In Crowded Sports TV Market, ESPN’s College World Series Is a Marathon, Not a Sprint

For most college baseball fans, the 2010 edition of the College World Series is a bittersweet pill to swallow. This year’s Series will be the last played in Omaha’s storied Rosenblatt Stadium, home to the CWS since 1950;  college baseball’s prized gem will shift to the brand-new TD Ameritrade Park in downtown Omaha next year. But ESPN, now in its 31st consecutive year carrying the CWS, plans to send Rosenblatt out in style with a host of vignettes and special features looking back at the venue’s abundant history.

“We’ve prepared a lot of Farewell to Rosenblatt stuff,” says ESPN’s Tom McNeeley, now in his 21st year at the CWS and second as coordinating producer. “We’ve been discussing it since before last year, so we’re very well prepared.”

ESPN’s preproduced Rosenblatt content includes vignettes focused on the greatest Rosenblatt moments, “My Stadium” features with fans and Omaha residents reliving Rosenblatt memories, “Omaha to Bigs” segments with MLB players discussing their CWS experiences. McNeeley estimates that his crew will have about 10 “My Stadium” features and 10 “Omaha to Bigs” features ready for the opener on Saturday, as well as lots of footage shot at Rosenblatt during the offseason.

“With the closing of Rosenblatt, we decided during the offseason to go to Omaha with a camera crew and shoot HD scenic shots in the stadium in the middle of the winter,” says McNeeley. “To see the video of Rosenblatt Stadium in the middle of the winter with icicles and snow all over — it looks almost like dormant.”

The Crew and the Gear
ESPN has rolled out two NEP HD mobile units and a total of 18 cameras for the 12-day, potentially 17-game event. The production will deploy two Robocams in each dugout, two jib cameras, two roaming RF cameras, and one super-slo-mo unit.

“There’s more equipment on this event than there is on one of our Wednesday Night Baseball games,” says McNeeley. “I think the firepower that we have at the College World Series would surprise a lot of people that work in Major League Baseball.”

In addition to a horde of equipment, ESPN has veteran CWS director Scott Johnson at its disposal. Johnson has worked on the College World Series in some capacity since 1987 and has served as lead director since 1991. He is joined in the truck by Scott Matthews, a regular for ESPN’s Monday Night Baseball and Little League World Series coverage and in his fourth year as lead producer of the CWS.

“We’re very lucky to have Scott Johnson,” says McNeeley. “He’s been involved with CWS in one way or another since the late ’80s. He loves it; it’s his favorite event that he does all year. Besides Scott, a lot of our camera guys and tech crew have been doing this for 20 years. They just don’t want to give it up.”

How Far We’ve Come
The College World Series’ exposure has grown exponentially during its three-plus decades on ESPN. Once a small-market event for niche sports fans, it is now one of the most hyped events on the college sports calendar, and much of the credit goes to ESPN.

“I go as far back as 1990 when I was on my first College World Series as an associate producer,” says McNeeley. “I’ve got to see it develop through the years, and it’s come a very long way.”

Greg Weitekamp, director of broadcasting for NCAA, echoes those sentiments: “The College World Series has grown dramatically for us. ESPN deserves a lot of credit for helping us to grow that event to what it is today. When they came along in the early ’90s and televised every game, it changed everything. From a national perspective, ESPN has done more for the growth of the College World Series than most of us give them credit for.”

Resources Spread Thin
ESPN’s biggest concern for the 2010 NCAA Baseball Championship may be its own success. With the network’s resources already spread thin during a busy summer that includes the FIFA World Cup, NBA Finals, Wimbledon, and the U.S. Open, the College World Series was unable to institute the new graphics system used for ESPN’s MLB coverage.

“Our goal was to use the MLB graphic dashboard look, but our NBA Finals and World Cup coverage took precedent, so we were forced to remain with our graphics look that we had last year for one more season.”

However, while the crowded sports scene may present resource issues, McNeeley is confident that the College World Series will continue to grab the attention (and ratings) of sports fans across the country.

“Usually, we’re going on concurrent with the NBA Finals, but the CWS is starting a week later this year, so that will help us. There is a lot going on, but we know that we are a marathon, not a sprint. We don’t get concerned if maybe the ratings aren’t as strong on the first day or something. It might take time for stories to develop, and that’s how we approach it. We don’t get too hung up and worry about things. We just let it happen; judging, from last year, the audience will come.”