When Sam Baldwin was 12, he had aspirations of being on “Saturday Night Live.”
He fueled those dreams by videotaping comedy sketches with his friends.
Though Baldwin never made it to the famed Studio 8H where the late-night sketch-comedy show airs in New York, he has spent plenty of time around cameras since then for different reasons.
For the past decade, Baldwin has worked on more than a thousand live sports broadcasts, either as a camera operator, audio mixer or in other crew positions.
That freelance experience dovetails nicely with his work as a media designer with the Center for Academic Innovation as well as his lifelong passion for sports.
“I played basketball, soccer, ran track and play ultimate frisbee, so I have a history in sports and a history in video production,” he said.
Baldwin nurtured his interest in sports video production while pursuing a degree in visual communication technology at Bowling Green State University. He did two internships with a local sports network in Toledo called Buckeye Cable Sports Network, and he set a goal of doing his third and final internship with ESPN.
“It was a lengthy interview process (with ESPN) that was scary. I had never gone through something that rigorous,” he said. “I got it, which was crazy because they told me at the time there were at least 90,000 applicants for the internship program. So they basically tell you that you won the lottery.”
While at ESPN, he operated the camera for several of the station’s flagship programs, such as “Baseball Tonight” and “SportsCenter.”
After he graduated, the network offered him a position as a media librarian, which entailed locating and delivering to producers film from a vast warehouse.
“This warehouse was gigantic. It was so big we had to ride these gigantic tricycles around because it took so long to gather the media producers were requesting,” he said.
He spent a year in that job before the pull of being behind the camera was too much to ignore. He took a job at Ball State University producing games for broadcast on ESPN3 after the network purchased the rights to all Mid-American Conference sports broadcasts.
Baldwin also began freelancing then, working the camera for college football games for Butler, Purdue, Notre Dame and Indiana universities.
After stints at a nonprofit in Indianapolis and a marketing group in Toledo, he came to the Center for Academic Innovation 15 months ago. His team of 10 creates media that accompanies academic courses, whether they be massive open online courses, online degree programs or teachouts on meaningful current topics.
He parlayed his sports video production experience into opportunities to film games for Michigan Athletics, all while still pursuing an active freelance schedule.
Baldwin said the most important skill to capturing a live sporting event is anticipation.
“There are the fine motor skills from operating a camera — the tilt, zoom, pan, focus. You’re operating multiple things at the same time. Anybody can learn that,” he said. “The hardest part is knowing what’s going to happen next and being ready for it, because if you’re not anticipating it, you’re going to miss it.”
He has filmed about every sport one can imagine but says his favorite is basketball, which also is his favorite to play.
“You’re so close to the action, you feel like you’re part of the game,” he said. “Sometimes when you’re running a camera underneath the basket, the ball hits you, the guys roll into you. You’re there, you’re involved.”
Being involved can also mean being injured, but while he has been run over by basketball players while filming, he’s not been seriously hurt.
The same cannot be said for filming softball.
“I’ve been hit by softballs before,” he said. “One time I took one to the side of the face. I don’t even remember if it was from my game, it might have been from a field next to us. Another time I took a ball to the camera lens. It was crazy because I was following it so perfectly that it went right into the lens.”
While he primarily works on college and semi-professional sports, he said he expects opportunities to arise to film professional sporting events in Detroit, particularly on days when the Tigers, Pistons and Red Wings are all in action. He said he anticipates this summer to be slow, but once fall and winter roll around, it’s game on.
Baldwin said his ultimate goal is to work the Olympics.
“That would be awesome. I can’t think of a better one to do,” he said. “I don’t have too high of hopes for that, but you never know.”
In addition to his video production skills, Baldwin also is a certified drone operator and owns one that he flies recreationally. He’s been certified since 2017 and renews the certification every two years.
While flying a drone might seem similar to operating a camera, except with a remote control, Baldwin said the two skillsets are not related.
“When you’re operating a camera in sports, you’re physically moving the camera,” he said. “With a drone, you’re using a remote control. If anything, my video game addiction prepared me for drone flying more than my sports broadcast skills.”