The call came into the Big Ten office Saturday night. Penn State had just lost to Illinois and the people at ESPN had changed their mind. Instead of heading to Columbus, they wanted to go where the rest of the college football world was going to be in one week: East Lansing.
After getting the call from ESPN, the Big Ten picked up the phone and called Michigan State University to begin the process of getting College GameDay on campus alongside FOX’s Big Noon Kickoff pregame show, which had already announced it was coming. When the B1G phone call rang into the 517, it was Paul Schager who answered and – as he’s done many, many times over the last 24 years he’s been running things at MSU — he sprang into action.
At that point, it wasn’t a question of if ESPN was coming. It was a question of where, when, and how to make it happen.
Nothing in the contractual agreements the Big Ten Conference signs gives its broadcast partners exclusive rights to pregame broadcast shows — and ESPN wanted in. So, it was Paul Schager’s job to make it happen.
Schager is currently Michigan State’s executive associate athletic director for external relations and — according to his MSU bio — manages the ticketing operations and sales and marketing office, and leads the athletic department’s branding and marketing initiatives. His primary area of focus is to manage and supervise events and Spartan game days while maintaining relationships with MSU Athletics’ corporate partners.
Schager knew there was a chance this might happen, so he proactively reached out to the Big Ten offices and let them know that if there was even a chance that GameDay was coming, they’d like as much notice as possible because space was at a premium. There were many considerations that would make an ESPN request more difficult than usual.
First of all, Schager’s team was already prepping for FOX, and the FOX team had asked for a walk-through a few weeks ago, knowing there was a decent chance they’d get the Michigan/Michigan State game. Second, Munn Field wasn’t an option because of the Izzone campout that had recently occurred. The conditions had already forced the intramural fields to be shifted to the north — so there would have been no way to use the usual GameDay spot this time.
Once the game selection day hit on Monday, Oct. 18, ESPN had first selection and picked the Ohio State versus Penn State, dropping them into their preferred 7:30 p.m. time slot. FOX quickly jumped on the Michigan versus Michigan State game, putting it as a noon kickoff and making it their national focus. After choosing the MSU game, FOX was quick to campus to do a walk-through of several different locations.
FOX and MSU both agreed that the STEM building location was the preferred location, both for it’s proximity to Spartan Stadium, its site lines, and the importance of the building to MSU. STEM stands for science, technology, engineering and math, and is of strategic importance to Michigan State in its quest to provide students with skills that are in high demand.
The newly constructed STEM facility – which was the first classroom building for which Michigan State had received state funding to build in nearly 50 years (not since Wells Hall) – included a 117,000 square foot addition to the former Shaw Lane Power Plant’s north and south sides (where the historical MAC smokestack once stood). The STEM building houses undergraduate teaching laboratories, project laboratories and breakout space that supports courses for biological sciences, chemistry, computer science, physics and engineering.
FOX’s show is relatively new and they are excited to use this as a way to drive a large audience to their noon game and hopefully carry the audience throughout the rest of their day’s programming. Schager expects the STEM facility to get quite a bit of airtime on FOX on Saturday, which helps Michigan State accomplish its goal of showing off its shiny new academic facilities to a national audience.
So, with the STEM location locked up by FOX, and Munn Field out of commission due to the weather, MSU’s Schager had to have some backup plans in place just in case the request happened.
And, as we all know by now, the request did indeed happen.
Last Saturday, following Penn State’s loss, Schager got a call from Kerry Kenny — the senior vice president of television, media analytics and emerging platforms for the Big Ten — letting him know that they were expecting an official call from ESPN to come soon. Schager and Kenny agreed that when the call came, they’d work through it and discuss the options available. The call came in late Saturday night and the planning started immediately.
“From a conference perspective, (Kenny) felt there was great value in being able to accommodate ESPN, as well as FOX,” Schager said. “So we said we would get back to them, we would try to figure out space, and see if we could pull it off.”
Schager and his team re-evaluated all of their options and got on the phone with ESPN on Sunday, walking them through the various options. ESPN was very interested in Ralph Young Field.
“The reason the (Ralph Young Field) option came available was kind of fortuitous for us because field hockey just happened to be having their last practice Wednesday, and their last game is (Friday) in Rutgers,” Schager said. “If we had a home field hockey game, we wouldn’t be looking at GameDay in that location. Certain things worked out so that it could go in that site.”
It was confirmed that ESPN was coming on Saturday night and planning discussions continued throughout the day on Sunday. Before College GameDay announced it officially, though, on Monday, they wanted to do a final walkthrough. ESPN’s site survey team came out to determine where on Ralph Young Field they would set up, and how they would get power and fiber out there, and how they would set up and tear down, and how they would manage the crowd. Once all of those logistics were finalized, ESPN announced it Monday afternoon.
“This is unusual, exceptional, and intense,” Schager said. “Relative to others in the past, we have more to manage going into this game than we have in recent memory for sure. It’s the same mindset and magnitude of a Final Four or a Rose Bowl or a Big Ten championship game. The tasks are different, but it requires the same commitment from staff. When things are going well like this, it makes our job very difficult. The better we do, the harder things are. But that’s good. We welcome those challenges.”
Schager said that any “ties” between the two companies –— such as requests for access to certain angles from a camera perspective — would have gone to FOX since they were broadcasting the game. But as it turns out, it wasn’t really necessary.
“They’ve worked very well together throughout the week,” Schager said about ESPN and FOX. “They are in the same industry, and they understand that they both have jobs to do. FOX might say that this is competition for their pregame show, but they also understand that it’s going to drive the viewership on FOX for the actual game. So, there are some benefits to FOX for having GameDay here. It elevates the game and brings more eyeballs as a result.”
The Michigan State team has more of a big-picture approach to hosting the two shows, leaving the details to the professionals.
“FOX and ESPN understand what they are doing,” Schager said. “They need to be supervised and have questions answered, but for the most part, they come with a sufficient crew to do their work. They understand what their job is. We’re not involved in every detail, we just help coordinate it and make it happen.”
Schager is quick to point out that he couldn’t do it without his team, including everyone in the athletic department, and beyond. Matt McCulloch coordinates the physical setup and hook ups of TV trucks; Seth Kesler and Kasey Carter in the facility, events, and operations side of things; Scot Schlesinger in sales and marketing; Ben Phlegar and Matt Larson in communications.
Another complicating factor is that both shows requested to move inside Spartan Stadium for the final hour of their shows, leading up to kickoff. Schager has to balance those requests with the joint halftime performance planned by the bands from both schools.
Fortunately for the MSU planning team, the NCAA decided to expand the team sidelines by five yards in both directions; this led to conversations about moving the bands into the seating areas of the stadiums.
“We had conversations (with the University of Michigan) throughout the summer about it,” Schager said. “The sentiment was that they (UM) were going to move in that direction and they assumed that we would do the same. Given that our band next year would be in the upper seating areas of Michigan Stadium, that was the location we could put the band here at Spartan Stadium.”
So, during this year’s game, Michigan’s band will be in the upper east seats in section 105, in and near the visiting section. After their combined practice with MSU’s band on the band practice field Saturday morning, Michigan’s band will get to the stadium early. They’ll come down during the second quarter, through the tunnel, and line up on the field, in the northeast corner where they traditionally have been.
After playing the combined halftime show with Michigan State’s band — a Halloween-themed performance — the Michigan band will queue once again in the same area where the FOX broadcast area will be and — once play resumes and both teams are on the field — the band will file out through the tunnel and head back up to the upper deck until their postgame show.
“That adds a challenge, that adds some spice to it,” Schager said. “That’s moving a lot of people, keeping in mind that we have a broadcast set down there that’s going to be going live at that time to a national audience. So, yeah, we have some things to make sure go well.”
Both studio sets will push back against the stadium walls and be padded for the game. FOX will do halftime, and potentially postgame, from that same location.
“They (FOX) will be out, they’ll be back, they’ll be out, they’ll be back, they could be out, and then they can be removed,” Schager said. “Those are things that people don’t necessarily think about. There is a lot of coordination, cooperation, and communication. It’s a big production.”
Schager mentions that it would be helpful if fans did their homework before they show up to help the production along, by knowing MSU’s bag policies, getting there early, making sure their mobile ticket is loaded in their mobile wallet, etc.
“If everyone chips in and does their part, things move faster for everybody,” Schager said. “It’s not just the athletic department. A great percentage of our game day staff — ticket takers, parking attendants, usher supervisors — are Residential Hospitality Services employees. They do it because they love Michigan State, that’s why they work here. They serve the students; they have a service mindset. It’s tough work, but they do it because they know it’s good for the university, it’s good for the students, it’s good for the community, it’s good for all Spartans. The cooperation and the hard work and the grit goes beyond athletic department employees.”
When it comes to the two national companies who made East Lansing their home base this week, Schager is confident that MSU’s team is second to none in making them feel welcome.
“FOX and ESPN I’m sure will agree that Michigan State has been as good of a host as anyone and we’re doing our best to accommodate both and expecting great outcomes for both of their visits to campus as well as the game itself.”