The Future of Sports: Chris Steblay of Uncle Toad’s Media Group On The New Emerging Technologies That Are Disrupting The World Of Sports
Scare yourself! I always get so nervous but just take the leap. We just came off a shoot in Alaska on a remote mountain shooting a snowboarding show and when I had the chance to jump in a helicopter with seasoned snowboard industry folk to go ride some of the world’s biggest mountains, I just trusted it was a once in a lifetime opportunity and went for it. Sometimes a good dose of fear can make you appreciate the jobs we do. That and just surviving makes you appreciate all the time spent on the computer putting these jobs together.
New technologies have changed the way we engage in and watch sports. Sensors, Wearable Tech, Video Assistant Referees (VAR), and Instant Replay, are examples of new technologies that have changed the way we play and watch sports. In this interview series called, “The Future of Sports; New Emerging Technologies That Are Disrupting The World Of Sports,” we are talking to sports leaders, athletes, sports tech experts, and sports equipment companies who can talk about the new technologies that are reshaping the sports world.
As a part of this interview, we had the pleasure of interviewing Chris Steblay.
Chris is an award-winning Senior Producer and Creative Director with award-winning production company Uncle Toad’s Media Group based in Southern California. Their work focuses on live production but also encompasses documentary filmmaking and content production. With a focus on youth culture and action sports, they help brands like Red Bull, Volcom and Vans, among countless others, reach large audiences around the world. Chris grew up at the beach where he still lives and spends much of his time in the ocean. His work has brought him around the world, producing TV programs on remote Fiji Islands to the top of the Tordrillo Mountains on a remote Alaskan range.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
Growing up I was always surrounded by cameras. My dad worked (and still does) running film labs and processing film so cameras and the love for capturing images ran deep for me. During that time, video editing became so much more accessible (I still remember my first iMac computer with the first edition of iMovie) so I knew I wanted to pursue filmmaking. I went on to do so at UC Santa Cruz, and from there I used my talents running around the world with friends who were professional surfers. Soon enough I was making feature length surf films and getting heavily invested in capturing action sports. This all coincided with the birth of webcasting and over the course of the next few decades I found myself producing the largest action sports broadcasts in the world with our company, Uncle Toad’s.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
There are so many things that stand out to me, from broad stroke things like always adapting and learning how professional broadcasting works to individual experiences like producing live TV from a panga boat during a 50-foot surf in Fiji. This line of work takes a blend of professional know-how with a little bit of psychotic adventurism.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
I think what makes us successful at Uncle Toad’s is our creed that we can “take traditional tools to untraditional places.” This doesn’t always mean a location, but how we can tell a story through the live broadcasting format.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
There have been so many supporters of my journey but none bigger than my business partner Jordan Velarde who has always given me the opportunity to grow with each of our projects. Jordan always let me define my role within Uncle Toad’s and without his willingness to let me run with ideas and to take chances, we wouldn’t be where we are today.
Is there a particular book, film, or podcast that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
It’s funny because I find it so hard to correlate my personal education with my professional one, but I’ve come to realize I have an insatiable appetite for learning new things, which often has nothing to do with production but more to do with storytelling. Early on, the podcasts Radiolab and This American Life really inspired me as a storyteller. Today I binge on Malcolm Gladwell’s books as well as his amazing podcast, Revisionist History. I truly believe in the power of telling stories well and how we can empathize with the world around us. I think it’s important to keep these tools available in all aspects of our work to help us dive deeper than just setting cameras up.
You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?
I was raised in a manner which I could choose to do and be whoever I wanted as long as I put in 100%. I think today more than any time in our history there have been more avenues to be successful and if you give your best effort, you will be recognized. It may be cliché, but it’s only because there’s a ring of truth.
A second trait that I attribute to my growth has been the never-ending goal of bettering my work. I always complete projects extremely proud of the work we have done collectively, but then immediately get to work on what we can do better on the next one. It’s a never-ending process of learning and applying those learnings.
Finally, and maybe most importantly, is to have fun. If you don’t enjoy the process, then what’s the point? At Uncle Toad’s I don’t have co-workers. I have a second family. We all make the most of our time together and I think if you ask anyone who has worked with us this might be the one thing that makes the stressful world of production worth it.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
On a professional level we strive to have a well-rounded crew. the more perspectives we can bring to the table, the better, whether it be race, gender or sexuality. We also work very hard to offset our waste which can be challenging on productions where you have hundreds of people flying from around the world. It’s something that we take seriously and will always aim to be better for the environment.
On a more personal level, I always use my success to better my immediate world, from championing medical causes to promoting social good. I find my role here on earth to leave it better than I came into it, not just for me but everyone. My fiancé and I find ourselves looking for ways to better our community all the time and try to “put our money where our mouth is” so to say.
Ok wonderful. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. Can you tell us about the sports technologies that most excite you at the moment? Can you explain why you are passionate about it?
The crazy thing about production today is that it’s being influenced more than ever by DIY creators. This is really making the production world move a million miles an hour. For me I see cinema style live productions becoming the next big thing. From cameras to storytelling, I think we will see tools used on films becoming more intertwined in live production. Also on my radar are full sensor digital cinema cameras replacing our traditional camera chains and new smaller packages being put into new tools like racing drones (we just created the world’s first live follow cameras using small FPV drones).
How do you think this might change the world of sports?
I think we’re going to see a new perspective of coverage that will really set the top echelon of coverage apart. I believe our main duty is to the viewer, and we need to offer them something truly unique and entertaining to capture their attention.
Keeping “Black Mirror” in mind, can you see any potential drawbacks about this technology that people should think more deeply about?
I love Black Mirror! I think technology can be creepy and scary but tend to have a more optimistic view on the future of this space. Each generation will struggle with how to cope with new untested technologies. I think social media is a good example of where there is concern on how we can control the ebb and flow of content. It’s a tightrope with no clear answer on the best way to make it better for people. The optimist in me thinks it’s nothing new for humans though; the same conversations were happening when the printing press was invented, but maybe just on a larger scale.
What are the 3 things that concern you about the sports industry today? Can you explain? What can be done to address or correct those concerns?
Firstly, the over-saturation of media today. There are so many things out there segmenting audiences it’s hard to navigate what a client might consider a success. Twenty years ago, no one would have guessed the large viewership of people playing video games, or the decline in viewership for major events like the Olympics. The landscape isn’t changing so much as it is growing. Nowadays you can’t just have the big broadcast, you need to be on TikTok and many other platforms. And the tricky part with these new platforms is that you can’t just show up, the content needs to happen organically and with an authentic voice. Rarely today can you buy your way rather than earn your way.
The second thing is authenticity. This is key in all our work at Uncle Toad’s. Never pretend you know what you don’t. This is where big sports productions can fail in action sports. You can’t take a team with no background in, let’s say skateboarding, and expect them to make something a skateboarder will watch. They will immediately see you are clueless about the culture. I think it’s mission critical we include authentic voices in all of our projects, in front or behind the camera.
Third, I would say tried and true formats don’t last if they used to. What worked last year might not work this year. Things are constantly evolving, and we need to make sure we are at the forefront of that evolution. I much rather take the risks to introduce something new than to be late to the game.
Fantastic. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
1. It’s easier to judge someone else’s work than to make your own, be humble.
2. Success takes time, earn your seat at the table and take each opportunity as just that opportunity.
3. Listen and take criticism. It can be unpleasant but being proved wrong can open your mind to new ways of approaching things.
4. Put in the work for who or where you want to be vs. where you are. A bit of “faking it till you make it” is never a bad thing as long as you are learning and taking chances.
5. Scare yourself! I always get so nervous but just take the leap. We just came off a shoot in Alaska on a remote mountain shooting a snowboarding show and when I had the chance to jump in a helicopter with seasoned snowboard industry folk to go ride some of the world’s biggest mountains, I just trusted it was a once in a lifetime opportunity and went for it. Sometimes a good dose of fear can make you appreciate the jobs we do. That and just surviving makes you appreciate all the time spent on the computer putting these jobs together.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
I think the world could use a good dose of compassion. Be open to other people’s perspectives. Fight the good fight and remember that kindness and compassion are much stronger than negative emotions. Seems like life today is a team sport and everyone is forgetting we’re all on the same team.
We are very blessed that very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them :-)
Hands down, John Stewart. He is so inspirational about how he uses his talent in comedy for the betterment of people. I grew up loving his shows and look forward to his new projects coming out. I think he speaks so well to my generation who do not always understand the world around them and can’t help but laugh through it all. It really motivated me to want to find ways to incorporate positive messaging into my work.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
Our website, www.uncletoads.com, has a ton of our work displayed, all of which I have had an intimate relationship with. Currently we are working on the second year of The Natural Selection Tour which is an amazing backcountry snowboarding event created by the world’s most respected snowboarder, Travis Rice. Our first show is the end of January and in the next couple of months they will be announcing a ton of new things. It’s a super ambitious project with a lot of tech paired with a deep goal of education of our natural environment. Last winter was its first year and it made shock waves in the snowboarding world.
Thank you so much for these excellent stories and insights. We wish you continued success on your great work!
Thank you for the opportunity to share a bit about our work and let me share some deeper things beyond just production. At the end of the day the world is so much bigger than just live sports!