At Women’s Final Four, ESPN focuses spotlight

Advocate staff photo by MATTHEW HINTON -- UConn coach Geno Auriemma, left, prepares for a promo while Hans van den Bold readies a boom microphone for ESPN's coverage of the Women's Final Four on Friday, April 5, 2013, in New Orleans Arena.
Advocate staff photo by MATTHEW HINTON -- UConn coach Geno Auriemma, left, prepares for a promo while Hans van den Bold readies a boom microphone for ESPN's coverage of the Women's Final Four on Friday, April 5, 2013, in New Orleans Arena.

No Baylor, no problem: While expanding its coverage of women’s basketball, ESPN focuses  on the game’s powerhouses ... but sometimes even best-laid plans end up going awry

NEW ORLEANS — Tina Thornton fixed her eyes on the television as Louisville lofted in a barrage of 3-pointers and wiped out ESPN’s coverage plans for Goliath — also known as top overall seed Baylor — in the Sweet 16 of the NCAA women’s tournament.

On the couch next to the senior coordinating producer, her 6-year-old daughter piped up after Cardinals guard Shoni Schimmel flicked her wrist and arched in a shot over Bears center and superstar Brittney Griner, summing up the obvious for Thortnon.

“Mommy, that big girl is losing,” Thornton recalled Friday in a quiet dressing room away from hectic preparations for the Women’s Final Four, which starts Sunday in New Orleans Arena.

And what of plans that dated to January, including a lengthy feature package on Griner’s upbringing, or the 6-foot-8 center’s central place in the network’s “Three to See” concept involving Delaware’s Elena Delle Donne and Notre Dame’s Skylar Diggins?

Any sweaty palms? Frantic e-mails? Hastily arranged staff meetings?

Nope. Thornton just enjoyed watching perhaps the biggest upset in the 30-plus-year history of the women’s tournament, the 63-game centerpiece of a 12-year, $500 million deal between the network and NCAA to broadcast up to 23 other collegiate championships.

“It’s not like I’m going to collapse,” Thornton said. “We’re not going to say, ‘Oh, too bad. We lost our story. We’re not going to have anything to do anymore.’ ”

Since 2003, ESPN, the broadcasting behemoth valued by Forbes at $40 billion, has crafted coverage of the women’s tournament and primarily developed “promotional campaigns” associated with the event. Over the past decade, the women’s game has become an expanded part of its programming palette, serving as an ideal way to expand its audience into female demographics while filling the network’s ESPN2, ESPNU and ESPN3 platforms with live content.

Broadcasting up to 250 games annually on television and online, there’s little doubt ESPN exerts a heavy hand in crafting the marketing and storylines surrounding a sport perhaps more embraced than its professional sister, the WNBA. It’s a role lauded and critiqued at the same time.

The volume and tone of coverage is a far cry from the early 1990s, when the network broadcast a narrow sliver of regular-season games and only the regional rounds of the women’s tournament before ceding the national semifinals and title game to CBS, said Carol Stiff, who until February served as ESPN’s vice president of programming and oversaw scheduling of the sport.

In 1994, ESPN negotiated a seven-year deal with the NCAA for select first- and second-round games, the regional semifinals and finals and the three Final Four games — for a modest $19 million when compared to the $1.7 billion CBS plunked down the same year for rights to the men’s tournament.

The scope, interest and dollars associated with the women’s event these days pleases Stiff, who arrived at the network in 1990 after stints as an assistant coach at Brown and head coach at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

“I didn’t have a crystal ball back then, but I don’t think I would have had us here,” Stiff said Friday. “What I love about the women’s game, and always have, is that the stars stay in the game for four years.”

And the network understands its investment pays off this weekend, a five-day period culminating in Tuesday’s title game between the winner of Cal-Louisville and Notre Dame-Connecticut.

“The bang for our buck is the Final Four,” Thornton said. “It’s where we bring the most cameras. We bring all of our talent to the table. We look at it like any other big event at ESPN. We play up to that, and it’s really important to us.”

That was evident Friday in a cramped room in the bowels of the arena, where Notre Dame’s Natalie Achonwa, Ariel Braker and Jewell Loyd filmed “teases” in front of a smoky backdrop styled as Bourbon Street.

Behind a Canon C300 camera mounted on a sliding dolly, Tony Melfi quietly filmed Braker handling the ball for a shot to be mixed into footage used while exiting to commercial breaks.

“Can you palm the ball?” Melfi asked.

Braker dropped her head, cracked a grin and snickered.

“I can’t palm the ball either,” the junior forward said.

“I’ll just stop asking,” Melfi joked.

It’s a brief glimpse into a mix of journalism and marketing at the core of ESPN’s production efforts, which Stiff insists remain rooted in the skill set of players, their athleticism and the drama that unfolds on the hardwood.

“First and foremost, we still want to document the games,” Stiff said. “We need to call the game the way it is. Second, though, the player personalities are already built in. We do a really good job storytelling, whether it’s on television, on the Internet or the radio.”

The premise is a departure applied to the men’s tournament. CBS, which is paying $6 billion for its 14-year deal that runs until 2024, tends to emphasize the potential chaos of upsets, Cinderellas such as Florida Gulf Coast and the collective nature of the tournament.

Yet the state of the women’s game, where parity can be rare even within the Top 25 and stars exhaust their eligibility, means ESPN can narrow its field of vision to dominant programs such as Connecticut, which is seeking its eighth national title, and stars such as Diggins.

The thinking stretched back to this fall, when Diggins, Delle Donne and Griner visited the Bristol, Conn., headquarters for a “car wash” — parlance for appearing on various ESPN shows. It’s also evident in the selection of telecasts on ESPN2 of “Big Monday” and “Super Tuesday” games, featuring matchups such as Duke-Connecticut and Tennessee-Baylor.

But in March, being dedicated to power programs and superstars leaves you at the mercy of the survive-and-advance mantra. Ahead of the tournament, ESPN did feature shoots on Baylor, UConn and Notre Dame but now has to shelve its Griner story until the WNBA draft broadcast April 15.

But there’s something tantalizing in fresh stories such as the Cardinals or Cal, the No. 2 seed out of the Spokane Regional making its first Final Four trip.

“We don’t have a lot on them, but those are still great stories,” Thornton said. “There’s a lot of interesting things we can ask here. While we didn’t go do these big feature shots at the places, we’ve got a lot of good material.”

Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma, an old hand at pre-Final Four production obligations, said the contrast was good for the game when ESPN associate producer Tara Baker lofted him the question.

“For a lot of years, only the top seeds made it,” he said. “The perception was only certain programs get to the Final Four. It’s good for the sport.”

The structure of ESPN’s broadcast in the regional rounds tries to strike a balance, too, Stiff said. For example, Connecticut’s 105-37 romp over No. 16 seed Idaho obviously lacks national appeal, but hardcore Huskies backers want to see every second of the drubbing.

So, ESPN ensures Storrs and Moscow, Idaho, get the entire broadcast while putting the most competitive game ­on its national broadcast for casual fans.

Showing games on ESPN, ESPN2 and ESPNU offers flexibility, too, in markets like Tennessee, where the Volunteers and Vanderbilt might play at the same time. The network can move the Commodores game to ESPNU, where tape-delayed programming might be on, keep the Volunteers on ESPN and have viewers rotate among other games on ESPN2.

“It can come in really handy,” Stiff said.

Tweaking the schedule of the women’s tournament helped, too. Nine years ago, the network suggested going to its current format of first-round games on Saturday and Sunday, followed by the second round on Monday and Tuesday.

The same format holds for the regional round, and the Final Four is played on a Sunday-Tuesday setup, which has carved out breathing room and exclusivity from the men’s tournament, Stiff said.

“(Viewers) had to make a choice between watching the men and the women,” Stiff said. “We’re still married to the men, but separated.”

ESPN has expanded the number of regular-season games it broadcasts to 130 this season from 64 back in 2010-11. That has come as the network struck lucrative deals in the past year with the ACC and SEC, valued at a combined $5.85 billion over 15 years, to increase the inventory of games, just as ESPNU and Internet-based ESPN3 expand their reach with cable providers.

Behind the scenes, though, Thornton doesn’t exclusively view herself as a chief proponent of expanding the appeal of an event whose final between Baylor and Notre Dame last year drew roughly 4.2 million viewers — the most since 2004.

“It’s tough to say,” she said. “I don’t ever look at myself as a marketer or our team as a marketer. It’s covering great stories that we want to tell the women’s basketball fans and fans that might come and join in because they like basketball in general.”

Instead, she shares an anecdote about fellow coordinating producer Barry Sacks standing in a raucous control room as Baylor rallied over the final 10 minutes in the second half against Louisville.

In the studio, analysts Kara Lawson and Carolyn Peck also watched awestruck as Louisville closed in on the upset.

“Everybody was screaming,” Thornton said Sacks told her the next day in her office.

Email filled up her inbox, asking Thornton the obvious: Are you watching?

Yes, she was. Even as best-laid plans went awry, optimism blunted any worry — and the Cardinals became a new story to shape and hone.

“It was stressful for me to watch that game,” Thornton said. “But I’m absolutely positive we’re going to do everything to make Louisville an amazing story.”