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Interview With ESPN 'Sport Science' Host John Brenkus

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Leave it to ESPN's Sport Science to dissect the most pivotal, buzzworthy highlight from tonight's Monday Night Football matchup between Andrew Luck and the Indianapolis Colts and Cam Newton and the Carolina Panthers, applying science and entertaining graphics to explain how the play was made within an hour of the game.

It isn't anything new, either. Sport Science has been using science to break down the best sports highlights for nearly 10 years on ESPN, infusing action-packed graphics to bolster its theories, while also inviting star athletes to its lab to demonstrate how science is always working in dynamic sports plays. The mainstream has noticed with the show being a multiple Emmy Award winner.

"I think Sport Science is a great reflection of how much human beings enjoy reveling at what human beings can do," the show's host and co-creator John Brenkus tells Tech Times. "At its core, while we are certainly a sports property, I think the audience is just responding to what human beings can do. That's why we have been on the air for almost a decade now. I think we're doing an effective job of educating and entertaining."

Here, Tech Times speaks with Brenkus as he explains the origins of Sport Science, how it decides which sports highlights to analyze, the producing channels a clip goes through, and how quickly it can turn around a clip with accurate scientific facts.

Can you tell us about your background before Sport Science?

John Brenkus: I own the production company BASE Productions and we are in our 23rd year of business. Our production company specializes in sport TV and science TV and we put those two things together initially in a show called XMA: Xtreme Martial Arts. It was on the Discovery Channel. It was sort of the first in-depth look at the biomechanics behind martial arts.

That show was so successful that we did a show called Fight Science on National Geographic and that was so successful that Fox [who] owns National Geographic and Fox Sports—well, they aired the original science program opposite the original Peyton Manning versus Eli Manning Sunday Night Football game. Fight Science did very well in the ratings, so Fox Sports wanted to know what else we had.

We made a deal to do Sport Science because that's what we had in development and we had 26 episodes on Fox Sports, we won three Emmys and then ESPN came along and acquired the property and we are now in Season 7 with ESPN and Season 9 overall of Sport Science. We won another three Emmys.

For ESPN, we've done 1,200 segments—just for ESPN. Every door that you open, you discover that there are 10 others that you never knew existed. We sort of keep going by trying to uncover the mysteries of sports and relay sports through the lens of science and give the audience something that is entirely different, but educational and entertaining all at the same time.

What inspired you to delve into the science behind sports?

I grew up in the Washington, D.C., area. I grew up in Vienna, Va. I was very blessed as a rabid sports fan. I had the Baltimore Orioles winning a World Series, the Washington Redskins winning three Super Bowls. We even had the Washington Bullets win an NBA championship. So, D.C., when I was growing up, was a phenomenal sports town.

I've always been a huge sports fan and I played football, basketball, baseball, track growing up. I was a decent athlete, but never anything amazing. So, my fascination with sports was cultivated at a very young age just in terms of sheer appreciation for what professionals do and also my interest and fascination with why some athletes project way better than other athletes. I have a very solid foundation of just being a sports fan and having a deep interest in sports, but also ever since I can remember, science has been a genuine passion of mine.

I really don't read any fiction. I read nothing but science books and science has been my passion my whole life. At college at the University of Virgina, where I went to school, I majored in what's called Rhetoric Communication Studies or the Theory of the Argument and really what you see in Sport Science really does reflect quite a bit of what I learned in my major of how to craft a compelling argument and to persuade an audience of something you want to convince them of.

So, Sport Science is definitely a look of [what] we're trying to convince the audience of and show the audience how amazing these athletes are and how incredible these particular events were and we do that by really carefully constructing an argument using science to back it up.

Tech Times profiled Sport Science's analysis on Jose Bautista's bat flip. You could feasibly find science in a number of different sports highlights. How do you hone in and choose the exact clip that you analyze?    

You're correct, there's obviously science in everything, but the question is—is there interest in science and is it something that people are curious about? We love to examine the events that everyone's talking about. The Bautista bat flip was something that just blew up on social media and blew up in sports circles—obviously for the timing of the home run and just the whole season of controversial bat flips, but this one was the best bat flip of the season. We like to tap into what people are interested in, but also what we find interesting. If there's something that's happening in sports, we have a great relationship with ESPN—it's a very collaborative relationship—so we work together to decide what we're going to analyze or what athlete we're going to bring into the lab. It's a fantastic, long-term relationship that we have with them in terms of producing really compelling content that audiences are going to be interested in.

How do you walk the fine line between providing entertainment that doesn't overshadow the science facts you're presenting? We feel like having done 1,000 clips, we've gotten very good in identifying that balance. First and foremost, the most important thing is that our material is correct, that our science is solid, that our math is solid. Then, it's our job to put it in an entertaining package, so that people don't tune out and feel like they're being lectured to or that the information is just going over their heads. So, we really do approach it, but first make sure that everything is correct and then we need to package it up.

Really, the art of packaging it, that is the secret sauce. How do you package something that at its core is educational, but it has to be entertaining at the same time? We just feel like we have such a great Sport Science group that we work with. We feel like we have cracked the code on it and feel like it's important that we raise the bar and if we feel like we're entertained and educated, then we feel like the audience is going to be entertained and educated as well. That's why a lot of what we do isn't the same thing over and over. We like to change things up to make sure we're interested.

When you pinpoint a highlight that warrants a Sport Science analysis, can you take us through the channels that it goes through to become a clip?

Yeah, well without going into too much detail, what we do when we see something happen, we like to isolate the one thing that makes that event interesting. Often when people see something that's incredible that's happened, we love to point to the margin of error or how what you thought happened would actually have happened.

So, whether or not it's the impact of the hit, where it looks really brutal or where it looked like it was a lot of force, it actually wasn't and because there wasn't much force, the rest of the play was able to happen. We love to drill down to the one thing that we thought was the tipping point for that play. Once we find that one tipping point, we have to tell a story and construct an argument with a before and after with whatever that one thing may be.

Through all these years, has there been a sport that you haven't touched on that you would like to dissect a clip of?
We touched all the major sports and we do actually a lot of fringe sports, too. We did a series of clips this summer where we touched on everything from arm wrestling to corn hole [laughs]. We looked at really fringe stuff. We've been really blessed that we looked at all of the major sports and also a lot of the fringe sports. What we're always excited about is diving deeper and exploring territory that we haven't previously. That's what keeps up going.

Do you have a favorite clip that always sticks out in your mind to this day?

It's not a cop-out answer at all, but usually my favorite clip that we've done is the last one that we analyze or the last athlete that we had in. We just finished up a segment on Tom Brady and his efficiency of rushes of 2 yards or less. We loved breaking that down and sort of drilling why is he so effective at that, why is he so good at that and how much better is he than other people in the league at that because he actually has the highest conversion rate of anybody—quarterbacks, running backs—in the league. Today, we're going to do another clip or have another athlete in the lab and that will be my favorite one.

The new NBA season just tipped off. Let's say Anthony Davis just delivered an incredible highlight. How soon can Sport Science package it into a clip?

A great example of how quick we have become in being able to turn clips around is we are now doing our favorite play from a Monday Night Football game and it airs on the SportsCenter right after Monday Night Football, so we're turning things around within an hour. So, when we see something, we get a play, we write a script, we shoot it, we graphic it, we voice it and we deliver it. We're in that one-hour time window when we're able to move things around, which is remarkably fast given the quality of what we're doing.

The amount of graphics that you hit people with in these short clips is pretty outstanding.

We have a very efficient pipeline and very talented graphic artists that understand what it is that we need to convey. So, we pride ourselves on the graphics not only looking great, but also looking great in the context of explaining the information and that's much easier said than done. We have to give credit to our graphic artists for coming up with ways to visually illustrate the point that we're trying to make. But we're obviously working on the graphics simultaneously while we're working on everything else, so we're able to divide out all the different components of Sport Science, so that everyone is working on something at once and then it all sort of gets put together at the very final stage.

Virtual reality technology is exploding with different sports even experimenting with putting complete games in VR. Is using virtual reality a possibility in the near future for Sport Science?

I think the world of the virtual reality is kind of the wild, wild west right now. I definitely think it will have a place in the world of sports and,in time, a very prominent role in whether it's training or even viewing sports. It's just a matter of time before it gets integrated into everything. We're at the very beginning stages of it, but it's going to catch fire and advance very, very quickly, so I definitely see Sport Science using virtual reality at some point. It's just a matter of time before it gets incorporated into everything.

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