Interview with Assistant Sports Information Director Ben Taylor

Press Box-AKR-2Ben Taylor is my go-to guy for information about the University of Illinois baseball program.  Ben serves as Assistant Sports Information Director at the U of I and specifically works with the Illini baseball, wrestling and football teams.  It his job to coordinate publicity for the sports programs and work with the media.  From my view, he does a fantastic job with the baseball team and is readily handy with information or answers to questions I may have. 
 
A few weeks ago, I asked Ben if he could answer a few questions specifically for the Illinois Baseball Report.  He was more than happy to do so though he’s been a bit busy what with a baseball season going on and just got me his responses. 
 
I enjoyed his answers… I hope you do too.
 
Illinois Baseball Report:  Before we get started, tell us a bit about yourself.  What is your background and what exactly are your responsibilities at the UI Department Intercollegiate Athletics?

Ben Taylor:  I’m from Sidell, Ill., a small town about a half-hour south of Danville, and I graduated from the University of Illinois in 2005 with a degree in news-editorial journalism.  I worked in the UI sports information department as a student and then as a graduate assistant from 2006-07, while I earned my M.S. in sport management.  Before college, I worked for three newspapers as a correspondent (or a “stringer,” as they call it): the Sidell Reporter, the Danville Commercial-News and the News-Gazette.  I got a taste of working on this side of sports and have really enjoyed it, plus I feel like my little bit of experience at newspapers helps me work well with reporters.  Now, my primary responsibilities are as the sports information contact for baseball and wrestling, and one of three people who work with the football team.  My boss, Kent Brown, and Derek Neal, another assistant SID in our office, who handled baseball in 2005, also work with the football team.  The easiest way to describe what we do is that we coordinate publicity for our teams, coaches and student-athletes, and all of the work that goes along with it from media guides to FightingIllini.com.
 
IBR:  As a non-revenue sport, college baseball in general usually doesn’t get the media exposure that football or basketball does.  As SID, do you feel you are sometimes fighting an uphill battle to get baseball the media attention it deserves?

BT:  I always feel very fortunate in my current role with the baseball team because, like many of our sports, it has a strong following in the community.  Our local media outlets are always very receptive to any requests to come to practice or games, so I always try to accommodate them when they call me wanting to cover us.  It’s also great having the Big Ten Network because it’s an incredible national outlet for our program and our university.  We don’t get much coverage from Chicago, but we’ll occasionally get a feature or a blurb in the Sun-Times or Tribune.



IBR:  In the last couple years, the methods the program connects with the public has changed a lot with the advent of Facebook, Twitter and other social networking tools.  Do you feel these tools allow you to put the program’s message out in an efficient manner?  Also, does it add a level of complexity to your job as the SID?


BT:  I think the social networking tools we use have great value to our program and our fans have been very receptive.  I just checked and we have 761 fans of our Facebook page and 1,005 followers on Twitter, which I think is a pretty strong number.  I know a number of our fans follow our Twitter account for in-game updates and it’s also a great way to send out links to our content on FightingIllini.com as well as articles from around the Internet.  We’re probably just scraping the tip of the iceberg with our Facebook page – I’m sure I could add more photos and links, but I mostly use it to post links to our website content.  The other tool I’ve experimented with this year was a live blog through the CoverItLive interface.  I had great feedback from multiple sources, especially the families of players and coaches who couldn’t make it to the games.  I tried it out during the Big Ten/Big East Challenge this year and had 490 people check out those three live blogs with very little advance notice about them.  I wish we could have continued those throughout the year, but it just became an issue of not having enough manpower to run them.


IBR:  Earlier this season, you experimented with live blogging a few of the games.  Was that popular with the fans?  What’s the future of that particular feature?  I logged in for a couple games and found it quite fun and interesting.

BT:  Well, that’s what I get for not reading all of the questions before I started answering them!  I think my elementary school teachers warned me about doing that…   As far as I could tell, the live blogs were very popular with fans who couldn’t make that particular trip.  I remember Aaron Johnson’s mom and girlfriend both commenting on a couple of the blogs from Canada, then being surprised that the other was reading the blog.  Some of Coach Westray’s family commented on the blog, as did Brandon Hohl’s dad, Mike Sterk’s mom and a few people from Tanner Libby’s family.  I think Bryan Roberts’ mom also sent in a few comments.  I think it’s a great way to give fans more detail than they can get from Gametracker, it’s usually a bit faster than Gametracker and it’s interactive communication.  So people really enjoy all three of those aspects of it.  I’m hoping to be able to do more live blogs in the future, but they may be limited to the early road trips, if and when I travel on those.  Because of my overlap with the wrestling schedule, I’m not always able to go on those early trips.  And I found that it isn’t possible for me to run the blog at home because of my additional responsibilities in the press box.  It’s also pretty tough to run blogs while I’m doing radio during road games because I’m also usually writing the game recap for the website during breaks in the game.  Glad you enjoyed them!


IBR:  This year, I’ve noticed that the baseball program has made an effort to look back to its history.  You have put up all-time rosters on the web and are now doing a series of Retrospectives.  I think that’s great.  What prompted this?  Do you have other similar projects in the future?

BT:  Well, I’d like to be able to honestly say that it’s a concerted effort to be more in touch with our roots, but it’s really the confluence of a couple of different projects.  The rosters were typed in by members of our student staff as part of an initiative to have a listing of all past rosters for all sports on FightingIllini.com.  We’ve made great progress in the first year of the project and should have it finished by next year.  The other part of that project is to have a statistics archive on FightingIllini.com.  As you can imagine, that project is a bit more ambitious with a sport like baseball that has been around for 130 years.  But we already have stats entered into our software back to the early 1970s, and we only have season batting averages for players any farther back than that.  So we may be getting close to getting those posted soon, too.  The other prong of this historical bent has been the weekly Illini Retrospective series, which was part of our planning for the Celebration of 130 Years of Illini Baseball, which will happen this weekend (Saturday, May 15).  Chris Tuttle, the director of our Varsity I Association, which works with former letterwinners, and I thought that a batch of articles that mentioned some of the great teams, coaches and players from the program’s history would be a great way to let people know about the reunion weekend while also educating them about the program’s history.  Again, our two student assistants who help me with baseball wrote the majority of those articles, but I edited them before I put them on the website and e-mailed them out.  I can definitely say that I’ve learned a lot about the program in the process!


IBR:  As SID for college athletics, you act as a public relations guy for the team.  Is there a fine line between providing as much information as possible about the baseball program to the public yet at the same time keeping the program in a good light?  For example, we don’t hear too much about injuries and the like in official press releases.  Is that University AD policy?

BT:  Yes, there definitely is a fine line.  Fans have become much more adept at sniffing out spin in the last decade, so most of them can tell when they aren’t being given the whole story.  But as the official spokesperson for the athletic department, our office doesn’t release much in the way of injury updates unless it’s of the season-ending variety.  Even then, it’s often up to the head coach because it can be construed as a competitive advantage for opponents.  We realize that it is our job to portray the program and the university in the best possible light, so we try to focus on the positive aspects rather than injuries, suspensions, etc., but we also realize that in order to have credibility with our constituents (i.e., fans) we sometimes have to provide the less positive side of things.


IBR:  Finally, let me ask a strictly baseball question.  Your personal thoughts on the Illini’s slow start, recent surge during Spring Break and their chances for the Tournament?

BT:  Since it’s taken me a few weeks to answer these, a few things have happened.  But I would say at this point that the team holds its postseason destiny in its own hands, which often isn’t the case when you’re tied for seventh place with six conference games left.  But with the incredible parity in the league this year, it really is anybody’s race as we head into the last two conference weekends.  The other interesting thing is that only Indiana and Purdue play two of the teams tied for seventh in the last two series, meaning that everybody else plays at least one team in the upper half of the conference.  Not that they could claim this anyway, with as bunched-up as the standings are, but no team can claim that they have a schedule that’s more or less difficult than anyone else.  And it’s fairly conventional wisdom, but it seems to me that of the six teams with conference records of 9-9 or worse, it’s going to be the two teams that win their final two series that will advance to the Big Ten Tournament.  Of course, a team that’s tied for first could fall out of the tournament since first place is only a 10-8 record, but I wouldn’t count on it.
 
Thanks to Ben for taking the time to do this.  As an editor of a blog that covers the Illinois baseball team, I appreciate the work he does. 


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