Indy Star: Transatlantic Storytelling Feature

Inside the Ball State program that’s preparing the next generation of sports producers

By ETHAN SEARS | Indianapolis Star

Zach Roy was sitting in a hockey arena in Cardiff, Wales, with 3,000 other people, 14 of them in his group, when the news broke. An email instructed Ball State students studying abroad not to go back to campus or to class.

For a moment, he wasn’t sure if he’d be able to get back in the U.S.

The trip had been in the making for four or five years. Twelve students and three instructors from Ball State’s Sports Link program would work in partnership with Cardiff Metropolitan University’s sports broadcast program to put together a documentary featuring Welsh athletes — runners, rugby players, cricketers and so on.

When Cardiff wanted to start its program, it was the only one of its kind in the United Kingdom, so Joe Towns, its director, reached out to Chris Taylor, his counterpart at Ball State, which offers the only four-year sports production track in the US.

Eventually, collaborating on a documentary grew out of that correspondence, and this year over spring break, a group from Ball State flew overseas. While they were there, the pandemic hit.

Things ended up fine — the university made an exception and allowed the students  on the trip to return to campus for a couple days before classes were shifted online. The project was paused while everyone adjusted to the new reality, but it’s done now.

“It was honestly, for me, it was very normal,” Roy said. “Because I edit things at my house by myself all the time.”

He’s the sort of kid whom Chris Taylor, the head of the program, wants to attract to Ball State. Roy got into video in high school, starting a production company to film high school basketball. When his friend, Ishmael El-Amin, committed to play basketball at Ball State, Roy helped with the commitment video. Taylor noticed, and recruited Roy to the program.

Taylor’s been running it for 10 years now. The program  blossomed from when he was working for Ball State athletics and would ask a couple kids from the telecommunications department to work with him for credit.

After a pilot program for sports production had some success as an add-on to a news production program, Taylor was asked to lead it on a 10-month contract. Things worked out.

“There’s theories and philosophies, fundamentals of storytelling and production, but then the true magic happens when you have a camera in your hands or gear in your hands and you’re out in the field and you’re producing and then you’re reacting to your environment,” Taylor said. “And that’s what sports is. Sports has teams that you think may win or will lose a game, but you never really know until the game is over. There’s always this element of surprise.

“So that lives perfectly with what we’re doing in terms of a production standpoint, because it’s reaction, it’s planning, it’s adjusting in the field. It’s not quite knowing what the outcome’s gonna be, but working your best to get to a product and immersive learning.”

Taylor says he isn’t an “academic-type person” — he doesn’t like the idea of standing in front of a room and lecturing. He’d rather put a camera in students’ hands and let them learn by doing. On Roy’s first day at Ball State, before his 10 a.m. history class, he had to wake up for a 7 a.m. football video shoot.

The program is made up of about 50 kids, and the point isn’t to learn how to pan a camera back and forth during a basketball game. Taylor wants his students telling stories. The Cardiff trip is just an example of that.

“There wasn’t five seconds where we weren’t doing something,” Roy said. “Every moment was accounted for, and in my mind, that’s a good thing. There was down time, but it’s like, you weren’t bored in down time. We were always doing something, whether it’s going to a rugby facility, going to some insanely beautiful beach, going to soccer games, going to film things with the athletes or just talking with the students at Cardiff.”

The coronavirus didn’t make things easy — Taylor said it probably delayed their timeline a bit compared to if they had been on campus — but the documentary is out online now. Taylor said there’s some interest from film festivals in the US and internationally. Despite that moment when it looked like merely getting back into the country could be at question, the trip was a success.

“It was awesome for our students to get that experience of learning different sports, connecting with high-level athletes, with Olympic dreams, and then trying to produce a story worthy of what they shared with us remotely, during COVID-19,” Taylor said, “and I think we did an amazing job with that.”

**This story originally appeared online July 25, 2020 and in the Sunday, July 26 print edition of The Indianapolis Star.

Leave a Reply