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Dear @BallState: A Letter From Wales

Dear Ball State,

I recently visited your wonderful university and wanted to make a record of my time on campus, we did so much in a short space of time, so here goes…as Mark Twain once wrote “I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead…”

Walking out of the Ball State University Football Training Centre, a sign above the door caught my eye…

Did you get better today? 

It’s an attitude that runs across your campus. From sport to science, staff to students. A continuous quest for improvement. Don’t stand still. Find new ways to be better. I was only in town for a few days, but this outlook is infectious, I found myself continuously asking “what had I done to get better today?”

I run a Sport Broadcast course in the UK and in our rapidly changing sports media industry, being adaptable and agile is the only way to be. You cannot stand still in digital media. Now, more than ever we need to ensure our media students stay ahead of those changes. It’s pointless sending them out into a new world with skills fit for the old one.

If you want to be better, you need to learn from the best. That’s why I first reached out to Chris Taylor, who runs the award winning Digital Sports Production programme (known as Sports Link) at Ball State University in Indiana, and I asked him if we could develop an international partnership. 

Our course (the Sport Broadcast MSc at Cardiff Metropolitan University) is unique in the UK, so to find a mentor we needed to look across the pond. Looking up and looking out is something I always tell my students. Bringing the outside in is the only way to learn.

From our first email correspondence, two years ago, Chris, or CT as he’s known on your campus, has been 100% positive, and it was his enthusiasm that turbo-charged this partnership to the next level. 

Students at Cardiff Met visit with Sports Link’s Chris Taylor and Brad Dailey during their trip to Wales in May 2019.

Over the last 12 months we set up virtual hang outs with our respective students where they chatted on Google about pieces of content they had produced and just recently CT gave a live transatlantic lecture on storytelling, delivered into our classroom over Skype.

Scheduling lectures & seminar groups over Skype can be a challenge when it comes to time zones and schedules, but once you agree on the time, technology makes the rest of it pretty simple. It meant when Chris and his colleague Brad Dailey came for a site visit to Wales this Spring our students were already familiar with them. 

Brad and Chris hit Wales back in May, we took them to our biggest stadiums, the Principality, Cardiff City FC Stadium & Glamorgan’s famous cricket’s ground. We showed them the Gower beaches and cliff tops, toured Castles and Cathedrals and headed out on Cardiff Bay. For the whole trip the sun shone and our visitors from Indiana fell in love with our small corner of Wales. 

Cardiff is a port city on the south coast of Wales. It’s the nation’s captial city and home to Cardiff Met University.

This September it was our turn to visit you guys. Your university campus, situated in the small but sweet town of Muncie, is a special place. Immaculate lawns. Open spaces. Beautiful buildings. Phenomenal facilities. And a genuine commitment to new ideas, continuous self-improvement and innovation everywhere you look. 

Did you get better today? 

After five packed days at Ball State; observing, lecturing, talking, (singing Karaoke in Brothers’ Bar!) meeting with academics, students, student-athletes, coaches and then touring the facilities at that great multi-million pound David Letterman Centre for Media & Communication (Wow! David Letterman is Ball State alumni, does it get any bigger?) we now have a much clearer idea of what we need to do with our own Sport Broadcast MSc course to make it better. 

The Ball State partnership is an exciting way to push ourselves to the next level. 10 years ago they (Sports Link) were a new programme, just like us. Now they have several trophy cabinets bursting full of Emmy awards for their features, and their graduates are out working for all of the major sports channels, broadcasters and in media departments of the biggest teams and franchises, across all content platforms in America. 

We’ve signed a 5 year MOU to work together and in Spring 2020 a group of your Ball State SportsLink students will visit Cardiff to make a series of short features about our own Cardiff Met athletes. We’re calling this “Transatlantic Storytelling”.

We have different sports in Wales. Our athletes play cricket, netball, rugby, fusball, as well as soccer, tennis, track and swimming. We have no baseball, no American football, but we have Olympians and Paralympians regularly training in our gyms and fields. 

During the visit our students will get to work alongside their Ball State counterparts, share best practice and observe up close how we/you work. Our MOU contract describes this as an “embedded, immersive field based international cultural learning experience”.

In 2021, we’ll hopefully be taking a group of our students out to Indiana with a similar mission, to make features about the Ball State sports teams and athletes. We also have plans to create exchange opportunities for students to stay for a whole semester earning reciprocal credits. We’ll be giving our students the chance to look out and look up. Fresh views, fresh ideas. Maya Angelou once said: “You can’t use up creativity. The more you use, the more you have”.  

Back on the ground in Indy, I spent time in and around the city (just a 45 minute drive from campus, that’s so handy) and you realise just how much you folks love your sports. There is sport on in every bar. Usually multiple screens showing multiple sports. Live coverage of sport on every radio station. The back of every truck has a sticker promoting the Colts, the Pacers, the Fever. The Indy 500, every May, is the biggest, loudest, maddest sports event on the planet. 

We had a day at the NASCAR Brickyard 400 and CT had one of his many alumni take us trackside for the start of the race. Access all areas. The next day CT took us to meet another Sports Link alum, this time in the Pacers stadium. Another VIP tour. 

Chris Taylor, Joe Towns, Lukas Burks and Alex Kartman at the 2019 Big Machine Vodka Brickyard 400.

The NCAA HQ is based in the city. You’ve hosted a Super Bowl and in two years you welcome in the NBA All-Star Weekend. You have no idea how lucky you are if you live in Indy AND you are a sports fan AND you want to work in sports media. 

It’s the perfect city for the Sports Link course, and like us in Cardiff, the Sports Link programme has connections with all the big sports organisations, governing bodies, and local and national broadcasters in the city. Sports Link has a contract to provide ESPN with 20+ live broadcasts each year. 

It would be great if one day we could look after the coverage of Welsh Premier League soccer games and Welsh Championship rugby on our campus for our local broadcasters S4C & BBC. We are inspired by the professionalism of the Sports Link operation and we aim to reach those standards sometime soon. 

Part of our visit involved a day behind the scenes with the Ball State Football team. Grid Iron, you soon realise, is like a religion in your state. College football, a multi-billion pound business. You wouldn’t think it when you meet Coach Neu though. He might be one of the highest paid people on the staff at Ball State, but you won’t meet a more down to earth guy. Humble but hardworking, fierce but focused, intense but interested. Neu was a college MVP for Ball State in the 90s, then a quarterback coach in the NFL. Now he wants to make Ball State football better. Every single day.

Lukas Burks and Joe Towns present Ball State head coach Mike Neu with a Cardiff Rugby shirt.

“Out the Mud”. That’s what it says on the vests worn by the Ball State players. Coach Neu told me it was a slogan his senior players had come up with during the off season. They slipped it under his door when he returned from vacation. The team have under-performed in recent campaigns and “out the mud” is the players’ way of saying they’ve been stuck in a rut but they want to get better, get out, get up and get to a finals.

Did you get better today? 

Your training facilities are better than anything I’ve ever seen at a university. More akin to a Premier League soccer team in Britain. But these facilities aren’t good enough for Ball State Football. That’s why they are about to break ground on a new 2 million dollar indoor football training centre next to their 30,000 seater stadium. To get better, to get “out the mud”, to compete with other NCAA Div 1 colleges they need better facilities. The team has a new sponsor for their pitch. Gainbridge Insurance, part owners of the LA Dodgers & DC United. Run by a Ball State alumni. I met him and he was so excited to be giving back to his old college. Ball State seems to instill a lifelong loyalty in its graduates. 

From the sideline of the football I can see this is big business, a million miles away from university sport in Britain. But it got me thinking, could we sell naming rights to our sports facilities at Cardiff Met? 

Sports Link runs a sports news highlights show every week, made by the Sports Link students and sponsored by the local Honda dealership. Again, this could be something we could try at Cardiff Met. Targeted audience. Sponsored content. There is so much we could learn from our new partners. Inside and outside of the classroom. Modern sport is entertainment, it’s show business, but to understand how to make the show, you need to understand the business.

The Ball State University mascot is a Cardinal which is pretty cool, but your university symbol is an angel, which is phenomenal. Known as Benny, short for Beneficence, I took a morning run each day whilst on campus and stopped each time for a quiet moment with Benny. It was the edge of Fall and the leaves were starting to turn. Your campus is a very peaceful place at 8am in the morning.

Your university slogan is “We Fly”.  I love that. As I  walked into to the admissions building a quote from the university mission statement on the walls grabbed my attention “We know flying is challenging, but it’s exhilarating”. I love how you challenge your students to take risks. That you’ll be there to catch them if they fail. That’s so important for young learners. 

President Geoffrey Mearns welcomed us into his office and his passion for sport is clear. We talked about the game day at the football just passed. Game day at Ball State is a serious operation it was plain to see. Tailgating, beers and barbecues from 10am. Marching bands, anthems, cheerleaders. A carnival, soaked in tradition. 

President Mearns has a huge role running the college but he still makes time to meet fans and family, athletes and alumni and visitors like us in the car park before the game. It was actually in the car park before the game when I met a Welsh guy. From my village! I had travelled half way across the world and I meet a guy from my village. He had met a Ball State graduate nurse on a trip to Indy 50 years ago and hadn’t looked back. We shared a cocktail together. At 11am. 

Meanwhile over in the Sports Link offices students were busy making a range of features covering different sports. This year their tag line is “Every Athlete Matters”.

We joined them for an open floor session, where, sat in a circular formation they took turns to give each other feedback, encouragement, or just give someone a shout out who done something to make everyone better that week. Such a simple thing, but something I often forget to get my students to do. Not any more. Our weekly shout out sessions have already started back in Cardiff.

The previous week the Head Coach of the Ball State Basketball programme, James Whitford, had given the Sports Link digital production students a talk about leadership, team work & taking responsibility. This is something I’m definitely going to try. We have some of Britain’s finest coaches at Cardiff Met, we’d be crazy not to tap into their wisdom, to find out how they master motivation. Each one, teach one.

I spoke to CT about how his trip to Wales had rejuvenated him. Travel does that. This is what this partnership is all about. Finding new stories. Learning about different cultures. In the same way, my colleague Lukas and I were inspired by our time at Ball State. Inspired by working with people who love what they do. Reminded about how lucky we are to have a job which relies on constant creativity, teamwork and the sharing of ideas.

At a time when politics across the globe feels like it’s designed to divide us, there are a few things left that still unite us – Sport, Storytelling and Education being three. The Sport Broadcast programme at Cardiff Met and the Sports Link programme at Ball State is going to take these three things and fly. Together. Across the pond.

In October, CT announced that the Ball State Trip to Wales has been signed off. It’s official. Sports Link is coming to the UK. That’s very good news. It’s going to be fantastic. 

That’s what we have done to get better today. 

Thank you / Diolch Yn Fawr

Joe Towns
Programme Director & Senior Lecturer | Sport Broadcast MSc
Cardiff School of Sport & Health Sciences

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