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“More than anything, the show will continue to be fun”

As College GameDay makes its 2020 college football season roadshow debut Saturday at Wake Forest, SVP, Production,
Lee Fitting explains how ESPN's production team is adapting to the pandemic's challenges

Clockwise L-R: College GameDay bus arrives at Wake Forest University; Kirk Herbstreit (L) and Rece Davis call BYU-Navy football; reporter Allison Williams (R) interviews Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo; in his Florida home, Lee Corso (C) sits flanked by cardboard cutouts of College GameDay colleagues. (Photos: Wake Forest Athletics Twitter/ESPN/Navy Athletics Twitter/Lee Corso)

ACC, Big 12, and schools from other conferences are kicking off their 2020 college football schedules this weekend. College GameDay Built By the Home Depot (9 a.m. ET) will also host its first three-hour roadshow from Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C., before the Demon Deacons’ primetime matchup on ABC Saturday Night Football against No. 1 Clemson (8 p.m. ET).

With 14 games across ESPN networks this weekend, Senior Vice President, Production, Lee Fitting offers his thoughts on how ESPN is approaching this unprecedented season. Fitting discusses the adjustments that the production team has made, why College GameDay decided to travel this fall, and how college football has benefitted from observing other sports returning to play over the past few months.

Our college football senior management team . . . worked tirelessly to examine our productions across the board to see what adjustments needed to be made in light of challenges due to COVID. It has been a worthwhile exercise as some things we’re doing this season could become the norm long-term. – SVP, Production, Lee Fitting on the impact of COVID-19 on college football production

How has COVID impacted ESPN’s college football productions?
It’s forced us to rethink every aspect of our productions, including travel, our on-site presence and staffing at events, how we conduct meetings, and more. Our college football senior management team – Steve Ackels, Chandon Hudgins, Bryan Jaroch, Ed Placey, and Jay Rothman – worked tirelessly to examine our productions across the board to see what adjustments needed to be made in light of challenges due to COVID. It has been a worthwhile exercise as some things we’re doing this season could become the norm long-term.

Lee Fitting (Allen Kee/ESPN Images)

Will announcers call games from stadiums, studios, or other locations?
It’s a combination. A handful of crews will be at stadium sites, including the ABC and ESPN primetime games. Others will use ESPN facilities in Bristol, Conn., Charlotte, and Orlando. We have also provided announcer kits for some commentators to call games from home, similar to Korean baseball games on ESPN.

For the past four or five years, ESPN has done remote integration productions – or REMIs – with our commentators, operations, and others on-site, while the remainder of the crew produces the telecast from ESPN control rooms in Bristol – or from on-campus production facilities that have been built for our college networks. Our remote operations and technology teams deserve enormous credit. What we are doing now would not be possible without all the work that went into REMI productions the past few years.

Our college football group has also benefited from conversations with ESPN production teams from other sports like the NBA, MLB, MLS, and WNBA, all of whom have shared key learnings and best practices as their leagues returned to play the past two months.

Will sideline reporters be at games?
Yes, our reporters will be at game sites. They will wear masks and practice social distancing in addition to following other protocols. For example, we have designated interview areas for coaches, and we are using microphone stands to conduct halftime and postgame interviews with them from a distance.

One thing we have put a lot of thought and effort into is virtual spotting. We have a new system that helps the communication with game commentators. – Fitting

What are some other notable production changes?
One thing we have put a lot of thought and effort into is virtual spotting. We have a new system that helps the communication with game commentators. Due to social distancing, spotters aren’t side-by-side with our game callers. Sometimes they are in a different booth at the stadium, and in many situations, games are being called from a studio or an announcer’s home. With virtual spotting, a camera shoots the spotter’s board as he watches the game. When the spotter identifies who made a tackle, committed a penalty, or whatever the play may be, our announcer has a monitor that shows the spotter pointing to the board. This has been a very effective and innovative solution.

Will ESPN add crowd noise during game telecasts?
We don’t have plans for this at this time, though some schools will add crowd audio inside stadiums. We are much more focused on leaning into natural audio and access. We want fans to hear sounds from the field and bench reactions. We will also want to get cameras in locker rooms, tunnels, and on team buses – places fans wouldn’t ordinarily see.

This summer, you indicated that if there’s a college football season, College GameDay would travel. Why is it important for the show to travel?
Traveling to college campuses is part of College GameDay’s DNA. It’s been that way since 1993. I produced the show for many years myself, so this is especially personal to me. We’ve been to 76 different schools during GameDay’s 34 seasons. We were determined to travel. It’s tradition! It will be different this year – with fewer people on-site and no crowds, but we hope waking up to a College GameDay roadshow on Saturdays this fall gives fans something to look forward to and offers a sense of normalcy in the midst of what we are all experiencing right now.

Fitting: “With virtual spotting, a camera shoots the spotter’s board as he watches the game. When the spotter identifies who made a tackle, committed a penalty, or whatever the play may be, our announcer has a monitor that shows the spotter pointing to the board.” (ESPN)

What can fans expect this fall?
College GameDay will continue to be the college football show of record. It will preview all the day’s games, offer analysis, perspective, opinions, and more. We will continue to have great storytelling through our features, and we will have thoughtful conversations about the key issues that impact the sport and society. Last weekend’s preview show was a great example of that with the tremendous student-athlete roundtable about racial inequality conducted by [CGD reporter] Maria [Taylor] and the powerful discussion with [college football analyst] Kirk [Herbstreit] and others that followed.

More than anything, the show will continue to be fun. Though Coach Corso won’t travel to game sites most weeks – a mutual decision based on COVID challenges – he is a centerpiece of the show. We had a studio desk built for him poolside at his house in Orlando. He will appear throughout, including during the game picks when he dons the headgear.

Are you concerned that the show won’t have the same energy without a crowd of fans?
This year will be different, but fans have always been an important part of the College GameDay experience, and that won’t change. We just announced our ‘virtual pit’ which will give hundreds of fans each week the chance to be part of the show – and this is open to fans from all schools, conferences, and divisions. So far, the response has been overwhelming, with more than 5,500 fans registering in the first 24 hours. It’s something new and different and will give even more fans the chance to make a sign, cheer on their school and be part of the show.

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