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Sports Media: ESPN sees strong interest ahead of NCAA women’s tournament

ESPN coordinating producer Patricia Lowry wasn’t necessarily surprised when she saw viral videos last spring showing the inequity between the men’s and women’s NCAA basketball tournaments.

After all, Lowry has worked on the women’s tournament for two decades and was intimately familiar with all aspects of the tournament. She leads ESPN’s NCAA Tournament production efforts.

“More of what I was surprised about was the interest it generated and how big the story got,” Lowry said. “It was a mixed bag. It has ended up being great for the sport, but I also felt like it was just tough on a lot of people who were really trying hard to do everything that I was trying to do, which is grow the game. They just needed more resources.”

ESPN historically has treated the women’s tournament as a big event, and that won’t change this year, Lowry said.

“We’ve added a lot of things the past few years,” she said. “While we have a lot of new and cool things that we’re trying, I don’t feel like it’s generated just specifically because of gender equity.”

ESPN will have three alternate telecasts for this year’s Final Four and a show that will resemble the successful “ManningCast” on “Monday Night Football.”espn images

Still Lowry said this year’s tournament will see several important changes, starting with the growing level of interest around the event.

ESPN sold out ad sales and sponsorships 40 days before the tournament’s opening tip, Lowry said.

“That’s a big change, and it certainly changes what you’re doing because you’re trying to figure out smart ways to include sponsorship without taking away from your coverage,” she said.

Lowry also says that she’s noticed a change from her friend group — casual women’s basketball fans, at best — who are conversant about some of the storylines in the game.

“Just look at how high the viewership increases were from the conference championships on Sunday in the ACC, Big Ten and Pac-12,” she said. “It’s awesome that everybody’s starting to see what a good product it is.”

ESPN plans to implement its megacast strategy around the Final Four and championship game. It will have a show that will resemble “ManningCast” on “Monday Night Football.” ESPN, which is still finalizing the hosts who will be on a set in the Minneapolis Target Center, will have guests appear — either virtually or on set — throughout the show to discuss the games being played. It will be on ESPNU for the semifinals and ESPN2 for the championship game.

“This isn’t a formal presentation of basketball,” Lowry said. “It’s like you’re sitting on your couch, watching the game with them.”

ESPN will have three alternate telecasts available on ESPN3 and ESPN+: one featuring video from an aerial camera with enhanced statistics and regular audio; another featuring video from a “rail cam” that will have no announcers and rely on natural sound from the arena; and a third stat-cast using player tracking technology from Second Spectrum.

It produced the aerial camera and rail cam alternate telecasts for last year’s Final Four, as well.

“I don’t know that I would watch the entire game from that rail cam, but I would take 10-20 minutes to see the speed of the game,” Lowry said.

Overall, ESPN will have 30 cameras covering the game and will use 3D virtual graphics.

“The one thing that’s been really cool about working on this tournament is that if I have a good idea or something new and innovative, I’ve never been told no,” Lowry said. “I’ve never lacked the resources in the years that I’ve been doing it because this property has always been that important to ESPN.”

John Ourand can be reached at jourand@sportsbusinessjournal.com. Follow him on Twitter @Ourand_SBJ and read his weekly newsletter.

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