University of Georgia
October 2015
Athletics
Educating the next generation of sports media professionals

Joey Ripley, a 2014 graduate, interviews defensive back Damian Swann at G-Day last year. Ripley currently works as a Web content producer at WRBL in Atlanta.

Educating the next generation of sports media professionals

Grady Sports Media certificate offers real-world experiential learning in a competitive field.

Educating students who have gone on to great success in sports media is nothing new for the University of Georgia’s Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication. Over the years, the college of journalism has taught legendary sports promoter Dan Magill (ABJ ‘42), ESPN.com reporter Mark Schlabach (ABJ ‘96), ESPN/SEC Network reporter Maria Taylor (ABJ ‘09), “Mr. College Football” Tony Barnhart (ABJ ‘76), UGA Senior Associate Athletic Director Claude Felton (ABJ ‘70, MA ‘71) and a host of others. What’s different today is that there is a formal Grady Sports Media certificate program beginning its second official year of classes, offering experiential learning opportunities and teaching the skills needed to enter this competitive market.

“Our goal is to train the next generation of storytellers in sports,” said Welch Suggs, associate professor of journalism and associate director of Grady Sports Media. “Whether you are going into communications or journalism or event broadcast or marketing, you have to be able to tell the compelling stories you find every day in sports.”

The students are required to take Introduction to Sports Reporting and Writing and Multiplatform Storytelling for Sports. After completing those core courses, they choose among Sports Enterprise Reporting and Writing, Sports Media Relations, and Sports Broadcast and Production. Special topics courses about the role of sports in society and other issues, such as sports-specific health and medical concerns, are also required, but the experiential learning that weaves through the program is at the heart of Grady Sports Media.

“From the moment they walk though our doors and we have them at high school games keeping statistics, to their last class as a capstone internship, we have them out there in the wider world practicing sports media,” said Vicki Michaelis, the John Huland Carmical Distinguished Professor in Sports Journalism and the director of the sports media program. “You cannot learn how to be a sports journalist by sitting in the classroom. You just can’t.”

This experiential learning takes several forms depending on the interest of the students. Many of the students work with the extracurricular Grady Sports Bureau, which covers high school and UGA sports for the Athens Banner-Herald and produces livestream broadcasts of area high school sports events.

The Multiplatform Storytelling class this fall is covering various UGA sports beats as well as five area high schools: Clarke Central, Cedar Shoals, Athens Christian School, Prince Avenue Christian School and Athens Academy.

“This community craves sports coverage at every level, and there are gaps where our students can be there learning and also filling those gaps, which has been fantastic,” Michaelis said.

The Sports Broadcast and Production class this fall, taught by Georgia Association of Broadcasters President Bob Houghton, is doing livestream broadcasts at eight high school football games and is producing a weekly studio show, “Grady Sportsource: Athens High School Football,” airing every Friday during the season at 5 p.m. Veteran sports broadcaster Bob Neal is helping students produce the show, which can be viewed on Charter Cable channel 181 in Athens or online at gradynewsource.com.

Several Grady Sports Media students also are gaining real-world experience outside the classroom this fall by working with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s new DawgNation blog, the Macon Telegraph, UGA Sports Communications, the Athens Banner-Herald, the SEC Network and IMG, which produces content for georgiadogs.com.

Two Grady Sports students will also accompany Michaelis on a trip to Rio de Janeiro next summer to cover the Summer Olympics for the U.S. Olympic Committee. More than a dozen students practiced their skills for the opportunity by writing preview stories about the Pan Am Games for the USOC’s web site, teamusa.org, this past summer.

Fletcher Page (ABJ ‘09), sports editor for the Athens Banner-Herald, has been working with Grady Sports Media students for more than a year and treats them like any other staff writer by entertaining pitches and publishing their long-form features.

“They are already having the kind of interactions with people like me that they are going to have in their first or second job,” Page said. “It’s a really good program because you are speeding up the process for them in terms of how they are actually going to interact when they actually get out of school and have jobs.”

Felton, who has been working with Grady College students since 1979 in the UGA Athletic Association, agrees.

“The sports media students are well trained, and they are getting real opportunities in the ‘world of work,’ just as it is in full-time professions,” Felton said. “Grady gives them the tools for working and achieving.”

In addition to the experiential learning throughout the coursework, the sports media students are required to complete their certificate through a capstone project. Recent capstone projects have been internships with MLB.com, the Super Bowl and ESPN.

Fourth-year mass media arts student Jamari Jordan completed his capstone project this summer with an internship at NFL Films where he worked on documentary projects.

“I don’t know that I would have been able to do NFL Films or even start Elite (a UGA student-run Web site covering sports and culture),” Jordan said. “They taught me everything I pretty much know now—how to cover it from the first day of class where they threw us into the fire.”

Page can’t help but be a little envious that Grady Sports Media didn’t exist when he was a Grady student.

“I’m not going to say those opportunities weren’t available, but I didn’t get those opportunities,” Page said. “I have a strong feeling that Vicki and Welch and the program is a big reason why those kids are doing that now. It’s awesome.”

The Grady Sports Media certificate, the first of its kind in the Southeastern Conference, was officially approved by UGA in February 2014. Many of the first recipients had started coursework that counted toward the certificate prior to its official launch, and the program graduated its first class of nine students in May 2015. Although the program is open to undergraduates in any academic program at UGA, more than 85 percent of the students are Grady College students.

The certificate program accepts between 35 and 40 students a year from an application pool of up to 90 students.

“At a place like this (UGA), we knew it was going to be insanely popular, and we were right,” Suggs said.

Although there are a handful of other sports journalism programs offered throughout the country, Grady College’s is one of the most thorough programs, he said. Its rigorous curriculum encompasses more credit hours and a wider range of classes and skills development, from multimedia reporting to sports media relations and sports broadcast and production.

“Anyone can be a sports fan, but if you aren’t passionate about working in media this isn’t going to be for you,” said Michaelis. “We are really trying to identify those people who are passionate about working in media and want to do it through the lens of sports.”

For Michaelis and Suggs, the critical piece of the certificate program is that students understand how to go beyond the box scores in covering and communicating about sports.

“The best stories are not based on statistics or game results,” Michaelis said. “They are based on how sports mirror culture and society and it takes a broader educational base to see those stories for what they are. We are very candid with them up front about how working in sports media can actually take the edge off your passion for sports because it becomes a job. Really, if they get to the end of our program and they still feel it’s something they want to do, then their passion is pretty strong.”

—Sarah Freeman, Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication