NAU sports media: growing the brand

Photo courtesy of Rory Faust

The San Francisco Peaks tower over northern Arizona and reach 12,633 feet high at its tallest point. The snow-capped mountains can be seen as far as 60 miles away — if you’re standing in the right place.

The mountains birth clouds that travel over sacred Navajo and Hopi lands and provide rain to the otherwise arid landscape. Their magnificence on the horizon has attracted attention for centuries and produced opportunities for individuals to lose themselves in the ponderosa pines and underneath the vibrant, starry skies.

NAU will take advantage of the state’s natural beauty with the introduction of the Sports and Adventure Media program in fall 2023.

The program will provide students the opportunity to gain hands-on experience across various media platforms while covering adventure sports, such as mountain biking, climbing, backpacking and snowboarding in addition to traditional sports, like football and basketball.

Rory Faust, a professor at NAU and director of sports media, is responsible for the creation of the program.

“There’s nothing west of the Mississippi like this,” Faust said.

The program will be one of a handful of sports and adventure media programs offered across the country. One of the few is at the University of West Virginia. West Virginia’s program was one of the first of its kind and inspired NAU's.

The vision at NAU has been growing since 2010 when Faust was hired full-time. Faust, who had a career as a sports writer, was brought on to teach a sports journalism class. The class was taught every fall and covered in-depth writing in sports media topics.

Then in 2014, Faust suggested converging all sports media inside the Media Innovation Center (MIC). Before, students were subject to one medium at a time. The Lumberjack, KJACK Radio and NAU-TV were separate entities that students could enroll in to cover sports, but there was not much overlap. Students chose between writing stories for the newspaper, going live on the radio or becoming an on-screen sports reporter with NAU-TV.

The converged sports class allowed students to become immersed and get comfortable covering sports from multiple angles. Instead of being subjected to a single medium, students were able to explore sports through every platform. Though there was no formal program for students to enroll in, they could still enroll in undergraduate programs such as journalism or photography with no emphasis on sports.

It was not until after the pandemic that Faust was able to receive the support needed from the School of Communication and the Office of the Provost for a proper program and began laying the foundation in spring 2022. They gave formal approval at the beginning of the spring 2023 semester.

NAU media has always covered traditional sports for the university’s Division I teams and Flagstaff high schools, but now coverage will expand, appealing to those who come to northern Arizona specifically for outdoor engagement.

“What we kept coming back to is we are in this amazing geographical area with all these outdoor opportunities,” Faust said. “It was only natural for us to incorporate that outdoor adventure element into this new sports media program that we’ve built.”

It is an opportunity for NAU to separate from other programs and set a unique precedent for what can be covered at the university level. Brian Rackham, director of the MIC, said the program is a great move for the journalism department and will complement the MIC’s other divisions.

“It’s something that we can do uniquely here in Flagstaff because we have an excellent environment and such great outdoor spaces, so combining sports and outdoor media are a natural fit,” Rackham said.

A formal program at NAU also creates further opportunities for nationwide recognition. Even without a formal program, Faust and others had success building a collegiate sports media enterprise that rivals those across the country.

This is mostly because of the opportunities created by Faust that have been presented to students pursuing sports media.

Recently, a group of students covered Super Bowl LVII in Phoenix. Students also covered the Fiesta Bowl in Phoenix, the men and women’s basketball Big Sky Championships in Boise, Idaho, multiple NASCAR Cup Series events and MLB Spring Training in Arizona.

Now that NAU can market a formal sports media program, Faust and Rackham both said they hope more of the community will recognize what is possible at NAU and notice the windows that can open for students who want to pursue sports media careers.

Without a formal program, NAU has had success creating content that is recognized on a national level.

NAU was ranked 13th in sports programs by the Broadcast Education Association in 2022 and 32nd for overall media programs. NAU also received an honorable mention from the SportsCasters Talent Agency of America in its 2022 ranking of the top 20 sports broadcasting schools.

The Sports and Adventure Media program will also provide NAU with a diverse portfolio of community-based opportunities. There is already an urge from students in the MIC to tell more of the stories that are unique to Flagstaff, but now there will be more leeway for those covering local sports news.

Sophomore Ava Nichols, sports director at NAZ Today, said she is excited about the new opportunities to promote the outdoors.

“Meeting more people and telling more stories is our job, and it’s what we love to do, so it just allows us to do more of that,” Nichols said. “It will grow how our program connects to the community because, for instance, there’s a large climbing community in Flagstaff, and now, maybe we cover them and for once, they feel like they get to share their sport and share their stories.

For Nichols and other journalism students, the chance to connect to Flagstaff beyond the university sports environment means more opportunities to tell untold stories and provide insight into how the mountain-side community flourishes through sun and snow.

The new program shows a commitment by NAU to expand upon the success that the current assembly of sports media personnel has created in a short period. NAU’s MIC is small now in comparison to other collegiate programs, though the current generation of sports media students is paving a path for anyone who wants to tell immersive stories about any sport in any arena.

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