Teamwork is imperative for basketball teams to be successful. The same holds true for the production and ad sales teams of Turner Sports and CBS Sports relative to the NCAA Division I men's basketball championship.
The upcoming version of "March Madness" marks the first under the 14-year, $10.8 billion agreement the partners signed with the NCAA last April that will see the field expand to 68 from 65 teams. Moreover TNT, TBS and TruTV will join CBS in televising the live action, which for the first time will place all of the games in their own national windows, rather than the regionalized, wrap-around approach Black Rock had employed as the sole carrier.
The groups met again on Jan 19, with 15 CBS executives from production, ad sales, communications and talent trekking to Atlanta. "It was great to see Bill Raftery interacting with Ernie Johnson and Charles Barkley," said Sean McManus, president of CBS News and Sports.
The following day the parties named their eight on-air pairings for the tourney, a mix of established CBS groups, imports from TNT's NBA on-air talent and combinations of both, as well as a pair of studio squads in New York and Atlanta.
The talent is led by Jim Nantz and Clark Kellogg, CBS's top college hoops team, and Turner analyst Steve Kerr. That trio, with an assist from courtside reporter Tracy Wolfson, will open up the 2011 tourney with the "NCAA First Four" games on Turner's TruTV on March 15. They will team again on CBS during the Final Four on April 2 and the national championship game on April 4 in Houston as the "Big Dance" concludes in Reliant Stadium.
McManus, noting that from the "deal's inception the idea was to assemble the best announce teams from CBS and Turner," said it didn't take long for the production crews to decide to have Kerr shoot with Nantz-Kellogg. "I don't remember who came up with the idea, but it took about seven seconds for everybody to say ‘Let's go with it.' "
CBS's Gus Johnson and Len Elmore, along with Turner's courtside reporter Craig Sager, will provide the call for the First Four games on March 16 on TruTv.
While specific assignments and the rest of the network schedules have not yet been disclosed, the Nantz/Kellogg and Johnson/Elmore pairings, Marv Albert/ Kerr and Verne Lundquist/Bill Raftery will serve as the regional semifinal and final announce squads.
Elsewhere, the companies have determined that Kevin Harlan/Reggie Miller/ Dan Bonner, Ian Eagle/Jim Spanarkel, Tim Brando/Mike Gminski and Spero Dedes/Bob Wenzel will make the game calls.
Lesley Visser, David Aldridge, Sam Ryan and Marty Snider will join Wolfson and Sager as sideline reporters throughout the tournament.
Two studios, based in New York and Atlanta, will set up and cover all the action. That coverage will be anchored by Greg Gumbel and Johnson, who will share hosting duties each day. Barkley, Greg Anthony and Kenny Smith will provide analysis throughout the tournament ,alongside Gumbel or Johnson from the CBS Broadcast Center in New York. Analysts Miller and Seth Davis will join the New York studio rotation for the second week of the tournament. Matt Winer will host the studio coverage from Turner's Atlanta studio with Davis and Smith.
Turner president of sales, distribution and sports David Levy added that while it's a "complex" to have all of the production and talent coming together, on-air and in the studio, "it's exciting. Take a look at this line-up, there are eight different broadcast teams without weakness. There has never been a group like this."
With TNT covering pro ball and CBS the college game during the regular seasons, Levy is eyeing dress rehearsals for Marv Albert, Reggie Miller and Kerr.
"We want the talent to get some work on regular-season college games on our partner CBS before the tournament begins," said Levy.
"We're certainly open to that," said McManus "There's nothing specific right now, but it's important to get reps in."
Reps of a different kind have been working Madison Avenue and both executives, while they would not specify sell-through levels, like what they have seen thus far.
"We're pacing well ahead of where we thought we'd be. I'm very excited," said Levy, pointing to the tourney's appeal and strength of the ad market overall. "The auto, insurance companies, all the electronics suppliers...A lot of the male-dominated categories match up well with the tournament."
Levy also noted the interest in the March Madness on Demand broadband product, which he said will be expanded to include more programming, content, feature and stats aimed at making it "a 23-day experience," not something that is just accessed on game days.
Citing how the production teams have come together, McManus said it's "more remarkable" how the sales teams are melding: "There are two different cultures here. These combinations between media companies rarely have been tried and seldom succeed. Ask clients, corporate sponsors and they'll tell you it's working unbelievably well."
He credited the leadership of CBS president of network sales JoAnn Ross, senior vice president CBS Sports Sales and Marketing and director, CBS Sports Properties Group Chris Simko, Turner senior vice president of NCAA partnerships and branded programming Will Funk and Turner Sports executive vice president of ad sales and marketing Jon Diament for making the connections with clients.
Asked about reaction in the marketplace to the First Four Games concept, McMansus said advertisers view the additions as "not just play-in games. With Greg Anthony and Ernie Johnson in the studio, and Jim Nantz and the rest of the No.1 [announce] team calling the first night, it speaks to [First Four] being part of the tournament."
McManus said he's also still trying to figure a way for CBS College Sports Network to be a bigger part of the impending Madness. Under the old contract, CBS College Sports aired a couple of out-of-market tournament games and was a hub for highlights and in-game look-ins. While CBS College will still present a studio show, McManus wants "to perhaps carve out a bigger role without impinging upon Turner being the cable home for the tournament."
NCAA On-Air Talent Pairings
*Semi-final and Regional Final Announce Teams
Jim Nantz/Clark Kellogg*
Marv Albert/Steve Kerr*
Verne Lundquist/Bill Raftery*
Gus Johnson/Len Elmore*
Kevin Harlan/Reggie Miller/Dan Bonner
Ian Eagle/Jim Spanarkel
Tim Brando/Mike Gminski
Spero Dedes/Bob Wenzel