Kids are specializing in sports earlier than ever. They're doing the same in sports broadcasting. Inside the camp that makes it happen, and what that could mean for the campers pursuing it.
"It's so hard to get an internship in this town," Jake Liker said.
He was talking about Los Angeles, where he was born and raised and is now hoping to break in as a sports broadcaster.
Jake has shadowed at networks. He calls football games at Harvard Westlake, a private high school. He and several friends, also aspiring broadcasters, co-host their own online sports talk shows.
He doesn't fit the usual on-air aesthetic—he's gawky and, off-camera, has a habit of standing with his thumbs pressed into the small of his back, as though he's bracing himself against an imaginary wind. But when the red light flicks on, Jake can anchor a live shot on UCLA basketball with startling smoothness. He understands timing, and knows when and how to engage his co-hosts. Then there are his transitions: a reference to a poor showing in last year's Battle 4 Atlantis, held in the Bahamas, prompted a savvy line about how the Bruins got lost in paradise. Karl Moeglein, one of Jake's best friends and a frequent collaborator on their radio shows, whispered, "Jake's the pun guy."
There's certainly room for improvement, but there's no reason a small-market television station would refuse to consider him for a job—or, at least, no reason besides the fact that Jake Liker is a 16-year-old high school junior.
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We're at UCLA for the Los Angeles edition of Play By Play Sports Broadcasting Camps, a series of summer camps for kids aged 10 through 18 who want dearly to talk about sports for a living. Now in its 14th year, it has ballooned from one three-day minicamp in Philadelphia to nine weeklong camps, of both the day and overnight variety, held throughout the country.
This year, 620 kids attended. According to Jeremy Treatman, the camp's founder and co-owner, roughly 40 percent will return next year. By the time they reach college, many of those, including Jake and Karl, will have attended a camp—or SBC for short—up to a half-dozen times. Depending on how young they start, the number can skew even higher. Per the company's website, a Baltimore native named Daniel Radov holds the record for attending 14 camps over an eight-year span.
This sounds like a bit much, and it probably is. Then again, Radov had his own radio show as a 17-year-old for Baltimore's WNST, whose call letters are spun as We Never Stop Talking. Radov is far from the only SBC success story. The camp boasts a healthy list of notable alumni, including Bleacher Report host Adam Lefkoe and MLB Network's Scott Braun. They matriculate from camps to the nation's best journalism schools; two of the graduating seniors at the LA camp are heading to Syracuse and Missouri, respectively. Radov is on track to graduate from Columbia in 2017. When alums arrive on campus, wherever it is, they're light years ahead of the curve.
Jacob Seus, a Mizzou sophomore and SBC alum who worked as a counselor at this year's camp in Los Angeles, was blown away by the lack of experience among his competition during auditions for the campus TV station. "A lot of these kids were good enough to be on TV, but they didn't know what to do," he said. "They didn't really know about camera presence, or stare at the camera. I've been doing it since I was 10." Seus is 18 years old.
SBC is not just a career launching point; it's a safe space for obsessive, ultra-focused, and otherwise slightly different kids who don't always fit in at school. When the week is up, campers tend to leave with friendships to go with their improved standup skills. "A haven," Jake calls it.
Former ESPN anchor Gary Miller is a regular guest speaker at the SBC camp in Los Angeles. Photo by Mike Piellucci.
But the reason these camps even exist at all lies in how media, and especially sports media, has evolved. Once merely a conduit for information, sportscasters are now as recognizable as many of the athletes they cover. It makes sense that kids would want to be them.
"ESPN announcers are celebrities," said Treatman. "It used to be just your local play-by-play guy was kind of the celebrity, or, your national NBC or FOX guy is a celebrity. Now there's hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of sports celebrities."
He mentions Michelle Beadle, who was an unscheduled guest at SBC the day before we spoke, as an example. "I said [to the kids], 'You guys watch SportsNation?' Every hand goes up. 'You guys know who Michelle Beadle is?' Every hand goes up. She'll be here at 2:30 today. Then I hear, 'What?! What?! Really?! What?!' I think that's what's changed. These kids, at 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, are watching ESPN. They think of someone like a Stuart Scott, Sal Paolantonio, Neil Everett as just as big a star as they do the football star, the basketball star, the hockey star."
The majority of kids I spoke with mentioned having wanted to play at some point in their lives but most of them quickly came to terms with the fact that a pro sports career wasn't in the cards. "I was never the best at sports and I was the type of kid who would wake up in the morning and read every page in the Los Angeles Times sports page." said John Soza, who is 12.
Just as youth athletes are increasingly encouraged to specialize at ever younger ages—often, it should be noted, to deleterious effects—so, too, are those on the non-playing side of things. And they pursue their dream just as vigorously. This phenomenon is what led Treatman and his SBC co-owner, Steven Goldstein, to launch their company out of a Philadelphia office in 2002. Treatman came up with the idea in the late 90s and when an initial three-day minicamp at Bryn Mawr College sold decently well, they figured it could be a nice side business. When they drew 124 campers the second year, they realized they'd stumbled onto something much larger. By 2004, SBC had expanded to three additional cities. They are still riding that wave. "This camp should be in every city in the country," Goldstein said. "That's the goal."
The day camp costs $595; the overnight camp runs $1,225, with accommodations and all meals included. Goldstein and Treatman make no bones about theirs being a for-profit operation that targets affluent communities; a healthy majority of the campers are white males. Although several women are featured on the alumni page, the gender gap is impossible to miss. The Los Angeles camp had just three girl campers, and 79 boys.
The camps run on a template that is simple and repeatable. Monday is orientation. Tuesday is spent shuffling between rudimentary broadcasting drills, which will be ratcheted up on Thursday to include segments like a mock NFL preview show, top 10 plays, and a debate segment in the of PTI, which Treatman—a longtime high school sportscaster himself—glowingly refers to as "my baby." Depending on what teams are in town, Wednesday is either spent at a ballgame or touring a local sports landmark; at this year's Los Angeles camp, it was the Rose Bowl. Friday is game day—think sports Jeopardy! and trivia contests—and then, on Saturday, the organizers are off to the next town.
On Tuesday morning in LA, campers were divided by age for the day's drills. Kids under 13 began the day in a large multipurpose room on the east side of UCLA's campus, where a projector replayed the last inning of the most recent World Series and the Super Bowl. The campers spent the morning calling those games live into tape recorders—one of the three essential items kids must bring to camp, along with a pen and notepad. The older campers, meanwhile, split up into groups of three and shuttled through stations that included standups, panels, voicing over highlights, and sports talk radio. The groups swapped places after lunch, before everything came to a close at 4 PM.
Despite having the same itineraries, the two groups offered vastly different experiences for anyone watching. The under-13's were the picture of what someone would imagine this camp to be: a clump of prepubescent children warbling very loudly, and often incoherently, about things they saw on a TV. Listening to 40 tweens doing this simultaneously was like being trapped in a room with a very excited, very earnest, very loud gaggle of crows, but there was something liberating about the total absence of objectivity or restraint. Kids dissolved into shrieks the first time Rob Gronkowski made an appearance during the Super Bowl footage, and absolutely lost their shit when Pablo Sandoval snagged the final out of the World Series. Pacing was another challenge. When Alex Gordon ripped a triple, the chirping died down before he reached second base, like a wave that abruptly petered out halfway across the stadium.
The older crowd, meanwhile, was far more attuned to their surroundings. They, too, were outfitted in a rainbow of caps and jerseys—one enterprising youngster sported a Ticket City Bowl T-shirt—but there was a seriousness to them, especially the repeat campers. When former SportsCenter and Baseball Tonight host Gary Miller showed up for that day's guest appearance, one of them quizzed him about the appropriate eye line for a non-speaker in a group shot. Later, Jake mentioned asking past guests about balancing parenthood with work travel.
The teenagers sounded like old pros, pontificating about "this business" or "this industry" and even about their fellow campers.
"There was a kid a couple of minutes ago who went up on the teleprompter and he read the first line with a lot of energy and I was like, 'This is actually a kid who could go really far,'" said 18-year-old Noah Taborda, a rising freshman at Missouri. "There are those 10- and 11-year-olds who you say, 'Wow, this kid knows what he's talking about. This kid has the confidence. This kid has the stuff to make it.'"
For all the professional adult trappings of this sort of talk, there's a distinctly adolescent loneliness to many of these kids; it comes through especially clearly in discussing life outside the cocoon of this camp. What draws these kids to a job that might someday earn admiration (or at least notice) from the widest possible audience is the same thing that makes it difficult for them to relate to other people.
"Really, if you go to an ordinary high school, there aren't a lot of people who have the same interests that the rest of us do," said Seus. "Sports nerds, who just feel like we know everything about the sport, who want to be sportscasters—you won't find many at an ordinary high school. This is the place where people can come and just be themselves for a week and meet people who have the exact same interests as they do, which is really something special. You make friends for life."
In Jake Liker's case, that means two people in particular. One of them is Noah, and the second is Karl Moeglein, the 16-year-old who pointed out Jake's proclivity for puns. Wispy and fair-skinned, Karl's childhood ambition was to be the next Billy Mays. He switched to dreams of sports broadcasting when he was in fourth grade.
Theirs is a friendship that transcends geography: Jake is local, but Karl came to the camp from Oregon and Noah all the way from Chicago. Both crashed at Jake's house for the week. Noah would later tweet out a special dedication to them the night before he headed off to college: "Best friends anybody could ask for."
It's a bond that would not have been forged without SBC. But, Jake said, "there's also that awkward feeling when you also realize that these are the people you're going to be competing with for jobs when you grow up." In this case, "these people" would seem to be everyone weird enough, driven enough, hungry and thirsty enough to keep going to SBC, and to keep on pushing for the small pool of jobs they all covet.
"But it's nice," Jake concluded, in a slightly higher lilt,"because right now, we're all still friends."
Thirteen years ago, Adam Lefkoe was in Jake Liker's shoes. He was a 16-year-old from Philadelphia who, along with a good friend, signed up for the very first SBC camp on a lark. The two were paired up for a mock broadcast, with Lefkoe doing color and his friend on play-by-play. A funny thing happened: no matter how hard he tried to stick to color, Lefkoe couldn't stop himself from drifting over to call the action. "That's when my friend knew that he didn't want to do this for a living," Lefkoe said, "and I knew I did."
Lefkoe went on to Syracuse and, after small market stops in Nebraska and Kentucky, is now a host for Bleacher Report. He is among SBC's foremost success stories and he recently shot a video for the camp with advice for breaking into the business. After explaining the perks of his job, he said exactly what every person in the crowd hopes to hear: "I was sitting where you're sitting right now."
Strictly speaking, this is true. But the world Lefkoe entered is very different from the one the kids watching his video now inhabit—it's more cutthroat, more competitive, and more insecure. "The unfortunate thing with this industry is you end up comparing yourself to everyone in the room," Lefkoe said. While that only dawned on him in college, kids like Jake, Noah, and Karl have literally grown up in that environment, cultivating their skills along the way.
Both Treatman and Goldstein concede that they identify certain campers whom they expect will be successful, not unlike how college hoops fans pinpoint big prospects long before they arrive on campus. At this particular camp, each of them quickly mentioned John Soza, the 12-year-old who has already written off his professional baseball prospects. He first caught their eye last year, when he won the under-13 PTI contest by ending a debate about the Northwestern football team's potential unionization with a point regarding insurance for scholarship athletes. Treatman and Goldstein are happy to provide a reference for any camper who asks. They also have volunteered standout kids for outlets like Sports Illustrated for Kids, which showcase aspiring broadcasters. It's no wonder that they're all in a rush to get ahead of the competition. Then again, SBC isn't the catalyst for any of this. It's just monetizing a culture that extends far beyond its walls.
"It's crazy the amount of kids who will hit me up on Twitter or come up to me at training camp tours and they ask me, 'How do I get to where you are?'" Lefkoe told me. "I start telling them about internships and reels, and I stop and I'm like, 'Wait, how old are you? 'I'm 13.' 'You have to live your life first!'
"This is a career when it requires a lot of sacrifice," he continued. "If you do that at a young age, you're going to miss out on being a young kid. When you see a lot of sports media, you see a lot of people who gave up a lot of their life."
The first SBC generation is a decade or less into their professional careers. so as Lefkoe, who is 29, readily admitted, even they can only relate to a point. "I dipped my feet into it," he said. "I got a taste. I was able to live my life before it was professional all the time."
We cannot yet see the end of this, but we can see where it starts. It is Jake Liker's friends chiding him for having no free time outside of school and broadcasting. It is Karl Moeglein, who cherishes his spot on the debate team and is deservedly proud of starting a broadcast program from scratch at his high school, admitting that, "everything I do is kind of calculated, I guess you could say." It is Noah Taborda, a month before to moving into his freshman dorm at Missouri, telling me he already has set up an internship, secured a spot on the campus TV station, and may be working as a soccer beat writer for the newspaper, too. Each one of them is smart and funny and articulate and far better at their dream job than teenagers have any business being. But, for all they've already sacrificed and as camera-ready as they are, not even SBC can truly prepare them for the future.
There is, for instance, no drill that can approximate the hollow despair that sets in after a year of 60-hour weeks working at a small station in New Hampshire, putting on broadcasts that only a handful of people watch. There is no way to instill the courage that Lefkoe needed to buck any reasonable convention and do the pop culture-laden sportscasts that lifted his career out of obscurity. There are the Hobbesian politics of the profession, but there is also the saddening possibility of these enthusiasts burning out—or being beaten down, or having to compete for a gig with their best friends—before they're even grown. Not everyone will make it—most everyone will not—which means many might feel they bartered their adolescence for nothing.
This is why, when Lefkoe was recently asked to watch a 14-year-old's tape, he felt compelled to pass on a word of advice on top of complimenting the kid's transitions. "I had to put in there, 'Just make sure you're enjoying life.'"
On the other hand, these campers are having fun.
No one was moping in the corner, or grumbling about activities being stupid. I kept checking for the usual camp stragglers that didn't fit into a group, but couldn't seem to find any. If anything, the place traded on inclusiveness. One former camper, who just finished his freshman year at Florida State, was hanging around to visit the friends he's known for years. Everyone seems to belong, a rare thing anywhere and especially in a place where so many are already competing with one another.
"Do we want them to not specialize and enjoy themselves? Sure," Lefkoe said. "But if this is their great time and they're polishing themselves for a professional career, they're way ahead of the game."
We can spend decades searching for a purpose. Some of us never find one. These kids, who are not nearly done figuring all that out, at least have a sense of where and who they are. They have something—if not the thing— figured out.
Just ask Jake Liker. "I can imagine it's tough," he mused, "going into high school not knowing what you want to do with the rest of your life." He said it like someone who already knows who he is, and what he wants.