What’s it like to program a college basketball schedule for the world’s largest sports television network right now?
A little nuts, although Dan Ochs, who has that responsibility for ESPN, puts it a little more diplomatically.
“The entire schedule has been dynamic, to say the least,” Ochs said Tuesday.
When games vanish after a COVID-19 test and games that didn’t exist on anyone’s schedule two days earlier pop up on your ESPN channel, that’s a good definition of dynamic.
Take Saturday night’s Villanova-Virginia Tech game, shown on ESPNU. That game was finalized in the early morning hours last Friday, so less than 48 hours before tipoff. Event organizers at Mohegan Sun had to change game schedules up there on the fly. Remember Temple originally was supposed to play there on Saturday and Sunday before the Owls program paused after a COVID-19 positive test.
From ESPN’s point of view, a switch of games didn’t create too much havoc because originally they had a game scheduled from Mohegan Sun … Temple and Virginia Tech, to be shown on ESPNU. When that game eventually became Villanova-Virginia Tech, Ochs knew he had it covered.
Ochs said he checked in with his football counterparts, who suddenly had a hole that hoops could fill. Villanova-Virginia Tech moved into the ESPNU slot.
“A good example of things falling in a way that was advantageous to us,” Ochs said. “We would always relish a chance to get Villanova on the air, and against a Power 5 school … A success story amidst the chaos.”
Ochs was polite enough not to add that an overtime game and an upset of a top 5 Villanova team wasn’t bad television.
Big picture: Ochs and his department have a season-long schedule -- “We’re not choosing to publicize it in a big way. We usually lay out a schedule until the end of March.”
This year, they make it all public through the end of December, and then do all the changes as they pop up, seeing what’s possible to get on the air.
“Can we get a crew there?” Ochs said. “Get tested on time? Get talent there or have them call it from home?”
The “talent” is the on-air people you see and hear.
“I’ve done three games so far -- a fourth has been canceled,” said ESPN analyst Fran Fraschilla. “One was on site. One was in Louisville, but from the ACC broadcast center set up in Louisville. One was from home.”
Fraschilla, who lives in Dallas, was able to get to practice in Fort Worth the day before Houston played the Texas Tech game there, but then did the game from home, following protocols.
“I’m finding out different arenas are going to have different protocols,” Fraschilla said.
About two weeks ago, he said, ESPN shipped him the equipment to be able to work a game from home. Fraschilla has experience at working games remotely, including doing games at the 2016 Olympics and many FIBA international events. His aim, he said, is simple.
“I don’t want anyone to think I’ve lost any joy for the game,” Fraschilla said, whether he is calling it from home, at the arena or one of the broadcast centers set up, which allows ESPN’s production crew in town but remotely, a money saver. “All the ACC teams have built their own broadcast centers,” Fraschilla said.
“The talent needs a certain level of technology in their homes,” Ochs said. “At this point, we have more talent than these kits. So you may have a talent who is available but doesn’t have the technology.”
Remember, we are one week into the college basketball season. More than 10 percent of Division I men’s programs have paused their programs for pandemic-related reasons. Safe to say that this will be a continuing puzzle all season. There have been games that have been canceled, Ochs said, and ESPN hasn’t been able to get there for a proposed quick rescheduling.
“Not frequently yet,” Ochs said. “But we’re only a week in.”
This isn’t just impacting ESPN programming obviously. When the Villanova-St. Joseph’s game was moved from Monday to Wednesday, that was going to be on Fox Sports, on FS1. Then the game got shut down completely after a St. Joe’s positive test.
Once the season gets to mainly league play, Ochs said he expects a different level of flexibility, meaning that so many games won’t be coming out of left field, such as Villanova suddenly deciding to stay at Mohegan Sun a little longer, picking up Tuesday’s game with Hartford. That one was shown on ESPN2 at 5 o’clock.
“Moving the chess pieces at Mohegan Sun,” Ochs said, left an eventual hole at 5 p.m. “We knew the Villanova-Hartford game was available.”
So if you’re wondering why that game was played at 5 p.m., you shouldn’t. ESPN2 was available. So was the court. The easy part, the infrastructure was already in place up in Bubbleville.
“All of it has been happening very fast,” Ochs said. “We just believe we have finalized games through Saturday at Mohegan Sun yesterday, and I’m not convinced it won’t change again.”
Fraschilla picked up Oklahoma State-Texas Arlington set up on short notice, which was great since it marked the debut of top national freshman Cade Cunningham. So that was a gain for him personally. When St. John’s decided not to travel to Texas Tech for a Thursday game, Fraschilla lost one.
Fraschilla also got a message from his ESPN bosses: “Are you available if Texas Tech comes up with a game?”