Lacrosse continues to be one of the rapidly growing sports in the country, but ESPN has been driving the bandwagon for some time.
For the 17th consecutive season, ESPN broadcast the semifinals and final of the NCAA Men’s Lacrosse Championships this weekend from Baltimore’s M&T Bank Stadium. Coverage included the semis on ESPN2 HD at 4 and 6:30 p.m. ET on Saturday and wrapped up with the championship game on ESPN HD (and ESPN Mobile) at 3:30 p.m. ET on Monday.
Growing To Love the Game
Since its first broadcast in 1994, ESPN’s coverage of lacrosse’s championship weekend has grown by leaps and bounds. ESPN Senior Coordinating Producer John Vassallo takes pride in how much both the sport and the broadcasts have grown since he started working the event in 2000.
“I’ve learned a lot from the people around me,” he says. “I never played lacrosse in high school or in college, but what’s been interesting on the TV side is how the game has developed so much for TV. When we started, [former Executive Producer] Bill Fitts had five cameras, and we did one game.”
2011 marked the fifth consecutive season that ESPN has broadcast every game of the men’s lacrosse tournament on its family of networks. In addition, a total of 35 regular-season games (33 men’s, two women’s) were covered on ESPN, ESPN2, or ESPNU.
“[Fitts] has taken a lot of joy in how we have taken the game into HD,” adds Vassallo.
The Stadium Impact
After spending its first 30-plus years in college venues, men’s lacrosse’s “Final Four” made the move to NFL stadiums in 2003. Since than, the championship has been played at Gillette Stadium in Foxboro, MA; Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia; and M&T Bank.
ESPN took advantage of the extra flexibility offered by broadcasting out of an NFL venue. The network boosted its total cameras to 10, doubling the number used during regular-season and first- and second-round coverage.
Other additional features included a low-attack slo-mo camera and a five-second delay to allow the crew to mike game officials.
While all of that offers an increase in shot angles and audio options, it also presents its own set of challenges for Vassallo and his crew.
“You use this template of five to six cameras all year,” says Vassallo, “but, with an NFL facility, you have a much bigger area to cover. With the added cameras, we want to make sure that our additions are an addition and not a subtraction-by-addition. You want to stick with what presents the game best and not overdo it.”
ESPN3.com To Stream SkyCam
Included in the broadcast’s lineup was the popular Skycam. This year, not only was the camera deployed during the live broadcast, but viewers had the choice of watching the entire game from Skycam by watching the feed live online at ESPN3.com
“Our Skycam people have really had to learn how to cover the game. We’ve learned over the years what’s the best position for that camera and how to utilize it,” says Vassallo. “There’s no formal line of scrimmage in lacrosse so it’s not as simple as placing the camera as it would be in, say, football. You’ve got to be on the ball in the field of play and be on top of things when possession changes.”
Although Skycam was broadcast on ESPN live at points during the game, it was primarily used for replays, much as it was when it brilliantly captured last season’s stunning overtime, game-winning goal by Duke long-stick midfielder C.J. Costabile and the ensuing celebration.
“We want Skycam to accentuate the coverage and not get in the way of it,” adds Vassallo. “The last thing we want to do is take away from the foundation that we’ve built in our coverage through the tournament.”
The Premier Spring College Sport?
While football and basketball dominate the fall and winter college-sports markets, respectively, the NCAA is yet to have a single sport galvanize coverage of the spring sports season.
Lacrosse, over the past decade considered primarily an East Coast sport, continues its march westward, with a major milestone coming in the emergence of young power Denver University, slated to face off on Saturday against the University of Virginia in the first semifinal.
As major youth programs sprout up across the country, including in such states as Colorado and Texas, ESPN has seen the growth of the sport first hand. However, is it ready to take its place as the top sport of the spring?
“It’s tough to say,” says Vassallo. “Our regular-season commitment to lacrosse has been huge, but women’s softball rates very well for us; our commitment to college baseball on through to Omaha and the College World Series is strong as well.
“Personally,” he adds, “I would love lacrosse to be that sport, but we still have a ways to go. I think we would all like to see lacrosse get to that point.”