NOT JUST A FAD: How Cronkite’s innovation keeps sports journalism alive and kicking

The front façade of the Footprint Center in downtown Phoenix on a sunny day

As we set foot into the majestic Footprint Center, home to the Phoenix Suns and Phoenix Mercury, the sheer grandeur of the arena was undeniable. Named after its sponsor, Footprint, an environmental-based tech company dedicated to eliminating single-use plastics, the arena stands as a beacon of innovation and sustainability.

An Exclusive SUSI Experience

Instantly, we felt a sense of exclusivity. This wasn’t just another tour; it was an insider’s glimpse into the future of sports journalism, crafted specifically for us as part of our SUSI experience. The Study of the U.S. Institutes (SUSI) program brings together scholars from around the world, and I am honored to be a participant in this year’s cohort.

Walking through the halls of the Footprint Center, it became evident that our access to this state-of-the-art facility was no accident. The Walter Cronkite School of Journalism has meticulously cultivated partnerships over many years. These invaluable connections were highlighted by Dr. Dawn Gilpin, our SUSI program’s academic director, who explained that such partnerships enabled us to receive this exclusive tour, providing a unique glimpse into the media operations of this premier sports venue. This partnership serves as a perfect catalyst to weather the challenges facing journalism today. In a field that has faced significant challenges since the Great Recession of 2008, the demand for innovative and engaging sports content continues to surge. For those armed with the right skills and a passion for storytelling, the opportunities are boundless.

Most Americans remain unaware of the serious decline the media industry has faced and the challenges local news organizations encounter. However, the Cronkite School tackles these issues head-on by fostering relationships that offer students real-world experiences and industry insights. This approach not only equips graduates to meet current challenges but also positions them as leaders in an evolving landscape. 

Inside the Phoenix Mercury

The best part of the tour was understanding the inner workings of the communication team, the tour guided by Mr. Palmer Black and Cole Mickelson from the basketball communications team. Although I consider myself a novice when it comes to following the big leagues for both men and women, I was thrilled to learn that the GOAT of women’s basketball, Diana Taurasi, belongs to the Phoenix Mercury. The Phoenix Mercury, part of the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA), was founded in 1997 and boasts a successful track record with multiple championships. 

The Phoenix Suns, founded in 1968 and part of the NBA, have reached the NBA Finals multiple times. The team, featuring stars like Devin Booker and legends such as Charles Barkley and Steve Nash.

The Footprint Center is a fantastic venue, seating up to 18,422 fans who passionately fill the arena for a variety of games and events. It’s the perfect home for the devoted supporters of both the Suns and the Mercury.

Black and White Film Frames Family Travel Memories Slideshow by Sabir Haque

Expanding Media Credentials

During our discussion with Palmer Black and Cole Mickelson, it became evident how the communications team at the Footprint Center caters to a diverse array of media organizations. On big game days, the media credentials list includes not only established publications but also myriad smaller websites and independent journalists. This variety is a testament to the evolving nature of sports journalism, where the lines between different types of media are increasingly blurred.

Moreover, the social media team has become a separate division within the communications team, underscoring the importance of digital influencers. The social media influencers receive special media credentials, recognizing their role in shaping public perception and engaging with audiences in real-time.

This multifaceted approach to media credentials paints a vivid picture of the current media landscape. It’s a dynamic environment where traditional journalists, digital content creators, and social media influencers all play crucial roles in covering and promoting sports events. This reality aligns perfectly with the teaching hospital model adopted by the Cronkite School of Journalism, where students are trained to navigate and excel in a rapidly changing media environment.

Real-World Experience and Industry Connections

The teaching hospital model at the Cronkite School is led by professors of practice—seasoned professionals from the broadcast industry who bring real-world experience into the classroom. This model emphasizes practical, hands-on experience under their supervision, allowing students to engage in immersive learning environments.

During our session with Assistant Dean Brett Kurland, a distinguished sports journalist and founding director of the Cronkite News Phoenix Sports Bureau, he introduced us to this approach. Brett highlighted how the Cronkite School has developed partnerships with major sports organizations like the United States Olympic & Paralympic Committee, the NFL, the NCAA, the Sports Journalism Institute, and the Pac-12 Conference. These partnerships provide students with numerous opportunities to gain real-world experience.

Brett emphasized how students build impressive portfolios and networks, often leading to careers at digital outlets and sports branding agencies. Many students also become independent content creators, showcasing their skills across various digital platforms. Programs like Cronkite NewsNews21, and the Public Relations Lab are pivotal in this experiential learning process, ensuring that graduates are not only prepared for the current media landscape but are also at the forefront of innovation in sports journalism.

The Bright Future of Sports Journalism

Regardless of how the industry evolves—whether through shifts in media platforms, the rise of digital influencers, or the fragmentation of the media ecosystem—the core principles taught at the Cronkite School remain constant. These principles of dedication, ethical reporting, and relentless pursuit of truth are the keystones of a successful career in journalism.

The future of sports journalism is bright, not because it is certain, but because it is filled with the promise of innovation and the steadfast commitment to storytelling.