Pioneer Award Winners Roundtable: Words of Wisdom, Horror Stories, and What the Future Holds

Day Two of the SVG College Sports Summit closed out with a roundtable featuring three Pioneer Award winners: UCLA’s Ken Norris (2012), Michigan State’s Rick Church (2014), and University of Central Florida’s John Kvatek (this year’s winner along with University of Nebraska’s Jeff Schmahl). Discussing their storied careers, the trio of industry stalwarts touched on everything from horror stories to future technologies that excite them to advice for students looking to break into the business today.

“I started with 16mm film, splicing at the tender age of 13. I’ve seen film go to video, then to digital, then HD, and now [streaming] over the Internet,” said Norris. “We’ve definitely come a long way.”

From the Trenches
When an athletics department video guru spends decades on the job, there is bound to be a few horror stories. Both Kvatek and Norris described nightmare scenarios in which they lost their tapes after shooting footage at high-profile games.

In Church’s case, Fox Sports Detroit was producing a Michigan-Michigan St. hockey game two years ago, when winter weather made it difficult even to roll the production trucks in for the show. The trucks were finally parked and powered up when Church got a call an hour before the broadcast from the director (there was no tech manager).

“‘Hey, Rick, we can’t get the uplink to go up,’” Church recounted. “How are we going to do this major show?’ I thought about it for a minute. In the end, I was able to go copper from the truck to the pedestal, then fiber inside the hockey arena to another fiber link that jumped to our control room, came back out to copper and plugged into an encoder, then sent the signal to BTN in Chicago, who relayed it down to the [Fox Network Center in The Woodlands, TX] and then on to Fox Detroit. It all took about 30 seconds, and they went on the air through one of the most convoluted paths I’ve ever heard of.”

Technology: What’s Up Next?
When asked what the next great technology advance will be, all three joked about hoping to retire before that great leap forward. That said, Church and Norris were giddy about the potential of 4K/UHD for both production and coaching applications, while Kvatek’s crystal ball centered on the growth of “at-home” remote productions.

“I think watching what is going on with at-home productions is going to be really interesting,” said Kvatek. “With all of this moved to IP transport, I don’t think it’s inconceivable that we are going to have trucks in the cloud in a relatively short period of time. It will be amazing when these guys could sit on their couches with an iPad and work their truck positions. I say that only partly facetiously, because the reality is, we are really headed that way. It will be fun to see how we overcome a few things like the delay, but I’m confident it will all get worked out.”

How Do You Get in the Door? Knock on It
Many industry veterans have similar stories of their entry into live sports production: they walked up to a truck on campus for a game, knocked, and asked if they could help. Although the industry is markedly different today, Church believes this remains one of the best strategies for students to get their foot in the door.

“The PGA Senior Tour was in the Detroit area two years ago, and a student asked me for advice [on how to get involved],” he recalled. “I told him to walk up to the truck, knock on the door, and politely ask to talk to the ops or tech manager. Tell them who you are and ask if you can tour the truck and watch setup. It turned out he got that opportunity: they were short a utility for the weekend so he made about $1,000 on that just knocking on the door.”

Although the walk-up-and-knock approach is always an option, today’s college campuses increasingly offer students opportunities to gain valuable live-production experience. Thanks to the growth of athletics departments’ video-production capabilities, there is no shortage of openings for those looking for experience on a live sports production. However, turning that opportunity into a career requires plenty of desire and commitment.

“Put two words in your vocabulary: patience and passion,” Kvatek advised. “I work with many students, and this generation of students isn’t as patient as past generations. They want to master things and move on really fast. But the reality is, it takes 1,000 repetitions to be great at something. So be patient enough to live that out and become great. Passion will be the fuel to get those 1,000 repetitions and then move on to the next thing. One thing I see in this business hasn’t changed: if you don’t love what we’re doing, this is the worst job you can have, but, if you love it, there is nothing better.”

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