For Lacrosse Coverage, ESPNU Fills Dual Role: Broadcaster/Promoter

By Carolyn Braff

Lacrosse is one of the nation’s fastest-growing sports — at least at the high school level — and ESPNU is doing its best to speed that growth at the college level as well. The network began its lacrosse coverage last weekend, boosting its game-day content by miking a coach and getting student-athletes involved in the production. With more than half of this season’s 45 televised games scheduled to be in HD, ESPNU is positioning itself as lacrosse’s biggest advocate in 2009.

“What we’re doing is being a strong custodian for the game,” explains John Vassallo, senior coordinating producer for lacrosse coverage on ESPNU. “One of our objectives this year is to grow viewers commensurate with how the sport is growing nationally. What really challenges us is how do we get behind the scenes without compromising the game? That’s our primary mandate every year.”

This year, going behind the scenes means giving viewers more access than ever before. The season’s opening weekend included miking Johns Hopkins head coach Dave Pietramala, and four more coaches will be miked at this weekend’s Konica Minolta Face-Off Classic in Baltimore. Sound-bite packages will be rolled out throughout the broadcasts, highlighting the coaching styles of Hopkins’s Pietramala, Princeton’s Bill Tierney, Maryland’s Dave Cottle, and Duke’s John Danowski.

“We are refining how we cover the game,” Vassallo explains. “We try to keep the game sacred, covering it as purely and effectively as we can, but, at the same time, try to get access where we can. We try to build up relationships with the coaches so they will consider wearing microphones and allow us into their locker rooms. That gives the viewers the kind of access that they’re becoming accustomed to.”

In addition, last week, a student-athlete from Johns Hopkins used an ESPNU flip camera all week to shoot practice and some campus-life scenes, which became just as valuable to the game coverage as the on-the-field action.

“On ESPNU, our viewers not only want to watch Maryland-Hopkins for the athleticism on the field but for the lacrosse traditions that happen on a Saturday,” Vassallo says. “There’s forever a balance between the proper documentation of the game and using downtime to drive home what makes the game special, a particular student-athlete special, the program special, and the university special.”

Generally, Vassallo, says, athletic departments give ESPNU a tremendous amount of cooperation when it comes to access, so it is up to his team to ensure that such access to color stories does not impinge on the integrity of the game.

Also helping to maintain the game’s integrity is ESPN’s commitment to HD. Of the 45 lacrosse games ESPN will broadcast this year, 23 will be in HD, including this weekend’s Konica Minolta Face-Off Classic on ESPNU HD. Any time a sport is shown in high-definition, Vassallo says, it helps bring casual viewers to the game. However, no matter how beautiful that 16:9 picture is, he adds, the production team must remember that it is providing content for a 4:3 audience as well.

“One of our challenges with lacrosse is, how can we bring the viewer close enough to the action but not too close that you lose the left-to-right passing when you’re in the settle area,” Vassallo explains. “While the experience is improved for the HD viewer, for the SD viewer, you still have to cover the game as if you’re viewing it on a 4:3 monitor. So it’s a balance. We’d like to push the envelope a little bit, but you can’t push it too much, because, if you lose the SD viewer, then you’re gaining one and losing another.”

Similarly, Vassallo hopes the network’s coverage will strike a balance between giving avid fans the in-depth coverage they crave, while simultaneously offering a bridge to bring casual viewers closer to the game. ESPNU’s analysts strive to teach the game as much as they discuss it, being careful not to miss any face-offs or upset the game coverage, which Vassallo deems sacred.

“You want to document the action, but you want to use opportunities to go to wireless-mike material, take people inside the huddles, run a feature on what the Hopkins team takes during the week,” Vassallo explains. “With lacrosse, you don’t have sanctioned TV stoppages, and the flow of the game is very important, so that’s one of the challenges that keeps me up at night: how do we draw the new viewers without losing the existing ones.”

One way to do so is to televise more games in prominent time slots. To that end, ESPN is working with the NCAA to make some changes to Championship Weekend, the lacrosse final four, which takes place annually on Memorial Day weekend. The times of Saturday’s semifinal games have been adjusted in recent years to try to attract maximum viewership, and the latest conversations have Monday’s national championship game, which is broadcast on ESPN, moving to primetime.

“That can be a little bit of a matrix for our programming group to deal with, as far as clearing the time on what’s a very busy sports weekend,” Vassallo explains. “But the lacrosse coaches and the committees are very forward-thinking. It’s much easier to grow a sport like this when you have coaches and NCAA committee members that trust us. You need that relationship to take steps toward making the product more televisable and moving it into viewing windows that are as effective as they can be.”

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