Brian Koonz: ESPN burns its base with late tipoff
DALLAS — Carol Stiff remembers the old days, when the UConn women’s basketball team started its games at the bottom of a TV screen.
“It was a first-round game and UConn was playing like Iowa, but we had Old Dominion going into overtime,” said Stiff, vice president of women’s sports programming at ESPN.
“It wasn’t when we had all the games, so we told UConn, ‘Go ahead and start. We’ll get to you as soon as we can — as soon as the overtime is over.’”
As the first few UConn baskets hit the scroll, the ESPN phones started ringing. A lot.
Every call was the same, Stiff recalled Thursday at the American Airlines Center: “Why aren’t you showing me my UConn game?”
“I was like, ‘This other game is in overtime. What do you want us to do?’ ” Stiff shrugged. “Someone actually called ESPN and said, ‘Shame on you. I live in Connecticut. I’m going to throw all my trash on the front lawn of ESPN.’ ”
Although UConn fans never dumped their garbage in Bristol, ESPN sure dumped them.
Husky fans would do well to burn up the ESPN phone lines again Friday when No. 1 seed UConn plays No. 2 seed Mississippi State in the national semifinals at 10 p.m.
This game didn’t have to start this late on the East Coast. It didn’t even have to be the second game of the doubleheader with No. 2 seed Stanford, a West Coast team, playing No. 1 seed South Carolina in the first game at 7:30 p.m.
Stiff couldn’t disagree more.
“With any night, as you go later on, you get more eyeballs nationally,” she countered. “First and foremost, we’re serving a national audience. We’re not serving Connecticut.
“Everyone wants to see this team. Everyone wants to know what’s so special about this team. And, are they going to lose?”
The only losers here are the Connecticut fans who will have to dance with midnight Friday if they want to see a final score from Dallas.
On Thursday, UConn coach Geno Auriemma repeated his refrain from the Bridgeport Regional about the fierce loyalty and the basketball acumen of Husky fans.
“Our attendance in Bridgeport was higher than almost three regions combined,” he said. “There’s no secret why the crowd is the way it is in Bridgeport. One, they love basketball. Two, they think we’re going to be in it.”
So rather than reward this fan base, ESPN chose to treat UConn fans to a 10 p.m. game.
“This is one-and-done basketball. It’s a Friday night. Stay up,” Stiff said.
“They’re a national draw, no doubt about it. That’s why they’re late at night.”
Auriemma, even after he collected his ninth AP National Coach of the Year trophy Thursday, is still the brash kid from Philadelphia.
He doesn’t duck neighborhood challenges and he doesn’t duck hard work. The same thread of UConn DNA runs just as deeply through his players.
In fact, it’s the thread that has stitched 11 national championship banners, with a 12th within reach this weekend.
“Look, I don’t care where we play. I don’t care what time we play,” Auriemma said Thursday. “I don’t care if we play in a parking lot with the lights on at midnight.”
As far as Stiff is concerned, UConn is getting the coverage it always wanted, the kind of exposure that most other programs can only dream up on whiteboards.
“We do a preview show a half-hour leading up (to the first game), so 7:30 is when we’re tipping the first game,” she said. “Heck, the way the games are running, the average length of a game is 1:49 right now — one hour and 49 minutes.”
So there’s that, UConn fans. Maybe you’ll be able to click off the lights before midnight, after all.
In every way, ESPN’s programming decisions Friday are like those introductory offers and promotional packages. Get them hooked and then blow them off.
UConn fans deserve better. ESPN deserves some more phone calls.