‘A lovefest-infomercial for the city’: ESPN’s College GameDay arrives in Spokane for Gonzaga-Saint Mary’s showdown
Feb. 23, 2023 Updated Thu., Feb. 23, 2023 at 9:56 p.m.
The ESPN gravy train arrived Thursday with the crews and equipment that are about to transport Gonzaga’s Kennel into homes of college basketball fans across the nation on Saturday.
While the two-hour show is not as big as the College GameDay that highlighted Gardner Minshew’s mustache and Washington State as it beat Pac-12 rival Oregon 34-20 in Pullman in 2018, the basketball version of College GameDay provides some of the best exposure a school like Gonzaga could ever receive, several officials said.
“You just cannot overlook this kind of special opportunity for any school, in particular a school like Gonzaga,” said David Sonntag, associate vice president for marketing and communications at GU. “When you have something like GameDay, it really shows off the community that we have that makes us really special.”
He noted that the school just sent out acceptance letters for the next school year. He said students typically send out seven to 12 letters to prospective schools.
“When students are applying to that many different schools, they’ve got a big decision to make,” Sonntag said. “What is going to stand out to them? I think something like our school being on ESPN’s College GameDay is one of the aspects that stands out. It’s a great opportunity.”
And the show also showcases the school’s hometown, which provides invaluable marketing for the city, said Kate Hudson, spokeswoman for Visit Spokane.
“We always love it when ESPN chooses to come to Spokane,” Hudson said.
A Gonzaga graduate herself, Hudson recalled the impact from the 2018 College GameDay in Pullman.
“It’s basically a three-hour lovefest-infomercial for the city of Spokane,” she said. “And that is priceless for us.”
Fans seeking to become the screaming backdrop for the live show will have to brave extremely cold temperatures, but the tickets are free. The doors open at 6 a.m. for students and 6:15 a.m. for everyone else, whether they secure a free ticket online or grab one on campus on Saturday.
The show is highlighting the 7 p.m. showdown between No. 12 Gonzaga and Saint Mary’s, which is ranked No. 15 despite beating the Bulldogs 78-70 in overtime earlier this month in Moraga, California.
GameDay has featured Gonzaga five times. The last time College GameDay graced the Lilac City was 2009.
That show set up inside McCarthey Athletic Center, but the game was played at the Spokane Arena. Gonzaga lost to Memphis 68-50.
Drew Gallagher, coordinating producer for ESPN’s College GameDay, said the show considered a full schedule of games before deciding on Spokane.
“We think about where the best two hours of TV might come from,” Gallagher said. “It’s been so long since we’ve been to Spokane. It’s not like Gonzaga has gotten less relevant. It’s gotten more relevant.
“The stakes of this game couldn’t be higher, with the conference championship on the line,” he continued. “It just felt like the right time to get back to the Kennel.”
Even with Gonzaga’s 23-year streak of making the NCAA Tournament (which is third most, behind Michigan State’s 24 and Kansas’ 32), ESPN had to consider the Zags’ opponent, Gallagher said.
“Honestly, it came down to such a special environment at Gonzaga. We knew the crowd will be great,” he said. “But it’s not like Gonzaga is running away with the conference. There is a lot of curiosity around Saint Mary’s. This is a team that a lot of people are going to have to know about when they fill out their brackets.”
Rece Davis hosts GameDay. He’s joined by analysts Jay Bilas, Seth Greenberg and LaPhonso Ellis. Bilas will join Dan Shulman and reporter Holly Rowe to call the game between Gonzaga and Saint Mary’s.
While the morning show highlights the nation’s key matchups, most of the work happens days and hours in advance.
“It’s a lot less than our football show, but you are still traveling with a TV production set around the country,” Gallagher said. “We are very fortunate to have an unbelievable technical crew behind the scenes. Every week comes with its own challenges.”
One of those “challenges” occurred last year when College GameDay traveled to Bozeman on Nov.19 for the football game between Montana State and Montana.
“I believe it was negative 2 degrees,” Gallagher said. “We go to our set in the morning at 4 a.m. and discovered our generators were frozen. We had no power to our set, the trucks or the show. We had no power to our cameras.”
Montana State officials cobbled together some backup generators to help, he said.
“It was like that scene in the movie Apollo 13. They told them, ‘You’ve got 12 amps to power up the spaceship.’ That’s kind of what we had to do,” he said. “We had to decide what got power and what didn’t.”
This fall will mark 30 years of the traveling GameDay shows.
“In six day’s time, we are traveling across the country, putting on a show, packing it up and driving across the country again,” Gallagher said. “It’s a real testament to those folks and what they are able to do.”
Barrett Henderson, assistant athletic director in charge of communications for GU, said the school expects a large crowd despite the cold and early time for the show.
“We’ve already had 1,200 students claim tickets, which is the same size as our game student section,” he said. “This will be an experience if you can make it to the game.”
The later game is sold out, extending a streak that started even before GU opened the McCarthey Athletic Center in 2004.
So, the GameDay show will provide an opportunity for some fans to experience the venue even if they can’t see the game, said Rob Kavon, assistant athletic director for facilities and operations.
“I was around here when they were here in 2009,” Kavon said. “It’s a ton of work on our end, but like I said, it’s one of those things you look forward to in your career. It’s such a cool event to be a part of. It’s pretty unique to say you’ve hosted one of these.”
The venue holds 6,000 people.
“The goal is 4,000,” Kavon said. “We’ll fit as many people in as we possibly can.”
Henderson said the school will be selling breakfast items and coffee. He said ESPN encourages fans to bring signs, and the school will have a sign-making station set up inside McCarthey.
However, all signs will be screened by security to make sure they are appropriate to broadcast, he said.
“I’m a huge College GameDay guy,” Henderson said. “I’ve watched it since I was little. This is a really cool thing to be a part of.”
Gallagher, of ESPN, said the crew shares the same sentiment about the places they visit.
“To be able to go to all of these college venues and see all of these great games and meet great coaches and have the responsibility to bring that into everyone’s living rooms every week, that is an honor, ” he said. “We are all huge college sports fans. That’s why we do this.”
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