really enjoying this right now.”

A fitting summary of a weekend I'll never forget.

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