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It’s lights, camera, action as Canisius leverages tie to ESPN broadcasts

Athletes know what it’s like to perform under pressure. The ones whose names we’ve heard of are those who can sink a putt when big money is on the line, or make a clutch play in a playoff game – whatever their sport.

The same is true in broadcasting. When the red light comes on, a veteran like Jim Nantz, Joe Buck or Doc Emrick can be counted on to perform. There is also pressure on the behind-the-scenes people, the names in the credits that scroll past quickly on the screen when a sports broadcast is over. They also have to hit their marks, to do their jobs seamlessly to make the on-air talent look good.

Performing under stress is something that the 24 students in Sam Hallett’s Sports Broadcast Journalism class are learning at Canisius College. Hallett, the college’s director of digital media, is part of the team shepherding Canisius students through a program in which they get to produce the TV broadcasts of Golden Griffins sporting events that are sent out to a national audience on ESPN3, the Worldwide Leader’s online delivery channel.

The traditional setup for a sports broadcast at a college campus is for a control room to be run out of a satellite truck. But Canisius and ESPN last spring announced a venture in which students produce their own broadcasts in a variety of sports. The school over the summer built the Golden Griffin Broadcast Control Room, which is located in the campus’ Science Hall, just across Delavan Avenue from the Koessler Athletic Center.

Starting with a volleyball match in September, the students have produced 48 games in various sports, including soccer and basketball. (They’ll add lacrosse in the spring.) The most recent events were a men’s and women’s basketball doubleheader last Thursday against Niagara. ESPN’s announcing team handled the on-air chores, but students were running the cameras, audio and video equipment, replay machines and more.

How much practice do the students get before doing a game with “real bullets flying?”

“In the class we’ll go over each piece of equipment,” Hallett said, breaking into a grin. “We’ll kind of have a class just talking about audio or replay or graphics. Usually for broadcasts we just like to throw people in. I think trial by fire is the best way to go about it.”

Hallett said that while ESPN expects a high-level broadcast, the company doesn’t expect perfection from college students.

“They know there’s going to be a few bumps in the road,” he said. “But what I’ve seen so far is they actually pick it up very quickly. Usually we’ll start a basketball game and halfway through the first half, they’ve already got it down. They know the camera shot they’re looking for, what mics to turn on or off, what replays are working for us. So it’s been amazing to see how fast they learn it and can actually do this.”

CJ Gates is a Canisius senior who is part of the broadcast program and also is editor in chief of the college newspaper, the Griffin.

Gates has been taking broadcast and journalism courses for awhile. He said that working on a sports broadcast doesn’t really make him nervous, “but it’s definitely intense, especially since everything is live and so fast-paced. If there’s a mistake you’ve got to work on the fly while trying to still do your job and fix things. So it’s definitely an intense environment but it’s also a lot of fun.”

Canisius produced 14 men’s basketball games for ESPN3 and 12 women’s games, according to Matt Reitnour, assistant athletic director for communications. The last three home dates featured students working along with ESPN professionals, with support from the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference and PMTV, a production company.

Monmouth was the first MAAC school to produce live games for ESPN3. Iona and Canisius have gotten in on the act, with Canisius the only school in the group to build its own control room.

“We were asked three years ago by ESPN to start exploring having these school production sites,” MAAC Commissioner Rich Ensor said in a phone interview. “It was part of our joint plans to work with the member schools to initiate these programs.”

For a mid-major conference like the MAAC, Ensor said, “to have this content available on a national distribution system clearly allows us to grow our brand.”

Canisius Athletics Director Bill Maher agreed.

“The opportunity to align the college with ESPN through the MAAC’s long-standing working relationship with the Worldwide Leader in Sports will provide Canisius with a tremendous amount of exposure both athletically and academically,” Maher said.

“It’s also a really a neat opportunity for the college and our students to work with the pros from ESPN and further grow their practical experience.”

Ensor, too, mentioned the program’s value to the students.

“Students are looking for an opportunity to both become educated in the liberal arts but also to develop experience for post-graduation job opportunities,” Ensor said. “You’ve got a very well-regarded school academically in Canisius, and you bring the technology piece into the equation with ESPN and you have some very well-educated future producers of content.

“I think as we all move forward in the 21st century, producing media content will become important for all types of organizations. Not just the sports realm but also the broader context of what everybody does.”

Mike Fargo is a freshman from Wayne County, east of Rochester. He chose Canisius specifically “because they had the ESPN thing. That was really cool.”

Fargo was a camera operator for several recent Griffs home games.

“My first game I was really nervous because I had never worked a big camera like that before,” he said. “And it was nerve-wracking. This last weekend I did all four games and it’s gotten a lot easier. It’s fun now.

“I’ve worked six games. Four of them I’ve been on cameras. This weekend I was in there running replay. So I’ve been around, I’ve done pretty much everything.”

Fargo is majoring in communications and may add journalism as his minor.

“I definitely want to keep doing this,” he said.

Gates, the senior, said he started at Canisius as a chemistry major.

“I saw a flier in my dorm floor advertising for working in sports broadcasting and I said I’ll give that a try,” he said. “And I started working with Garrett,” Layton, assistant director for digital media, “who was here my freshman year. I just really enjoyed it and I ended up changing my major from chemistry to journalism and communications.”

Gates has done internships with the Buffalo Bisons and with Pegula Sports & Entertainment, and he thinks the Canisius program will give him a special edge when he’s out competing for jobs.

“Being able to work with that kind of equipment, it’s just giving you an advantage to other students who might not have the same familiarity with the equipment when they’re trying to graduate and find a job working in a similar field,” he said.