ESPNU Uses Campus Connection Week To Give Back

By Carolyn Braff

For the past year, ESPNU, ESPN’s 24-hour college-sports network, has been building its Campus Connection program, an initiative designed to put more student-created content on the network over a variety of platforms. Last week, Jan. 19-24, that development inspired the first ESPNU Campus Connection Week, in which students from more than 40 schools participated in the production of 39 men’s and women’s college basketball games on ESPN, ESPN2, and ESPNU.

“The Campus Connection program is a big part of what we do, trying to get some more student-generated content on the network,” explains Dan Margulis, director of programming and acquisitions for ESPNU. “For this week, we were looking to make it not just a content exercise but also an academic one.”

That academic exercise involved giving students live-game experience in a variety of production roles, from play-by-play announcer and sideline reporter to camera operator and producer. With 39 games on the schedule for the week, there were plenty of opportunities to go around, and Margulis’s team used the ample content available to experiment with new ways to integrate students into each show.

The centerpiece of Campus Connection Week was Wednesday night’s Big 12 men’s basketball matchup between Nebraska at then-No. 5 Oklahoma. Oklahoma University has served as an ESPNU affiliate throughout the year, so the ESPNU team was already familiar with its work — and some of its students — prior to pulling into Norman for the game.

“We come in the day before, we have a production meeting, we walk through what our expectations are, but we don’t coach the students a great deal,” Margulis explains. “In a lot of these programs, the students are at a level where they don’t need a whole lot of coaching anymore. You don’t want to over-coach them either, because then the whole point of getting the student perspective is lost and it almost becomes too professional. That’s not what we’re trying to do; it’s more organic if the students come in and do it.”

Ten Oklahoma students played a part in that broadcast, serving as an audio assistant, play-by-play announcer, camera operator, producer, two statisticians, two sideline reporters, a utility/ENG reporter, and stage manager. Although the students each took a leadership role in an assigned position, ESPNU-hired professionals were on hand to answer any questions and troubleshoot throughout the production. During the week, the expert shadowed the student.

After the whirlwind week, Margulis and his team will step back, watch the clips, assess what worked, and make adjustments accordingly to continue to grow the Campus Connection initiative across all platforms, particularly in the digital space.

“The thing that was the most fun and most important part of this was that it really is a chance to not just get the student-generated content, which is important to us, but it has really become an academic giveback,” Margulis explains. “I think the schools are excited about the academic aspect because it gives them something tangible. We do so much with all these colleges across all these different sports that it enables them to say we’re getting something back from ESPN.”

And ESPN got plenty back from the schools as well.

“Being with students and listening to their reactions, whether they were talking to me or didn’t even realize that I was listening,” Margulis says, “that was a really positive experience for me.”

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