This is an autopilot thought but it’s worth writing again: When ESPN avoids its Baylessian tendencies and channels its assets into smart editorial and programming, it’s an unmatched force in sports television. On Monday night we saw the company at its very best with its Megacast broadcast for college football’s title game. It’s a massive undertaking, and once again it was superbly done. ESPN offered more than 14 alternative broadcasts for Clemson’s thrilling 35–31 win across multiple platforms, including presentations on ESPN2, SEC Network, ESPNU, ESPNews, ESPN Classic, ESPN Goal Line and variations on ESPN3. Think of the producers, operations, audio, graphics and all the behind the scenes people working to make this production successful. An ESPN spokeswoman said about 500 staffers worked on the game telecast and the various Megacast elements from the game site as well as from studios in Los Angeles, Bristol, Conn., and Charlotte. The company was rewarded for its exceptional efforts with a great night.
While the Megacast is a tremendous user-friendly product, more than 95% of viewers will still watch the game through the main telecast. Prior to the broadcast, I spoke with Bill Bonnell, who has produced the title game for ESPN/ABC for many years. For people at Bonnell’s level, the charter for a successful broadcast is specific. “From the production standpoint, the worse case scenario is that you will miss a snap or something live, which you don’t want to happen,” Bonnell said. “You have to be disciplined as a production team to not over-replay and go to the replays that really make sense at the time.
The Bonnell crew had an advantage in one sense. His crew (including director Derek Mobley, lead broadcasters Chris Fowler and analyst Kirk Herbstreit) had done five Clemson games in 2016, including the ACC Championship Game. They also did Alabama-USC on Sept. 3. “It really helps as the producer to have a good feel on how [the offense] will time out,” Bonnell said. “Our familiarity here is very good for the broadcast.”
That showed on a fourth down with 9:23 left in the third quarter when Herbstreit referred back to a pooch kick Clemson had called the prior week, and suggested quarterback Deshaun Watson might do the same thing. “Does Deshaun have that in his skill set?,” Fowler asked. “I think we might find out here,” Herbstreit responded.
We did. Fowler delivered an excellent call of Hunter Renfrow’s third-quarter touchdown catch a couple of minutes later as Herbstreit diagnosed how Alabama cornerback Hootie Jones knocked safety Tony Brown off his coverage to allow the touchdown. A very good sequence in a night of many of them.
The fourth quarter lasted longer than a Dostoyevsky novel.
Herbstreit was too early in his call (“A legend is born here in Tampa in Jalen Hurts”) after Hurts scored with 2:07 left to give Alabama a 31–28 lead. There would be no new Alabama legends on this night, only a brilliant orange comeback from Clemson. Bonnell provided two great iso replays on the pass interference call on Mike Williams with six seconds left prior to Clemson’s game-winning score. The director and producer were on their A-game in the final minutes.
Fowler does not have the big voice of Verne Lundquist, Gus Johnson, Keith Jackson or even Joe Tessitore, but he is well prepared and sees the field very well. He was on top of his game on Clemson’s final drive when he recognized Clemson was taking a lot of time, as well as on the final play of the game. The game ended on an odd note as far as broadcast drama, but rules expert Dave Cutaia nailed that Clemson had recovered the on-side kick and would simply have to kill the clock. Well done.
(I watched the Megacast options for the first half and the main telecast for most of the second. Here’s some top-line observations)
• ESPN’s pregame show offered the point spread as well as the over/under in a graphic prior to the game. Gambling is a big part of the sport. That data is appreciated.
• The ESPN2 Homers Telecast was oddly very compelling. Tessitore and Adam Amin are quality broadcasters and seeing (key word) them call the game from the field was particularly interesting. Former Clemson quarterback Tajh Boyd and Alabama offensive lineman Barrett Jones offered interesting analysis amid the expected rah-rah. One thing I really liked: Seeing Tessitore running toward Bo Scarbrough as the Alabama running back scored his second quarter touchdown. The only unnecessary element was the Twitter feed on the bottom third of the screen. Kudos to producer Steve Ackels and director John Vassallo. Ackels oversees football for the SEC Network while Vassallo oversees a bunch of sports, including lacrosse, the Frozen Four, and wrestling. Tessitore’s call of the final touchdown was the highlight on any channel. This was the best Megacast option of the night for me.
• The best moments of the Coaches Film Room were the conversations that broke out when the game went to break. The channel had limited commercials (ESPNews is not Nielsen-rated so commercial load would not have as much impact) and that’s when you could really get a sense of the knowledge. For example, all the coaches tried to determine if Renfrow made a catch with under 10 minutes left in the third quarter as well as guessing what to call next on a potential fourth down play. They also had a very fun back and forth on whether a Clemson receiver ran a pick play on its fourth quarter touchdown, as well as praising the physique of the officials.
This year’s group of coaches consisted of Steve Addazio (Boston College), Dino Babers (Syracuse), Dave Doeren (NC State), Mike MacIntrye (Colorado), Matt Rhule (Baylor) and Kalani Sitake (BYU). For me, it was one or two coaches too many when they were talking in-game. But this feature has consistently been terrific and it’s particularly fascinating on scores, when you can watch the All-22 angle and see how the blocks were set up.
• I’m always inclined to like the Finebaum Film Room if an SEC team is in the title game. This broadcast was tight (just four voices including Finebaum, SEC Network analysts Greg McElroy and Booger McFarland and Florida head coach Jim McElwain) and the analysis sharp. McElroy (“This is a really bad execution by Alabama.”) and McFarland (“This quarterback has had a terrible night.”) were honest about Alabama prior to Hurts’s remarkable 30-yard TD run.
• The Sounds of the Game feature on ESPN Classic (no broadcasters) was great for halftime. Much respect talents and dedication of the kids in the marching bands.
• I watched about 10 minutes of ESPNU (CFB Voices), where I saw Bill Walton dressed as Uncle Sam. As always, the issue with the voices/personality room is that there are too many voices talking simultaneously (and too many windows on screen) to stick with it for long bouts. But Walton is an American treasure.
• I’ve never seen more ESPN talent eating on the air as much as I did during the Megacast. The ad opportunities here are endless.