Verbatim: Nick Dawson, ESPN Director of Programming and Acquisitions for men’s basketball
Just how complicated is it to put together a televised schedule of over 1,000 college basketball games a year? How much influence does ESPN have over putting high-profile matchups together? Why isn’t the college basketball Gameday format flexible like its football counterpart?
One man would know the answers better than anyone else: Nick Dawson, ESPN’s Director of Programming and Acquisitions for men’s basketball. In the newest Verbatim, Nick discusses the Worldwide Leader’s leading role in the sport and what his life is like each season trying to bring the whole thing — nonconference matchups, holiday tournaments, league schedules — together. [Some answers have been edited for clarity.]
SI: What challenges do you face making a full-season schedule for ESPN?
Nick Dawson: The biggest challenge which people on the outside probably can recognize is the volume — the volume of games across the networks. So that’s sort of the first mega-challenge we face every year is the tonnage, managing through that process of getting all the games scheduled, finding windows for every game, and trying to ensure that we don’t err somewhere along the way, whether it be double-booking a window or something like that.
The second challenge is how do we make the schedule better every year? Obviously, we have a ton of games, a ton of great games every year, but what can we do to improve the product we’re putting out there, improve the rating, improve the experience from a fan perspective. It’s easy with the volume to get trapped in a world where you’re just cranking out the same schedule year after year after year, and I constantly challenge our group to think outside the box and come up with new ideas to elevate the schedule, to tweak it and make it better than it was last year.
SI: With multiple TV channels available, and then multiple streaming products like Watch ESPN and ESPN3, multiple conference deals that you have and nonconference [matchups], what falls into place in what order in terms of putting the master schedule together?
ND: I like to say scheduling for us is a year-round process. There’s no real start and stop to the cycle, but to give you an idea on how we approach it, the marquee nonconference stuff is usually the first thing to get built into a season schedule. Even right now, we’re having discussions, looking at things, planning some of the marquee nonconference type games for the 2014-15 season. It’s part of the process you have to do, we sort of have to get out way out in front of it as schools start to make commitments and build their schedules. It’s also to try to position the best marquee games you can find in the best possible window from an exposure standpoint.
That’s sort of step one of the process. The nonconference piece comes together throughout the year. The conference, the January through March, is a little more rigid. We usually start that process with our conference partners in maybe late-March, mid-April in terms of having discussions about thought processes. What we know about teams, what we think about teams projecting for next year, what the conference thinks. We’ll get input from our talent, stuff like that. Come late April, May, through the summer months is when conference schedules come together, and they usually all finish up around, as you’ve seen with our releases, they finish up and get announced anywhere from early August to late August, early September.
SI:You mentioned the nonconference piece coming together first as you look at each year’s schedule. Is that directly, or maybe indirectly, related to ESPN’s growing ownership of holiday tournaments and other events in the nonconference schedule? Does that make it easier to control your inventory in terms of what you put on TV?
ND: I wouldn’t say easier. It’s sort of different. In terms of tournaments, whether it’s ones we own and operate or ones where we’re just the TV partner, those are kind of their own separate bucket. Obviously, we have commitments for numbers of games and number of telecasts of those events and where they’re scheduled, so those are pre-built into the schedule and then fields get booked, some get booked multiple years in advance as opposed to year by year.
So the process we’re going through now, looking at ’14-’15, is more looking at the standalone nonconference games, so those that aren’t attached to an event or a challenge series, or something like that where it’s just school A is playing school B home-and-home and they’re returning the game next year. So it’s ‘What dates are they thinking about? What dates would be good for us from a TV perspective?’ and let’s see if we can get on the same page.
SI: What is the most important thing or things for you and your department in arranging matchups, whether it’s a standalone game for nonconference and making that a major TV focus or setting your conference schedules?
ND: I think a couple factors play in. Obviously, we try to become as educated we can in terms of perception of what teams are going to be good the following year. It’s always a gamble, so we have some hits and some misses every year in terms of teams we think are going to be good and try to feature in our schedule and maybe they don’t live up to our expectations, I guess. Beyond that, there’s obviously historically some teams that rate better than others, in terms of national brands, passion of the fan base, things like that, so our historical data can show things like that. Rivalries matter.
From a nonconference perspective, if it’s a standalone game or we’re just coming in to televise a game, we’re thinking about ‘Is this game going to draw eyeballs from a TV viewership standpoint?’ That’s our number one goal there. If it’s an event that we own and operate, obviously the factor of attendance and driving ticket sales also comes into the mix in terms of teams that are more locally-centric or geographically centric that will put butts in the seats.
SI: Scheduling is obviously a challenge for college basketball programs as well as they try to ensure they have a certain number of home games and revenues for the program. I hear all the time coaches are asked by ESPN or other broadcasters to play a game that for whatever reason they cannot manage to put in their schedule. How often do you run into that where you want to put a game in, whether it’s a marquee game for the 24-hour marathon or a standalone game where the deal falls through?
ND: I would say we get far more nos than we do yesses. That’s part of the challenge and reality you learn about the job is that people on the outside probably think that the success rate there is probably a lot higher than it is in reality, so that’s something ongoing every single year. We’re always out there, either trying to put however high-quality matchups we think will appeal to fans, whether in event setups or home-and-home matchups and frankly, to throw a percentage on it, maybe 75 percent of the time, you strike out and 25 percent of the time, you have success. So you enjoy some of the successes, and move on to the next one.
SI: Why do the basketball College Gameday venues get predetermined in advance when football has the flexibility to pick its next venue a week ahead of time?
ND: Good question. It’s a question that comes up a lot with us. So, a couple things that are factors for us on the basketball side. One being we have the primetime show on Saturday night with Gameday that serves as the cockpit show, I guess pregame show for the game where they’re at. So I guess that’s one of the reasons we haven’t gone to a model where that morning show just floats to the best game of the day and we can react week by week. That primetime show is linked to it and we need that primetime show to be played at the site of the game being played at 9 o’clock Eastern time on Saturday night.
So that’s one of the reasons. The other thing I think from my perspective in college basketball, once you get to January, frankly the best games don’t always fall on Saturday. We have games Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday nights. A lot of the games are marquee games with our weeknight franchises. So the depth of quality of games on Saturday is probably a little bit different than it is in college football and certainly adds some Saturdays with Gameday that the game that we picked, predetermined and picked, hasn’t lived up to expectations. I’d say more often than not, the game that we’re at is one of one or two of the best games of the day.
SI: How has conference realignment affected your job in terms of programming?
ND: It’s definitely had impact. For the first time in quite awhile, this past offseason we really had to sort of look at our overall schedule and revamp it a little bit. Obviously, the old Big East played a huge role in our basketball schedule in terms of volume and windows. So with that conference splitting up and how the rights situation worked out, we had to go back in and make some changes and reschedule our games to try to put the best games in the best windows. That’s sort of our goal every year we sit down to do this. Obviously, we have contracts we have to work within but the overarching goal is to do whatever we can, working with our conferences, to try to put the best games in the windows that will draw the best viewership.
SI: What are one or two things we haven’t discussed that the college basketball fan that watches ESPN wouldn’t understand about your job and how you put things together that, if they knew that, they’d have a better picture of what ESPN is trying to do every basketball season?
ND: One thing we sort of touched on already but I think is a misperception out there, I would tell you I think the general public probably thinks ESPN arranges more games than we actually do. I would tell you that the number of games actually arranged by ESPN each year, in terms of team A is playing team B, is a very small number in comparison to the number of games we do overall. So I think that’s one misconception that’s out there a little bit.