Friday Night Lights: Partnership with ESPN+ Puts University of Cincinnati Media Production Students in National Spotlight

No other school in the American Athletic Conference uses student media teams linked to a curriculum to produce live feeds for the network.

click to enlarge University of Cincinnati student Mason Foley operates a camera at Gettler Stadium in August 2022 for a broadcast for ESPN+. - Photo: Michael Asher
Photo: Michael Asher
University of Cincinnati student Mason Foley operates a camera at Gettler Stadium in August 2022 for a broadcast for ESPN+.
"Black on line. Ready to open!"

“Cameras, set your shots! Tape, queue up home in red and away in blue.”

“Graphics, park the lower-third on font two and ready to animate full screen on font three.”

“Audio, track font four and talent mics.”

“All right, everyone lock in and let’s have a good show. Ready to roll open in 5…4…3…2…1…”

A director shouts commands to the media team covering a University of Cincinnati Bearcats soccer game on a sunny August day at Gettler Stadium. From the sidelines and in the broadcast booth, the entire team is completely dialed in, expertly beaming a nuanced production to viewers on ESPN+.

To an observer, these are longtime professionals at work.

In reality, they’re college students getting national air time before their careers have even really begun.

Students from the media production division at the University of Cincinnati’s College-Conservatory of Music work outside the classroom to produce and direct television broadcasts that air live on ESPN+ as part of a recent partnership with the university’s athletics department. It’s a unique opportunity – no other school in the American Athletic Conference (AAC) uses student media teams linked to a curriculum to produce live feeds for the network – that over just a couple of years has generated post-grad jobs. Alumni are landing at ESPN, with the Bengals and at other big-name sports entities, and the program is attracting more and more ambitious high schoolers.

But as with so many great experiences, the innovative collaboration between UC and ESPN+ came down to radical decision making.

Making the snap

In March 2019, ESPN reached an agreement on a 12-year $1 billion media rights television contract with the American Athletic Conference, leaving member universities with a short window to facilitate the logistics of creating broadcast-worthy productions. The contract was and still is similar to deals with larger college athletic conferences such as the Southeastern Conference (SEC), Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) and Big 12 Conference.

ESPN+ has broadcast standards that are a bit hard to define, says assistant professor of multi-camera productions Joe Brackman.

“[It’s] a little bit wishy washy” and “varies based on the day and the sport,” he says. “You need a minimum number of cameras – probably three to five – replay, graphics and then a score bug.”

The ESPN contract was the catalyst for UC’s current program, but the university already had been considering ways to improve in-house sports coverage. That included acquiring some much-needed equipment from local government officials.

“I was able to work with the Hamilton County [Commissioners] and get a donation of five cameras, lenses and support equipment that had originally been in Great American Ball Park and Paul Brown Stadium [now called Paycor Stadium],” says Bill Frigge, a 1998 graduate of UC’s media production program and current associate director of athletics.

The university purchased a replay system and integrated all of the new equipment into videoboard productions for the 2015-2016 football season at Nippert Stadium.

“That’s kind of an important start,” Frigge tells CityBeat. “We were able to actually have a robust production.”

Associate professor and former media production division head John Owens was the first to reach out to Frigge and the athletics department, Frigge says. Owens initially was looking for investments in the television studio housed in the lower level of Mary Emery Hall, but Frigge says the conversations soon became focused on how to get students involved.

click to enlarge Joe Brackman, assistant professor of multi-camera productions at the University of Cincinnati, directs live sports productions from the broadcast control room in Nippert West Pavilion - Photo: Michael Asher
Photo: Michael Asher
Joe Brackman, assistant professor of multi-camera productions at the University of Cincinnati, directs live sports productions from the broadcast control room in Nippert West Pavilion

The idea continued to expand with the announcement of the American Athletic Conference’s new television contract with ESPN. The athletics department and the media production division within CCM saw an opportunity to partner on meeting the stringent ESPN+ broadcast requirements.

But there was a big obstacle: at the time, the media production program at UC didn’t have a sports media class or professor, let alone the resources to produce live athletics matches on television.

“If the conference comes in and says that we have to produce these games, I have to hire somebody,” Frigge says.

He adds that freelance production professionals – like the ones other universities within the conference were using – were standard, easy to deal with and could hit the ground running. They come with a high price tag, though. Besides, Frigge still was looking for the student angle.

“How can it benefit our students?” Frigge says he kept asking himself. “I saw it more as an investment that we would make as athletics, and I got Kevin and those guys to buy in and start to think about developing classes that would complement.”

The “Kevin” that Frigge mentions is Kevin Burke, who took over as media production division head in the fall of 2018. He saw that Frigge’s vision could happen, “but only if we hire a faculty member to do this, and that we create classes that are integrated into our curriculum.”

“It was a risk starting this,” Burke says. “That [student productions] was a radical idea for many of the other schools.”

In 2019, Owens, Frigge and Burke agreed with UC Athletics director John Cunningham and former CCM dean Stanley Romanstein that instead of hiring professional freelance television teams, the university largely would rely on student crews for ESPN+ productions. They foresaw that the opportunity would help students develop into live production skills while UC distinguished itself from other AAC schools. Frigge and Burke both say they had full confidence in the choice and admit to having no official backup plan in place.

But UC still needed someone with the knowledge and skills to teach students the fundamentals of sports production – and quickly. Burke wrote a job description for a new position titled “assistant professor of multi-camera productions.”

“It was a national search. We had people from all over the world applying,” says Burke, who served as head of the search committee.

After narrowing the applicants to finalists in February of 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic forced the remainder of the process online. CCM hired Emmy award winner Brackman that April.

“[Brackman] was just the perfect person for the job,” Burke says. “He had done something very identical to what we wanted already.”

Brackman tells CityBeat that he started his career working at Ohio University with video board presentations. He later moved on to New Mexico State University, producing 45-50 events a year on Fox Sports Arizona [now called Bally Sports Arizona], Altitude Sports and ESPN 3.

“In my time at New Mexico State, I was already working with students, teaching the basics on how to shoot, how to edit, how to run replay, graphics, all those sorts of things,” Brackman tells CityBeat.

click to enlarge Jeremy Youngquist (in purple) assists Alex Jacob in banking clips for player packages in the broadcast control center at the University of Cincinnati. - Photo: Michael Asher
Photo: Michael Asher
Jeremy Youngquist (in purple) assists Alex Jacob in banking clips for player packages in the broadcast control center at the University of Cincinnati.

He then spent a few years working in Columbus on “GameTime with Urban Meyer” but was eager to return to the live sports environment.

“I was looking around at opportunities that might be in Cincinnati, to move closer to family, and that was where I stumbled across the posting,” Brackman says. “The thrill and the excitement of producing live sports, television [and] covering live games is something that has always appealed to me. So when I was doing the other work, I, you know, kind of longed for that.”

Frigge and the athletic department, which funded the salary of the new position for the first two years, supported the choice.

“I knew we had hit a homerun with that hire,” Frigge says.

Taking the kick

Brackman says his first project in July 2020 was to assist in the founding, planning and execution of the ESPN+ control room on the fifth floor press box in Nippert Stadium’s West Pavilion. He was eager to get started, he says.

“To kind of come in on the ground floor of what we were building here at Cincinnati and having an opportunity to put my stamp on it to an extent, and have some input and do things in a way that I thought would be the best for everyone” was his goal, he says.

Officially dubbed “Introduction to Sports Media Production,” Brackman’s new course launched for the fall semester of 2020-2021 academic year. The new initiative continued UC’s legacy of actively teaching students through hands-on learning experiences, and the course qualified as an on-campus co-op opportunity offered in collaboration with the office of experience-based learning and career education. Frigge says that students were – and continue to be – paid to work in production as they learn.

The control room was still under construction as football began that August, and COVID-19 delays slowed the build of the control room and pushed back the ESPN+ production schedule, Brackman says.

“The pandemic had things all delayed. I thought we had until January or February. Lo and behold, they’re like, ‘Oh, no, you have to cover all of the basketball,” Frigge tells CityBeat.

click to enlarge Mason Foley (left) and Nic Dumancic operate cameras one and two from Calhoun Garage at the University of Cincinnati's Gettler Stadium in August. - Photo: Michael Asher
Photo: Michael Asher
Mason Foley (left) and Nic Dumancic operate cameras one and two from Calhoun Garage at the University of Cincinnati's Gettler Stadium in August.

In order to be ready at the start of the basketball season that November, Frigge hired national architecture firm DLR Group to assist with the design and engineering of the control room.

“I think we spent over half a million dollars in equipment,” Frigge estimates.

“There became a whirlwind of effort to get our control room up and running to start producing basketball for ESPN+,” Brackman adds.

Despite the control room’s incomplete status, UC began production for ESPN+ on Nov. 25, 2020, for the women’s basketball game vs Northern Kentucky University. Frigge admits there were mistakes but says, “We were on par with our peers in the conference very quickly.”

Hitting the goal

The productions are high quality, but the initiative continues to be all about the students.

Assistant director of broadcasting and new media Matt Noonan works with Brackman to train students on game-day operations and prepare them for different crew positions.

“Most start as camera operators during their first events, then move into control room positions like replay, graphics and audio,” Brackman says.
Brackman says there are challenges when working with students and putting on a live television broadcast, but in the end, it’s worth it.

“I enjoy sharing the success of productions with the students,” Brackman says. “We want to have fun, and we want to be proud of the work that we’re doing.”

“Introduction to Sports Media Production” requires each student to work at least eight games in a semester, and no experience is necessary. Each game is about a five- to eight-hour commitment outside of class. Depending on the season, students have the opportunity to cover soccer, football, volleyball, basketball, baseball, lacrosse and more. The lecture portion of the class teaches students about the sports television industry, operation of professional equipment and how to find a job.

“It’s an opportunity for students to really get a feel, taste and hands-on application of what it’s like to work in this industry,” Brackman says.

Another class, “Producing and Directing for Live Sports,” takes a deeper dive into the preparation and planning of a broadcast. Over a semester, students are required to work 16 games, develop storylines as a producer and cut games live as a director, all for airing on ESPN+.

“Once they’ve made their way around the control room and they’re a little bit more experienced in their educational journey, then they’ll be trained to be leaders in the control room,” Brackman says.

Unlike in the early days, UC’s production control room now is fully equipped with Ross Video technologies and Grass Valley cameras, two major players in both the sports and news television industries.

Though Brackman’s program hasn’t been in place long, it already has produced successful alumni. Jack Bolander, a 2022 UC graduate, had enrolled in
“Introduction to Sports Media Production” for the pilot semester in 2020.

“Ten or 12 of us were in that first semester, and we really were just figuring out how things worked,” Bolander tells CityBeat.

After taking the course four straight semesters and graduating from UC with a bachelor’s of fine arts in media production, Bolander occasionally returns as an independent contractor who works on games and leads new students on productions. Bolander also has been hired to work on in-house video board productions by three of Cincinnati’s professional sports teams: Bengals, Reds and FC Cincinnati. Bolander credits his work with Ross Xpression – a graphics system – and the Ross carbonite switcher in the University of Cincinnati control room as key to securing his FCC crew position.

“They reached out to some of us from the class, who were involved there as a graphics operator on Xpression, which is pretty cool because I already had some prior knowledge going into that,” Bolander says.

Bolander says that about nine students from the 2020-2021 academic year were hired to join the Cincinnati Bengals’ JungleVision Productions crew for that season, thanks to a connection from Brackman. That relationship has grown into UC students consistently being part of JungleVision’s game-day crew, says Bengals game and event entertainment coordinator Alex Schweppe.

click to enlarge Jack Langen checks microphone levels before a women’s soccer game at the University of Cincinnati in August. - Photo: Michael Asher
Photo: Michael Asher
Jack Langen checks microphone levels before a women’s soccer game at the University of Cincinnati in August.

“He [Bolander] is like a Swiss Army knife. From camera to replay to TD, he really does it all,” Schweppe tells CityBeat. “Not only was his skill pretty crafty, but the thing that really stuck out to us was his attitude.”

Schweppe says that’s been his experience with many UC students from Brackman’s program.

“All across the board, Joe has an insanely talented group who is ready to work,” Schweppe says. “We’ve trusted his judgment, and it has totally paid off.”

And UC’s student broadcasts already have received recognition from ESPN.

“They’ve been incredibly impressed by our student efforts in production and have even offered us up as a model in the American [Athletic] Conference for other schools looking to incorporate students,” Brackman says.

Frigge notes that a high point came when ESPN contacted the university about producing the linear broadcast of the Jan. 20 men’s basketball game against the University of Tulsa on ESPNU, using the newly built control room and UC students as crew.

“To know that we had the ability, we had all the pieces in place to make it happen and they’d come and review and they agreed – well, that was a pretty big deal,” Frigge says.

ESPN has even hired UC alumni, Burke says. Jordan Whitman and Tori Muñoz (both 2021 UC graduates) work as graphic operators, Griffin King (‘22) is an audio operator in the REMI (remote modulation integration) operations department and Caitlyn Zieleniewski (‘22) is a production assistant in the ESPN Next program.

“I wouldn’t be where I am today without them,” Zieleniewski says about her experience in the sports media courses with Brackman. “I feel confident in my knowledge and skills in the control room thanks to my two years of being in Joe’s classes.”

King feels similarly.

“Coming into this position, I was a little unsure of how prepared I was to be working on these high-level productions,” King says. “But I’ve found that Joe did a great job of creating a professional environment for our ESPN+ productions that closely resembles what you will experience at the highest levels of sports broadcasting.”

Burke says the program will continue to pay dividends.

click to enlarge “Introduction to Sports Media Production” at the University of Cincinnati requires each student to work at least eight games in a semester, and no experience is necessary. - Photo: Michael Asher
Photo: Michael Asher
“Introduction to Sports Media Production” at the University of Cincinnati requires each student to work at least eight games in a semester, and no experience is necessary.

“This is a sustainable model. We feel that we’ve had tremendous success in the first two years,” he says.

And the initiative will continue to grow, he says, with high school students clamoring to wade into the fray once they enroll at UC. At the end of the spring semester, Brackman, Burke and the media production team hosted a digital sports summit to connect students to professionals in the sports industry as well as to market the program to prospective students.

“We had over 70 students from four states attend that online event,” Burke says. “Some of our connections from ESPN were there. We had several of our alumni who work in sports media, from the Los Angeles Rams, Cleveland Cavaliers and Bally Sports Ohio.”

“In terms of growth of the program, it’s a balancing act between attracting students, being able to fund additional faculty and additional classes at the same time,” Brackman adds.

As the crew dives into its 2022-2023 efforts this fall, UC’s athletics department has hired full-time television production engineer Steve Graham to support the technical coordination of the productions, Brackman says. Additionally, UC alum and full-time producer at ESPN Josh Kramer is joining Brackman in teaching “Introduction to Sports Media Production,” handling the lecture portion remotely while Brackman handles the live event sessions.

“We have a working professional from the industry providing firsthand knowledge and connections to the students,” Brackman says.

Brackman has added a third course, “Advanced Techniques in Live Sports Production,” to build on what was taught during the two existing courses.

“It gives students an opportunity to kind of grow their skill set and their confidence before they’re ready to take a turn to directing or producing,” Brackman says.

Students who feel more comfortable in front of the camera can enroll in the new on-air talent development course for both play-by-play and color announcers, which will be offered for the first time in the spring. The class will be taught by adjunct professor Betsy Ross, an Emmy-winning sports reporter who previously had worked at ESPN and now is president of Cincinnati sports entertainment communication company Game Day Communications.

Brackman says the sports television industry continues to grow and is actively hiring right now because sports are universal commonalities that provide entertainment, unite people together and generate culture. As such, he has big plans for the media production division in future.

“I want to see people start their freshman year and work with us, be involved and grow all those years,” Brackman says.

“Everything we do is focused around things that the students will become involved with and providing that experiential learning benefit that will help them in their careers,” Burke continues. “The benefits of expanding what we’re doing here would be phenomenal for our students, UC athletics and the university as a whole.”

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