Wednesday, March 19, 2003

All women's games on ESPN

By Chuck Schoffner
The Associated Press

ESPN is breaking new ground by televising all 63 games of the NCAA women's basketball tournament, a commitment the network says won't waver, even if it takes men's games from CBS.

This will be the first time the women's tournament has been on televised in its entirety, from the opening tip of the first subregional game on Saturday morning to the final buzzer at the national championship game in Atlanta the night of April 8.

"This is a big marquee event for us," said Carol Stiff, ESPN's manager of programming and acquisition. "We feel this is the next move, the next logical step, to give viewers a chance to watch all the games they want to watch."

Those plans won't change if a war in Iraq forces CBS to seek other networks for the men's games, ESPN spokesman Josh Krulewitz said. CBS and ESPN have discussed the possibility of the all-sports network carrying games from the men's tournament if CBS goes to full-time news coverage of the war.

"At this time, our (women's) coverage will not be lessened in any way," Krulewitz said Tuesday. "There would not be any change."

The women's and men's tournaments conflict on Saturday and Sunday, when the women play their first-round games and the men have their second round. The men play first-round games on Thursday and Friday, while the women play the second round on Monday and Tuesday.

CBS could shift the games to another of the networks owned by CBS' parent company, Viacom. Other Viacom networks include MTV, UPN, BET, TNN, VH1, CMT, Nickelodeon, Comedy Central and TV Land.

ESPN has other events on its weekend schedule as well, including an NBA doubleheader Friday night, the LPGA on Saturday and Sunday, and tennis on Sunday, so it probably could not handle all of the men's games.

The cable network also might have to take an NHL game, another NBA game and auto racing if ABC goes to full war coverage - but not at the expense of the women's tournament.

"It's a huge priority for us," Krulewitz said.

The network will show the 48 first- and second-round games in 21 telecast "windows," with as many as four games being played at once. Last year, ESPN carried 31 games during the tournament.

Most of the nation will get "whiparound" coverage, with EPSN jumping from game to game. Viewers in the local market of the competing teams will see those games in their entirety. The true junkie can sign up for ESPN Full Court and get every game on a pay-per-view basis.

Starting at the regional level, all games will have their own time slot and will be shown from start to finish. Along the way, the network will feature different players and teams.

"We want people to know more than just Diana Taurasi and Alana Beard," said Tina Thornton, coordinating producer for the tournament coverage. "We want people to get a grasp on who they're watching and why they're watching them."

When several games are on at once, ESPN will have a spotter watching each game to alert the producers of interesting developments.

"It really depends on not just the score, but what the story is," Thornton said. "Alana Beard might have a record-setting point total at the end of a half and we might go to that.

"So it's not just following close games. It's trying to follow stories. Story telling is going to be the most important decision in going from game to game."

Finding analysts for the announcing teams was a challenge, Thornton said, because the women's tournament has 16 sites for first- and second-game games, twice as many as the men.

ESPN tapped some of its regulars, such as Nancy Lieberman, Ann Meyers, Vera Jones and Doris Burke; found others who had done games on regional networks and held auditions for some spots.

The auditions brought in some big names - WNBA players Sue Bird, Swin Cash and Lisa Leslie, former Florida coach Carol Ross and Houston Comets coach Van Chancellor. Another WNBA player, former Oklahoma star Stacey Dales-Schuman, will join Rece Davis and Nell Fortner in the studio.

Bird and Cash helped Connecticut beat Dales-Schuman's team in the national championship game last year.

"We're very pleased with Stacey," Thornton said. "She's a hard worker. She, Sue and Swin study very, very hard. They want to be good at what they do. They don't want to come in and fail."

ESPN is in the first year of an 11-year, $200 million deal with the NCAA to television 21 national championships. The women's basketball tournament is part of that deal.

"It's a huge undertaking," Thornton said. "Don't expect us to be 100 percent perfect along the way. We'll probably make some mistakes and learn from the mistakes.

"But we're going to grow as we learn. We're really excited about what we can do."

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