Once a week, SEC Digital Media Director Eric SanInocencio will share insights on the inner-workings of the conference office.
Birmingham, Ala./Bristol, Conn. -- Two very unusual things happened to me this past Monday. First off, my alarm clock went off at five in the morning. For some that may be a daily practice, but anyone that knows me understands my general philosophy on sleep. If possible, I try to make sure the sun is up before I begin my day. Good rule of thumb and something that has been working for me the first 30 years of my life.
If that wasn't strange enough for me, the next part was. I was actually excited to be waking up that early
. Why? I was starting a one-day trip to the Worldwide Leader in Sports, and would be spending the next 12 hours amongst the league's football coaches as we descended on ESPN.
This year's SEC takeover event of the Bristol campus was designed for one specific purpose, allowing the conferences best to promote the league and get the nation's fans ready for the start of the season. It may not have been the best timing (we will get to that later), but that was the goal. The setup was simple. Six conference coaches would be at ESPN on Monday, with the other six visiting Bristol on Tuesday, both groups running the gauntlet affectionately known as the ESPN "Car Wash".
What is a "car wash"? Our Sean Cartell did a fantastic job explaining it, so I won't go into many specifics here.
This trip served a different purpose for me.
I'm a sports fan at heart, so this was a chance to witness something memorable. Whether you like them or not, you can't follow sports in today's world and not somehow interact with ESPN. They air millions of live events a year, and have countless shows dedicated to every sport imaginable. Just on the college front, they have revolutionized the way fans begin their Saturday. The popular show "College Gameday" has given a face to the legion of tailgaters who live and die with their teams during every Saturday in fall. I was going to be there, so that in itself was all the motivation I need to start my day with a smile despite the pitch black scenery as I looked through the window.
Now that it is all over, the main question I get is, "What is ESPN like"? So, when deciding what exactly to write about my journey to the "Mothership", the answer came rather quickly. You haven't been to ESPN? Let me give you a visitor's guide to the campus.
I. Let Them Know You Are Coming
First off, if ESPN doesn't know you are planning to visit, I'm not sure you could get in. As we approached toward the front gate of campus, we were greeted by a security booth. Our names had to be cross referenced with a list given prior to our arrival, and each name was called off in the car to make sure it matched up. I know what you are thinking. Yes, even the SEC football coaches
. Mississippi State's Dan Mullen, who rode with us, had to announce himself, and was checked off just like everyone else. Cartell, who was seated next to me, leaned over and said, "This is like trying to get in the White House...and I've been to the White House." Couldn't have said it better myself.
Once you actually get through the main gate, more security awaits as you step foot in the main building. Everyone must sign in, and each person receives a "pass" (pictured below) for the day to continue. Since it was a rather large group of us, we were broken into smaller units, with each SEC coach in attendance sectioned off for the day's activities. Either way, about 30 minutes after we got out of the car, the "caw wash" began.
II. Be Prepared To Do Double Takes All Day
This is to be expected, but you can't understand what the atmosphere is like there until you see it for yourself. ESPN's on-air talent have become recognizable celebrities in today's culture, and the simple act of seeing someone you routinely watch on TV is an experience that takes some getting used to. It literally took two minutes for this to happen to me, as Ole Miss coach Houston Nutt (I was with his contingent) was quickly spotted by College Gameday host Chris Fowler. Fowler quickly came over and the two struck up a conversation, complete with Fowler introducing himself to the rest of our group (including me). Again, this is a normal occurrence in Bristol.
It got weirder as the day got along, just due to the ground we covered during that span. ESPN is just like it is portrayed in their "This Is ESPN" commercials, with television personalities, former athletes and current coaches all mingling together in a normal office setting. When in the cafeteria later that day, we saw Jeremy Schaap, Sal Palantonio and George Smith just strolling by. During the radio section of our schedule, we passed Mike Golic and Colin Cowherd in a matter of seconds. Hannah Storm and Kevin Neghandi stopped us in the hall to say hello. I'm told this is normal. I'm sure it is to them, it wasn't normal to me
The highlight of my day? Turning the corner of a corridor and running smack in to Hall of Famer Dave Winfield. Considering I'm half his size, I'm sure he barely noticed as he continued on to his destination.
III. Wear Comfortable Shoes
ESPN is huge. No other way around it. The company assigned us a guide, and I'm glad they did. There would be no way I could navigate the maze of hallways and stairwells to get where we needed to go without her help. The call it a "campus" for a reason, and that's because it truly resembles a collection of buildings you'd see if you were visiting a college. They even have a staff or 3,500 people, rivaling the enrollment of my alma mater, the University of Montevallo.
The "car wash" takes about four hours to complete, and requires live shots and taped segments all across this swath of land. With the radio booths housed in one section, live studios in another, there was plenty of mileage added to the odometer throughout that time. Throw in the fact they have a full-sized basketball court and a football field smack dab in the middle section gives you a better idea of what you have to navigate to get around. I'm glad I wore my comfortable pair of dress shoes.
IV. Pick A Better Day
As I mentioned before, this was planned way ahead of time. The goal was to make SEC football the focus of ESPN's coverage on these two days, with the coaches granting access and providing the platform for the league to be center stage. However, even the best laid plans falter, and in our case, the NFL stole our thunder. As soon as our "car wash" began, word began to leak out of the NFL coming to an agreement to end their strike. Despite the presence of our coaches on site, all the talk was about the NFL getting back to work. This is no one's fault of course, and the folks at ESPN were professional in making sure the SEC got plenty of coverage, but the cat was out of the bag.
The NFL is without a doubt the most popular sport in the country, and the word of its lockout ending took precedent in both Bristol and the country. So, in hindsight, maybe next time we do this we can avoid a professional organization ending its labor issues when we show up. Bad luck there.
V. Enjoy It, Because It Ends Fast
This is true about most things you are truly excited for in life, and can be used to sum up my day in Bristol. Going in, I had visions in my mind of what it would look like, or how the day would go. However, once you get there, the clock runs out in a hurry. The manner in which you are scheduled (at least how we were) kept the pace moving, as you are jettisoned from room to room around the campus. This quick movement doesn't leave much room for reflection, and keeps you in the moment and away from realizing just exactly it is you are experiencing.
I tell people that are about to get married this all the time. When you prepare for something for a long time, and that moment finally comes, try and make sure you take a second to soak it all in. All the plans and the need to stay focused on the task at hand often leaves you looking back and wondering how it all ended so quickly. I spent about seven hours in Bristol, one short of your normal work day, and it literally went by in the blink of an eye. My recollection of it now seems like one big movie scene, and I'm not sure I can remember all of the little points that I should have took more time to notice.
Overall it was immensely fun and I encourage any true sports fan to make this pilgrimage. Sure, ESPN has a lot of rules (I got a entire briefing five seconds after I walked in the front door) and might not be centrally located (our airport was 45 minutes away) but in the end it is very cool to see. Whether you grew up watching the "Big Show" SportsCenters with Dan Patrick and Keith Olbermann or now enjoy "SportsNation" with Colin Cowherd and Michelle Beadle, the way the entire place works is fun to see. Thanks to Joe Galbraith and Dan Mullen, I even got to enjoy a little New England pizza while I was at it. So if you have the chance, take it and go visit ESPN.
Just make sure you called them ahead of time. Trust me.