Image credit: Michael Collins - Fansided.com

Making a college basketball tournament: Behind the scenes with ESPN


So you’re a college hoops fan. You grab your bowl of snacks, your beverage of choice and your remote control, and you sit down to take in a tournament game featuring your favorite college basketball team. For a couple of hours, it’s you and the television and the commentators calling the game.

Seems pretty simple, right?

Trust me when I tell you, it’s not. It’s like the Wizard of Oz. What you see is only a fraction of the buttons, gadgets and illusionary measures taken to produce the finished product. After spending a week behind the curtain with ESPN at the 2014 SEC Tournament in the Georgia Dome, I have a whole new appreciation for what goes on to make a tournament like this happen.

Let’s just start with some numbers, shall we? Keep in mind, this is just for a major conference tournament in one location. The numbers get exponentially larger when you start talking about national tournaments in multiple cities.

105:  The total number of crew members on hand just from the ESPN standpoint
17:  The number of cameras pointed at the court at any given time
13-15:  The number of games over five-day period for which a crew has to prepare
4-5:  The number of networks and/or channels involved in broadcasting the tournament

And that just scratches the surface.

Lights, camera, and lots and lots of action.

I had the opportunity to speak with ESPN director Derek Mobley about some of the daily tasks and challenges associated with an even like the SEC Tournament.

“For a tournament that begins on Wednesday, the crew arrives early on Monday to begin setup,” Mobley said. “The building itself is just a blank concrete slate and we have to coordinate with the conference in making sure that every part of the building is dressed and decorated to make it look like a first class operation.”

Mobley (who is commonly known as DMob to his crew members) told me there are essentially two main crews, one that handles the A.M. games, and another for the P.M, along with a smaller crew that handles the halftime and between game spots and broadcasts.

The planning for the crew doesn’t begin when the regular season conference champs are crowned, it starts back in the fall and is morphed and shaped with every week’s worth of games, and every Super Tuesday broadcast. The director, commentators and crew that follow the conference throughout the season must take careful notes, and start thinking about March before Christmas even arrives.

Much of what you see on the broadcast can’t be planned for, however. The human interest stories and great player backstories can’t really begin to be spun until there is a better idea of who will be featured in the tournaments.

“Sometimes these stories just pop up out of nowhere,” Mobley told me. “You never know which players are going to start showing their stuff. Sometimes it’s a player that you least suspect to be a factor, and you have to dig up information on his story in a hurry.”

Bright lights, big city, can be intimidating

In talking about things done on the fly, how about those little opening montages before a game starts featuring players, highlights and music. Or even the quick little bumps (yeah, I picked up some trade lingo) of players that are shown as the game goes in or out of commercial break.

There is nothing on file sitting in the ESPN vaults to just call up. It was interesting to see that these are actually filmed and pieced together right there at the tournament, and sometimes in the most unlikely of places.

How about a basement storage closet in the Georgia Dome for a place to shoot such fancy stuff.

Michael Collins - Fansided.com

Image Credit: Michael Collins – Fansided.com

Have you ever been watching and seen the camera shot of a player spinning a ball on his hand, or confidently popping his jersey or pointing at the camera, and thought to yourself, “What a cocky punk. Why can’t they be more humble?”

Here’s a news flash. They are. They are very humble and very intimidated (in some cases) about where they are and what’s going on. I had the opportunity to watch some bumps and teases being filmed for Alabama Crimson Tide players Trevor Releford and Levi Randolph – two fairly recognizable names in the SEC.

Releford and Randolph entered the smoky concrete room accompanied by Alabama men’s basketball sports information director, Aaron Jordan. Neither player really looked like they were sure what was expected of them. Releford casually slipped out of his warm-ups and into his game shoes, and then looked gingerly at the camera and party lights that had been strung throughout the room.

What happened next was as big a surprise to me as anything I had seen during the week. These kids pretty much just stood there, waiting for direction. “Flip your hair”, “point at the camera”, “Flex..that’s it..turnaround and flex” among other instructions given from the ESPN producer. Everything you see in these little teases and bumps are basically what these kids are being directed to do.

Alabama men's basketball players

Alabama men’s basketball players Trevor Releford and Levi Randolph weren’t quite ready for their close-ups. Image credit: Michael Collins – Fansided.com

There’s no arrogance. No smack talk. Just kids that are told to come in for some photo and video work, and then pose as told. The whole thing lasted about 10 minutes. The footage is loaded on a flash drive, and then taken to the production truck, where it’s mixed with the chosen music, highlights from the season (or previous games in the tournament once things get rolling), and gets queued up to be used on-air.

Speaking of trucks…this ain’t your grandpa’s pickup

One of the common references you hear during just about any live sports broadcast will allude to something that is going on “in the truck”. But believe me, more than something goes on in that truck. It’s probably the most densely cramped area of controlled chaos that I’ve ever seen.

A small tractor-trailer with roughly 15 (or more) people inside would not be the job for your run-of-the-mill claustrophobic, but these folks make it look like they’re lounging in a cavernous atrium.

When ESPN senior coordinating producer Mike Moore gave me the rundown on what went on in the truck, I was amazed.

For starters you have…oh I don’t know…a gazillion screens? I can barely keep a TV and a smartphone going simultaneously without having an aneurism. A row of four producers and directors sit in the front. Behind them are two rows of graphics crew, total of eight. Then in a back section of the truck there are more stats and graphics team members along with yet another producer.

The amazing thing isn’t that there are so many people and screens in one truck. The amazing thing is that every one of those people are talking…at the same time…out loud. And not just idle chit-chat or jibber-jabber, the are all talking as a part of their job. Talking to each other face to face, talking to each other over the headset, talking to the crew inside the auditorium and in the studio.

Like I said before…controlled chaos. Moore let me put on his headset, and it was like listening to a United Nations summit. I could hear the live feed from the game, I could hear people talking back and forth about completely unrelated things, and I could still hear the actual chat going on inside the trailer.

And I couldn’t make heads or tails of a bit of it. But these folks? It’s just another day in the office.

There are no panic buttons, no sense of tension at all. Every single person is just sitting calmly and doing their job. They know who to listen to and who to tune out, and then know how to make sure they get heard by the right person.

Image Credit: Michael Collins - Fansided.com

Image Credit: Michael Collins – Fansided.com

All of this–the crew, the director, the production, the cameras the truck–all of it filters down to one important thing; giving you a full scope view of the game, in both sight and sound.

Keep the talent happy, because they sure are worth it.

You hear their voices all the time, and as far as the casual fan is concerned guys like Dick Vitale, Sean McDonough, Jay Bilas–and in this case, the venerable Brad Nessler–are ESPN. But much like in production, it’s not all just showing up in a nice suit and pocket square and then talking about what you see on the court.

“Prepping for a marathon tournament like this is like getting ready for two or three major college football games at the same time,” Brad Nessler told me. “The big thing is just not knowing who is going to be playing once the tournament starts.”

Nessler and his broadcast partner, Jimmy Dykes, both said it’s a fast and furious week, that they (much like the production crew) start getting ready for when the season starts. Every moment from they day they arrive for a tournament is spent going over lineups and stats – from sitting in their hotel rooms to the car rides over to the auditorium.

“Where Brad has to focus on what’s happening on the court, most of what an analyst does comes from years of experience in the game,” Dykes said. “I have to be able to not only interject my thoughts about what’s going on in our game, but I have to be aware of what’s happening in other games and tournaments that might have an effect on the game we’re calling.”

 

jimmy-dykes-and-brad-nessler

Nessler and Dykes have been working together since 1995, and both of them fondly remembered the SEC Championship game that year, when the third ranked Kentucky Wildcats edged the no. 5 Arkansas Razorbacks, 95-93 in overtime.

“You don’t forget calling a huge game like that when Rick Pitino and Nolan Richardson have their teams playing at their best” Nessler said.

The third part of the ESPN broadcast team is courtside reporter, Shannon Spake, who has a completely different set of challenges than her two counterparts.

I asked Shannon about having to move quickly when things happen within a game, and the emotions that can come out when she has to be right there with a camera and microphone.

“I love the emotions that can just come out in these games,” Spake said. “It’s a challenge to find new ways to approach a coach, particularly one whose team just lost or isn’t playing well.

But the raw emotions, like I saw from [Vanderbilt] coach Kevin Stallings when when Vanderbilt upset Kentucky to win the SEC tournament…he literally sat down and you could see the physical emotion of joy coming from him…that’s the best.”

That’s a wrap, folks.

So there you have it. Hundreds of people and man(and woman)-hours all coming together so that you’re able to sit and tweet about how an announcer mispronounced one name, or how you can’t believe the camera crew didn’t get a good shot of that foul.

How dare they, huh?

A special thanks to the Southeastern Conference, and ESPN senior director of public relations, Keri Potts, for giving me and Fansided.com access to ESPN’s coverage of the 2014 SEC tournament.

Tags: 2014 SEC Tournament Brad Nessler ESPN Jimmy Dykes March Madness