When I was first asked in August to join the broadcast team for the NCAA championships, it was not an immediate yes. The main reason for the hesitancy was that I don’t really want to get into regular commentating – I prefer writing. There are no redos or editors in the booth, and with just one take during such an important event, that’s an immense amount of pressure.
Ultimately, I said yes to this one for two reasons. The first is that being ten years removed from my college graduation, I was starting to feel a bit out of touch with what was happening in the NCAA. Covering professional running has consumed the majority of my attention and so I viewed this as an opening to dive back in.
But the main factor was that the ESPN coverage the previous two years was excellent – like, a truly top-notch TV production. If the sport was covered this well all the time, then it would solve a lot of our problems. There were regular meetings with the entire team to break down the storylines as they unfolded throughout the season. It’s of course important for the on-air talent (sorry, but I get to call myself “on-air talent,” now) to be well acquainted with the details, but equally so for the producer and director. After all, what’s actually shown on-screen at any given moment is their call.
And one unexpected bonus is that there was a lot of conversation about how to improve the broadcast, which extended to asking fans for their feedback. A contribution of mine that I was glad to see was well-received was the intermittent updates on a team’s fifth runner. I’d have loved to get even more in the weeds on these less-heralded battles, but man, there are only twenty or thirty minutes to cover 31 teams and 255 athletes and it flies by.
Beforehand, I compiled pages of notes and I thought my few sheets of scratch paper were sufficient until I saw Carrie and John show up with binders full of prepared material. By no means did I feel like I was underprepared or coasting in, but I was floored by that pair. They put in so much effort and brought so much professionalism to the final product, much of which goes unseen.
Any jitters I was experiencing before going live completely disappeared the second we went on air – there’s no room for nervousness when your entire brain is focused on the event at hand, which is developing impossibly quickly. Ultimately, you just need to know the players because there isn’t time to look up specific stats. I was told beforehand that you’ll get to say maybe 10% of what you might want to, and if there’s any background vital to share with viewers, to make sure it gets put out there in the first half of the broadcast.
You also might be surprised to know that we don’t have access to any information that viewers at home don’t also have access to, minus the occasional post-it note passed to us by a producer with splits or some historical implications.
While no one likes the sound of their own voice – even me! – I knew I had to go back and watch the broadcast. There were a few occasions during the women’s race when I wasn’t entirely happy with my presentation, though overall I wasn’t cringing while revisiting it. And maybe it was the slightly longer race or the first rep under my belt, but I was generally pleased with how I sounded during the men’s.
While I now have pages of notes as to how I can improve, I feel confident that fans could have muted their televisions entirely and it would have still made for great entertainment. (And I also feel a bit of relief knowing I didn’t say the most controversial line of the broadcast, which came when Minnesota’s Carrie Tollefson referred to Rockland County as upstate New York.)
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