How ESPN’s softball coverage is paving new paths for women’s sports
"I can be pretty deliberate in my annoyance."
If you’re a regular Power Plays #CoveringtheCoverage reader, you know that I complain a lot about television coverage of women’s sports. There’s not enough of it, of course; the coverage that does exist is often very difficult to find; and supplemental programming — pre-game and post-game shows, studio shows, anything even a tad bit creative — is practically nonexistent.
Well, today I’m here to proclaim: It doesn’t have to be that way. And ESPN’s coverage of NCAA softball, particularly the NCAA tournament and Women’s College World Series (WCWS) is proof.
This year, ESPN’s softball podcast, 7Innings, was turned into a linear television show during the regular season. In the postseason, ESPN2 aired a live bracket reveal for the NCAA tournament, followed by a 7Innings: Road to the Women’s College World Series special previewing the postseason.
The first weekend of the NCAA tournament, ESPN provided whip-around coverage of the action happening at all sixteen regional sites, so viewers didn’t have to go weeding through streaming services to find important moments. I absolutely loved it. The Women’s College World Series in Oklahoma City is underway right now, and this weekend, for I believe the first time ever, two WCWS games will be on ABC. (Click here for the full schedule.)
Late last month, I was thrilled to connect with Meg Aronowitz, an ESPN vice president who oversees, among other things, softball production. She’s spent 17 years working on ESPN’s softball coverage, and this is her 16th WCWS. (The pandemic messed up the numerical cohesion there.)
We spoke about how the tournament looked back in 2006, how much television has helped fuel the sport’s growth, the beauty of whip-around coverage, and her refusal to accept the status quo.
(Ed. note #1: I know I’m linking to a lot of ESPN PR stuff in this newsletter, so I just want to be clear that *I* was the one who reached out to ESPN about doing this interview because I enjoyed the coverage of regionals so much. This is NOT sponcon, nor was it an interview that was pitched to me.)
(Ed. note #2: This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity, but also, I’m keeping it long because I know you all like to nerd out on this stuff as much as I do.)
Okay, friends. Let’s do this.
A Q&A with ESPN VP Meg Aronowitz: Behind the scenes on the road to the WCWS
Power Plays: What do you remember about the coverage of the NCAA softball tournament when you started working at ESPN?
Meg Aronowitz: The lack of it. Seventeen years ago, it was just so unbelievably different. Now our television compound is massive, and we have nine different trucks. Back in the day in 2006, when I did my first Women's College World Series, we had one truck and it was parked on a hill up by the side of the stadium that doesn't exist anymore because there's a building there now. We used to have to level it out, and we would try not to move too quickly because we were so worried the truck would roll over. I remember the lack of stands – there used to be a berm on the side where they’ve now built the stadium out where fans used to sit, a la the Little League World Series.
I mean, it is the 40th anniversary of the Women's College World Series, so there's definitely something nostalgic about what it used to be in the past. But I'm so proud of what we have done to commit to the growth of sports since that time.
PP: There’s always a question in women’s sports of what comes first, the investment or the audience? It's been well documented how integral ESPN has been in growing the WCWS. What was it that made you see that potential in the sport, and was it hard to get buy-in to grow the production side of things?
MA: There has always been the potential for a sport like softball – just like other women's sports, frankly, like women's basketball, women's volleyball. But I think if you look through time at what we did to grow college sports at ESPN internally, the launch of ESPNU in 2005 played a huge part in the ability to be able to televise not only the softball super regionals, but also the regionals, which then became a separate round of the softball tournament.
Then the PAC 12 Network (2012) and the Big Ten Network (2007) launched, and were televising a lot of softball, and that certainly helped, Then you fast forward to 2014, and launching the SEC Network really propelled the sport because the SEC was becoming dominant in softball in that decade. And then fast forward again, to the launch of the ACC Network (2019), and — Meg's opinion, just saying — I don't believe that it's a coincidence that you see teams like Duke, Clemson, Virginia Tech, Florida State, starting to really come into their own as softball programs, because the reality is that the more exposure you have, the better it is from a recruiting standpoint for coaches. And that just makes everybody get better.
I also firmly believe that you produce from the championship backwards. The approach we've always taken to the Women's College World Series is that the biggest moment is when we crown that champion, but the journey starts when we throw the first pitch, and that's generally February. We treat every game with the same passion – maybe not with the same technology, maybe not the same resources – but the same passion, and passion is infectious. And that brings fans and it makes them want to say.
LG: Last week you tweeted, “What an incredible regional weekend. Thanks to the 350 plus ESPN folks who produced 102 games this weekend.” Those numbers are staggering. How do you go about putting together a team that big to cover that many games in locations that you don't even know ahead of time?
MA: When you say it like that I start to get little hives! We actually broadcast the St. Pete Clearwater Elite Invitational (in late February), and then when we get back from that we map out to the regular season. I like to call that “the know,” because we know the schedule, we know where we're going, we can make those plans and essentially put that to bed before it even starts.
Then we literally do our own projections every week for the postseason: Who could potentially host? What do their facilities look like? What are the resources that we need to televise from there? We produce all 16 sites at a linear television level, which means any game at any time can be put on any network, whether that's ESPN+ all the way up to ABC.
When the RPI starts to come out we get into the nitty gritty every week and move the chess pieces around. Our operations team is a huge part of those conversations, and we keep them looped in every step of the way, talking about where we might need trucks, where we might need power. We talk to the NCAA about who might need supplemental lighting if we're going to play night games. And we talk about technical crew talents, because obviously finding 16 talent teams, plus a studio team … that's challenging to make sure that we are credible and we've got the right voices in the right places.
Believe it or not, the hardest thing is doing the conference tournaments before we even get to Selection Sunday, because all of those people are out there doing our conference tournaments. It takes a lot of planning, and a lot of coordination. I love meetings. I'm a big meeting person. At the end of the day, we walk into the Selection Show pretty much having an idea where everybody's gonna go … and we do one last check through that these are the right people going to the right places. Then we hope for the best. And then the weather gets us; that's the one thing we can't control.
PP: Women’s basketball is probably the sport I watch the most, and there are a lot of games in the first two rounds of that NCAA tournament, but they’re single elimination, so the number of games and times are fixed. With softball being double-elimination in the regionals and WCWS, and then best-of-3 series in the super regionals, there are so many scheduling variables!!
MA: I love the double elimination because I think at any given point it makes it so much more interesting that a team can come back from the loser's bracket and win, a la Florida State a few years ago. However, it does not make things easy from a planning standpoint. But everybody loves it. They love the sport, they have the passion for it, and this is the best time of year.
PP: So you've got all the crews in place, you’ve got the schedule, but then there's actually broadcasting the tournament. The 7Innings Live Show during regionals weekend was basically just the NFL RedZone of softball, and it was one of the coolest things I've ever seen in women's sports. How did that come about?
MA: I'm not sure I'm supposed to say this or allowed to say this, but I'm a huge NFL RedZone fan. On Sundays during the NFL season, I could sit there starting at one o'clock and next thing I know it'll be eight o'clock at night and I have not left the couch. So I've always had the idea.
I believe that when you have 16 games and 16 sites going on potentially at one time, that's just too much for the viewer to consume. If you can give them one spot where they can go and know the biggest moments that are happening in real time, that's something that they're going to turn on and they're not even going to realize that they stayed for an extended period of time – especially if you give them the right personalities that are hosting it that are knowledgeable yet infectious and passionate and funny and engaging, they're really going to enjoy the experience.
Phil Orlins, who is my counterpart and colleagues on the college baseball side, we got together on it. We would have done this two years ago if it wasn’t for the pandemic, so last year was the first year that we did it in both baseball and softball. On the college baseball side they call it Squeeze Play. We call it 7Innings Live because that's our podcast brand and obviously that's super important to us.
Last year was really the first year that we did it full fledged, and then this year you know we tried to make it bigger and better. I do believe we're just scratching the surface.
PP: In women’s sports, fans are always talking about how we need more studio shows, and then all of a sudden for softball there’s like a two-hour studio show *after* the bracket reveal aired on ESPN2. That, too, felt groundbreaking. Was that new this year, or have I just completely missed it in the past?
MA: This is the first year that it aired live on the same network after the selection show. In 2019 we did a Road to the Women's College World Series show that aired on tape delay. It didn't air live right after the selection show. Last year we did it live, but we switched networks. Dan Margulis, who is our program director for the NCAA championships, is all in on softball. I told him, we have to do whatever we can to be on the same network because fans will stay if they know that we're gonna get even more in-depth on the bracket.
I don't know if you know, but this is also the first year that our podcast (7Innings) became a linear television show. There were five straight weeks that it was on ESPNU. So we wanted to use the podcast format for the Road to the WCWS show, and that's what we did. We tried to make it completely different from the selection show — we put them on couches, we let them be casual, we let them have conversations as opposed to just talking to the viewer. And it was fun, it was light, it was interesting, it was engaging, and I think people learned a lot about what our talents thought about the bracket.
PP: How did the podcast become a television show? Because that's yet another thing that we just don’t see often – if ever – in women’s sports!
MA: I can be pretty deliberate in my annoyance. I was able to convince programming to give us a weekly window where we can produce the show. During the pandemic, we were able to create technology that allowed us to broadcast our talent from home; all of our talents have these talent-from-home kits, so now we can produce a television show where they don't have to travel. That really helped us push this forward because obviously, the expenses come down when you do that.
The numbers for downloads for the podcast do very well, so we were able to convince programming. And the show has actually done really well on linear this year. So the hope is to do more episodes next year on linear in a more consistent time slot. Again, we’re just slowly chipping away at just the opportunity for women's sports to prove that the fans will come if you give them the content that they're looking for.
PP: What do people have to look forward to this weekend for the Women's College World Series?
MA: It's going to be bigger and better than ever. I never liked to stand pat. This year, we're going to upgrade our jib that's in the stadium to a techno crane. We're going to have full drone technology the entire time with an RF drone with a telephoto lens, which is going to be great. We're bringing back the rail cam, which we had last year in the outfield, and we're bringing back the super cam, which is the point to point cable system in the stadium.
The ability to not have any COVID restrictions is going to allow us more access. The thing that we're really improving the most on is our studio coverage. Courtney Lyle, Danielle Lawrie, and Madison Shipman will be manning the desk for us. And we will do the 7InningLive Surround for the championship finals, which is our version of an alternate broadcast, which we've been doing long before the Eli and Peyton show.
We're going to add to that – we're gonna to mic up fans so we can hit them live in the show, and we’re going to have a roving reporter in the stands. I'm so thrilled that we get to bring back our A team of Beth Mowins, Michele Smith, Jessica Mendoza and Holly Rowe (who will call night games). Kevin Brown, Amanda Scarborough, and Andraya Carter calling (day) games are also magnificent. So it's going to be a great experience.
And the best thing is it will be packed with 12,000 fans in the stands. Oklahoma is on a run, and the big question will be, can anyone knock them off? And what better place to do that than in Oklahoma City! It's just gonna be electric.