Watching a Basketball Game Takes a Village — and a Truck

by, Gabriella DePinho, Editor-in-Chief

The Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference (MAAC), the Division I athletic conference that Manhattan College’s sports teams are affiliated with, is going full steam ahead with the basketball season — despite the national rise in COVID-19 cases — and is doing so with one new rule: no fans in the stands for the foreseeable future. However, fans who want to catch the games can still do so from the comfort of their home through ESPN3 and ESPN+, thanks to the college’s sports production team, composed of students who work to produce telecasts at every home game.  The MAAC has had a relationship with ESPN since 2010, but the current set-up of having students involved with the operations is newer. In 2016, when Disney, ESPN’s parent company, started planning the streaming platform ESPN+, the renowned sports media company contacted Division I colleges, including teams in the MAAC, to ask them to provide content for the app. For the 2017-2018 season, the college provided coverage of five games. However, by the start of the 2019-2020 season, the MAAC mandated member schools to produce telecasts for all home games.

Manhattan College leadership jumped at the opportunity to provide content, and even took it a step further by introducing “Sports Media Production” as a concentration available to students in the communication major in the fall of 2018. The concentration entails a series of five classes that teaches students about the sports media business, technical production skills, and culminates in Advanced Sports Media Production, the class in which students are on the ground working all of the games. 

In March of 2019, the ESPN-provided mobile production unit, affectionately referred to as “the truck” by those involved, arrived at the college’s campus and was parked behind Draddy Gymnasium, which houses all of the college’s games, making it possible for the college to provide professional-grade game coverage. 

“All the equipment we have is industry standard,” Joe Ruggiero, Manhattan College’s producer and director for all ESPN content, said. “Anything you see in our truck, you could find in a  production truck  that would work for a Monday Night Football Game except it’s souped up to the nines but ours gets the job done for what we have to do.”

Advanced Sports Media Production is taught by Ruggiero, who himself produced game coverage for the MAAC when he was a student at Monmouth University. In the beginning, Ruggiero hired freelancers to work alongside students in the truck until the number of students grew large enough to operate independently. The team needs at least nine students to be there in order to function — four camera positions, a timeout coordinator, a technical director, an audio operator, a graphics operator and a replay operator — and for this fall Ruggiero has 18 students interested.  

Joe Ruggiero works each game to guide his students through the process of storytelling during a live basketball game. MANHATTAN COLLEGE / COURTESY

“It’s a little bit different now and we’re still starting out because I could be teaching everybody and some people who aren’t in the classes, we get outside help from,” Ruggiero said. “But they want to help and we’re not going to say no right now because we don’t have enough students in our classes yet, but once we get those classes built up I might say no to those people because it’s for the students in those classes, but as of now we can get help out from other communication students because we’re a small ship.” 

Ruggiero’s job is to direct and produce the games, which includes scheduling students to work in different roles, give instructions as the game goes on and to figure out the possible ‘storylines’ of the game before tipoff so that the commentators and students working have a story they can pull together, in addition to the story of the score on the court. 

“A lot of my job entails how to tell a story of a basketball game,” Ruggerio said. “Live production is different because things can change in 10 seconds but we go in with a game plan. We have maybe like four or five things we really want to discuss and we might get to them all, we might not, but I rather over prepare than underprepare but the game really dictates how I direct and produce it.” 

Since the concentration is still so new, the team has students from other concentrations, largely the general media production option, helping out with the productions. 

“I had been wanting to work in the truck before that game but didn’t make the time to, and I wasn’t sure how much I would actually enjoy it, but after that game I knew that I just had to keep working there any chance I got,” Meaghan Higgins, a senior communication major with a concentration in media production and public relations, who first worked as timeout coordinator at a game when the team was understaffed, said. “It was so much fun getting to work in the truck the first time, and the experience is like no other that is typically offered to college students, so I have been working in the truck any chance I get since then.” 

While the students in Advanced Sports Media Production are technically getting a grade, their class time is showing up to the games and doing the work — just what Ruggiero enjoys. 

“The best feeling is seeing the students happy to come to work, because it is work — it really is — but just seeing them happy and eager to come two hours early to set everything up is great,” Ruggiero said. 

But for those who love it, it never feels like work.

“It’s like it’s not even work,” Tommy Courtney, a junior sports media production concentrator, said. “You just go in, you have a good time. It’s people who have the same interest as you and you’re literally just talking about your pastime and it’s like ‘oh work’s done,’ like you don’t even know you did work. It’s a five hour production, you had fun the whole time and it was all stress but being able to produce a basketball game, it’s what you love and care for.” 

Preseason games are just a week away, with first tipoff for the Lady Jaspers being on Wednesday, Nov. 25 at home against Fairleigh Dickinson University and the production team is ready to get to work, even as cases of COVID-19 are on the rise across the country. 

Ruggiero has scheduled his crews and is preparing the storylines for the first game, but has also kept safety in mind. The production team will socially distance as much as possible; wear masks; increase the space between the commentators to six feet; limit the sharing of equipment during production; thoroughly clean equipment before handing it off to another user; do temperature checks before the game starts; and keep the air conditioning on in the truck, both to keep everything cool and provide extra ventilation. 

They have yet to be required to be tested weekly, but would be willing to do so if the college asked. 

“I thought we did a great job last season and it can only go up from there and even with the COVID-19 season, we’re just going to take it one day at a time so if they say we’re playing, we’re playing and if they say we don’t, then we don’t,” Ruggiero said. “That’s just what we’re going to have to deal with, but we have our protocols in place and hopefully we get there.” 

In addition to adapting to COVID-19 safety regulations, the production team has also lost a few members to remote learning. Elyse Holmes, a junior in the concentration, decided to stay home this semester, but is hoping to be back on the ground in the spring. Holmes’ first experience with the team was a little intimidating. 

“It was a little bit scary at first because I was one of two female students there and everybody else was just guys talking sports and meanwhile, I was just standing there trying to figure out how do I put this camera on the tripod,” Holmes said. “It was a little intimidating at first but everyone was really nice.” 

Elyse Holmes ‘22 is remote this semester but will be back in the spring to work the cameras or work as time out coordinator, MANHATTAN COLLEGE / COURTESY

Holmes, who usually finds herself as timeout coordinator, has still been contributing through some remote work.

“Joe will occasionally send me some photos, roster photos or action shots that the athletes have taken and essentially what I will do is photoshop them out and be able to put them on a clear background so that when Joe goes to make his graphics, he has these images of these athletes that he can throw up there no problem,” she said. 

While the production team is adapting to the changes in procedure thanks to COVID-19, they’re mostly looking forward to getting back to being in the environment they love best. 

“I love just being in [the fast-paced environment],” Courtney said. “You just have to trust your instinct and trust your team and trust yourself to know what you got to do and you’re going to make a lot of mistakes but being in that fast-paced environment, there’s no time for thinking. Things get done in such a quick way. It’s kind of a little adrenaline boost that’s really fun to work in and being with people who have that same passion as you, it makes it really fun to do.”