ESPN’s Women’s Basketball Championship Coverage Peaks With Showdown in Denver

This Sunday, ESPN will continue its exclusive coverage of the NCAA Division I Women’s Basketball Championship when all four No. 1 seeds meet in Denver for the Final Four. Notre Dame, hoping to return to the Championship Game for the second consecutive year, will tip off against perennial powerhouse Connecticut at 6:30 p.m. ET; Stanford will attempt to derail tournament-favorite Baylor at 9 p.m. Throughout the weekend, ESPN and ESPN3 will provide full studio and game coverage as these teams vie to play for the championship on Tuesday night.

Beginning March 17, ESPN has provided exclusive coverage of the tournament across ESPN, ESPN2, ESPNU, ESPN3, and ESPN Full Court. The first two rounds — 48 games in 16 venues — were presented on ESPN2. The regional semifinals, played at four sites, were broadcast nationally on ESPN and ESPN2. All games are simulcast on ESPN3.

“We were really pleased with the production in the first and second rounds, as well as the regionals,” says Tina Thornton, senior coordinating producer of the Women’s Basketball Championship for ESPN. “We had great cooperation with each of the sites we went to, and especially when you’re looking at the first and second round when you have 16 different sites and you’re trying to create consistency across the board with 16 different crews, I thought they did a terrific job.”

At each of the 16 first- and second-round sites, ESPN deployed an HD mobile unit with five cameras, as well as an ENG camera. An additional camera was added for the Sweet Sixteen and Elite Eight rounds.

Turning ‘Whip-Around’ Coverage Into an Art
In order to broadcast 48 games from 16 sites on one channel, Thornton’s approach to first- and second-round coverage combines experience, creativity, experience, a bit of spontaneity, and its very own vocabulary.

On any given day of the first two rounds, four feeds from the four sites hosting games returned to a control room in Bristol, CT. Those four feeds were market-protected.

“Let’s say South Carolina is playing UConn,” explains Thornton. “The market-protect for that [game] might be a small portion of the map; for example, it might be the state of South Carolina and the state of Connecticut. That particular game is going to be seen in its entirety in those two states or in [those] particular markets.”

While the four games can comprise up to eight states/markets, the majority of the country (Thornton estimates 90%-92%) will not fall within these market-protected regions. Thus, the control room features a fifth feed dedicated to the national broadcast.

The national feed begins with what ESPN’s programming department determines to be the game with the most compelling storyline or competitive matchup. Once the games have started, Thornton’s team can move the audience to any of the remaining three games in order to provide the national audience the best game at any given time. That’s when the terminology comes in handy.

An “update” is self-explanatory: Thornton’s team simply provides an update from each of the regions without switching the feed. In a “turnstile,” the national market is taken to each feed for a quick glimpse at each game. However, the studio analysts maintain control throughout, commenting on the games rather than deferring to the on-site announcers. If one game proves more compelling than one broadcast on the national feed, Thornton executes a “game switch,” moving the national audience to another site and staying there.

“We’ve come up with all of this language to be able to get people around the country in different ways,” says Thornton, “but what’s great about our coverage as well is, we’ve got this national feed and we’ve got all these market-protected feeds but, once again, everybody could see all of those games on ESPN3.com or on Watch ESPN.”

Full-Court Coverage in Denver
ESPN is ramping up its coverage this weekend at the Pepsi Center in Denver, with plans to deploy 21 game cameras and NEP’s SS25 with its A, B, and D units. An additional four cameras will cover the in-arena set.

The 21-camera complement includes four POV cameras, one in the venue’s entryway and one in each of the three tunnels leading to the court; robotic cameras placed in the overhead scoreboard, below each rim, and in the baselines; an RF Steadicam; a jib; and two super-slo-mo cameras.

New to the production complement this year is the NAC Image Technology High-Motion II, a super-slow-motion camera based on three-chip technology, which produces great light sensitivity and flicker reduction.

“It can be cut into the show live and look exactly like all of our other cameras, but, at the same time, it’s recording really slow-motion replays,” says Thornton of the new camera. “Another plus for the camera is that, while most super-slo-mos weigh between 34 and 38 lbs., this camera is only 14 lbs., so it’s a huge advantage when we’re using it as a handheld camera.”

In addition, ESPN will use the on-court virtual shot clock that debuted during the network’s Men’s Basketball Championship Week. And the lead referee will wear a microphone during each Final Four game and the Championship, which will be incorporated into the telecasts.

“We cover this event like we do any other big event at ESPN,” says Thornton. “It’s an important event to us, and we blow it out when we get [to the Final Four]. Our goal is to really [show] the best stories, the best athletes, the best programs and just follow their storylines throughout and engage our fans through all of that.”