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Part One: Programming Exec Nick Dawson Shares Perspective On A College Football Season Unlike Any Other

In the first of a two-part series, learn how ESPN juggles its college football scheduling against the ever-changing landscape

EDITOR’S NOTE: The Mid-American Conference (MAC) kicks off its 2020 college football schedule tonight with five games across ESPN networks. For more scheduling information, visit ESPN Press Room.

With the MAC and Pac-12 conferences kicking off their 2020 college football seasons across ESPN and ABC this week, Front Row chatted with ESPN Vice President of Programming, Nick Dawson, to get his perspective on the most unprecedented season in the sport’s history.

In the first part of this interview, Dawson discusses scheduling, the importance of innovation, and teamwork during this time and all 10 FBS conferences being back in action.

The constant uncertainty and change have been the most difficult challenge to navigate but also invigorating and fun. As an example, on Saturday, Oct. 10, our team had the opportunity to spend the afternoon and evening watching live games, while also completing the Big Ten games draft with FOX via Zoom. Some might call that the perfect Saturday!
– ESPN VP, Programming, Nick Dawson

How challenging has this college football season been from a programming and scheduling perspective?
It’s certainly been unlike anything our team has ever experienced. We started our annual draft process with FOX around the three shared conferences (Big 12, Big Ten, Pac-12) in early March as normal and would typically have finished and announced schedules in May.

After one draft session, the world stopped, and our process remained on pause through the spring and early summer. Every original conference schedule was trashed and redesigned, causing us to work with our conference and school partners to adjust and rebuild a season-long plan with the goal of maximizing exposure and value to the best of our ability, despite an initial assumption of reduced game inventory.

Over a few months, the sport toggled from the possibility of not happening at all to a split fall/spring season amongst conferences. It ultimately landed with all 10 FBS conferences playing this fall, but with varied start dates, formats, and number of games. Through it all, our team navigated the twists and turns to populate games across nine different networks and platforms on a weekly basis. It’s a testament to their abilities and to the value and depth of our college football rights portfolio. Ultimately, we are like all fans, just happy to see college football played in the safest manner possible, given the unprecedented circumstances.

Is there a singular moment that was most difficult?
It’s difficult to pinpoint a singular moment. The constant uncertainty and change have been the most difficult challenge to navigate but also invigorating and fun. As an example, on Saturday, Oct. 10, our team had the opportunity to spend the afternoon and evening watching live games, while also completing the Big Ten games draft with FOX via Zoom. Some might call that the perfect Saturday!

Nick Dawson
(Melissa Rawlins/ESPN Images)

How has ESPN’s programming team adjusted to game postponements and other changes?
My hat goes off to our team of Kurt Dargis, Mallory Kenny and Bethany Karantonis. Now 10 weeks into the 2020 season, not once has our initial schedule for a weekend remained intact.

They’ve dealt with what seems like a daily drumbeat of game postponements, alterations, and rescheduled games, all the while working with our partners to ensure our priority windows and networks were preserved. While programming sits at the pinnacle of that process, none of it sees air without a herculean effort from our colleagues in production and operations. What those groups have accomplished this season is unparalleled, and I know we’re proud to work with them day in and day out. They are the best in the business.

What is your biggest takeaway from the Big Ten’s return?
With the return of each conference, everything simply feels closer to normal. The Big Ten is an important piece of our college football portfolio, consistently delivering some of our largest viewership numbers, and we’re happy to again be in position to showcase their biggest and best games to fans throughout the country and beyond. We’re grateful to our six partner conferences (AAC, ACC, Big 12, C-USA, SEC and Sun Belt), and two independents (BYU and Liberty), with us since September and we are happy to welcome back the MAC and Pac-12 this week, setting us up for an exciting second half to the season and quest to see “Who’s In?” for the College Football Playoff.

How did ESPN approach programming the condensed schedules for the MAC and Pac-12 conferences in November and December?
Once we settled with each conference on the number of games and weeks incorporated into their revised schedules, our objective was to maximize the exposure and value of the games offered to us. We control all of the MAC rights and then sublicense a package of games to CBS Sports Network (CBSSN). Our goal in working with the conference was to maximize their midweek value with Tuesday and Wednesday games over the first three weeks of their season and then shift to Saturdays to support our digital platforms (ESPN+ and ESPN3) in late November and December once college basketball is up and running.

Pac-12 was different given the shared rights with FOX. We had to quickly complete a draft process to assign picks each week. Pac-12’s time zone allows us to fill the “fourth window” (e.g., 10:30 p.m. ET on ESPN) on Saturdays and select Friday nights, so through the 20 Pac-12 games we expect to broadcast this season, roughly half will fill new windows that otherwise would have been vacant of college football.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Later this week on Front Row, return for the second part of this programming sit-down as Dawson delves into College GameDay’s creativity and his outlook for the college football postseason.

ESPN cameras will be bringing fans MAC and Pac-12 2020 football season action beginning this week. (Scott Clarke/ESPN Images)
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