ESPN Expands Coverage of Women’s Softball Championship

By John Rice

Tonight, for the first time, ESPN offers coverage of the NCAA Division I Softball Championship from all eight Super Regional sites. This marks ESPN’s most extensive coverage of the championships, with up to 48 games being carried on ESPN, ESPNU, ESPN2, and ESPN360.com.

“Softball has come a long way in the last couple of years,” says coordinating producer Meg Reintjes. “Our ratings seem to grow every year. It’s a great, fast-paced, exciting game.”

All games from Oklahoma City, the site of the Women’s College World Series beginning May 28, will air in high definition. Reintjes says coverage will be similar to past years, with 11 cameras covering the games and two HD varicams deployed for profiles and human interest stories that will be shot throughout the series. ESPN is bringing two Final Cut Pro systems to the site for those segments.

One addition is the use of spider lifts, “traditionally used in our golf coverage,” she says.

Past broadcasts have been plagued with heavy winds common in Oklahoma. The spider lifts, used on the high camera and centerfield camera, will reduce shaking on the images that was apparent in the past.

“We feel very proud of the continuing improvements we make each year, everything from coaches’ interviews in game to miking the umpires,” says senior coordinating producer John Vassallo.

Also returning for this year’s World Series are the announce teams. Pam Ward and two-time Olympic gold medalist Michele Smith comprise one team. Beth Mowins and Olympic gold and silver medalist Jessica Mendoza are joined again by John Kruk. Holly Rowe will be the field reporter for all the games.

Kruk’s participation, which began with last year’s World Series, “was really hatched out of his admiration for the sport,” Vassallo says. “It was an intriguing interest he had, watching our coverage from the Baseball Tonight studio. He started bugging us collectively so much we finally said, ‘if we don’t put this guy on it, he’s never going to leave us alone.’”

Vassallo and Reintjes agree that additions like Kruk’s analysis add a broader perspective to the games, especially for viewers who are not regular fans of women’s softball.

“We’re probably reaching fans [during the Women’s World Series] that may not see any of our regular-season softball,” says Vassallo. “So, let’s broaden our base. Let’s widen the discussion. Let’s get into the basics that the lay person might be interested in. What John was really able to do was to get into some of those subtleties.”

For example, last year Kruk picked up a bat and faced Olympian Michele Smith on the mound.

“At first, he didn’t want to face Michele,” Reintjes says. “Needless to say, he didn’t hit anything.”

The producers are planning a rematch as part of this year’s events.

Reintjes says the NCAA Championship is a priority at ESPN.

“It’s one of the five sports that the NCAA has chosen as one of their key sports to grow, and really one of ours as well,” Reintjes says.

More than 300 universities currently field women’s softball teams.

“If you look at the ratings over the last couple of years, softball rates just as well, and in some years, better than the men’s College World Series.

“Our viewers tell us the game is faster, a little more attractive in terms of time and length of play,” she continues. “We really pride ourselves in captivating the audience by humanizing these athletes. We get to know these women, not just as softball players but as student athletes and human beings. We tell the story from beginning to end.”

Reintjes believes this year’s World Series could be one of the best ever.

“We have three of the best pitchers in softball history in the circle this weekend,” Reintjes explains. Nikki Nemitz from Michigan, Stacey Nelson from Florida, and Danielle Lawrie from Washington are all standouts, especially Lawrie. “She pitched a 5-hour, 21-minute, 22-inning game last weekend. She pitched every pitch and struck out 24 batters.”

While profile pieces throughout the coverage will look for human interest stories about the competitors, “these women all have great personalities [and] these women are athletes,” Reintjes stresses. “We’re going to teach you something about that, as well.”