In the world of aspiring video production professionals, the desire to be involved in professional sports production is common, and rightfully so. Few other activities offer the opportunity to be in the heat of the action, at events others pay dearly to attend, often making close contact with sports icons that are the idols of throngs of adoring fans. The adrenaline of live production courses through the profession, and every day you come to work not knowing the outcome of the game; you never know how this show ends. Millions of people can be watching your work, live, at any minute. Sound exciting? You're darn straight it is.
Getting to the level of skill and credibility required to maintain employment in that world is no easy task. But it is a task that can be accomplished by those who are unselfish with their time, attentive to their responsibilities, and are willing to swallow hard and jump in when the opportunity presents itself. Here are some tips on how to prepare yourself to make it in the world of sports production.
Work hard, and get a good foundation
This can happen at a trade school, a university, or a high quality local access cable facility. Take every opportunity to run any position you are offered, and take every opportunity seriously. Practice does make perfect. Learn to balance a camera to perfection, and how to set up zoom and focus handles for effortless operation. Learn mic positioning, field lighting, how to figure-8 cables and how to over/under audio cables as fast as you can walk. Watch sports productions with the sound turned off, and analyze camera placements, their coverage assignments, and what parts of the play are really important to be included in the replays. Then listen to the sound, and see if you can identify all of the mic placements and what they are there to capture. If you get good at that, think about what kind of mic is used to capture each of the sounds you can hear. Observe the graphic portions of the program, and determine which graphics can be built ahead of time, and which ones have to be prepared during the game. Finally, watch how the game is switched, and think about the communication between the director, producer, technical director and crew members needed to execute the production.
In your training environment, you may be tempted to be a cool "slacker" who resents hard work like some of the more fashionably aloof members of your class or team. In serious production environments, those people get weeded out incredibly quickly. There is a lot of hard work that goes into making a good sports broadcast, and idle hands make themselves glaringly apparent during set-ups and strikes. Thought of a different way, the work all has to get done, and if someone else is doing it and you're not, well, none of those other people have any good reason to want you to be around. If you are serious about making it, slacking is a nasty habit, best never learned.
No task is too small for you
If beginning sports production crew members want to get their first break, they need to be present and prepared when that break comes along. Many a production crew member got their start when a fellow crew member was struck ill, had a car breakdown, or was unavoidably prevented from meeting their commitment. That is how cable pullers become camera operators for a night, and how audio assistants become audio mixers. Being in the right spot at the right time is not a matter of luck, it is a matter of making yourself available, even if it means working below what you believe should be your pay grade. An unpaid internship or a volunteer or low paid assignment schlepping cables may seem menial, but you will never progress to crew member if you are working in retail or busing tables at the precise moment when a production supervisor desperately needs another camera or replay operator.
That leads to the next lesson...
Know how to do the job ahead of yours, and do it, if at all possible
Even if you are not being paid for it, it is essential that you be ready to perform the job one step above yours, so that when the opportunity arises, you are ready. That means learning at the elbow of professionals. Although it may be more difficult in union shops, find yourself some mentors, and set about learning as many tricks of their craft as you can. Do everything you are allowed to do, and ask frequently if you can do things for your mentor. The more you can take care of, the more time your mentor will have to do their job better. The ideal situation to have created is one where everyone begins to notice that when you are on the shoot, all of the details seem to have been handled, and shows go more smoothly. In live sports production, smooth is good - very good.
Treat every piece of equipment like it is your own
This is the responsibility of every professional in this trade. No one can be any better a camera operator that the camera, tripod head and zoom/focus controls allow them to be, and the same rule applies to the equipment for every other production position. That means that you need to know what can damage equipment, and how to avoid that like the plague. While the mantra "don't be gentle, it's a rental," may seem amusing when it is applied to rental cars, understand that the keyboard you screw up today may be the same keyboard that screws you up tomorrow. If you trash a tripod head or microphone, it will undoubtedly affect someone the next day, and the crew chief or operating engineer on that truck will make note of who not to have back on the next crew booked in your town.
Know your sport
There is no way any sports production professional can reach their potential without knowing the sport they are covering. That means knowing the game, its rules, its strategies, the players, the coaches and the history.
The further you go into sports production, the more important this becomes. The above-the-line professionals you encounter will all be dyed-in-the-wool sports fans. Success at that level requires a degree of dedication and fanaticism that cannot be matched by mere mastery of the technical elements of the craft. If your director is telling you to "get a close up of Jackson," you'd better know who Jackson is. Especially for those involved in graphics and font coordinating, knowledge of the meaningful statistics of the sport you are covering is paramount. Read newspapers and magazines, follow blogs, and download and decipher the media guides of the teams you will cover. You are the media now. Do your homework, or you'll be food for those who do.
Keep your mouth shut and your eyes open
If you get a chance to intern or volunteer in a professional sports production environment, take it, and understand that the best things that you can do are work hard and don't feel like you have to jump into every conversation and sound like a seasoned professional. Observe like a hawk, listen to their stories, and make sure you leave every place you go in better shape than when you got there. Modesty will get you much further than brashness.
Getting to the point where you are a go-to person for a crew chief or crewing coordinator is no small challenge. The payoff of being in the thick of highly rated, live television production, however, is worth all the sweat and effort. Remember that the road is a long one, and your patience will be tried many times. World class directors, TDs and audio operators were not sprung forth fully grown from the head of Zeus; they all worked their way up, took chances, and they still get their hearts in their throats now and then. If you understand that you don't get breaks, you make them, you will be a lot further ahead than the competition.
Ken Schramm is the Manager of Video Communications for Wayne (MI) RESA, and the Project Director for REMC MIstreamnet (www.mistreamnet.com). During his career, he has worked events for broadcasts in the NFL, NHL, NBA and Major League Baseball, and was the Production Supervisor of Television Operations for the Detroit Pistons and the Palace of Auburn Hills from 1989-95.