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When ESPN comes to campus

All hands on deck as UW hits the national stage
people in line on Red Square at night

Huskies line up on Red Square at 3:30 a.m. on Oct. 14 to get into the pit, the area visible to cameras, for College GameDay, ESPN's popular college football show.

The challenge: Prepare the UW campus to host a live national TV show, manage hundreds of students lined up before dawn, and do it all on the busiest spot in campus. You have less than a week. Go.

When ESPN College GameDay broadcast from Red Square on Oct. 14, it was an opportunity for the popular college football pregame show to spotlight the Washington-Oregon rivalry. For UW Facilities and campus partners, it was an opportunity to help the University shine on the national stage and put into practice lessons learned from ESPN’s previous two visits to campus.

stage under construction on Red Square with Gerberding Hall and Suzzallo Library in the background

Construction of the College GameDay production set on Red Square the day before the broadcast.

“The first time in 2013, we didn't know what we were doing. Then 2016 was better,” said UW Outside Operations Manager Howard Nakase on the day before this year’s event. “So now that we are used to it, we kind of knew what was going to happen. But this year’s production is much bigger.” 

Unlike the past, this year’s College GameDay visit included rows of bleachers and more activities for students, including goal posts for “Pat McAfee’s Kicking Contest.” The increased size of the event matched the increased size of the expectations for the game, which pitted UW Football, then ranked no. 7, against its rival Oregon, then ranked no. 8. 

There had been speculation that ESPN would be coming to campus for weeks, but the University didn’t get the final word until the preceding Saturday, on Oct. 7. ESPN arrived on campus that Wednesday, bringing in around 120 workers to build a stage and set up technology for broadcasting the program to its more than 2 million viewers. 

A team of staff across the University jumped into action to support the effort.

"It is all-hands-on-deck to support ESPN and to ensure the University is represented well to a national audience,” said Adina Johnson, UW Marketing and Communications’ production manager for the event. “We collectively work really hard to create a good environment for them while they are here and do our best to return campus back to its normal state as quickly as we can.” 

In UW Facilities, Maintenance & Construction staff worked with ESPN to check the weight rating of the production set and vehicles to make sure it wouldn’t damage the Central Plaza Garage underneath. They set up water tanks to anchor towers for the cables carrying cameras swooping above the crowd and concrete blocks to anchor the goal posts. They also provided electrical power access to light up both Drumheller Fountain and Suzzallo Library in Husky purple.

Heavy equipment operators hung #Penix4Heisman banners, while gardeners gave extra attention to the landscaping in the area. Electricians built conduits for fiber-optic cable to enable the live broadcast. The conduits ran in a trench that fed ESPN network trucks on Grant Lane, connecting them to a data closet in Suzzallo Library.

Transportation Services staff worked with ESPN to coordinate the placement of the trucks needed for College GameDay’s setup and broadcast, while custodians and recycling staff from Building Services helped with cleanup after the event.

people lined up behind College GameDay desk with Suzzallo Library in the background

Some of the UW Facilities staff who supported College GameDay. Front row (L-R): Rob Kessler, Tim McNally, Katie Kadwell, Natasha Lozano, Kellie Dean, Richard Dean. Back row (L-R): Hector Aguirre, Raymon Cambpell, Kasey Phillips, Charles Thompson, Don Satko, Jonathan Milne, Jess Malinowski, Zain Stowell, Misty Shock Rule.

Staying nimble

Each College GameDay is unique, Nakase said. For example, in 2016, ESPN said they wanted to park tanks on Red Square because it was Veterans Day. Nakase didn’t know it was happening for sure until he was driving home and saw tanks driving toward campus. He turned around so that he could beat them there.

There wasn’t anything on that scale this year, but the occasion brought new challenges that UW staff met with urgency and flexibility. 

“They don't know they want it until they want it. So that's why we have to be so nimble — because things come up,” Nakase said.

people in heavy machinery hanging banner on smokestack in Red Square

Staff who are part of Shop 10, Equipment Operations, hang #Penix4Heisman banners.

Students were set to start lining up at 3:30 a.m. Saturday morning to enter the pit, the area behind the stage. Campus partners made the call on Friday to bring in a DJ to entertain them ahead of the 6 a.m. broadcast time. Electricians moved quickly to get electricity to the area. They ran a line from the Central Plaza Garage and installed the outlet on Friday evening.

Then, due to the game’s 12:30 p.m. start time, fans were heading to Husky Stadium to tailgate as crews were breaking down the stage and cleaning up. UW Facilities staff set up barriers so that pedestrians could walk around the set instead of interrupting breakdown, ensuring that campus could be quickly restored to its previous state.

In the end, the broadcast went smoothly, UW Football got the win and UW student Greyson Wilhelm became the first student to win the field goal kicking contest, taking home $30,000.

Dropping everything to support College GameDay is a lot of work, but it’s not all stress.

“It's kind of fun,” said Maintenance Supervisor Charles Thompson. “I mean, sure, we have to switch priorities a lot: ‘Oh, we're gonna do this? Oh, this is coming in at this time? Oh, it's here now?’” 

“One of the cornerstones of being a UW employee is flexibility,” added Kasey Phillips, also a maintenance supervisor. 

It’s hard not to get caught up in the excitement, they said.

“We like sports. We like parties,” Phillips said. 

“We love being able to see that UW is being put on a nationwide map,” Thompson said.