Meet award-winning ESPN Associate Producer Quinton Zielke, a 2019 alumnus of the Department of Media’s Sports Link program.

While Quinton is from Aurora, Illinois, coming to Ball State and being a sports production major uniquely prepared him to “come to the biggest sports media entity in the world and succeed and thrive at a high level from day one.”

Quinton Ziekle

He was heavily involved and graduated with an impressive portfolio, already decorated with prestigious professional awards.

And within less than a year and a half, he was nominated for his first Emmy Award post-graduation. Today, he works on well-known programs like ESPN’s College Gameday, but he still finds himself impressed by the technology, equipment, and learning opportunities that current Sports Link students have access to.

“It’s exploded since I graduated, and I thought it was big when I was here,” Quinton said after a recent visit to speak with current students. “It has just taken off, and it’s crazy to see how far it’s come and how much it has continued to grow. The cameras and equipment and everything — I mean, I’m jealous!”

Quinton sat down with the CCIM Outreach team to discuss his passion for sports, time at Ball State, and journey accomplishing his dream: working at ESPN.

What first sparked your love for covering sports?

I have a picture from when I was seven or eight years old where I’m dressed up as a Sports Center anchor — I knew I wanted to work in sports. I wanted to work at ESPN.

My high school, Waubonsie Valley High School, had a production program where we did a weekly TV show which I edited and wrote things for. I was on camera a few times to host our episodes too, so that’s mainly what I did in high school and how I continued on that trajectory. Then, in my junior year, I started looking at a bunch of different journalism schools throughout the country. 

Why did you choose Ball State?

We came to Muncie just to visit the school and see the opportunities Ball State presented, and the night before I visited Ball State, I told my mom, “Yeah, there’s absolutely no chance I’m going here.” But the next day we had a tour scheduled and a meeting with the Department Chair at the time to discuss what the program would offer.

Quinton Zielke operates a camera on Ball State's Football Field

The Department Chair said, “Well, you’re super interested in sports — we have this program called Sports Link,” and I had no clue about it at the time. I had no idea of what it had to offer or how much I would come to love this program.

When we went over to visit Sports Link, I met a couple people that were in the program at the time like Mick Tidrow, who calls Ball State athletic events now, and JC Obringer, who is an associate director with me at ESPN in Bristol.

How did the ability to work in a hands-on setting in college help you get to where you are today?

I think that ultimately gave me the chance to not only learn and grow in what I actually love to do day in and day out, but it presented me with so many different opportunities. It provided me with experiences that people were getting three, four, five years into their career at ESPN, and I came into ESPN with that experience already under my belt.

I had the opportunities to tell my own feature stories, do these cool montages, and produce these intro shoots throughout my entire collegiate career. Even all the little logistical things like frame rates and different types of videos — that’s in our basic 101 video classes at Ball State.

What are some things that you achieved while at Ball State or in your professional career so far that you’re proud of?

Quinton Zielke

In my junior year, I worked as one of the main producers on our all-access basketball show, which ended up winning at least one Emmy, which is pretty cool. And that was a new responsibility for me, just overseeing and managing people, managing the other students that I was working with and also being the one person that pieced it all together and made sure everything was going well with the project.

Since being at ESPN, I’ve won three professional Emmys, which is really cool. I think I got my first one in May of 2021. It was cool to say, “I’ve been in the industry for not even a year and a half and I have my first Emmy as a professional, what do I even do with this?” People will work their whole lives for this opportunity, and I’m receiving this one year out — it was crazy, and I’m fortunate that I have been able to work with some incredibly talented people that I could kind of ride their coattails and get an Emmy at that point in my career.

You’ve made a point to come back, visit the program, and talk with students. Why do you think that’s important for alumni to do?

It’s something tangible for these students to look up to and hold on to. They realize, “Hey, that can be me in one year, two years,” or whenever that step may be for that person. Especially with me being such a young alumnus who got to ESPN within months after graduating.

They’re 22, I’m 26, so I’m not that far removed from what they’re going through and what they’re experiencing, so being able to have somebody relate to you professionally and be in the industry they’re in, that will affect them and help them moving forward. It’s invaluable, in my opinion, for a college student to see that what they’re doing now is actually going to make a difference when they’re looking to get a professional job. Showing up for them is so important.

It really hasn’t been that long since you graduated. How did you go about getting a job with ESPN so quickly out of college?

Graduating in three years was always my plan, and I remember approaching Chris Taylor, Associate Lecturer in the Department of Media and Senior Director of Sports Production, about that in Fall of 2018. After that, he started sending me some internship opportunities for Spring 2019.

Ultimately, I applied to three at ESPN: one of them was in Bristol, Connecticut, and then two were in Charlotte. One was on the digital side of ESPN, and then the other were on the production side in Charlotte.

So that was ultimately how I got my foot in the door, Chris Taylor passed along the internship opportunities, I ended up applying, and then just kind of struck gold.

Quinton Zielke

[As an intern in Charlotte, I did] a lot of cutting highlights for the SEC — all the men’s and women’s college basketball games, softball, all those types of things. I went back to school for my last semester after that internship to finish up my degree, but I had made connections to the point where I could just reach out to them and say “Hey, whenever you guys post a job, I would love to apply.”

Now that you’re working as an associate producer in Bristol, what do typical days at work look like?

Oftentimes on Monday morning we’ll have our ideas meeting where we pitch ideas with all of our talent, so like Kirk Herbstreit, Rece Davis — all the talent that are on College Game Day get on this meeting with all of us PAs, CAs, APs, producers, it’s really cool. After that, I have a features meeting typically, which is like us producers who work more on the feature side and storytelling side of things. We all pitch typically three to five ideas each week, and then we’ll decide what we want to do that week.

Sunday and Tuesdays are usually my off days if I’m not traveling, and then Wednesday is the one day that everybody who works on the show is actually in Bristol before they all travel out if they’re going to work on site, so we have that production meeting to basically go through the rundown and see what everyone is assigned, what we’re looking to get out of the show, and all that stuff.

And then from there, we all get our assignments. Typically for me, because I’m doing more of a storytelling thing, I’ll start doing prep and then it depends on when I’m scheduled with an editor, but I’ll usually edit on Thursday and Friday from like 8 a.m. until midnight.

On Saturday mornings, I’m in our kind of control room in charge of clipping off video of players warming up. So, when there are games at noon, you’re watching Game Day at 11:30, and when they cut to, you know, the Ball State vs. Toledo game and you see the quarterback warming up — it was my job to clip that off.

When I’m traveling, I’ll usually still have the Monday meetings, but I book my travel, and once I get to the site I work with my crew, make sure they’re all scheduled, work with athletic departments, and usually then the interviews happen Tuesday morning if we’re lucky. If it’s Wednesday, it gets to be a little bit of a tight turn around, but usually it’s like Tuesday morning or so that we shoot the interviews, meet the athletes, shoot whatever B-roll we need for the piece, and then I will usually travel home that night and sometimes script out the piece on the plane.

What advice do you have for students who are looking to go into this field?

One thing that Chris always asked me to answer or tell his students about — and I don’t know what I did in college, but Chris has expressed how it made him look up to me in a sense because I guess I prioritized the importance of a work-life balance when I could. And even now, it is so essential in most industries obviously, but especially in the sports industry. It’s just so grueling, the media and journalism industry as a whole, and it’s so important to take time to yourself to find things that you love outside of what we do and outside of television, media, sports, your phone, social media — all that stuff. You just need an escape; everybody needs an escape.

For me, I love hiking. I love going out to the mountains and just escaping, putting my phone on airplane mode and going into the woods for miles. It’s so important for students, and people who are looking to take the next step in their careers to find something that they love both work-wise and outside of work. Yes, we have the pleasure of working in sports and to the point where I never feel like what I’m doing is an actual job. I love what I do so much, but in football season, I work 65 hours a week at least. And that doesn’t even include the travel and everything that goes on top of that. It’s a grind and it’s worth it because I have this incredible opportunity to do what I love to do, but also because I take the time to reset and relax and find an outlet outside of what I do to really reset my life.

Do you have any advice for freshmen at Ball State?

I think my biggest advice and something that I’ve learned just getting where I’ve gotten to is just never set the limit on yourself. Never put a limit on what you can do. I applied to internships that I thought I had no business getting. No reason why my name would come back as somebody that they should interview even or then after an interview no reason that they should actually hire me.

Quinton Ziekle

It’s because I just put myself out there and I didn’t realize at the time what I’m sure many students at Ball State don’t realize: their experiences are so much greater and bigger than others in this field, and that’s why people want to interview them, that’s why people want to hire them is because they know that. What ESPN and Ball State are producing is people who are ahead of everybody else in the industry, so don’t limit what you think your capabilities are from. Don’t let that stop you from applying to whatever job you feel is best for you or whatever you want to do because there’s truly no limit to how far ahead students at Ball State are.

Do you have anything else you’d like to add?

I think the final thing I just wanted to reiterate is my gratitude for Sports Link. I don’t know where I would be without having met Chris Taylor and Alex Kartman, Associate Lecturer in the Department of Media and Director of Sports Production, and the guys who run Sports Link because there are so many opportunities that the program gifted me that have led into such a successful career and a successful life post-college. I feel forever indebted to the program and the opportunities that Ball State offered me. I’m just so grateful.