Community Interview: What the heck does a Sports Information Director even DO these days?
How is that role changing? What's so special about where Sam works? You had questions. We now have answers.
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3) If you’re interested in being a subject for the Extra Points Community Interview Series, please fill out this quick questionnaire. Our next guest will be Jenn Hatfield, a women’s sports writer for Her Hoop Stats, The Next, and FiveThirtyEight, focusing primarily on women’s college and professional basketball. At The Next, she is the beat reporter for the Washington Mystics and the Ivy League. She also works full-time for an education-focused consulting firm in Washington, DC. Jenn graduated with a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Harvard University, where she was a goalie on the field hockey team for four years and the lacrosse team for one year.
She’ll be happy to discuss things we might not know about being a college athlete, issues relating to women’s basketball and women’s collegiate athletics, and more. I’m currently working on finalizing other guests for the near future.
Our guest today is Sam Atkinson, the Associate Athletic Director for Communications at Gallaudet University; 2020-21 CoSIDA President and Former NCAA Division III Men’s Basketball National Committee Chair.
You asked Sam so many great questions, and he gave such detailed answers, that I’m actually going to split this into two newsletters. I’ll keep this newsletter a little more focused on some of the broader questions you all asked. For tomorrow’s newsletter, which is for paid subscribers, I’ll share a few more of his responses that really get under the hood about how this industry works, as well as the ones that are specific to D-III.
Sam’s responses have been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Reader Jules asks,
I feel like Sports Information Director is one of those athletic department jobs that I've heard of, but am not really sure what they do. What else do SIDs do besides control press access to games and players?
Sam: Thanks for the question, Jules. This drives home the point about why educating the public about what Sports Information Directors do is important. SIDs in general are very humble people and don’t share or advocate for themselves. CoSIDA and SIDs need to continue to share, explain and educate people about our jobs and how much we do for our athletic departments, especially nowadays as many positions come under fire and people have been let go.
For some colleges, they are learning the hard way about their SIDs did after they have let them go. CoSIDA put out a great graphic demonstrating the wide variety of skills and tasks SIDs juggle, it’s more than most people realize:
Here is a small snippet of duties SIDs handle; media relations, strategic communications, donor relations, fundraising, recruiting, sponsorships, marketing, crisis communications, external communications, internal communications, spokesperson, digital and social media, content creation, graphic design, publishing, analytics, game operations, special events, brand management, video production, webcasts and streaming, historian, broadcast coordinator, stories and yes, even statistics.
The SID job and its responsibilities have drastically changed in the last five years. Unfortunately, the duties and responsibilities continue to pile up while not much has been taken off the shoulders of SIDs. Plus, the athletic communications offices are still set-up for the 1990s when it comes to resources, staffing and even compensation. Those last two points need to continue to improve for long-term success of SIDs in the future or expect to see continued turnover in this field.
No other member of an athletic department is more connected to administration, coaches, student-athletes, media and other stakeholders than SIDs.
On that note, I asked:
How do you see the job description of a SID changing over the next few years?
Sam: We have seen the SID job morph into a more digital focus over the past several years and I expect it to continue along those lines. I also can see SIDs being asked to do more and more multimedia elements for their athletic departments as writing and press releases get trimmed back or dropped altogether.
Every athletic communications office is slowly becoming their own sports network for its athletic department. The current state of affairs of journalism has seen local newspapers cut back or close altogether and local TV stations limit the amount of sports coverage.
Athletic departments are now tasked to communicate and share highlights, feature stories, and profiles directly to their fan base. I think many SIDs have their days consumed more and more by social media and that will more than likely continue into the future.
I would like to see more Athletic Directors investing more staff and resources into athletic communication offices, especially the one-person shops, to help juggle all of the digital, social media, and multimedia requests (which can be very time consuming). I would also like to see more ADs look to their athletic communications office to help with revenue generation and sponsorships instead of just creating flashy graphics and GIFs that may not have a huge return on investment. SIDs have the skills to help with revenue generation and marketing but haven’t always been tasked with those responsibilities but hopefully, in the future, they will.
Reader Drew asks a question near and dear to my heart:
In your professional opinion, what would you recommend for an independent journalist or blog that is seeking access/credentials to a program? Without a major audience, is there a way to demonstrate to a SID that you're worth working with?
Sam: We all need to start somewhere. I have always been a pay it forward type person and I am thankful for former Sports Information Directors, who gave me a chance to cover college athletic games when I was a reporter for my high school newspaper in the 1990s. I understand times are different now and more and more colleges are protective of accessibility to their coaches, student-athletes and games.
My recommendation is to focus on building relationships with the SIDs you are hoping to gain credentials from. I think if you can demonstrate to those SIDs what you are trying to achieve with your blog, social media posts or freelance writing, it would be a good start.
I would also be realistic with your requests. You will have a hard time securing a credential for a marquee game and sport right away. Show interest in some of the other Olympic sports first to again build relations with that school’s athletic communications office. If you are starting from scratch, go ahead and create the necessary social media platforms and start working on populating them with original content and posts.
This is your opportunity to share your voice with the world, add something to the conversation, don’t just retweet until your fingers get tired. Less is always more when it comes to social. One other way to get in with a school’s athletic communications office is to reach out to them to see if you can volunteer to work games with them. You can do this! Do not get down after a few rejections. Start small and work your way up.
I also asked:
Many college athletics reporters have complained about limited press access to individual athletes over the last few years, particularly at the high major level. In a world where athletes are increasingly looking to use their voices for social advocacy, perhaps outside of the athletic department, do you see the "gatekeeper' role of SIDs potentially changing?
Sam: Like many, I am interested to see how NIL will impact collegiate athletics and SIDs especially at the Power 5 level. Personally, I haven’t been a fan of how press has been given less and less access to coaches, student-athletes, practices and games. As someone who grew up with a journalism background prior to becoming a SID, I appreciate and value reporters and their roles. I have always viewed the media as an ally and another voice for our athletic department.
It is the relationships SIDs create and hold with media members that can help athletic departments in the future, but this seems like a lost art. I feel some bigger schools only worry about television right holders, their own networks or athletic department writers/videographers that the regular media has gotten shut out. That is why sites like The Players’ Tribune have risen in popularity because student-athletes and professional athletes have an unfiltered platform to share their views and voices.
I can also see how with NIL that new platforms will pop-up for student-athletes to voice their views and give access to the public that way instead of the traditional media access of the past. I am curious to see how and if SIDs get stuck in the middle of this or not.
Last question from me, about the very unique institution where Sam works right now:
Has there ever been any tension between staffers at Gallaudet that are not deaf and hard of hearing and those that are? How did the cultural acclimation process there differ compared to other places you've worked?
Sam: Gallaudet University is unlike any college in the world. It has been a rewarding and amazing place to work. For those that don’t know, Gallaudet is a bilingual, diverse, multicultural institution of higher education that ensures the intellectual and professional advancement of deaf and hard of hearing individuals through American Sign Language and English.
I knew when I got hired to work at Gallaudet that I would need to change and adapt to working in a Deaf community. I didn’t know any sign language before I started, so I was starting from scratch. It was very daunting and intimidating the first few years at GU. I doubted myself, multiple times, wondering if I made the right decision to work at Gallaudet.
When you are immersed in a signing environment your only option is to try and learn how to sign, and work on that each and every day. It takes time, but I was appreciative of my AD and fellow deaf and hard of hearing co-workers and student-athletes that knew I was new to signing and was trying my best. It also helped that I was able to demonstrate to the Gallaudet campus that I wanted to be there and I was able to elevate the athletic communications office and put Gallaudet athletics on the national map when it came to national media coverage.
I was the one who was able to bridge the gap with mainstream media (local and national) and bring them to campus to help tell our stories. In the process, I was able to be an advocate for the Deaf community and educate reporters about Deaf culture, and help break down the walls that had kept media at a distance when it came to Bison athletic stories.
I took ASL courses and continued to practice and use ASL. In my third year at GU I was finally able to stop using my voice while signing. It really wasn’t until my seventh year that everything clicked for me.
That background sets up the path hearing individuals take when they come to Gallaudet without a signing background. Yes, there is tension between hearing and deaf and hard of hearing staff members on campus, like how there can be tension on any other collegiate campus. Some of the problems that happen at Gallaudet is miscommunication or not full access to information. Hearing staff members can help in this area by learning to sign and practicing their signing until things “click” for them.
Unfortunately, you see some hearing staffers give up on signing or not practice it enough that they still struggle to understand what deaf and hard of hearing individuals are saying and vice versa. A five-minute voiced conversation may take 15-20 minutes in sign language depending on how detail that conversation is.
I had to take a different approach with my communication and signing to be more efficient with my time. I also had to retrain myself on how I would communicate and teach my deaf and hard of hearing student workers on how to keep stats, run live video and social media for our games and how to write and post on our website and social media platforms.
I am the only SID in the country that needs to use his hands to communicate with their staff. It can still be a challenge at times but I am proud of my group of student workers and graduate assistants that have helped me along the way. There is a lot that we have done to make the Gallaudet community proud of and I look forward to continuing that for years to come.
Tomorrow, we’ll share Sam’s thoughts on the D-III Men’s Basketball Tournament, how to improve diversity among the SID ranks, how CoSIDA is trying to advocate for athletics communication professionals amid job losses, and more.
Before we wrap up, I want to give shoutout to my friends at the Moon Crew. Many of my fellow ex-Vox Media college football friends got together and have built one of the most unique and fun places to enjoy everything about college football. Extra Points subscribers also get access to all of the Moon Crew Discord channels, but I think my readers would love their (free!) newsletter, if they’re not already readers. This recent story, for example, puts the madness of college football buyouts in a metric that even a simpleton like me can understand. I think you’ll enjoy it.
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