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ESPN Production Crews Gear Up for Five-Game Christmas Day Slate

With some of the NBA’s hottest teams facing off on Christmas, the ESPN production team has a full plate with 13 consecutive hours of coverage.

Bailey Knecht

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This Christmas, LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers take on the star-studded Golden State Warriors in the teams’ first matchup of the season, making for one of the most highly-anticipated NBA games of the year. The NBA Christmas slate also features games between the Bucks and Knicks, Thunder and Rockets, 76ers and Celtics, and Blazers and Jazz.

“It’s a huge day for us,” said Tim Corrigan, senior coordinating producer at ESPN. “It will be our highest-rated day of the year for the NBA, so we always circle it on our calendar. We always want to be the best version we can, but it’s one of those days we’re just going to have more people watching.”

ESPN will produce all five games on Christmas, as it has done for 17 straight years. The 13-hour lineup will include games on both ESPN and ABC, with “NBA Countdown” holding things down during pregame and halftime.

“It’s the best,” Corrigan said. “This is what we’re passionate about — this sport — so it’s great to know you can sit down and transition from game to game to game regardless of network. We cross back from ESPN to ABC anyway, and we don’t treat one differently than the other. We put our best foot forward because, to us, we go and do our job, and we get to be part of what’s fun and entertaining for fans.”

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ESPN pulls out all of the stops for its Christmas production, between the “NBA Countdown” crew of Michelle Beadle, Paul Pierce, Jalen Rose and Adrian Wojnarowski, and the broadcast crews featuring big names like Chauncey Billups, Doris Burke, Hubie Brown, Mike Breen, Jeff Van Gundy, Mark Jackson and P.J. Carlesimo. The production will even feature a special performance by musician Daveed Diggs, who starred in Hamilton.

“It’s become a must-watch thing for folks, even those who don’t follow the NBA very closely,” Corrigan said of NBA Christmas. “We pick up a bunch of outside fans — as we like to say, we like to be kind to the accidental viewer and get them up to speed. We let players be stars and document it the best we can.”

Corrigan and his crew make it a point to plan their productions with the viewers in mind, especially on Christmas.

“It’s worked out great with the league and the programming, with team matchups you want to see and players who resonate,” Corrigan said. “This year, players in all five games will be wearing microphones. Fans want that access, so we know that to take advantage of the huge audience, we need to do something a little more special, so we’re doing it across all of our games, starting with the Bucks and Knicks.”

Thanks to a competitive, drama-filled start to the NBA regular season, ESPN is already in peak form when it comes to producing games.

“We’re coming in at a really good place,” Corrigan said. “The games we have, people are really interested in them, at the teams hitting their stride or fighting through challenges. I think we’re in a great spot to capitalize on interesting stories… The great thing is, we’re a couple months into the season. From production to talent to engineering to operations, we’re in our groove of covering the NBA right now.”

The Christmas slate is particularly special because it appeals to everyone, from NBA die-hards to casual fans, according to Corrigan.

“I think the best thing for us is that, certainly, there is part of our audience that only watches at Christmas — they may be big football fans and they’re starting to transition to the NBA now — but there’s also a large part of our audience that has been with us since October, during our preseason Lakers/Warriors games,” he said.

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Fans don’t have to wait until Christmas Day to enjoy the NBA festivities, though. ESPN’s “The Jump” will air a 90-minute Christmas preview special at 2 p.m. ET on Christmas Eve, hosted by Rachel Nichols with appearances by Scottie Pippen, Amin Elhassan, Nick Friedell and Marc Spears.

Between the preview special, five consecutive games, and pregame and halftime shows, the ESPN crew is taking an all-hands-on-deck approach to pull it all off.

“I have to give a big shoutout to everybody — talent, producers, directors, associate staff, engineering, operations — everybody who makes this day special for us,” said Corrigan.

“It’s hundreds of people across the board, from production to operations to engineering, just because each game is fully staffed with anywhere from a dozen to 20 cameras,” he added. “It’s a huge undertaking, and anybody who works on production, operations or engineering is working that day. It’s a source of pride to be a part of this, and to be asked to be a part of this.”

Bailey Knecht is a Northeastern University graduate and has worked for New Balance, the Boston Bruins and the Northeastern and UMass Lowell athletic departments. She covers media and marketing for Front Office Sports, with an emphasis on women's sports and basketball. She can be contacted at bailey@frntofficesport.com.

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ESPN Brings AR to Life for NBA Playoffs

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May 20, 2019; Portland, OR, USA; Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry (30) passes the ball past Portland Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard (0) and forward Meyers Leonard (11) during the second half in game four of the Western conference finals of the 2019 NBA Playoffs at Moda Center. The Warriors won 119-117 in overtime. Mandatory Credit: Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports

*This piece first appeared in the Front Office Sports Newsletter. Subscribe today and get the news before anyone else.

During this year’s Western Conference Finals, you may have seen graphics that made you feel like you were playing an NBA 2K game instead of watching the Warriors sweep the Trail Blazers. 

Why? Because ESPN and Second Spectrum teamed up to deliver real-time AR graphics to provide viewers with advanced stats and engagement opportunities. 

What do you need to know?

‘ESPN Mode’, as it is called, is part of the network’s push to provide more differentiated viewing opportunities for fans through its digital offerings.

Outside of AR, ESPN has been offering a feed from a robotic camera above the rim, as well as one for pre-game layup lines, and during warmups for both teams.

They also rolled out a new NBA Twitter and YouTube pre-game show, Hoop Streams, as well as At The Mic, a show that covers post-game press conferences.

Why does Second Spectrum sound familiar? 

That’s because they are the company behind Clippers CourtVision, the technology that allows fans of the team to choose different streams that show different AR graphics during the broadcast of a game, similar to what ESPN was providing its fans. 

With CourtVision, fans get to choose from three streams, whereas with ESPN, the best of each different mode was combined into one. 

What did fans have to say?

The reaction to the graphics was mixed. Below is a look at what a few Twitter users had to say about them. 

– “Bruh. Wtf are these ridiculous graphics ESPN is forcing on us?!? Stop it.” – @vasu

– “I’m all sorts of excited for this.” – @iDontHoldHouses

–  “I like the idea here. A little too much going on IMO, but interested to see if this (hopefully in moderation) becomes more common.” – @declancmurray

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Mike Yam Helping Set a Path For Future Asian-American Broadcasters

Growing up, Mike Yam didn’t see many broadcasters that looked like him, so he didn’t figure it was a career option. He hopes to help change that perception.

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Mike Yam Pac-12
Photo Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Mike Yam was going to be a pediatrician.

However, at Fordham University,  he realized chemistry wasn’t his thing. In his dorm, he saw a classmate in a suit, headed to cover a New Jersey Nets game for the school radio station. The brief conversation resonated with Yam, as he realized he could turn his passion for sports into a career option and joined the radio station. He spent the next four years honing his craft.

“It didn’t click when I was younger, but you don’t see a heavy representation of Asian male broadcasters,” says Yam, now a lead anchor for the Pac-12 Network.

“I didn’t think being a sportscaster was an option. It was that iconic American dream to be a doctor or lawyer my parents wanted for me.”

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Washington State Athletic Director Patrick Chun, himself the son of South Korean immigrants, can relate to the academic stresses Yam faced growing up. Chun became the first Asian-American athletic director of a Power 5 school in 2018.

“When Asian immigrants come to the U.S., their dreams manifest themselves in who their children become,” Chun says. “The biggest ideology difference in cultures are Asian-American kids are there for their parents and American parents are there for their kids. They put a premium on education and a premium on work ethic.”

Growing up, Yam noticed that other than Michael Kim, there were few sports broadcasters that looked like him. This is still a rarity today. According to data from the U.S. Census Bureau, less than 5 percent of announcers, in any industry, are Asian, while 73.5% are white and 17.3% are black.

Yam believes diversity is an imperative need in newsrooms, and the sharing of cultures and stories is important in making these places more worldly.

 Yam is sometimes discouraged when he speaks at universities to big groups and sees a lack of Asian-Americans in the crowd. He said the lack of representation can potentially prevent children from imagining their dreams. But it’s improving.

“From the on-air side, I get legitimately excited when I see other Asian Americans on air,” Yam says. “What’s next is continuing to develop younger students who have a passion for this and see a pathway in an industry that’s really cool. It’s so crucial and important for younger people to see someone who looks like them doing this.”

For Chun, it was less about who he saw in positions and more about who he surrounded himself with. He credits people like Washington State President Kirk Schulz and Ohio State University athletic directors Andy Geiger and Gene Smith, who helped him while in the Buckeyes’ athletic department.

“They opened my eyes that this could be a goal,” Chun says. “Gene Smith was the guy who planted the seed in my head and gave me a road map. Even though there was no one that looked like me, it never crossed my mind I might the first.”

Chun believes it will take some time for stereotypes and stigmas to be eliminated, but people like Schulz help.

“We were focused on finding a leader with the right blend of experience, vision, and passion to lead Cougar athletics to the next level of success,” Schulz said at the time of Chun’s hiring. “In Pat, we’re confident we found that person. His achievements in fundraising, boosting the academic success rate of student-athletes, and building strong relationships with the community – on and off-campus – are exemplary.”

Yam doesn’t blame discrimination for the lack of Asian Americans in sports media, but he does believe it’s the Asian-American immigrant mentality that has partly held the industry in check. His grandfather essentially snuck into the U.S. and worked for years to bring his family to America. Yam’s father isn’t a sports fan, but the father and son were able to chat about sports during Jeremy Lin’s breakout season with the New York Knicks.

READ MORE: Inside Julianne Viani’s Whirlwind of a Broadcasting Career

“That’s when I knew it was big, when non-sports fans were talking about it,” Yam says. “I never really think about the lack of representation at a professional level until you see someone. Sports is the great equalizer. Either you can do it, or you can’t.”

Yam was not blessed with athletic skills, but he did find a path to be involved in sports in life. Now he gets to facilitate conversations with great athletes and coaches and hopes more find a similar path.

“Who wouldn’t want to do this?” he asks. “What kid wouldn’t want to be in this situation? People just need to know it’s possible.”

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Steve Javie Leans on Referee Experience to Provide Insight for ESPN

A 25-year NBA officiating veteran, Steve Javie has transitioned to ESPN, where he offers in-game analysis on referee rulings from the NBA Replay Center.

Bailey Knecht

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Photo Credit: Bailey Knecht

During Game 2 of the NBA Western Conference Finals between the Warriors and the Trail Blazers, the NBA Replay Center in Secaucus, New Jersey, is relatively quiet.

On any given night in the regular season, current and former officials converge to watch multiple live games on the room’s more than 100 TV screens and computer monitors. With only four teams remaining in the playoffs, all eyes are on the Warriors and Blazers.

One of those observers is Steve Javie, a former NBA referee of 25 years and current ESPN officiating analyst since 2012. Front Office Sports has a front row seat for his process.

Throughout the playoffs and select regular season games, Javie is on-call in Secaucus. When on-court officials are reviewing a controversial call, Javie jumps on ESPN, offering explanations and rule clarifications.

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“It’s a good thing with ESPN because it gives another perspective, and I know the [broadcasters] I work with like Mike Breen and Jeff [Van Gundy] and Mark [Jackson], they’re knowledgeable, but you still want an opinion of someone who’s been on the floor,” Javie says. “They might disagree with me, and they do at times, but at least I can give that opinion or how it feels to be on the floor or what the officials are thinking or looking at right now in order to make this crucial call.”

The Replay Center is used to provide different camera angles to the on-site officials for courtside reviews. With a twist of a knob and a push of a button, operators can select the best angles and queue up any sequence from  game action.

Just like the referees and operators in the room, Javie sits at one of the room’s 20 stations where he rewinds and rewatches plays from nine different angles. At his station, he keeps Altoids, a cup of water, a notepad and a current NBA rulebook. He preps by writing down talking points, relevant rules and potentially controversial calls.

When the ESPN crew wants his opinion, he’ll get word from on-site producer Tim Corrigan. Javie then spins around in his chair to face the camera. Most calls that require explanations are subjective, such as the severity of a flagrant foul or judging between a block or charge.

“Steve’s officiating experience and knowledge brings yet another layer of expertise to our broadcasts as we document the biggest NBA games for fans,” Corrigan, officially senior coordinating producer for ESPN NBA, says. “We always try to entertain and inform our audience, and Steve helps us achieve that goal.”

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Javie started working out of the Replay Center when it opened in 2014. Although he is one of a few media members with regular access to the Replay Center, Javie considers himself more of a referee than reporter. A quarter-century in officiating made him an eternal part of the refereeing fraternity.

“Once an official, always an official,” he says.“That doesn’t mean I won’t comment on situations I believe I would handle it this way, which may be differently than the way they handled it on the floor, because it is really subjective.

“It’s almost like a father watching their kids because a lot of the guys I mentored are refereeing now, and you want them to do well, so when things go a little off, my insides turn,” he adds. “If that was me on the court, I wouldn’t care because I know I could handle it, but when you see your kids, as I call it, that you’ve raised, and you see them get into situations, you just hope they get out of it okay.”

This year, Javie’s role with ESPN may be even more useful than before. The season has been full of debate regarding officiating and the tumultuous relationship between referees and players.

Take the Western Conference Semifinals, for example, when everyone from fans to players to GMs chimed in on James Harden’s foul-drawing playing style.

But Javie embraces the opportunity to be a voice of reason and provide clarification to viewers, who otherwise have no access to the officiating thought process.

“I think it’s really good for the league and for the referees, that the referee has a voice there that can explain it because so many times, I think the fans can be misled,” he says.

Although Game 2 featured a tight, three-point win by the Warriors, the matchup was clean and uncontentious. As a result, Javie wasn’t called on by ESPN to share his input, but he stayed focused and alert throughout the evening.

For Javie, the rest of the playoffs will be no different, as he remains ready to share his expertise at a moment’s notice, notepad, rulebook and Altoids on call.

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