Inside ESPN’s College Gameday
Senior Coordinating Producer Micheal Fountain takes SLAM behind the scenes of ESPN’s College Gameday.
by Franklyn Calle
Returning for its seventh season this Saturday, ESPN’s College Gameday basketball will be debuting from Knoxville, Tennessee, where the Tennessee Volunteers will be hosting Vanderbilt in a double-header, with the men’s game scheduled to tip-off at noon, followed by the women’s game at 8pm.
For the first time since its inception, the show will be expanding into a two-hour program. The extra hour of analysis will kick off on ESPNU at 10am for the first hour and then continue on ESPN at 11am, followed by an evening one-hour edition at 8pm. The only exception will be this Saturday the 15th, when ESPN airs the first hour at 10am followed by ESPNU at 11am. All Saturday Primetime game of week will be aired at 9pm, except this Saturday and January 29th.
College Gameday’s returning cast includes show host Rece David, along with analysts Jay Bilas, Digger Phelps, Hubert Davis and Bob Knight. Calling the Saturday Primetime games will be Dick Vitale and Dan Schulman right from courtside.
The popular 8-week show can be considered a spinoff of the prominent College Gameday football version, which first aired in 1987. The first two seasons went seven-week deep before adding an eighth week in 2007. It has continued to gain notoriety and is coming off its best year in terms of crowd attendance, with a record breaking crowd at the University of Kentucky. The show is best known for its in-depth basketball analysis, news and features, alternating campus on a weekly basis accompanied by thousands of die-hard fans in its backdrop.
SLAM had an opportunity to catch up with College Gameday’s Senior Coordinating Producer Michael Fountain on Wednesday and got a behind-the-scenes look at the show as he and his staff prepared to tip-off another basketball season.
SLAM: What are your responsibilities as Senior Coordinating Producer?
Michael Fountain: I oversee all of College Gameday hoops. I do football as well. It basically means overseeing the entire production, working with the analyst and Rece Davis – the host, on content for the show, as well as with our producer on trying to develop the best discussions for the show each week. Also, working with our features department on the best features we could put up each week, overseeing the logistical layout, working with our operations department—sort of a traffic cop, keeping everything moving and keeping everybody on the same page and moving in the same direction.
SLAM: Being that you guys are at a different campus every week, how do you guys go about the site selection during the offseason?
MF: You know, basketball is a little different than football. With football is sort of on the fly. We usually don’t decide until Sunday or Monday of that week. With basketball the schedule is set pretty much in August or September and we’re generally on the site of ESPN primetime game on Saturday night.
SLAM: The games are every Saturday – when does preparation start for that specific week?
MF: I mean, we start on Monday. We have our meetings on Monday discussing what we are going to do Saturday. From a logistical standpoint, our tech crew, the staging crew and the trucks generally would roll in Wednesday night or Thursday morning – depending on the location. We begin setting up Friday morning and then we start doing TV Friday afternoon with segments for ESPNEWS and SportsCenter. We do a couple of segments live and then we tape a couple of segments that will air on the overnight SportsCenter. The challenge with basketball is that sometimes court access is restricted on Friday due to team walkthroughs or other scheduled events going on in the arena – it could be girl’s basketball, it could be a concert, it could be whatever the case may be – so basketball is a little bit more of a challenge in that sometimes we can not even set up until – there’s been some occasions where we couldn’t set up until Friday night just because of the events scheduled at the arena. So basically we have the best crew in the business. It’s generally the guys who do Gameday football transition right onto Gameday basketball. They’re the best in the business and we’re always ready to go on someway, somehow.
SLAM: That actually moved us forward to my next question. What are some of the differences between College Gameday basketball and football, in terms of preparation and challenges?
MF: Football was three hours. This was the first season we did three hours. And it’s a bigger setup. It’s a much larger setup with football. So football is a little more complex but with basketball in the middle of the winter you got travel delays, you got arenas that are booked on Friday night – that doesn’t help us out. This year Gameday basketball is expanding from one hour to two hours; the first hour will generally air on ESPNU and the second hour from 11 to noon will air on ESPN. So gives us a little bit more of a challenge in terms of making sure we have enough content every week — is generally not a problem because we can roll the ball out there and say ‘guys, lets talk about that,’ and they’ll fill up the time so there’s no worries there. I think the biggest difference is dealing with winter weather, which usually causes two to three delays during the season. Sometimes on Friday the guys may not get there, or even the production staff may not get to town until, you know, sometimes we haven’t gotten there until later Friday afternoon, which puts us behind the curve and we’re really scrambling. I think that’s one of the biggest challenges we have. The other difference is, you know, Gameday basketball is in its seventh year, so it’s not as established as Gameday football. We’re still working to get to that point. Last year, we had great season in terms of crowd. We set an attendance record at Kentucky of nearly 21,000; it was ridiculous. I believe in Kansas State we had 13,000. And I believe at Illinois we had 15,000. Last year, in terms of crowd attendance and growing awareness of the show, it was our best year. The show is starting to get some inroads and people are starting to pay attention. The ratings are going up. So we’re starting to get a foothold. A large part of that is due to the guys on the set – Rece Davis, who’s tremendous, and Jay Bilas, who knows basketball and is as opinionated as anybody, and you have Digger Phelps and Hubert Davis. It’s the on air chemistry between the guys. They work well together. They love the sport. Gameday basketball is different in some aspects in that Gameday basketball we have a little bit of more time for guys to do things on campus. There were a couple of times last year when the guys actually went out on Friday evening and met with students and had informal dinner with students and had Q&A sessions. We’re trying to build the popularity of the program and little things like that help out. So we’re getting there and this year we’re poised of having another great year in terms of crowd awareness and attendance.
SLAM: Not to put you on the spot, but out of all the campuses you guys film at, which ones have been the most impressive?
MF: That’s a good question. Well, Kentucky just because of the size. We’ve been to Kansas. Phog Allen Fieldhouse is tremendous in terms of the historic nature of the place. We’ve been to Pitt, which is my alma mater. It’s always fun to take the show back to your alma mater. Every place we go, and not to duck your question, but every place we go to are pretty unique in itself, just in terms of the history and the arena. Some of these arenas are just classic, and some of them are old school and you just walk in for the very first time – I had not been to many of these places until I started working on Gamedays. You walk into some of these places that I probably would have never gone to and you get goosebumps because you think about the memory and the history of the place.
SLAM: How do you and your staff try to get College Gameday basketball to the same level as College Gamday football, which has been running since 1987?
MF: I think it’s just by putting on the best show that we can. We try to make it different from Gameday football. We try not to just make it a spinoff from Gameday football; we try to give it its own identity. One of the things we have been successful with in Gameday football the last two or thee years is the guest picker. We have the guest picker come on every week to help out with the picks at the end of the show. Some folks have pushed for that on Gameday basketball and we said ‘No, no; that’s Gameday football.’ We try to make Gameday basketball unique in itself. We have the sponsored half court shot that State Farm sponsors, which is starting to gain popularity. We try to make it different. There are some things that aren’t different; the discussions are key to both shows. So with Gameday basketball is about trying to putt on the best TV as different as we could make it, if that makes any sense.
SLAM: During the offseason, how do you guys go about changing certain segments and keeping others, etc?
MF: We rely a lot on the analysts — Jay, Digger, Hubert, and Rece. Because they know the game so well. I’m not going to know more about the game than those guys do. So basically it’s like, ‘hey guys, what makes sense this week?’ Producers and I have our own ideas but at the end of the day, you want to find a topic that is smart and that the guys are going to be passionate about because that’s when you’re going to get the best TV. You really don’t want to force them into talking about something that they’re not into or they don’t like, or whatever the case may be. It’s a team collaboration. We all come together. We disagree with them on some topics and push back and they say okay. But obviously you’re going to get the best TV when we agree on the topic, not necessarily the opinions. Just the topic itself.
SLAM: Are there any changes or additions to this year’s College Gameday?
MF: One thing we are trying to do this year and we’re actually going to do it this Saturday at Tennessee, we’re down at Knoxville, we’re actually going to put a mic on – we’re hoping – on Scotty Hopson, who’s one of Tennessee’s best players. The men’s game is at noon on Saturday, it’s a double-header. The men are at noon and the women at 8pm. So the men’s game will follow Gameday. While we’re on the air, the players will be on the floor stretching and shooting around. We are hoping to put a mic on Scotty Hopson, and put Hubert Davis on the floor with him and do a live interview with him as he’s shooting or whatever he’s doing, just trying to get inside the mindset of a player – you know, what their routine is? How to get ready for the game? What are their thoughts? What is he trying to work on in his pre-game warm-ups? – all that type of stuff.
SLAM: For you personally, what is the most fun part of your job and the most challenging part?
MF: Getting to go to these venues that I would have likely not gotten to on my own. Being able to meet the coaches and talk to the players. You learn so much about the game. Being around our guys, just sitting back at the production meetings and just listening to them break down the game – things that I would never think of – that’s the fun part of the job for me. Most challenging part is just taking care of all the details. Producing a show is somewhat easy. Again, you’re working with guys who have more knowledge than anyone. That’s not that difficult. What is difficult, is trying to take their content and their thoughts and wisdom, and trying to come up with creative ways to present them to the audience. With college basketball, we’ve taken some risks over the years. We’ve taken a game show approach to some topics. We did a segment two years ago, I believe, where we did a spinoff of Howie Madel’s show with the suitcase – Deal or No Deal. We’ve taken some risks and pushed the envelope a little bit, in terms of finding a creative way to present this great information from the guys to the viewers. You try to mix it up every week. You don’t want to fall into a trap where the A segment of the show every week is this, and the B’s are going to have this, and the C’s are these. From a production standpoint that’s a challenge to mix it up every week so the viewers don’t say, ‘I know what’s coming next.’ That’s when you could lose your viewers. You want to give them something new every week in a different style.
SLAM: What would you suggest to high school and college students who might be looking to get into the television production field?
MF: Get an internship anywhere. Volunteer to do anything at any station you can get to. TV is not an easy thing to get into. If you know someone, use them as much as you can, and don’t feel bad about it because we all had to do that. And once you get in, you gotta figure out which direction you want to go. There are so many different aspects. There are so many other different pieces to the machine that are just as important or as interesting as being on air. My own personal story, I graduated from the University of Pittsburgh. I had an internship at a local TV affiliate my last semester. I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I was an intern at the PR department. But I sort of wanted to do news, so I would always hung out at the news rooms after my shift upstairs was done. They just saw me standing around and watching all the time. Then I graduated and went a month or so without a job. Sent a million resumes. I couldn’t get anyone to pick up the phone. I was downtown hanging out with my buddies one day and I saw this lady from CBS affiliate who I recognized from the newsroom. We exchanged greetings and she said, ‘Hey, by the way, did you hear we have a production assistant opening?’ I ran to a pay phone. I called, they remembered me and said ‘Come on down.’ Sometimes is a matter of being at the right place at the right time. Is who you know — especially in small markets, I just encourage high school kids or college kids that smaller stations don’t have paid internships, they don’t have a lot of paid positions, so I just encourage people to go down and volunteer for anything. I don’t care if you are running to get coffee or delivering scripts. Whatever it is, just to get in the door and learn, and let them get familiar with you and let them see your drive, passion, and desire. Hopefully that could lead to something in the future.