A formal introduction, some goals and reviewing data from fans

After a strong start, I wanted to hop back in and meet you all. Learn a bit about me, this platform and what my plans are.

Welcome to the Lady Bulldogs’ Report. I’m so grateful to have you on board and following along. This will be a fun venture where my priority is to bring consistent and in-depth coverage.

Be sure to follow along for a ton of written stories, a few audio podcasts and even the occasional discussion forum. Tell your friends to join along, too!

Any questions? You can find me on Twitter (@brandonsudge) or shoot me an email at bsudge@gmail.com.

P.S.: Happy July. The strangest year, 2020, is at its halfway point. How did June fly by in 27 seconds?

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A March 2018 press conference prior to the NCAA women’s basketball tournament in Athens, Ga. (Courtesy of Joshua Jones — Athens Banner-Herald)

My passion for Georgia women’s basketball began with a request to write a random feature story on Caliya Robinson for the Athens Banner-Herald.

I don’t remember what it was about, but I wanted to expand my reach beyond the saturated football beat. I needed to break out of the normal routine of only enhancing my craft inside the communication offices of Butts-Mehre Heritage Hall. At the time, I was in the early stages of showing my work — well, that’s still the case as a 21-year-old reporter who is finishing school — and needed to be unique.

That February 2018 afternoon marked my first of many visits into the second-floor offices inside Stegeman Coliseum. I had no idea what to expect after reaching out to a team spokesperson. I met a staff who welcomed me and my coverage with open arms. Everyone had utmost kindness from those behind-the-scenes like sports’ information director Tray Littlefield (who has gotten hundreds of messages and requests from me since then) and creative services coordinator Ryan Leonard to those you see on the floor each week — every player, coach and head coach Joni Taylor. In fact, Taylor addressed me by name in our first press conference interaction despite barely crossing paths.

Growing up, I had passions for Georgia but didn’t know what those looked like beyond football. That’s because 98 percent of local media coverage is honed in on the gridiron (and men’s basketball), but that’s no fault of the outlets. The metrics draw attention to major sports and everything else has a niche following.

I remember watching the team’s run to the Elite Eight in 2013, especially Andy Landers’ thrilling 61-59 win over Stanford in Spokane, Wash. to advance to the regional final. It was my moment of “Oh hey, other Georgia athletic programs do exist. They’re pretty significant, too!”

Over the years, my perspectives have changed as a journalist and my fandom has taken a backseat. I have wanted to widen my scope, however, in anyway possible. I wanted people to know that there are stories elsewhere. If you’ve followed me, you see my bylines and tales from arenas across campus and I put a lot of work into those. If you’re new to the game, that’s what you’re going to get.

The Lady Bulldogs have become my favorite program to cover. That’s for a multitude of reasons, but it leads me to starting this newsletter and taking control of a platform. It feels awkward using a space to speak about myself as a storyteller, and I probably won’t do it again. But I want readers to know me and what I strive to do here. I am incredibly thankful for those who have subscribed already, and I’m eager to see this base grow.

Meet me

If you’ve seen me around, I’ve been zooming around Stegeman Coliseum in a power wheelchair or scooter. I’m always in pursuit of the next story or person to chat with to create one of the million ideas that are jumbled inside my brain.

If this is your first time meeting me (might be virtually for a bit, shoutout to that new, rad pandemic), the most-obvious thing you’ll notice is a mobility device. I have cerebral palsy, a brain injury suffered at birth to where numerous different things — ranging from ambulation to ADLs (activities of daily life) — are impacted.

Physically, I face challenges as it pertains to work. Some of my biggest struggles come when some media areas within complexes aren’t made to serve handicapped reporters … because, well, there aren’t any other than me. I never see it as a setback, though, and I hope my work shows that. That’s what I try to do, at least, and I never want to have a different level of expectations than my competition because of one diagnosis.

At Georgia, I’ve been grateful to have assistance with that in every facet. There’s accessibility at any event I want to cover and players and coaches make sure I can get around and not miss anything. There were two instances that are hard to forget: Kirby Smart picking my chair up over a ledge to get into the press conference room at Williams-Brice Stadium and former Lady Bulldog Mackenzie Engram — who y’all might hear from soon on this site — pushing me around Bridgestone Arena so we could finish an interview after an SEC tournament win.

The other noticeable thing about my disability is my stutter. It’s one that can get really bad at times, and nothing frustrates me more. It’s the type of thing where you know *exactly* what to say and how to articulate it, but something wants to hold me back. I’m not sure what impacts the changes in my speech impediment, but it’s a battle I’ve had to fight since becoming a journalist. You have to use your voice a lot in this job, so that’s an insecurity I’ve had to overcome.

I might think it gets in the way or people get upset with me for it — that’s me and my wild perceptions — but I’m grateful for reassurance and patience. None of the coaches frequently interrupt me mid-sentence, allow me to finish a thought and are understanding. I’ve also had some people tweet me after seeing me ask questions on television or through a stream. A person will mention the stutter as a sign of strength, and it’s mind blowing because I don’t see it that way. A speech impediment, however, won’t hold me back from trying my best to tell a good story.

A life facing the challenges of cerebral palsy is unique, but I’m not sure I’d want it differently. I’ll never let it get in the way, but instead use it as a lens to see others when telling stories.

So, I’ll keep zooming through the athletics’ complex and handling obstacles to tell stories, cover events and keep programs accountable.

Some goals while covering the Lady Bulldog

A shot of Stegeman Coliseum during a Sunday game against No. 1 South Carolina on January 26, 2020 (Courtesy of Tony Walsh — Georgia Sports Communications)

After the 2017-18 season ended in an NCAA tournament loss to Duke, I went back out to my courtside seat to get one last view at the Stegeman Coliseum floor. I had been covering the team for only about two months, but it was an exhilarating experience. I got to tell some of my first in-depth stories, felt trusted and traveled to the conference tournament.

Taylor said goodbyes to parents and the large party of those in the Fastbreak booster club (Hey, guys, shoutout to you). She walked past the scorer’s table and we had a sit-down conversation. I expressed my gratitude for her kindness and willingness to open up so I could tell stories with my detail-oriented style. I never expected it as the new guy who anyone barely knew, but the response validated my passions in sportswriting.

“Your coverage means a lot to us,” Taylor told me.

It had so much meaning, because I was still learning what true storytelling meant. Whether it be a spotlight piece or a critical analysis, there were people reading it and it had true value. From then on, I’ve gotten great access and have realized that women’s basketball needs a voice.

That’s what I’m here to do. There are stories within the sport, and even beyond the current top dogs — South Carolina, UConn and Oregon to name some of the select few. With that said, there are a few goals I’d like to achieve.

  1. Be objective and transparent: It’s always a good thing when you work with honest coaches. They won’t sugarcoat any shortcomings. If Taylor realizes a weakness, she’ll address it and explain it with context. She’ll also point out a positive if she sees one. That makes this task a bit easier, but should be the No. 1 goal of any journalist serving its reader. I will extract biases, seek the truth and report as I see it. In that same breath, I want to spotlight players, coaches and moments in order to paint the picture of their influence within women’s basketball and the lives of others within their community.

  2. Give a voice to the sport: It might only be within one program, but it can be a start. There are very few of us who consistently cover women’s basketball within the SEC or nationwide. I want to take that step to make these players known. They play a fun brand of basketball, and those longtime followers know it. Why can’t everyone else? The sport is deserving of attention and it’s long overdue. I feel like I’m on that path, too, because other coaches have recognized it. Vic Schaefer, the then-Mississippi State head coach, knew my name at a press conference. We had never met. I suppose he read my content, and that was special to me. I want to continue making women’s basketball a respected thing.

  3. Take the reader where they can’t go: This is the cool thing about writing to a niche audience. You either get to see a lot as a diehard follower or you aren’t too familiar with the program if you’re recently interested in following. I want to take an approach that serves both and allows me to build a base of readers. I’ll touch on recruiting, games, profiles and everything in between. I want nothing, however, to be basic. I might want to take you behind a certain moment, inside the process of preparation for the game or find a unique angle on something you might notice at each game you attend.

(It will be very similar as to what I strived for at The Telegraph, but stories will be written at a higher volume. Here are some of my favorite stories from the previous two seasons):

‘My rockstar’: Why Lady Bulldogs, signees and parents are thankful for Joni Taylor

‘She’s paying her debt’: How Jenna Staiti became a dominant post presence for Lady Bulldogs

How ‘little sister’ Jacie Taylor brings out the best in Lady Bulldogs

‘Superwoman’: Joni Taylor’s display of strength in hours leading up to birth of daughter

  1. Interact: I want this to be an open forum, and that’s what excites me about going independent. I plan to have discussion sessions with paying subscribers and have already heard from a few folks over e-mail. I’m hoping for that to continue to give the reader an experience that’s worth the time and money.

Reviewing data

Before starting this venture, I put out a survey to gauge what Lady Bulldogs fans were feeling. I didn’t know if this would be worth it or what the reader cared about. At the newspaper, we tried to hit a certain engagement level and changed it up when falling short. This newsletter allows for a different type of approach to provide what most of the readers want.

Some of those interests were different than what I had done in the past. I received 62 responses at the time of publication. I appreciated the feedback and some of the criticisms, too. Let’s take a quick look at this data, shall we?

  • Question No. 1: A scale of how interested you were in Lady Bulldogs’ coverage from 1-5. Eighty-three percent of you said you’d read almost every piece of content pertaining to the program so that’s a good start.

  • Question No. 2 focused on consistency in coverage. Forty-three of you (69 percent) gave a four or five on the sliding scale to indicate a greater need for coverage. There are only three people covering the team for print (myself, Chris Starrs at the Athens Banner-Herald and a rotation of reporters for the Red & Black.

  • Question No. 3 asked for each pollster to define consistency and included the options of 1-2 times per week, 3-4 times a week, before and after each game or whenever there’s a development. Over a quarter of you said 3-4 times a week, while nearly half took the by-game approach. I will strive for quality over quantity, but will also have a schedule during the season with the goal of 3-4 times per week. Based on interest, that can change.

  • Questions No. 4 and 5 focused on types of coverage. What do you want more of? What do you want less of? Most of you are calling for more game stories, which interested me because it seems to be of less interest in traditional media. I will plan to write after each game, but provide something different than a recap. In terms of which type of content had lesser interest, coaches’ profiles and alumni updates won the vote. One reader indicated that those type of stories have been available through the program itself, which is a factor to consider.

The rest of the questions pertained to a few housekeeping things and an open response to my approach to coverage. Once more, the feedback was very helpful in getting everything started. I have been blown away by the early response in subscriptions and those on the free e-mail list. I can’t wait to see it grow and for the stories to continue on this new platform.