— ESPN College BBall (@ESPNCBB) March 11, 2014
ESPN’s Championship Week embodies the passion, energy and unpredictability of college basketball. It’s grown considerably in recent years, up to 229 games, including 147 exclusive telecasts on ABC, ESPN, ESPN2, ESPNU and ESPN3.
Getting all the Championship Week pieces to fit together is the job of ESPN programming senior director Nick Dawson, and his departmental colleagues Lindsey Ross and Zach Malet. Dawson recently reflected on the construction, challenges and excitement of Championship Week, which continues with men’s and women’s games through Sunday, culminating in ESPN’s Selection Sunday programming.
What makes Championship Week so special year after year?
While there is a significant difference in the quantity of games and number of tournaments from years past, the great thing about Championship Week is that it hasn’t changed at its core. It’s still about the buzzer-beating win by a small school to punch their first ticket to the NCAA Tournament or an unforgettable storyline that develops over three or four days within a conference tournament (see UConn and Kemba Walker in the 2011 Big East Tournament). Every year, you leave Championship Week with a couple of memories you will never forget.
How many of the game slots are determined by contract versus creative scheduling?
Most of the dates – when conference tournaments start and end — are set contractually and fairly well defined. Once you start getting into where each game window lands on a specific day/network, that’s when our programming team works to put the puzzle pieces together so they fit in a way that best serves the fan and supports our business.
How much flexibility do you to have to mix and match?
It depends on the day. We are trying something for the first time this year (on Friday, March 14) with a “net flex” setup in an effort to put the best games in the best possible telecast windows. By that I mean, we will decide which networks to put games on within a 24-hour window. Based on the matchups that emerge, we will assign games to networks for both the afternoon session (ACC, Big Ten Quarterfinals) on ESPN and ESPN2 and then again for the evening session (ACC Quarterfinals, AAC Semifinals) on ESPN and ESPN2.
How do the conferences feel about sharing the Championship Week stage?
The conferences generally understand we have a lot of commitments and we do our best to maximize everyone’s opportunity. They all love being part of the environment and great showcase that is Championship Week. They know from year to year, we always reevaluate and look at new options, pushing to see where we can improve our schedule for fans and our partners. Ultimately, for the conferences it comes down to communication. If those lines are open both in advance of and during Championship Week, things typically run smoothly.
What are your parameters and goals as you approach the Championship Week schedule?
We aim to provide fans with the very best wall-to-wall action, making the puzzle fit by putting every game in a slot that hopefully best positions us for ratings success. For many years, the Big East was such a major component of the week for us on ESPN. Obviously, this being our first year without it, we had to make adjustments through the addition of the American Athletic Conference Tournament and the way we showcase the entire ACC Tournament. We’re optimistic we’ve put ourselves in a good position with the revamped schedule.
What has been the impact of ESPN3’s development on Championship Week?
Without the capacity issues we face on the linear TV networks, ESPN3 has allowed us to expand and go even deeper with more rounds of coverage from more tournaments. Many of the conferences have regular-season packages on ESPN3 so it’s a natural extension to now find their conference tournament games there, and it allows those conferences to have their entire tournaments on ESPN’s networks, which is great for us and a great statement for them.
How do you manage the combination of back-to-back start times and unpredictable game lengths?
It’s not as much of an issue on days where same-site doubleheaders sit on consistent networks because the second game can’t start until after the first one ends. Overlap is more likely on a day like this coming Saturday, when we have different conference championship games stacked one after the other. We do our best to spread out the tip times going in, but you can’t script live TV. When issues arise, we lean on an amazing effort by the Programming On-Air Management team – led by Stephanie Holmes and Greg Bushman – who make decisions on the fly to best serve our audience. Both ESPNEWS and ESPN3 play a big role as highly distributed outlets for overflow as needed.
As a Kansas grad, describe your Championship Week memories before working at ESPN?
It was like vacation for a basketball fan. To sit there all day long and watch games – on TV or in the arena – it becomes like a week-long holiday. As a Kansas grad, my memories are of being at the Big 12 Tournament, soaking in four straight days of non-stop great basketball. It doesn’t get better than that for a basketball fan, and I’m sure the same holds true for fans at every tournament across the country.