From a dream to a major: A decade of excellence in sports media and communication

Wednesday, November 15, 2023 - 11:15am

Over the past decade, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln's College of Journalism and Mass Communications has achieved remarkable advancements in preparing students for careers in sports media and communication.

John Shrader teaches class in the Pepsi Unlimited Sports Lab.

This transformative journey commenced in 2013 when the college introduced a sports communication emphasis within its curriculum. This addition aimed to equip students for dynamic news reporting and promotional roles within the sports industry. Associate Professor Rick Alloway and Professor Frauke Hachtmann played a pivotal role among the pioneering faculty members who led this development.

"The emphasis became so popular that we knew we could develop an entire sports major including sports journalism, sports broadcasting and sports advertising and public relations as core courses," Hachtmann said. "This '360-degree concept' resembles the sports media industry and prepares students optimally for careers in this new and emerging field."

In 2015, Hachtmann established a partnership between the college and FOX Sports University, giving students an opportunity to work on major FOX Sports brands in Hachtmann’s special topics class. The course progressed into a capstone experience for upperclassmen with majors in advertising and public relations and eventually, sports media and communication. 

"Partnering with FOX Sports University was an ideal way to give students who are interested in the sports promotion side an exciting challenge for their capstone experience," Hachtmann said. "Being a FOX Sports U partner not only exposes our students to working with the best in the industry, it also grants all of our students access to the FOX Sports internship program."

As part of the program, students are tasked with solving a communication challenge for one of FOX Sports’ media assets. Students have developed brand partnership ideas for the 2022 FIFA World Cup, created a military appreciation campaign for the Big Ten Network and generated ideas to promote FOX Sports’ Big Ten College Football Media Rights acquisition.

In response to students' continued overwhelming interest in sports media and communication, faculty members embarked on an effort to elevate the program from a mere emphasis to a full-fledged major. Led by Hachtmann, a group of faculty members from various academic programs within the college collaborated to formulate the proposal. 

After gaining approval from faculty members, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, the University of Nebraska Board of Regents, and the Nebraska Coordinating Commission on Post-Secondary Education, the new major was officially launched in the fall of 2017. Associate Professor John Shrader also joined the college in 2017 as the inaugural faculty member dedicated exclusively to sports media and communication. 

This comprehensive major combines a core curriculum that focuses on foundational skills with elective pathways, enabling students to specialize in areas such as sports broadcasting, sports journalism or sports promotion. Paula Lavigne, a class of '98 news and editorial graduate, was excited to see the introduction of the major.

"The program's emphasis on digging in and getting your hands dirty from day one by covering sports on and off the field allows students to sample many options for a career in sports journalism, and they can then hone their skills on what they like most," Lavigne said. "Coming out of college with a degree specifically in sports journalism sends a message to potential employers that you understand the unique demands of reporting on sports and how the industry of athletics intersects with society."

Since the launch of the major, the college has continuously worked to expand opportunities for students. In 2019, the program expanded to offer extracurricular opportunities when students and faculty collaboratively established the UNL Sports Media Club, which facilitates connections between students and industry professionals, fosters networking skills, builds camaraderie and enhances awareness of current events and issues in the sports world.

growth in sports

Sports media and communication students in the "Press Box" learning community during a field trip to Sporting KC arena.

To further promote the program and attract new students, the college introduced the "Press Box" learning community in 2020. This innovative community allowed students from various disciplines to live together, engaging in academic, social and professional activities, including valuable field trips to learn directly from industry professionals.

Under the leadership of Dean Shari Veil, who assumed her role in 2020, the college embarked on an ambitious venture known as the Experience Lab. This college-wide initiative enables students to collaborate with peers while learning from professionals in residence and faculty members and developing content and strategies for one of the college’s media outlets and agencies.

Real-world opportunities in sports media were expanded with the Experience Lab and further development of Unlimited Sports. Unlimited Sports is a sports journalism outfit where students produce multimedia stories distributed to Nebraska media outlets through the Nebraska News Service, audio stories and play-by-play airing on 90.3 KRNU, the campus radio station and video stories airing on the college’s bi-weekly newscast, Nebraska Nightly.

Unlimited Sports students interview high school basketball players in the 90.3 KRNU studio during a Media Days event this fall.

One invaluable aspect of Unlimited Sports is the opportunity for students to collaborate with Professionals in Residence, who mentor and supervise their work. These connections have significantly enriched the program, creating a pipeline of talented students ready for internships and careers in sports media. 

Former student and current professional in residence for Unlimited Sports Brett Baker knows the value of getting hands on experience in the sports media and communication field. As the executive producer at KOLN/KGIN 1011 News, he leans towards hiring those applicants that have a firm grasp on the fundamentals of the position they're applying for.

"Jobs in sports media are highly competitive because there are so many more candidates than there are opportunities and that makes being ready to go to work from day one of their employment that much more important," Baker said.

To house Unlimited Sports, the college partnered with Pepsi-Cola of Lincoln. In 2023, Pepsi-Cola of Lincoln became the primary underwriter of Husker Sports broadcasts on 90.3 KRNU.

The Pepsi Unlimited Sports Lab

The proceeds from this underwriting supported the construction of the state-of-the-art Pepsi Unlimited Sports Lab, located on the second floor of Andersen Hall. This multimedia classroom now serves as the epicenter of all things Nebraska sports and as a hub for the Unlimited Sports Experience Lab. 

For Pepsi-Cola of Lincoln’s CEO Kirk Anderson, a partnership with the CoJMC just makes sense. 

“One of the cornerstones of Pepsi marketing is sports, and supporting the students who report on Husker athletics allows us to take this partnership a step further and give students an opportunity to be part of the collaboration as well,” Anderson said.

Pepsi Cola of Lincoln CEO Kirk Anderson hands the mic to Kevin Lambert, another Pepsi executive, during the Pepsi Unlimited Sports Lab Grand Opening.

The program has not only flourished in terms of academic offerings, extracurricular activities and physical facilities but has also witnessed substantial growth in student enrollment. Since its inception in 2017 with just 20 students, the sports media and communication program has experienced explosive growth. It has become the fastest-growing undergraduate major at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, enrolling 323 students in the fall of 2023.  

"The meteoric growth of the sports media and communication program is a testament to the caliber of education we offer and the unwavering dedication of our faculty to our students,” Dean Veil said.  

The program has no intention of slowing down. The program seeks to offer a first-rate experience to students interested in all sports media and communication areas. To achieve this goal, the college is hiring an assistant or associate professor with expertise in sports promotion who can help expand academic offerings in this area.  

The college is emphasizing fundraising efforts aimed at providing scholarships for sports media and communication students, thus ensuring accessibility to the program for all.

"Sports is a dynamic and growing industry and it's not just about moving a ball up and down a court or field; it's about things like the impact of legalized sports gambling and the expansion of women's sports," Lavigne said. "The industry needs sound journalists because no matter whether someone is watching a reporter on the sidelines of a football game or reading an investigation into foreign ownership of professional golf, that person should be able to trust that information."

To learn more about sports media and communication in the College of Journalism and Mass Communication, visit our website. You can donate to support scholarships for sports media and communication students through the University of Nebraska Foundation here.