ESPN’s Championship Week Outgrows Its Week

By Carolyn Braff

The NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament is known for its madness, but the 10 days preceding the tournament are even crazier. With every team in 31 conferences nationwide vying for its conference championship — which comes with a guaranteed ticket to the Big Dance — every game is critical, and this year, ESPN is putting more games on-air than ever.

“It’s a wild week for us, without question,” explains Burke Magnus, SVP of college sports programming for ESPN. “And it’s not a week anymore. It’s 10 days, almost two weeks, and it ends up being a condensed version of how we approach the whole season.”

Between March 5 and 15, ESPN will air 152 men’s and women’s conference tournament games across ESPN, ESPN2, ESPNU, and ESPN360.com. Those 152 games are the most ever broadcast during championship week and include the most women’s games and the most games in HD, thanks to the launch of ESPNU HD last summer. So how does ESPN approach this daunting mountain of content? The same way the network approaches any event.

“We always have dozens of games that are being offered up to fans coast to coast from conferences big and small,” Magnus explains. “This just happens to be ultra-condensed into 10 days.”

With an average of 15 games broadcast per day during Championship Week, production coordination can be a nightmare. The sheer logistics of making sure production personnel are in the right place at the right time with the right equipment is complex enough, without tossing this week’s nor’easter snowstorm into the mix. Add to that the programming challenge of simply not knowing who will win which game, and the logistics of this “week” suddenly require 24-hour maintenance.

“This amount of programming requires our people to work pretty much around the clock, when you factor in time-zone differences,” Magnus explains. “We have to update the company on results and moving the teams around, in addition to the simple logistics of trucks, talent, flights, weather.”

Moving teams around is one thing; moving games around is quite another. The Big 12 Conference put in a request several years ago to move its conference championship game from Sunday night to Saturday, and this year that request is being accommodated.

“It’s their tournament,” Magnus says. “It’s not like we controlled that decision, but it took a year or two logistically for that to clear the way on our networks because we had other commitments that we had to move around as well.”

One of those commitments is the SEC conference semifinals, which will now air on ESPN2 in the Saturday timeslot vacated by the Big 12’s moving its semifinals from Saturday to Friday.

With the launch of ESPNU HD, ESPN now has three HD networks to work with, so this year’s Championship Week will feature more high-definition programming than ever before.

“We had pretty much tapped out our ability to add any additional content on ESPN and ESPN2 in terms of games from Championship Week, but, when we got access to ESPNU, that created a whole other 24 hours on each day of Championship Week for us to program,” Magnus says. “We’ve looked to conferences where we hadn’t been able to do all of their games, to conferences where we hadn’t been able to do any of their games, and it really broadened the depth and reach of Championship Week into a lot of leagues that needed the exposure.”

More than 150 games in 10 days is enough programming to give any executive a headache, but, for Magnus, the prospect of programming games every day all day, as Championship Week essentially does, brings far more excitement than anxiety.

“What keeps me up at night is just the mundane: that we lose power, that a truck doesn’t get there, or that there’s a blizzard that keeps our talent from getting in,” Magnus says. “But we have the best folks in the business on the production side, and they’ve always been able to figure it out. Between all of our networks and all of our platforms, we really make it easy for folks to experience what makes college basketball so special, which is these teams all fighting to get to one place: the tournament.”

ESPNU tips off ESPN’s Championship Week coverage with the men’s Big South Conference semifinals on Thursday March 5. From there, it’s a furious race to the finish on Selection Sunday, March 15.