In Depth: NFL Boot Camp

(July 2, 2010)
Broadcast Boot Camp provides opportunity
for NFL players, league, broadcast partners

By Steve Sampsell
Training camps do not open until late July, but one of the NFL’s most competitive camp sessions already ended as 25 players who hope to someday work in radio or TV completed the fourth annual Broadcast Boot Camp.

The four-day program, a partnership between the NFL, its broadcast a partners and the NFL Players Association, concluded June 24 and its impact might be felt for years to come as camp participants someday earn assignments covering sports on radio and TV.

“This was our strongest class in the history of the program, no doubt,” said Glenn Adamo, vice president of production and operations for the NFL Network. “After the first day I had probably seven I thought were standouts and another eight or 10 showed promise.

“In the end, I thought 17 or 18 guys were good in studio and seven were excellent in any setting. With a little bit of work, any member of the class could end up working in this business.”

The boot camp, an effort to prepare players for opportunities after their playing careers end, was created in 2007.  In its first three years, the camp welcomed 65 participants and 25 (43 percent) have already earned jobs in broadcasting.

Because of that impressive success rate, competition for spots at the camp has intensified. Campers this year were selected based on participation in previous player development programs, playing experience, media experience (some have their own radio or TV shows in their team’s home market) and an essay.

The class included a mix recently retired players (Curtis Conway, Larry Izzo), free agents (Mushin Muhammad, Orlando Pace) and active players who are closer to the end of their careers than the beginning (Charlie Batch, Jeff Saturday, Hines Ward).

Once on site at NFL Films in Mt. Laurel, N.J., the boot camp lived up to its name. On-air work in radio and TV might sound like a cushy option after an NFL playing career, but campers got thrown into things feet first.

During a hectic first day participants focused on studio shows. They spent the morning learning how to study tape and then editing tape for broadcast. They learned about production meetings and worked with current analysts and former players such as Brian Baldinger and Ron Jaworski, who provided instruction about the nuts and bolts of studio shows and the tape-prep process.

By working behind the scenes, campers learned that that on-air talent cannot “wing it” well with regularity—if at all.

“It’s a huge wakeup call to what’s involved in television, and the most important thing in TV is homework,” Adamo said. “You have to be prepared, so we give them homework and you can tell who did it. These guys all understand the importance of hard work and preparation, though, because it’s what they do on the field.

“It’s the same as playing in that way—the more reps you get, the better prepared you are, the better you’ll perform.”

At midday, campers got a lunch break, made a visit to wardrobe and then were ready to step in front of the camera, sitting beside experienced Fox Sports host James Brown to analyze a situation or discuss some on-field action.

 While it might sound simple, the camp’s success comes because it exposes participants to all the work necessary to make a show seem simple. That includes hours of preparation before a show ever begins.

Also, while half of the campers were taking turns working in studio with Brown the other half was taking turns working as guest analysts during a live NFL show on SIRIUS XM Radio.

When the long first day finally ends, some self-realization provides an important learning tool.

“The best part of the day is how hard they are on themselves,” Adamo said. “It is jumping in feet first, but it’s with a life raft right there—because we’re not going to let them fail.”

Quite the opposite, the NFL and the NFLPA want camp participants to succeed.

With the structure of the camp (which includes subsequent days that focus on working in smaller media markets and working in a game broadcast booth) and with participants from every NFL broadcast partner, the league hopes to help players build viable post-playing career options.

 “The NFLPA will continue to develop strategic alliances that will lead to the creating of programs like the Broadcast Boot Camp,” said Stacy Robinson, director of player development for the NFLPA. “These programs provide players with the opportunity to gain valuable experience.”

Subsequent days of camp also provided eye-opening experiences. Because few former players get immediate assignments on No. 1 TV crews, a focus on smaller market media and radio provided tangible examples of options that might exist for players. And those options come with their own challenges.

“There will be very few who go from playing to working a game with 26 cameras,” Adamo said. “John Gruden is the exception.

“But there are plenty of guys who will have the chance to learn their craft from the bottom up.  They’ll have to prepare for every game as if it’s the Super Bowl, and they have to learn what it’s like to work with a producer and a partner in the broadcast booth.”

Sessions that forced campers to conduct on-site interviews at a Sports Authority location in New Jersey and then write their own copy as if they were working for a network TV affiliate in a smaller market also provided invaluable experience.  After three full days of work, campers have been exposed to a variety of broadcasting roles.

Few people in TV sports bring the appropriate expertise Adamo does to leading the camp. He joined the NFL in 2003 to help launch the NFL Network after serving as a vice president for the New Jersey Devils and as vice president of broadcasting for the NHL. Before that, he worked 14 years at NBC Sports. He (and the team he assembles) provides practical advice based on years of experience, and they are invested in helping the campers achieve success.

They help campers understand the “mechanics” of TV and radio—how to be comfortable on camera and how to prepare for the day-to-day routine. Plus, the guests and instructors know a strong crop of upcoming broadcasters only makes their business and the sport itself stronger.

That’s why people, from play-by-play talents such as Bob Papa and Ian Eagle to executives and producers such as Howard Bryant and Molly Solomon, offer their expertise and time.

At the end of the session, campers leave with 10 copies of a DVD of all their work—studio, on-location shots and calling a game—as well as copies of critiques of their work. They’re prepared (and at worst better informed) to pitch themselves to prospective employers for TV or radio positions.

And the process itself differs only slightly from watching film with a position coach and getting input or a weekly grade after action on the field.

“With that they can always keep track of where they came from,” Adamo said. “We’ve put their best takes on the DVD, and we’re invested in them.

“For me, it’s really a labor of love. When guys who’ve been to former camps get back in touch with me, it’s really rewarding.”