The overwhelming majority of you will be watching ESPN on Monday night when Oregon meets Ohio State in Arlington, Texas, for the college football national championship. Sports viewers are conditioned to watch the main telecast for a mega-sporting event, and ESPN will have 100 on-field microphones, 59 cameras and a production cast of thousands to ensure the most comprehensive coverage for a game expected to draw more than 30 million viewers.
But this year’s title game, like last year's, will have a number of alternative broadcasts in addition to the main telecast on ESPN. In what the company is calling its “CFP Megacast,” ESPN will offer more than a dozen alternate productions across multiple platforms, including presentations on ESPN2, ESPNU, ESPNews, ESPN Classic, ESPN Deportes, ESPN Goal Line, ESPN Radio, ESPN Deportes Radio and five variations on ESPN3.
“When we super-serve the hard-core fan, I think that is when ESPN is at its best,” said ESPN’s vice president for college football programming Ilan Ben-Hanan. “You’ve seen that with our World Cup coverage and some other events.”
Should you partake in any of the alterative coverage? I would, at least as part of a channel or computer surf. Below, we offer a viewers' guide to help you navigate the national championship game coverage:
Who is calling the main broadcast?
After replacing Brent Musburger as the lead announcer on the ABC Saturday Night package this season, Chris Fowler makes his title game broadcasting debut, following in the footsteps of Musburger, Keith Jackson and Chris Schenkel. Kirk Herbstreit serves as the analyst, with Heather Cox and Tom Rinaldi reporting from the sidelines. Kickoff is set for 8:30 p.m. ET.
What is Fowler thinking about heading into the game?
Well, he says it’s not the pressure of calling a college football championship for the first time, or following in the footsteps of iconic broadcasters. What concerns him most is the pace of Oregon and Ohio State’s offenses. “Calling the NFL is almost leisurely compared to this,” Fowler said. “The number of snaps is so much less than college. When you have two tempo teams going at each other, it’s a completely different style and philosophy of doing a game. There were some growing pains [this year] but at this point we are pretty used to [the pace]."
What’s the best Megacast alternative option?
The best alternative platform last year was the wonkish BCS Film Room, where a group of college football coaches (Steve Addazio of Boston College, Paul Chryst, then of Pitt, and Texas A&M's Kevin Sumlin) watched and analyzed the game in real time. The critical success of that production prompted ESPN executives to move the program to a bigger platform (ESPN2) this year. The coaches in the film room this year are Mississippi State's Dan Mullen, Pitt's Pat Narduzzi, Nebraska's Mike Riley and Vanderbilt's Derek Mason. (On Sunday night The Tennessean's Adam Sparks reported Mason had been added.) They’ll work alongside ESPN analysts Chris Spielman and Tom Luginbill. ESPN executives said the coaches were targeted specifically because of their connections to the title teams. Mullen worked as an assistant under Urban Meyer at multiple schools; Narduzzi was the defensive coordinator of a Michigan State team that played Ohio State and Oregon (the only team to do so); Riley coached Oregon State from 2003 to 2014; and Mason was a defensive assistant at Stanford from 2010-13. The group will provide X-and-O analysis of the game from a film room equipped with multiple camera angles and coach clicker technology at ESPN’s Bristol headquarters. Ben-Hanan said ESPN management had other coaches in mind had Alabama or Florida State won in the playoff semifinals. Again, it’s on ESPN2.
What’s a first-year Megacast feature that has promise?
I’m intrigued by Off the Ball on ESPNews, which will feature analysts Kevin Carter, Matt Millen, Jason Sehorn, Matt Stinchcomb, Amani Toomer and host Bob Wischusen focusing on the action away from the ball such as offensive and defensive line play and wide receiver-defensive back matchups not involved in the play. They will also look at coaching decisions.
“The idea originated when Matt (an All-America offensive tackle at Georgia and seven-year NFL vet) during a game he was working this year decided to focus solely on offensive line play during a series,” Ben-Hanan said. “It was different and cool. I’m not saying you would want to watch an entire game this way but it could be interesting. As the game develops, if there is a cool story about a specific offensive lineman versus a defensive lineman, or a wide receiver-defensive back matchup, you’ll likely see us focus on that.”
When did ESPN management consider doing a Megacast for this year’s game?
Immediately after last year’s BCS title game. The actual go-ahead came last November and last week they decided which ESPN platforms would air specific elements.
What kind of viewership is ESPN projecting for the Megacast elements?
Naturally, they won’t be going public with internal projections but I actually believe Ben-Hanan when he says ESPN management isn’t obsessing over numbers outside of the main telecast. “The executions outside of ESPN are really meant to be additive and a lot less about what kind of eyeballs they bring in,” Ben-Hanan said. “If you look back at the ratings for the Megacast last year, we were talking only 0.2 and 0.1 ratings. [Last year’s Title Talk element on ESPN2 drew 389,000 viewers, while Film Room drew 100,000 on ESPNNews]. What we get out of the Megacast is the opportunity to experiment and innovate. It’s the opportunity to make a big event feel bigger. Those things matter more than the ultimate Nielsen rating.”
What commercials will run on the Megacast?
Megacast elements with commercials get the same commercial feed as the main telecast.
Let’s say I am desperate to hear Aaron Boone’s take on Oregon-Ohio State. Will there be a channel for me?
Gee, you are in luck. Airing on ESPNU will be ESPN Voices, featuring a six-pack of ESPN talent (Jay Bilas, Boone, Julie Foudy, Barry Melrose, Mark Schlereth and Michael Wilbon) with no connection to college football. That group will be discussing the game live from ESPN’s L.A. studios. How will this play out? Who knows. The people on the set are smart enough not to make it train wreck television. “This is one of those things that could be really fun or not that interesting,” Ben-Hanan said. “Fans will tell us. To us, it’s a fun experiment.”
Who has the national radio call of the game?
ESPN Radio has the rights. Mike Tirico and Todd Blackledge are the lead broadcasting team, their fifth year calling the title game for ESPN Radio. The reporters are Holly Rowe and Joe Schad, and the broadcast will also have rules expert Bill Lemonnier.
What’s something to consider if you are an alum or current student of Oregon or Ohio State?
ESPN3 has a platform featuring an “Oregon Radio Call” (via Oregon IMG Sports Network) and an “Ohio State Radio Call” (via Ohio State IMG Sports Network). Those feeds will offer audio of the home radio broadcasters calling the game, plus isolated cameras on home team coaches and marquee players. “If you are a hard-core fan of one of those teams and you want to hear your local guy, we’re marrying that call to our television pictures,” Ben-Hanan said. “It’s very hyper-targeted to the really hard-core Oregon or Ohio State fan but to have that option is really cool.”
Will there be a Spanish language call?
Yep. ESPN Deportes will air the game with announcer Eduardo Varela and analyst Pablo Viruega. The game will also be available in Spanish on ESPN Deportes Radio.
What will ESPN’s trophy ceremony look like?
It will feature the usual coach-stroking and multiple sets with many people involved. John Saunders will host the actual ceremony. Rece Davis and Steve Levy will host one on-set group after the presentation; Scott Van Pelt the other. Analysts Desmond Howard, David Pollack, Tim Tebow, Mack Brown and Kirk Herbstreit will appear in some form.
What other Megacast platforms should you be aware for the game?
• ESPN Classic will feature Sounds of the Game with just natural sound and no announcers. This telecast will also include the pregame and halftime performances of the Oregon and Ohio State marching bands.
• ESPN3 will offer SpiderCam coverage, which is a view of the game from above the stadium.
• ESPN3 will have a commercial-free option with cameras located in special student sections.
• ESPN Goal Line will offer a full-time split-screen application showing the live game action, along with immediate replays of every play and isolated camera feeds of both head coaches, enhanced statistics and the ESPN Radio broadcast call. The Command Center will have other Megacast content during on-field media timeouts.
How can I view this outside of my TV?
Every Megacast option will be available through WatchESPN via computers, smartphones, tablets, Amazon Fire TV and Fire TV Stick, Apple TV, Chromecast, Roku, Xbox 360 and Xbox One.
What kind of viewership numbers do you predict?
The semifinal numbers project big ratings. Ohio State’s win over Alabama drew 28.3 million viewers while Oregon’s win over Florida State drew 28.2 million viewers. Those are the two biggest cable television audiences in history. For historical perspective: The 2006 Rose Bowl, featuring Vince Young and Texas defeating Matt Leinart and USC in a 41-38 thriller, is the most-watched college football game in history. That game averaged 35.6 million viewers on ABC. If Oregon-Ohio State is competitive heading into the final quarter, this game should top Texas-USC.
The Noise Report
SI.com examines some of the more notable stories of the week in sports media.
1. There were a number of memorial services for Stuart Scott over the weekend, including a public wake last Friday at Providence Baptist Church in Raleigh and a private funeral service held on Saturday. Scott, the popular ESPN SportsCenter anchor, died last Sunday at 49, seven years after first being diagnosed with stomach cancer in November 2007. Attending the services were well-known members of the sports community, including Tiger Woods and Larry Fitzgerald, and many ESPN-ers, from top management to on-air colleagues to PR staffers. ESPN host and anchor Scott Van Pelt was one of those who attended the wake and funeral. I asked Van Pelt if he would write about how the weekend impacted him. His words are below:
The services in North Carolina for Stuart were remarkable in many ways. An emotional and private conversation I had with Tiger Woods on Friday will stay with me. All I'm willing to share is two guys who have known each other 20 years were reflective about life, Stuart and family. Our ESPN family has never made me more proud. The show of force, so to speak, was formidable. The leadership both past and present all made the trip, and I'd hope it reminds everyone that while we are a convenient target, and make it easy on ourselves at time, our greatest strength is our people. Human beings who have immeasurable care and concern for our own. We are at our best in these circumstances time and time again.
But as good as our family was, and is, we pale in comparison to Stuart's. I don't know how to define the strength, grace, and magnificence of who they are but it was evident in every word that was spoken and sung by his sisters, brother, girlfriend and remarkable daughters. I told his parents, "Stuart had great pride in where he came from, and I'm not talking about North Carolina." It's clear Stuart isn't the only Scott of distinction, just the one you know.
Stuart and I often told each other the same thing: "Got love for you." It's easier for men to say it that way. One of his sisters asked me, "You know how much he loved you?" I'm thankful I could try my best to smile and answer, "Yeah ... I did"
1a. If you've had loss in your family, you will relate to this moving tribute to Scott by ESPN’s Kenny Mayne.
1b. Classy move here by Dick Vitale after the North Carolina (Scott’s alma mater) men's basketball team's victory over Louisville on Saturday.
1c. Fox rules analyst Mike Pereira remains a game-changing hire for his network. On the biggest play of the Packers-Cowboys playoff game Sunday, Pereira accurately and in easy-to-understand terms explained why Dez Bryant’s apparent catch should be overturned. You can debate the call, and the rule seems arcane, but you can’t debate Pereira is the best at what he does, week after week. Here’s Pereira explaining things after the game.
1d. Saturday's Patriots-Ravens game on NBC averaged 34 million viewers, a nine percent increase over the NFC divisional game last year (Saints-Seahawks) in that time slot. Viewership peaked at 41.6 million in the final quarter.
1e. Social media can be a rough place for the NFL’s vice president of officiating (some things here are NSFW).
1f. Bravo to the head of social media for the Detroit Lions for the tweet of the weekend.
2. Pat Summerall and John Madden are understandably the de facto answer for most people over 30 when asked who they consider the greatest NFL announcing team of all time. I opt for the current NBC Sunday Night Football team of Al Michaels and Cris Collinsworth, and part of the reason beyond booth chemistry and the announcers' ability to dissect a game is that I always felt they were working for viewers first, despite being an obvious part of the league apparatus. That’s what made Saturday night’s water-carrying for the NFL so infuriating to watch. Michaels and Collinsworth engaged in a Pravda-like reading and discussion on the findings of the Mueller Report, and as Baltimore Sun television critic David Zurawik noted here, the spot came off as prepared propaganda.
There’s an implicit understanding that league broadcasters traffic in the circles of league officials and players and coaches. For instance, Patriots owner Robert Kraft was a guest at CBS announcer Jim Nantz's wedding. But what separated Michaels (and especially Collinsworth) for me was that they always represented a certain level of independence on their broadcast. Deadspin was able to procure a feed that aired the broadcast truck setting up a shot of Goodell coming out of a commercial break and Michaels and Collinsworth talking to each other and their production team. It gives you insight into how close this was to China Central Television. The Boston Globe’s excellent Chad Finn covered the disappointing spot here, and it’s worth reading.
3. Sports Business Daily assistant managing editor Austin Karp, one of the top sports television ratings analysts in the country, examined the local ratings of NFL teams and found that teams averaged a 28.2 local rating in their respective home markets during the 2014 regular season, down slightly from last year but up from 2012 and ’11. Karp reported that the Packers led all NFL teams with a 45.2 local rating in Milwaukee (up five percent from ‘13). The Saints ranked second (though down 18 percent) and the Seahawks were third (up 10 percent). Here’s the full list.
3a. The NFL averaged an audience of 17.6 million viewers per game during the regular season. Those numbers were flat with 2013 (but up from 2011 and 2012) despite the addition of a broadcast partner for Thursday night games and the negative press from the Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson cases.
3b. The Cowboys played in four of the top 10 most-viewed regular season games in 2014, the most of any team.
3c. The NFL put out a press release saying that the 2014 regular season reached 202.3 million unique viewers, according to Nielsen, representing 80 percent of all television homes and 68 percent percent of potential viewers in the U.S.
3d. Other figures from the NFL release (which obviously is going to push positive numbers): NFL games accounted for 45 of the 50 most-watched TV shows among all programming this fall, and five NFL telecasts during the 2014 regular season were watched by 29.1 million or more viewers, up from one in 2013. The top regular season broadcast was Fox’s Thanksgiving Day coverage of Eagles-Cowboys (32.0 million).
4. Sports pieces of note:
• The unlikely story of a long-snapping Green Beret with an NFL dream.
• Addict. Priest. Luchador. Vice’s Eric Nusbaum on Padre Fray Tormenta.
• This Jimmy Breslin New York Magazine cover story on Joe Namath from April 7, 1969 is epic.
• SI’s S.L. Price profiled John Elway.
• Eric Raskin reported an oral history of Buster Douglas’s memorable upset of Mike Tyson.
• The Miami Herald’s Linda Robertson on what will become of baseball in Cuba.
• Really liked this Jeff Pearlman Q&A with Jim Rome producer Kyle Brandt.
• Thuc Nhi Nguyen and Kaia D'Albora of the University of Washington student paper had a very cool piece on the art of the alley-oop.
Non-sports pieces of note:
• The Washington Post’s Jessica Contrera on the real Bad Luck Brian.
• This week’s New Yorker cover.
• The Belfast Operation busting a 1980s cocaine cartel in Maine. Via The Magazine Of Maine.
• New York Daily News sports writer Andy Martino on the computer repairman who taught Taylor Swift how to play guitar.
• Via The Guardian: The Murder That Has Obsessed Italy.
• From The New Yorker: The Man To Take on Putin?
• From Nicholas Kulish of the New York Times: Old Nazis Never Die.
• European newspaper front pages after the terrorism in Paris.
5. Via Austin Karp: Here are the average primetime viewership numbers for cable sports networks in 2014:
ESPN: 2.32 million viewers
NFL Net: 385,000
Fox Sports 1: 340,000
NBC Sports Network: 300,000
MLB Network: 132,000
NBA TV: 128,000
Golf Channel: 123,000
Worth noting: ESPN topped USA Network (2.128 million viewers) this year as the most-watched U.S. cable network in primetime, the first time ESPN has done so … ESPN had its second-lowest primetime viewership since 2009 and ESPN2 has dropped significantly since averaging 634,000 viewers in primetime in 2010.
5a. ESPN’s coverage of the PBA World Championship on Sunday featured host Mike Jakubowski employing data analytics never previously available during a title broadcast, via RollTech bowling.
5b. Awful Announcing’s Ken Fang had a look at NBC’s Premier League ratings.
5b. ESPN is hiding from the New York Knicks.