The Mayor, HBO, and Soda Fountains. A tour of the COVID-era Illinois Sports Information Department
What does an SID office do when it isn't even clear IF football will return? We FOIA'd to find out.
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If you want even more Illinois content, good news! Just keep reading.
Kent Brown doesn’t have an easy job.
Under normal circumstances, as the football SID of the University of Illinois, Brown has to juggle a variety of complicated tasks. He has to coordinate interviews for coaching staff and players. He has to work with university public relations staff on projects that extend beyond the football program. He deals with vendors, journalists, fans and more.
But these are not normal circumstances. Who reaches out to an SID when it isn’t even clear if there is going to be a football season? Whats sorts of communication projects do they need to manage? What can their email inboxes tell us about what college athletic programs are dealing with right now?
To get a better idea, we filed a FOIA for COVID-related emails sent to Brown, as well as with other Illinois athletic staffers. Here are some of the emails that caught our eye, amidst the scores of interview requests, press release drafts, watch lists, and more:
Perhaps the most interesting email we read wasn’t even directly about sports at all. It involved the mayor of Champaign.
The Mayor gets involved.
On August 4th, Daniel Simons, a professor with the University of Illinois Psychology Department, messaged Julie Pryde, an administrator at the Champaign-Urbana Public Health District, CCing Deborah Feinen, the city’s mayor. In that email, Mr. Simmons expressed concerns about the COVID-19 infection rates among Illinois athletes. If athletes were reporting infection rates of around 7%, Simons worried that the campus could be overwhelmed once the rest of the student body came back to campus.
This is not an uncommon concern, especially as COVID cases spike in college towns across the country.
In response, Mayor Feinen wrote to a number of University staffers, including SID Brown. Her response:
It would make sense for local community public health officials and politicians to be involved in these sorts of discussions with university leaders, including potentially staffers in athletic departments. If there are lots of positive tests in the campus community, then mitigating the spread of COVID in the local non-campus community is going to be much harder, after all, especially in a relatively small town like Champaign.
For what it’s worth, whatever plans Illinois set up back in July, they seem to be working. According to their COVID portal, the 5-Day Positivity Rate rate on campus is less than 1%.
Who owns what film?
I realize this might be really inside baseball, even for Extra Points, but it was interesting to me!
On July 8, Brown gets a relatively standard request. HBO Sports was doing a segment on athletes coming back to practice, and they asked if they could film an Illinois practice. Since the school wasn’t letting anybody film practice at the moment, including local media, Brown politely declined the request.
A few weeks later, HBO then comes back with a different request, asking to license some B-Roll footage of Illinois football players. Here’s the clip they were asking about.
But this request raised a more complicated question. Who owns that footage?
Brown initially responded that the Big Ten Network owns the rights to all video that athletic departments shoot, so the licensing request should go through them.
But BTN, according to HBO, said they didn’t, because the video wasn’t shot in an official Big Ten venue.
After a few more back and forth emails between Illinois and BTN (was the footage owned by Orange and Blue News? Who originally shot the video? How is Ancillary Programming defined?) eventually it was determined that yes, BTN actually did own the footage, and that HBO needed to go through them to continue that process.
Is this the Pentagon Papers? No. I realize that we’re talking about multiple emails over the licensing for a clip that’s less than three minutes long, that only a few dozen people ever watched on Youtube. But I think it speaks to how complicated the licensing and ownership of even relatively mundane athletic department IP can be. Given everything else going on in late July, this is a question that required multiple follow-ups, just because ownership rights of even tiny amounts of background footage can be valuable and important.
Brown had dozens and dozens of other emails, from credentialing requests, to vendors reaching out about digital fan engagement solutions, to the slew of watch-lists that grace every college football offseason, to revisions of press releases and public statements.
But the very last email in the batch showed that even when steeped in chaos, the department still found time to address the most important questions for an athletic communications department.
Anybody who has ever spent time in a press box knows the entire operations runs on copious amounts of caffeine. No coffee? No coke? No columns.
Even amid concerns over distancing in the press box, or over how many reporters would be allowed inside anyway, Illinois was still working to get the caffeine situation resolved.
Well, until the very end, anyway. On August 11, the Big Ten postponed the fall athletics season.
Here’s hoping that whenever Illini sports returns, the press box will be full, and every scribe can be caffeinated to their heart’s content.
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Questions, comments, business inquiries, story ideas and more can be sent to MBrown@TheIntercollegiate.com or to @MattBrownEP on Twitter dot com.