College Basketball Preview: ESPN Off and Running on Record Number of Live Productions

You think you’re busy at your job? Try planning and coordinating ESPN’s college-sports coverage the next two months.

Much like on university campuses, November and December are a brutal stretch at “The Worldwide Leader” when football and basketball overlap. As in each previous year, ESPN will pull it off, but, one again, it is pushing the limits with its college-hoops coverage.

ESPNApproximately 1,500 exclusive games involving 276 teams from 31 Division I conferences across ESPN, ESPN2, ESPNU, ESPN3, ESPNEWS, and Longhorn Network. In addition, about 460 more games will be available via syndication and/or out-of-market on ESPN3 and ESPN FULL COURT.

Navigating those schedules — and working them in with the final weeks of the football year and the rapidly approaching bowl season — is in many ways a good problem to have but continues to produce new challenges. It also hasn’t gotten any easier with new competing networks — notably, Fox Sports 1, Pac-12 Network — jumping into the mix.

“For example, last year with the Pac-12 Network, we were very conscious with understanding that, at some point, there was going to be a lot of competition for trucks and personnel out in California and a lot of the western states,” says Jay Levy, senior coordinating producer for ESPN’s men’s college basketball coverage. “Similarly, now with Fox getting into the business with the number of games they’re going to televise for Big East, it’s the same deal.”

To put the workload into context, ESPN will provide fans with live coverage of at least one game every day but three from Nov. 8 to March 16 (Dec. 24 and 26 and Jan. 3). Finding airtime may be the easier part. It’s the mobile-production personnel, facilities, and gear that require meticulous planning.

“I think you try to get out ahead of it as best you can,” says Levy. “A lot of our folks are crossovers, especially on the technical side. We’ve got a lot of people who end up doing some college football and then they are moving over and doing college basketball while football may still be winding down. Credit goes out to our operations and crewing departments for getting ahead of it and working with us.

“We also get smarter with it, too,” he continues. “We have our own equipment through the Longhorn Network in Austin, and, with the new American Conference deal we have, we have games at SMU in Dallas and University of Houston, and, while I’m packaging out those regular-season games for ESPNNews, I can use the Longhorn Network truck at a reduced rate when it’s not working games for Texas. It’s little things like that that we look at. It becomes a little bit of a puzzle.”

As for the production itself, ESPN unveiled a redesign on its in-game graphics package. The score bug at the bottom of the screen is now the home to all of the game stats. For example, in previous years, the number of shots on a free throw were addressed in the top left corner of the screen. That information has been moved down to the lower score bug.

Says Levy, “We’re really trying to focus a lot of the graphics to one place on the screen so the viewer doesn’t have to look all over the place.”