Piecing together a 90-game NBA schedule takes months of planning and collaboration between many groups.
This year became even more of a challenge due to the condensed season.
Months of strategic planning may have turned into days of calculated decision making, but ESPN’s programming team — working closely with the NBA — was up to the task.
ESPN’s Doug White, senior director, programming, discusses the process behind tonight’s schedule announcement.
FR: What are the normal steps to piecing together the NBA schedules for ABC and ESPN?
DW: It’s a collaborative process which, under normal circumstances, typically takes a number of weeks over the months leading up to the start of the season. We submit ESPN and ABC windows to the NBA so they are aware of the dates and times we have available to air games. We then consult with the league on the desired matchups and they will slot in potential games. We’ll have some additional discussions and, once the matchups are set, we’ll work on the timetable for the announcement.
FR: What are some of the more difficult variables?
DW: We always have to take our overall ESPN schedule into account and the other live events we are scheduled to televise. It’s a big jigsaw puzzle. Our traditional nights for the NBA on ESPN are Wednesdays and Fridays. On ABC, it’s primarily Sunday afternoons. We also have to consider the start dates of The Finals and when the league needs the regular season to end based on the designated playoff start date. A wide number of factors impact the final determination of the most viable dates.
FR: What have been the biggest challenges for the ESPN programming team given the unique circumstances this year?
DW: The biggest challenge was all of the unknowns. Once we completed the original schedule, we knew there was a strong possibility the lockout would come. At that point, we started mocking up potential schedules in terms of available windows/nights we would have on ESPN just in case the season ended up starting later than the initial date. Like all fans, we were receiving news surrounding the lockout which postponed the start of the regular season and we had to act on the contingency plans. We worked very closely with the programming planning team and with several other divisions within ESPN when looking at all possible scenarios. It was a very complex process.
FR: What are some of the changes between the original schedule and new version?
DW: We’re still going to carry the same number of overall games on ESPN and ABC. ESPN will have 74 games, ABC will broadcast 15 games and one will air on ESPN2. We’ll also have our full playoff slate. Due to the season starting later, there will be some nontraditional nights, such as a few Monday night games and several more Sunday night games on ESPN. We’re also televising an ESPN tripleheader on April 21 and, overall, there will be more games in April than we’ve had before. That will be great for us as we make our playoff push.
FR: How do you choose which teams are maxed out?
DW: We select six teams which we can televise up to 10 times on ESPN and five teams we can show a maximum of five times on ABC. There is also a super max team for ABC which we can designate to show up to six times. This year it’s the Heat. We essentially make the decision on which teams have the broadest appeal and those which have historically performed the best across our networks. During the course of the season, those max teams can change based on a team’s performance. If a team is not performing as well as we’ve anticipated, particularly on ESPN, we will look to add a more appealing game.
FR: How do you determine when to use flexible schedule?
DW: We’ll use flex scheduling if we want to capture a particular storyline or if a team is or is not performing up to expectations. We’ll look at teams if there is a big trade, for instance. If a team picks up one or two players and we feel it could enhance the quality of the team or its popularity, we may go out and make a game change.
FR: Is flex scheduling more important in a condensed season?
DW: Probably so. This is our first time going through this condensed season process. It will be a learning process for us. When we constructed this schedule, we had to do it in a very short period of time. The process normally takes months to play out and we did it in a number of days. For us, we’re not as sure about how the schedule will play out, but we’re pleased with the schedule we were able to put together and I hope we won’t have to make a lot of changes. It remains to be seen.
FR: Which ABC or ESPN are you most looking forward to viewing?
DW: We view ABC’s schedule as the game of the week. It’s hard to single out any one game because they are all compelling matchups and I think fans will really enjoy them. The Christmas matchups are stellar, including the Finals rematch followed by league MVP Derrick Rose facing the Lakers. If you look at the ABC schedule, we also have an Eastern Conference Finals rematch between the Bulls and Heat; the traditional rivalry between the Celtics and Lakers; and the Lakers hosting the Heat. I could go on and on. All of the games have their own unique storylines.
On ESPN, it’s more of the same. We were able to capture a lot of the storylines and the top teams. One game which always receives a lot of attention is the Lakers at New York. We also have the Lakers facing the Mavericks, which should be a great game; an in-state rivalry between Orlando and Miami; the Heat facing the Oklahoma City Thunder twice; and there’s one of the most heated rivalries in the East with Boston at Miami. I could continue with the list, but I think there are a lot of games fans will enjoy on ESPN this season.