ESPN’s Stats and Information Group is an essential part of every telecast at ESPN. But for the 15 employees responsible for dissecting every nuance of the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament field, Selection Sunday represents the pinnacle of their year.
“Selection Sunday takes the cake as the busiest day of my year and it isn’t even close,” said ESPN senior researcher Jason McCallum. “As a group, we have very specific assignments and a plan that we must execute flawlessly throughout the day. There are a lot of moving parts and it is important we are efficient and effective. Not only does our production team and analysts rely on us, but college basketball fans around the world do as well. Selection Sunday is one of those great unofficial sports holidays.”
Front Row offers a behind-the-scenes look at the most recent Selection Sunday:
It’s 5:30 p.m. ET and in the main studio, SportsCenter is on the air utilizing ESPN’s college basketball analysts who are making final predictions on the 68-team field. Then, 6 p.m. hits and it is go time — teams, seeds, and matchups are being released. Instantly, SIG becomes the communications conduit to on-air analysts and the production team. It is, simply put, controlled chaos.
“Three of us are watching the teams and matchups being unveiled with blank brackets and we fill them in as we see them announced,” McCallum said. “Once we have a complete region, we run the hand-written brackets to our analysts who are on air so they can begin to absorb the matchups. Other members of the SIG college basketball team are stationed in the control rooms to ensure the production team is building the right matchups and graphics to display live on SportsCenter.”
This process continues for 45 minutes until all four regions are revealed and 68 teams are dancing. However, it is just the start of the night for SIG.
Next up: The Bracketology Show:
At 7 p.m., ESPN host Rece Davis and analysts Jay Bilas, Seth Greenberg, Digger Phelps, and Jay Williams (with input from Dick Vitale and bracket guru Greg Shaheen) are live on ESPN analyzing the Tournament and SIG is close by — off-screen, but inside the studio — researching trends, streaks and unique elements of all 68 teams and the matchups. Throughout the entire telecast, McCallum and his team have consistent communication with the commentators, even when they are on the air, and feed them information if it is timely and will add to the telecast.
“When it came time to discuss the UCLA versus Tulsa matchup, I knew the head coaches of those teams were Steve Alford [UCLA] and Danny Manning [Tulsa] and they were the respective stars of the 1987 and 1988 national championship teams,” McCallum said. “I relayed the information on to Rece while he was on the air and he worked it into the discussion. Our goal as a group is to add depth and context to the conversation. The analysts know the Xs and Os, we research deeper level notes.”
Bracketology continues for two hours, concluding with analysts making their Final Four and National Champion picks.
“None of the analysts knew each other’s picks until we revealed them on the air,” he said. “It was funny to watch each of them react to one another off camera when they realized that somebody else – and then everybody else — picked the [Michigan State] Spartans.”
Bracketology ends, but the night doesn’t. Analysts then conducted on-air hits for a variety of other ESPN platforms for the next few hours and SIG was right along with them continuing to provide timely information.
Everyone wraps up their night around 1:00 a.m. Monday morning; however, for SIG, there is no end in sight. With the first game of the tournament now less than 48 hours away, the group will return in a few hours to compile the 2014 NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament Packet – a database of Tournament information which will be utilized across ESPN for the next month.
“It’s a hectic time of year,” McCallum said, “but a great time of year.”