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Now What? Sports Stopped, But Storytelling Still Wins

I arrived back in Muncie, Indiana and to the campus of Ball State University with my colleagues and 12 students Monday, March 9 at about 1:15 a.m.

The moment wrapped 24 hours of travel for one of the most rewarding experiences of my life so far — a 12-day trip to Cardiff, Wales, where we continued to build on an exciting new partnership with Cardiff Met University.

Specifically, working with students and my mate Joe Towns, in his Sports Broadcast Program.

Cardiff Met has the only sports media program of its kind in the United Kingdom, much like my program Sports Link is the only of its kind in the United States.

The relationships, experiences and collaboration was — and remains — exciting and endless for students, staff and both universities.

My first trip tp Cardiff in May of 2019 for a site visit rejuvenated me, and now just back from a trip with my students where we conducted 20 interviews with some of the most amazing people you’ll ever meet, I was rejuvenated again.

Sports Link students and staff from Ball State on the pitch at Cardiff City Stadium prior to a match in March.

However, less than 24 hours upon returning to campus, the catalyst for this new normal we are globally experiencing started.

The Coronavirus was rapidly reaching many countries and the reported cases in the United States started to rise.

But, yet, we had just returned from this amazing experience, somewhat shielded from the outbreak in a country, which at the time, had just one reported case.

My students and I were so busy on the ground in Cardiff with filming, interviews and cultural experiences, we had little time to follow much national news. For some of us, there were no TVs in our rooms.

Less than 48 hours back on campus, the situation became increasingly alarming. The World Health Organization officially named the virus a global pandemic.

In a prime-time address from the Oval Office, President Trump said he would halt travelers from European countries other than Britain for 30 days, declare a national emergency and stock markets plunged further.

Then, hours later, a travel ban for the United Kingdom.

People take precautions for the coronavirus in New York. Johannes Eisele / AFP / Getty

Wait, we were just there? Now, the world’s spin is slowing.

If you’re reading this, you know where we are today. The spin has all but stopped.

Ball State suspended all face-to-face classes for the rest of the semester that day.

For me, and I would reason for most of our students — and perhaps the world — it became real later that night.

When Utah Jazz All-Star Rudy Gobert tested positive for the coronavirus March 11, it triggered the NBA and other sports leagues to suspend play.

No March Madness. No Masters. No opening day for Major League Baseball. No Kentucky Derby.

Then, less than 24 hours later, March 12, the sad reality of our new normal hit for us personally when first the NCAA, and then the Mid-American Conference, announced the rest of our college sports season unceremoniously had ended.

The day the sports world stopped.

The set of ESPN’s SportsCenter on March 12, 2020.

“This has been a truly unprecedented week in college athletics,” Ball State Director of Athletics Beth Goetz said. “That continues today as we suspend all of our athletics recruiting, practice and competition activities through the current academic year in accordance with the announcements from the Mid-American Conference and NCAA.

“The safety and well-being of our student-athletes, along with everyone involved with Ball State Athletics, is the top priority. We are disappointed that our Cardinals will not be competing but it is critical that we do our part to protect the health of our students, faculty, staff and entire community at this time.”


As Kurt Badenhausen reported for Forbes, the cost of being sidelined for two months will be at least $5 billion and climbing, according to Forbes calculations, which includes lost sales of tickets, concessions, sponsorships and TV rights fees.

Baseball represents almost 40% of the total ($2 billion) while the NBA is facing a loss of about $1.2 billion in revenue and the NCAA about $1 billion. The NHL, NASCAR and MLS are potentially on the hook for a combined $900 million.

But, we were just in the United Kingdom watching soccer and rugby?

Visiting castles, stunning coastlines and climbing mountains. Literally on top of the world at Pen Y Fan mountain.

Making new lifelong friends. Building relationships with some of the world’s best athletes. United by the power of sports and storytelling. Producing stories and chasing the next one.

So, this isn’t real, right?

We’re back now ready to cheer our basketball teams into the postseason. We just returned to the greatest nation on Earth. Land of the free because of the brave.

This can’t be happening here.

Sports across the globe paused. Seasons cancelled or postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

As we searched for reason and answers, there were few. The very thing we produce, dissect and train the next generation for was just completely ripped away from us.

Classes essentially stopped. Edits saved. Two weeks, we’ll be back — we thought.

“Thursday, March 12, 2020 is a day none of us will soon forget,” ESPN Executive Vice President Burke Magnus said. “Coming off the NBA’s decision to suspend play the night before, so many leagues and properties had to make really challenging decisions about their seasons or events. As those decisions were made, the downstream effects began to unravel the ESPN programming schedule across our networks and we had to adjust accordingly.”

Media analyst Michael Nathanson wrote in a research note March 17 that Disney’s media networks, including ESPN, will likely take in $250 million less in revenue in fiscal year 2020 than anticipated due to the sports cancellations.

“This is unprecedented,” said Neal Pilson, the longtime head of CBS Sports who now works as a consultant. “Sept. 11 comes closest, but I’m not sure how close it really comes. There’s going to have to be an adjustment to the very economic base of sports.”


So, now what? It’s not easy.

A pedagogical foundation in my Sports Link program is the power of true storytelling. Anyone can produce fancy edits and hype videos. But can you tell a story?

We’re seeing that power now, especially with no live sports in the foreseeable future. It’s a stark reality, and hopefully a learning moment for students and all of us, frankly.

What’s in your toolbox if you can’t edit highlight videos or produce live sports? What happens when there is no sports to shoot, fancy transitions, effects and beats to edit to?

You can always tell a story. And now, more than ever, people need a good story.

It’s a time for students of our industry, to watch, critique, plan and story structure. Don’t waste away on your couch by watching the endless, relentless news and playing video games. Get better. Think creatively.

If you can’t tell a story right now because of the pandemic — nor should you — how are you going to tell an awesome one when you can? Netflix, ESPN+ and a notebook are your friend.

Be ready for the moment, because yes, it will come back. Hopefully soon we will be talking about the day sports returned and not the day it stopped.

Zach Roy films Welsh Athletics and Great Britain Sprints Coach Matt Elias in Cardiff.

And while the circumstances are certainly challenging for every person on this planet, in our “corners” of the world — Muncie, Indiana and Cardiff, Wales — we still have some good stories coming.

We have a documentary to produce with 20 interviews, featuring simply amazing athletes and terabytes full of epic scenes.

But for now let’s all pause and realize this public health pandemic is bigger than any of us. It’s bigger than politics, bigger than sport, bigger than you. We all have a responsibility.

In time, the lights will come on again at our stadiums, the highlights will return and the exporting of timelines will resume.

But remember, the stories are what last … and will continue long after COVID-19.

Stay tuned.

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