BY MATT CRAIG | Ball State Sports Link
“What are you doing this summer?”
How many times does every college student hear that question every spring, starting right around the time “what are you doing for spring break?” no longer applies.
Students aspiring to work in the media industry feel an added pressure on how they spend their summers. After graduation, grades matter little to potential employers compared to being able to show experience producing a video package, or working on a live broadcast, or writing an article. Summer presents the greatest chance to demonstrate those skills in a professional setting.
And yet, going into summer I didn’t have a job or internship.
Applications unanswered. Unsuccessful interviews. But the one thing I was not going to do was settle. I knew the skills that I wanted to improve on and showcase, and I was driven to find a way to do that instead of wasting away at some dead-end job. If the opportunities weren’t going to come, I was determined to make my own.
I got my first chance during the NBA Playoffs. As a contributor to an Oklahoma City Thunder fan site (an opportunity I had “made” last fall), I came to the boss to pitch an idea.
What if I wrote an opinion column every single day during the Thunder’s playoff run? It was and still is a crazy idea, to think I could come up with an opinion and write a compelling argument each day for what, seven days straight? 10 days? What if the Thunder advanced, could I keep it up for a month?
Luckily for me, the site had just merged with another, more prestigious website founded by ESPN’s Royce Young and a member of ESPN’s TrueHoop Network called DailyThunder.com, and needed new content to fill it out.
It needed content, and I needed an opportunity. There was no money to be made, but it’s hard to quantify the value of the exposure I was going to receive. Besides that, what I wanted was a challenge.
I knew that to improve as a writer, I was going to have to push myself. The most I had ever written up to that point was maybe once a month, once a week if I was really making an effort. Could I maintain the same quality under daily deadline pressure?
So I wrote up my first column and slapped on the title “Wake Up Call” to brand the series. The idea was that every morning at 8 a.m., Thunder fans were going to have a strong opinion on the team to wake up to. The first one gets posted and…
It gets torn to shreds.
The site’s commenters, already unhappy with all of the new voices “invading” their site, were provoked by the brashness of the opinion. Or maybe it was the title, “How Many Shots Should Westbrook Take per Game?”
It was the first time I had ever encountered so many people reacting to something I wrote, the first time I’d heard such negative criticism. But I knew at that moment that I had a hit. What is the point of opinion if not to provoke a response or a debate? It doesn’t matter how smart your point is, people will disagree (and let us not forget that these people are anonymous internet trolls).
I kept rolling them out, as the team won and lost, over and over, for 11 straight mornings. On game nights, games would rarely end before 11 p.m. and I would rarely get to bed before 2:30 a.m.. I got all the challenge I could handle.
But it was a rush, knowing that people were actually going to read what I wrote and it was going to be talked about. One column recorded 152 comments. Another column was cited in a newspaper article in the Oklahoman. My boss even relayed a text to me from none other than the godfather himself, Royce Young.
After the Thunder were eliminated by the Rockets in six games (*sobs*), I had proof of concept and little else.
Not long after, I received a call from Seth Davis, for whom I had been working on an off for a couple years. He had an idea for his next project, a one-off college basketball preview magazine. Then he says something like this:
“So why don’t you get in touch with a few publishers, pitch them the idea and see if we can get any interest?”
Wait, what? I’m a kid sitting in my house in Muncie, Indiana, with absolutely no connections in the magazine publishing business. How am I supposed to do that? I could’ve (and probably should’ve) just let it go, but what if this was not another opportunity, another challenge?
There I am, scouring the internet for the email addresses of magazine publishing companies. As if they have a “hey if you want to pitch an independent special issue magazine to us” contact page. No luck. I literally stop by a Walgreens and flip through the magazine stand trying to find an email address. They weren’t in there (obviously).
The only email addresses that you can find online are for ad sales. So here I go firing off four or five emails to literally “firstname.lastname@example.org” basically saying to please pass it along to whoever it should go to. It was pathetic. And the kicker? Davis hadn’t given me any details whatsoever as to what was going to be in the magazine. “Keep it vague,” he said. Are you stressed out reading this yet? It gets better (worse).
The content of these emails were awful. If I received one like it, it would go immediately in the trash. But I kid you not, no more than 12 hours later I receive an email back from the Executive Vice President of Sports and Entertainment for a large publishing company. He wants to set up a call, so I let Seth know this guy wants to talk to him. He says “why don’t you just take the first call.” What! I don’t know the first thing about how to get a magazine made, or even what’s going to be in it! Well for better or for worse, it was another opportunity.
I’m not going to lie to you, it didn’t go well. At all. Early in the call this very experienced and accomplished magazine man comes out mentioning all kinds of acronyms and slang that flies way over my head. By the end, the call is more like me playing “20 questions” on how the whole process works.
It comes as no surprise for you to learn that opportunity didn’t work out.
But as is often the case, one opportunity can lead to another. Davis was looking for a location to post his popular annual column in which he gives NBA scouts anonymity in exchange for honest opinions on NBA Draft prospects under the pseudonym “Finch.” Instead of sending it elsewhere, he proposed creating his own digital destination for two weeks of NBA Draft preview content.
“Seth’s Draft House” was born, and I was given the chance to develop and manage the site from creation through execution. The most difficult part was always going to be how to stand out and attract an audience to a site without any previously existing brand equity, so I focused my efforts on the artwork and design of the site.
I started with the logo, which needed to encapsulate what the site was at a glance, while still being attractive and exciting.The picture of Seth in the form of a “stamp of approval” conveys how all of the content comes through him, wood paneling points to a basketball court combined with the blueprint-style writing to make you think of constructing a “house.”
My job then evolved into creating 60 custom player graphics to be used on our mock draft, and custom header artwork for every article posted during the two weeks. This was crucial because in the current internet environment, content needs to be as visually captivating as it is intellectually in order to capture and hold attention.
In addition to all of the graphic work, I was able to write a handful of articles for the site. This was another big step for my personal development, having my writing edited and critiqued by someone as successful as Seth Davis. And I can’t lie, it’s pretty dang cool to see my name popping up on his Twitter mentions out to 270k people.
The site definitely turned out to be a success, attracting over 200,000 viewers over the two week period, hosting the work of well-respected journalists like John Feinstein as well as popular internet personalities like Freezing Cold Takes, showing up on the Bleacher Report app and even getting blogged about by Awful Announcing.
For those first two experiences, I was some degree of lucky. To make this third opportunity happen, I had to be downright crazy.
I can distinctly remember sitting in Fat Guy’s Burger Bar in Tulsa waiting for my Daily Thunder boss to arrive to the meeting I had set up. He was late. I was nervous. Because I was going to ask him if there was a way I could go to Orlando to cover the Thunder during the NBA Summer League.
Keep in mind that the Daily Thunder is still just a fan site, and to that point had never actually sent reporters to “cover” anything. But in theory getting the credentials wouldn’t be a problem, and the summer league is relaxed enough that I would be able to do what I wanted there.
Now I know that the debate over whether young media professionals should work for free is still raging on the internet to this day. However, Daily Thunder didn’t have any money, and I had some saved up. In order to make this potentially awesome opportunity happen, I would have to do it on my own dime. I went for it.
When July rolled around, I packed my car up and headed down to Orlando. I planned on doing video content mostly instead of written to work on that skillset. Luckily I was able to borrow some awesome equipment from Sports Link. I pull up to the gym that first day during one of the most intense rain showers I’ve ever experienced, and by the time I walk up to the check-in desk I’m soaking wet. I give them my name for the credential and…it’s not on the list. Nope, no Matt Craig here, no Daily Thunder.
Stunned, I start calling people like crazy. What a sad sight I must’ve been, soaking wet and nearly crying at the entrance to the Amway Center, NBA players and executives walking past me into the gym.
It’s impossible to stop those self-doubts from creeping into your head during those moments. After what felt like an eternity but was probably only 10 minutes, the situation was resolved and I was given a credential.
For the next week, I got a front row seat to the Thunder’s games, filming highlights on my DSLR. One of my assignments was to write an instant reaction piece to be published on the final horn, so I literally wrote the articles on my phone during timeouts and quarter breaks.
After the games, I would rush to the hallway to join the media scrums interviewing the players and coaches. I tried to follow up on my biggest storyline from the recap, and post the coach or player’s response in the scrum straight to Twitter.
From there I would hurry back to my hotel room and edit together a daily recap video as fast as I could so it could be published to social media.
It was stressful, it was a grind … and I loved every minute of it.
I got reps not only filming and editing, but gave myself time in front of the camera, hosting and doing voice over for the videos. I had never written scripts for myself before, a new skill I picked up during the week.
Even though I never really shook the feeling of myself as an outsider standing at the entrance soaking wet and fighting tears, the content I produced turned out well and was well-received by Thunder fans.
My whole point in writing this entirely-too-long and entirely-too-self-indulgent blog was not to show off or brag about the opportunities I have had this summer.
I just really believe in the ability of people to improve their skills and their circumstances by sheer force of will. Sure, a lot of times you end up getting shredded by internet commenters or looking like an idiot on the phone or a soaking-wet loser at the credential desk, but those are stepping stones that help you cross boundaries you never thought possible.
I’m not a baseball guy, but I know the more chances you get at-bat, the higher probability you’ll hit a home run.
And this summer, I got lucky enough to hit a few homers.