CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (AP) Standing in a small, sterile booth high above the turf at Memorial Stadium, David He’s voice reaches a near-shout any time Illinois‘ football team makes a big play against Kent State.
He is a Chinese student at the University of Illinois, and with partner Bruce Lu, part of a new and very experimental online Mandarin Chinese-language broadcast team for Illini football.
They are, best as anyone on campus can tell, the only Chinese-language college football broadcasters in the country. And they’re a small piece of the University of Illinois’ effort to reach a large segment of their student population and perhaps help crack a problem at colleges around the country: how to get students back into football stadiums on Saturdays.
But the immediate plan is much more modest.
”I can’t state this enough about how elementary this is going to be,” said Mike Waddell, the Illinois senior associate director of athletics who came up with the idea. ”Their goal is to be able to communicate what is going on: Why are they running in this situation? Why are they passing in this situation? Basic stuff.”
Student attendance across college football has been dropping in recent years, and a look at nearly-empty student section at Illinois every week last season indicated the problem might be particularly acute in Champaign.
The campus has more than 10,000 international students, almost a quarter of the total enrollment of 44,000. This fall, 5,295 of those students are from China.
With the combination of ”Football 101” events for international students and the new Chinese-language broadcasts, the school hopes to start getting more of those students to games.
While foreign-language broadcasts of pro sports are nothing new and other schools such as Texas and Texas A&M broadcast football in Spanish, Joe Ferreira of Learfield Sports isn’t aware of anyone doing games in Chinese. Learfield is the Texas-based company that oversees broadcasts and multimedia content for Illinois and about 100 other schools.
When Illinois approached Learfield, he said, ”Our first reaction was, `That’s odd, but interesting.”’
Lu says the Chinese students he knows are a solid potential market, for football and other sports.
”They are really big sports fans,” said, Lu, who became a football fan while spending a year as a high school exchange student in Kansas City, Missouri. ”The NBA is the big thing.”
Neither Lu nor He, before this month, had ever broadcast a game of any kind, and neither did much formally to prepare.
”I am watching the Chinese broadcasting of the Super Bowl of a few years back,” Lu said a few days before Illinois’ opener against Kent State.
There are Chinese words for some football terminology. Da zhen is touchdown, for instance. But in other cases there aren’t, leaving it to Lu and He to improvise. A touchback, for now, is simply a touchback, Lu said.
On the first game day, there was a comfortable feel in the broadcast booth, particularly for He.
The sports management major stood while Lu sat, his voice rising sharply when the action on the field below picked up. His tone sounds like a fan, the fan he became when he was converted by a roommate who insisted he needed to see a game.
”That’s what I do when I watch (football),” He said, laughing. ”I will scream.”
And it’s no accident that he’s comfortable, even if he’s never called a game before. He says he’s spoken regularly as an aspiring e-commerce entrepreneur.
”I know how to warm up the crowd,” he said.
The crowd listening online numbers about 50 based on the feedback Lu and He are getting on WeChat, a Chinese-language social media site where they’ve set up a group for listeners. They both occasionally glance down at brief comments and questions scrolling on the computer monitor that sits in front of Lu as they work.
The university, Waddell said, isn’t quite sure what to expect.
”I’m not looking for killer numbers,” he said, noting he has a budget of about $300 a game, $1,800 in all for the six home games that will be broadcast. ”There’s no expectation for this other than we just wanted to try to do something different.”
But there’s also the tie that sports can provide to students after they leave, Waddell acknowledges.
”There’s a lot of opportunity with the crossover between the alums that we have, people over in China. This is wide open and untouched,” Waddell said.
And basketball and baseball might be up next.
Listen online: http://fightingillini.com/watch/?Live=84