ESPN’s Championship Week the Ultimate in Teamwork

This time of the year isn’t known as “March Madness” for nothing. College basketball is equally thrilling as is it unpredictable. There in lies the ultimate challenge for ESPN.

Championship Week Presented by DICK’S Sporting Goods is a logistical marvel. The numbers speak for themselves. By the time the Selection Committee fills out their brackets on Sunday evening, ESPN, ABC, ESPN2, ESPNU and ESPN3 will combine to offer exclusive coverage of 86 games, while ESPN3 will simulcast another 51 matchups available in the local markets via syndication.

The trickiest part of it all, even in this rapidly shrinking technological world, is still just a simple fact of geography. With smaller conferences – such as the NEC, Big Sky, and Big South – having the highest seed in each individual tournament game play host, it can leave departments across the ESPN network scrambling to make big changes just days prior to the event.

“We keep an eye on the top seeds and make sure we have a backup plan,” says Chris Farrow, coordinating producer at ESPNU who is working his sixth college basketball season with the network. “Crewing, operations, and all of our facility folks are just living on email waiting for results and to hear from us. We’re just adjusting and going with it.”

The networks will combine to offer coverage of 23 Division I conference title games and action from 25 conferences overall, plus the Division II CIAA tournament.

The schedule includes the entire ACC Tournament with no local market blackouts for the first time. In addition to the ACC, ESPN will televise all 15 games of the Big East Tournament, all 11 of the SEC, nine from the Big 12 and four from the Big Ten.

Five entities split up the Championship Week sites. Farrow works out of Charlotte, taking care of much of ESPNU’s games while teaming with Jay Levy, senior coordinating producer who oversees games on ESPN and ESPN2.

The network also brings in reinforcements from the ESPN Regional offices in Huntington, WV (MAAC, MAC) and uses a pair of “packagers,” or independent production companies, to cover mid-major and small tournaments ranging from the Big West, WAC, WCC, Big Sky to the Atlantic Sun and the Southland.

Farrow notes the many of the smaller conference venues have greatly improved their capabilities to handle an ESPN level production over the years.

“Sure there are some places where things are little trickier and we need to bring in a generator because there isn’t enough power or we’re not sure if there is enough power and we don’t want to take any chances,” he admits, “But we work with them and they are terrific with us. They want to help us do as good of a production as we can.”

ESPN3 Goes Social on Facebook
Last Thursday, ESPN ushered in Championship Week with the launch of a version of its ESPN3 player on Facebook. It marks the first time that live, streaming sports games from an ESPN network are accessible through the social media website.

The Facebook player, which is capable of pushing out streaming video at a bitrate of 1.8 MPS, has been made available to teams and conferences who can display the ESPN3 player on their official fan pages to highlight live games for their fans. Replays of recently concluded events will be available as well.

“That’s the front end work that we had to do but on the back end, we have to do the work just to manage all of these different experiences that are not on our domain, just to ensure things like analytics, monetization, and everything works the same and that everything is up and running,” says Paul Gavalis, senior director, product development and operations at ESPN Digital Media.

For users who receive ESPN3 through an affiliated Internet service provider, the player is able to automatically identify them as an authenticated user. Users whose subscription is tied to their video account will be directed to www.watchespn.com to authenticate.

According to Gavalis, the biggest challenge of developing the Facebook player was maintaining all of the business controls that live inside ESPN3 on its own domain.

“We do the authentication, monetization, and analytics on our domain,” he says. “So we needed to create an experience that took all of the business rules and allowed them to be executed in an I-frame in a video player experience that can sit on someone else’s domain. So it took a lot of the things that lived on our larger experience and put them into a very compact player that we can put onto someone else’s site.”

Multiplatform Coverage
ESPN Buzzer Beater – which is available to Time Warner Cable Sports Tier, Bright House Networks Customers, and Verizon FiOS TV Ultimate HD and Extreme HD customers –will provide live cut-ins, highlights and commentary from numerous Championship Week games from across the ESPN networks on Thursday and Friday.

As is typical of most ESPN programming, the entire Championship Week slate will also be available via WatchESPN, which delivers live access to ESPN, ESPN2, ESPNU, ESPN3 and ESPN Buzzer Beater/Goal Line on computers, smartphones, and tablets to fans who receive ESPN’s linear networks as part of their video subscription from Time Warner Cable, Bright House Networks or Verizon FiOS TV. WatchESPN is available free for Android devices from the Android Market and for Apple devices from the App Store, as well as online via WatchESPN.com.

ESPN 3D will offer coverage of every Big East Conference tournament matchup beginning today.

On to “The Big Dance”
While live broadcast rights are the property of CBS and Turner, that doesn’t mean ESPN won’t have a significantly invested interest in the NCAA Tournament.

The final day of Championship Week – Selection Sunday – will begin at noon with College GameDay Covered by State Farm on ESPN, followed by the ACC Championship (on ESPN) and SEC Championship (on ABC), both at 1 p.m.

Coverage of the men’s NCAA Championship selection will include a three-hour Bracketology Presented by Staples at 3 p.m. and, following the selection announcements, a two-hour edition at 7 p.m., both on ESPN. ESPN will also offer selection coverage during SportsCenter at 6 p.m.

ESPNU will televise an hour-long look at the final moments of some of the best games during Championship Week with Crunch Time: Championship Week Special at 8 p.m., followed by the sixth annual NIT Selection Show at 9 p.m. and a three-hour Tournament Countdown edition of The Experts at 9:30 p.m.