SBJ/Nov. 8-14, 2010/SBJ In-Depth
ESPN Regional delivers holiday treats
Published November 8, 2010
Pete Derzis still isn’t sure why he kept all of those old NCAA tournament manuals. Probably the same reason that college graduates hang onto their old textbooks. You never know when you might need them, right?
Derzis, the senior vice president and general manager of ESPN Regional Television, began digging through the keepsakes from his days as an athletic administrator at the University of Alabama-Birmingham and found the old manuals in 2006. Perfect, he thought. They’ll come in handy now that ESPN is going deeper into the event business.
That year, ESPN’s syndication and production arm, Charlotte-based ESPN Regional Television, created its first eight-team holiday basketball tournament with the Old Spice Classic in Orlando.
The tournament’s first round was played on Thanksgiving Day, providing ESPN’s programming group with four college basketball games on a day typically reserved for football. Subsequent games were played on Friday and Sunday — Saturday was a day off for the teams because football takes up all of the programming windows.
While the traditional football games occupied ESPN on Thanksgiving Day, those basketball games turned into vital live programming for ESPN2 and ESPNU, a pair of platforms that otherwise would have been broadcasting archived games or lumberjack competitions at a time when viewers are home and networks have a captive audience.
“What we were able to do is provide quality content in windows that benefit the company at large,” Derzis said. “Nonconference scheduling still creates a lot of heartache in the intercollegiate world. Our events provide institutions the opportunity to play on a neutral floor against quality competition in games that could be a deciding factor for the NCAA tournament.”
When Derzis worked at UAB, the school served as the host institution for NCAA tournaments on several occasions. That put him in the position of having to run those first and second rounds or regionals, so he had quite a collection of NCAA manuals. He used them as a blueprint for the tournaments his group now produces.
Until then, ESPN Regional, a collection of 114 employees, was mostly a production and syndication unit of ESPN. ESPN Regional was formed in the early 1990s when ESPN acquired Creative Sports and Ohlmeyer Communications. ESPN Regional also dabbled in multimedia rights with a handful of schools, such as Kansas, Oregon and South Florida, before eventually getting out of that business three years ago.
ESPN Regional’s production side handles 1,450 events (almost exclusively college sports) a year for broadcast on one of ESPN’s platforms or in its syndication packages. ESPN Regional runs syndication for the SEC, Big 12 and Big East conferences.
It began creating and acquiring college football bowl games earlier this decade, but the Old Spice Classic in Orlando was the start of a basketball events business that has become core to the network’s programming through the holidays. The events also help ESPN meet the requirements it set forth in its contract with its conference partners to televise a certain number of events.
ESPN Regional now runs six basketball tournaments with eight teams each in Orlando, Cancun, Anaheim, Charleston, S.C., Puerto Rico and Honolulu. Detect a trend here? With these locales, it’s not difficult to attract teams.
That’s 72 games worth of programming in November and December, times when live content is typically lean.
“The idea was to create the Maui of the east,” Derzis said, referring to the Maui Invitational, which is considered the marquee holiday tournament because of its highly desired location and because it’s a well-run event with quality fields.
The events business isn’t what ESPN Regional would call a hugely profitable effort, at least not yet. The sales team at ESPN Regional works with ESPN sales president Ed Erhardt’s group to sell title and supporting sponsorships from the low to high six figures and up, depending on how much advertising inventory is included.
ESPN Regional rents the facility and sells the tickets. Derzis wouldn’t say how many of ESPN Regional’s events turn a profit, but it’s clear that if the group can break even on its events and deliver quality programming for ESPN platforms, it’s mission accomplished.
While ESPN Regional seeks teams whose fans typically travel well — Kentucky, North Carolina, Kansas, the usual basketball power programs — ticket sales are tough around the holidays. Ticket sales mostly target the fans coming from out of town to support their school, but ESPN Regional does not require schools to guarantee a certain number of tickets sold.
“Our charge is to benefit our clients,” said Derzis, and the clients are ESPN’s conference partners. “The goal is to have well-run events with good team functions, quality hotels, good officials and nice gifts for the players. The goal is to have a profitable event.
“But it’s fair to say that the events business is a challenging business right now. The reward has to be content for the network and quality matchups for the schools.”
ESPN Regional’s first event in Orlando in 2006 went so well that Derzis and Clint Overby, the division’s senior director of events, decided to duplicate the eight-team tournament in Anaheim. More events followed and soon ESPN Regional had a full-fledged events division with six, eight-team tournaments, two other doubleheaders, and eight bowl games, most of which have been created or acquired in the last five years.
In all, ESPN Regional runs more than 20 events, including the Wendy’s Champions Skins Game with IMG and the ESPNU Warrior Classic lacrosse doubleheader.
“It’s become a very logical extension of the college rights we own,” Overby said. “We’re a product of the conferences’ needs. We’re a vehicle to provide the teams with quality opportunities to play.”
The business exchange between ESPN and the schools is pretty straightforward. The network pays each of its participating schools a travel stipend, it negotiates discounted rates at luxury hotels, and gifts are provided for the players, just as the bowls provide gifts to the football players, which is permitted by NCAA rules.
ESPN also arranges a unique experience, such as an afternoon at Disney’s Hollywood Studios theme park for the players and their families, as well as a Thanksgiving dinner.
The scheduling is a collaborative effort between Derzis, Overby and ESPN’s college basketball scheduling czar, Nick Dawson, the director of programming and acquisitions for men’s basketball who is based in the Bristol, Conn., headquarters.
ESPN will produce and broadcast between 600 and 700 college basketball games this season and Dawson will have a hand in scheduling just about all of them. Another 500 or so will go to ESPN FullCourt, the pay-per-view product. Most will cross Dawson’s desk at some point.
Need a game on the night of Nov. 16? No problem. How about Kansas State and Virginia Tech, an attractive intersectional matchup. Need teams for the Hawaiian Airlines Diamond Head Classic in Honolulu on Christmas Day? Dawson has Baylor and Butler on speed dial.
When teams know that they’ll get national television exposure on one of ESPN’s platforms, rarely are they going to say no.
“A lot of factors go into scheduling,” said Rob Mullens, Oregon’s athletic director and the former deputy AD at Kentucky, where he handled the Wildcats’ scheduling. “You’re looking for marquee national games with tremendous visibility and distribution. Nick is the guy who takes all of those moving parts across all of the different conferences and puts them into games that you want to see on TV.”