ESPN Faces a Jigsaw Puzzle in February Frenzy

It may only be February, but, this weekend, ESPN will begin tuning up for the NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament. As part of its annual February Frenzy supporting the Kay Yow/WBCA Cancer Fund for women’s cancer research, ESPN2 will air six regional women’s basketball games within two telecast windows on Sunday Feb. 14, making for a rather frenzied control room in Bristol, CT.

In the 12 home markets of the competing teams, ESPN2 will remain on the local game of interest, but the rest of the country will be treated to frequent switches and updates from all of the games in action. ESPN2 will also produce a live halftime show for each of the six games, which puts plenty of frenzy into this February weekend.

“This is a weekend we look forward to every year,” says Barry Sacks, senior coordinating producer for ESPN. “It’s a dress rehearsal for what we do during the NCAA tournament and helps support these great charities.”

Quick Passes
The Frenzy begins at 3 p.m. on Sunday, when ESPN2 goes live for a quick studio open before a 3:05 tipoff between Houston and SMU. After five minutes, the core audience (outside the local area) will be sent to the second game, a 3:10 tip between Arkansas and South Carolina. Five minutes later, the core group goes to the start of DePaul-Notre Dame, and ESPN2 is off to the races.

“Then it becomes a jigsaw puzzle,” Sacks says. “We are updating scores and highlights for each of the three games that are on our air, as well as any other games that are not on our air.”

As soon as the production team hits a rhythm during the first half, they start worrying about halftime.

“We are responsible for doing a live halftime show for all three of those games,” Sacks explains. “One game could be hitting halftime while the other is a minute away, but there are going to be timeouts and fouls called, so it’s a jigsaw puzzle to go live.”

ESPN will pretape a short segment, about 1:15 in length, which will give the network some flexibility on when to go live for which game’s halftime report. When Game 1 hits the halftime break, for example, ESPN can roll the tape segment and go to commercial, so that the first segment of Game 2’s halftime can run live.

Game of the Minute
Once the halftime puzzle has been solved, it’s back to the grind of updating viewers on all three games during the second half, rolling in scores and highlights from other games going on, and switching the core audience around among the three contests.

“If, at any point in time, the games are worthwhile,” Sacks says, “we may pull the core of an audience out of one game to take them to the finish of another. If there is a great finish going on in the second or third game, we would pull the majority of the audience live to another game, except for the cities where the teams play. Those audiences always stay with their home game.”

Once the first three games are wrapped, the ESPN2 team gets to do it all over again, with three more games slated for the backside of the broadcast window: Mississippi at Mississippi State at 5:25, Louisville at Pittsburgh at 5:30, and Miami at NC State at 5:35.

“As games are ending, we are sending people to the finish of another game and keeping them informed that we have three more games coming,” Sacks says. “We do the same cycle for the second window as we did for the first, pulling people out, moving them around, three live halftimes. When those three games are ending, we roll one audience to catch the end of another game until all of our games are over, and then we have a studio wrap show of the entire day that gets us to 8:00.”

Always Serve the Fan
The decision of when to move the general audience from one game to the next is a joint one, made by a team in the control room. Although there will always be viewers who want to watch their team cruise in a 30-point game, ESPN’s goal is to serve the fan.

“If we’re sitting on a 12-point game with six minutes to play,” Sacks says, “let’s show them a great finish of another game and get them back in plenty of time to see the end of their game. We ask, is it a service to the fan to take them away from this game? If the answer is yes, then we’ll make that move. With market-protect score bugs in the corner, you’re never not going to know the score of the game we’re taking you away from.”

The market-protect bug is a transparent, automated score graphic that appears in the upper right or left corner of the screen. It is created by the ESPN studio team and inserted from Bristol so that the home fans of any particular team can always see what’s going on with their game.

In situations when there is not sufficient time to show two great finishes, the studio team will turn around the final moments of one game on tape. If Game 1 is too compelling to leave to watch the end of Game 2, immediately following the conclusion of Game 1, that audience will see the tape-delayed finish of Game 2.

Expect the Unexpected
The most challenging part of this frenzied weekend, which carries into Monday, is simply the uncertainty of sports.

“You’re dealing with three live games, but there’s no real time limit,” Sacks says. “It’s not like we can say we’re definitely going to do this live at this time, because the last 30 seconds could take one minute to play or five, depending on the timeouts and fouls. That’s the beauty of live sports: you can plan for everything, and nothing turns out the way you plan it.”

Monday night’s doubleheader will continue the theme. ESPN will continue to encourage fans to donate to the Kay Yow/WBCA Cancer Research Fund in partnership with the V Foundation:

“The Kay Yow and V Foundation are doing great work,” Sacks says. “In most cases, 100% of that money is going to the foundation, so it’s an important cause for us.”

For fans who want to avoid the back-and-forth frenzy, will offer every February Frenzy game in its entirety, as will ESPN Full Court.

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