Elaine Rom, 40, got her start running a camera for Baltimore Orioles broadcasts on Home Team Sports, known to people in the Mid-Atlantic as HTS. She was studying television and film at Towson University when a professor invited the HTS executive producer to come to her class in 1996. The conversation about what went on behind the scenes on a TV sports broadcast grabbed Rom, and hasn't let go since. She stayed after class that day to learn more and wound up being offered an internship a week later.
Rom has gone on to work lots of Orioles, Nationals, Wizards and Capitals games, plus travel to some of the legendary college football stadiums around the country as a member of ESPN's TV crews. It's a full-time gig, even though her aunt and uncle used to ask her what she wanted to be when she grew up well into her 20s.
"If you had told me in college that I was going to be a cameraperson, I would have told you you were out of your mind," Rom says.
She will be working on the Sugar Bowl broadcast, operating Camera 2, the camera that covers the game action when the ball is between the 35-yard lines. You'll see her pictures a lot.
Rom talked with espnW after spending Wednesday setting up the broadcast booth ahead of Friday night's game between Ole Miss and Oklahoma State.
"It's the first big bowl game for my crew, it's exciting," Rom says. "I'm proud for our crew because we work really hard, and we try to nail everything."
Here are six things she has learned along the way.
There are not a lot of women who do what I do at this level. There are runners, graphic operators and stage managers. But not many camera operators. One of my first jobs, I walked into the truck and one of the guys tosses me his keys. "Can you go move my car?" I said, "Sure. You might not get it back, but I'll move it for you." He's like, "Are you the runner?" I said, "No, I'm a camera operator." We are on the same crew this year. And he'll still toss me his keys sometimes and we'll laugh about it. But that show, I did hand-held and ran up and down the field [like] crazy the whole game. And the director called me the next day and said, "Hey, they just put it in our budget to travel a camera person for the football season. Would you be interesting in doing it?" I cleared my schedule and I've had a football package ever since.
I tell people we're like movers. We arrive, unpack the truck, set everything up and then pack the truck up again and move on to the next city. Football is a busier day, and a longer day, than other sports.
On game day, we get in about six hours before the game starts, but for the Sugar Bowl, I'm actually here a day before most people. That's because I set up the broadcast booth on Wednesday. For this game, I have about 30 boxes, cases of gear, monitors and lights. A robotic camera that shoots back at the announcer that the director can control. It's a whole set. They put me in an empty room and we build the announce booth from scratch.
In some stadiums, the booths are just little plywood boxes, and in others, they are suites. But for the person watching at home, it needs to look the same either way. This is a nice, big booth. It has some quirkiness, since no booth is perfect. But you can't really complain, since we're in a dome. It's great to have the weather out of it.
A few people came in early because there's so much more to set up for the Sugar Bowl. We have more cameras around the stadium, and we have the Skycam, a jib and two carts. And that just means more cables, and with more cables, there are a lot more problems. We "fax" (which means test out all the equipment) about four hours before the game starts, then our director, Jimmy Platt, runs a camera meeting. And we meet with our announcers, Brock Huard and Bob Wischusen, to go over storylines for the game. There might be a player they want to feature, or they'll ask us to be on the lookout for an interaction between a coach and a player, or look at how a defense might line up.
Until I proved myself, people thought I was there to pick up an athlete. The first day I showed up, I didn't know anybody. One of the guys says something like, "You're just here to find a ballplayer." And I was like, "You think I can?" I was in shock to think that was even a possibility. So there's a stigma with women in sports production. They think women are there to meet a professional athlete. I wanted so bad to be respected, and I wanted to work in the industry. So I just ignored the players. I wouldn't even look them in the eye. And I'm in the dugout running camera, and I wouldn't even talk to them. So finally one of the players asked, "Why don't you ever say hi?" So then I thought maybe I was being rude. I realized there's a happy medium. You can be pleasant and still be respected in the business.
I can't imagine what TSA thinks of me. I always put my Leatherman in my checked bag, but I bring lots of stuff with me in my carry-on. I have tape, rope, a carabiner, spring clamps, lots of Sharpies. When it's time to get up to the camera position before the game starts, I make sure I have everything I might possibly need. I'll bring water and a 5-Hour Energy. After a long day, it helps me focus. We have our flip charts, player and coach head shots we tape around the camera or onto the camera. About an hour before the game we identify all the players and coaches we might need because they almost never look like their head shots. We ID the defensive coordinator, and say "OK, he's wearing red pants, a hat and he's carrying a clipboard. That way if an announcer mentions him, we can get to him fast." I also bring my iPad in case I have to look for the head shot of someone we didn't print out before the game started. I bring rain gear. We have to be prepared for any weather. I always bring little booties for the headset. I don't want to use other people's sweaty headphones!
I've seen a lot of cool things -- Cal Ripken ending his streak, Eddie Murray's 500th home run, two no-hitters. But some of my shots have turned into viral videos. The first came during the college football season in 2012. Florida State was one of the top-ranked teams and they were playing against North Carolina State. NC State scored late in the game to get the lead, and the game ended after a Hail Mary fell incomplete. The place went nuts. I shot the student section, and this guy runs down and jumps up on a ledge. He's hanging from a pole and he took his shirt off. All I saw was this big white belly. He kind of stood out.
Another great one was the "poncho guy" last season at a Nationals game. Some games, the story is all on the field, and you're glued to your viewfinder. But other times, you have to get your head out of there and look around the stadium on your own. You have to be aware of what's going in the stands. You might find something like a kid doing something funny, a bunch of girls at the game dressed the same for a bachelorette party, or someone walking up the bleachers with a whole bunch of food, trying to balance it all. Those are cool little things to show people at home. I'm always looking for something a little bit quirky. And you always see people struggling with ponchos.
Those things are so funny. And when it starts raining, everyone pulls out the ponchos, and I'm thinking, "If I can just get the guy, it would be so funny." And I found him! He was having so much trouble, trying to put his arm through the head hole, and his head through the arm hole. But it was totally luck.
People think this is a glamorous job. But it's really a lot more manual labor than people realize. It's not glamorous when it's 3 a.m. and I'm under the bleachers pulling cable. I work 175-180 days a year, if you count the travel and the set days. I'll go back to my old class now and everyone wants to ask me about how to get in front of the camera. "How do I become an announcer?" But when you get into television and you start working behind the scenes, you realize that's really where the fun is. A lot of people don't realize how hard it is to make it in front of the camera and how much scrutiny you endure. I feel like the technicians and the behind-the-scenes people, that's where it's at.
Dan Friedell is a freelance writer and producer in Washington, D.C. Find him on Twitter @danfriedell.