ESPN Going All-In for Zion Williamson’s NBA Debut

    • ESPN has launched three-day programming and promotional effort to get the word out on Zion Williamson's NBA debut.
    • ESPN knows from Williamson's Duke days that 'fans have a great appetite for Zion content,' says producer Mike Shiffman.

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Zion Williamson of the New Orleans Pelicans is expected to make his NBA regular-season debut against the San Antonio Spurs on January 22.

If viewers don’t tune in to ESPN to watch the No. 1 overall pick out of Duke, it won’t be because of a lack of trying by the network.

Once ESPN learned the 6’6,” 285-pound Williamson had recovered from right knee meniscus surgery, swapping out the previously scheduled Denver Nuggets-Houston Rockets telecast for Pelicans-Spurs was an easy decision. 

“In the end, our mission is to serve the fan. We know from linear TV ratings, and consumption of digital and social Zion content over the last year, that fans have a great appetite for Zion content,” Mike Shiffman, ESPN’s vice president of production, said Tuesday. “We consistently saw ratings elevated in games and content he was involved in. Our goal is to make sure fans are well aware Zion is on our air tomorrow night.”

This week ESPN launched a three-day programming and promotional push to alert sports fans – and spot advertising buyers – that Williamson is finally ready to launch.
Coverage essentially started two days prior, when Jay Bilas, the network’s top college basketball analyst, talked about the rookie sensation’s debut during a telecast of NC State-Virginia with play-by-announcer Sean McDonough. 

The next day, ESPN planned to show Williamson’s press conference on the ESPN app. During stoppages of college basketball games Tuesday night, analysts were primed to opine on Williamson’s debut. Meanwhile, sister networks ESPNU and the ACC Network aired replays of his high school and college games Tuesday.

Those plans are just a warm-up for the main event. The coverage will start first thing in the morning with ESPN’s studio shows, including “Get Up!” with Mike Greenberg and “First Take” with Stephen A. Smith, Max Kellerman, and Molly Qerim. 

During the afternoon, Rachel Nichols’ “The Jump” will take a deep dive into the frenzy surrounding Williamson’s debut. Even days before, ESPN said it had multiple taped features and clips prepared, featuring Williamson’s best games, dunks, and interviews. 

On-site in New Orleans, ESPN’s digital NBA pregame show, “Hoop Streams,” will go live from Smoothie King Center an hour before tip-off. Host Cassidy Hubbarth, NBA analysts Kendrick Perkins and Chiney Ogwumike and digital commentators Omar Raja and Christine Williamson will offer a preview for anyone who may have missed out.

Before the 9:30 start, there will be a “layup line” camera focusing exclusively on Williamson via espn3. Once the game starts, there will be an “above the rim” camera feed, providing a unique look at Williamson. 

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During the main game telecast, reporter Tom Rinaldi will join play-by-play announcer Dave Pasch and analysts Jeff Van Gundy and Mark Jackson, while midnight “SportsCenter” anchor Scott Van Pelt will lead halftime coverage.

ESPN’s announcing team will make it a point to frequently cite or discuss Williamson’s real-time game stats, with plenty of video replays.

Said Shiffman: “We will be very aggressive with making sure the fan is aware, ‘He has 18 points and 7 rebounds,’ or whatever his stats are. It’s a great service both for the fan watching, and the fan surfing in, to not have to wait too long to find out exactly how Zion is doing.”

Flooding the Zone

One of ESPN’s strategic advantages over the years has been its ability to pivot and cross-promote a single athlete, game or event across its linear and digital channels, including ESPN+. 

Back in 2016, ESPN aggressively cut back and forth between telecasts of Kobe Bryant’s final game with the Los Angeles Lakers and the Golden State Warriors’ 73rd regular-season win on ESPN and ESPN2. 

The broadcaster has also provided comprehensive coverage of the New Orleans Saints’ first game at the Superdome after Hurricane Katrina, Tiger Woods’ first pro tournament, Cal Ripken’s record games played streak and LeBron James’ high school basketball games.

Company spokeswoman Shakeemah Simmons-Winter says the network has plenty of data to justify its flood-the-zone coverage for this game.

Williamson’s Duke game telecasts averaged 2,143,000 viewers, up 30% year over year. Blue Devils games on ESPN accounted for five of the top six most-watched games last year, and tonight’s contest will reveal if the 19-year-old’s star power carries over to the professional game.

Sports TV rating expert Douglas Pucci of Programming Insider and Awful Announcing predicts ESPN executives will be “over the moon” if they average two million-plus viewers for Williamson’s debut. But given the lack of interest in the Spurs, Pucci expects the telecast to average around 1.3 million viewers.

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With Williamson sidelined the early part of the season, expectations have been building for his regular-season debut. Given the NBA’s early-season rating struggles, Williamson’s return will be good news for the league. “We have confidence fans will be drawn to his games,” ESPN’s Shiffman said.

Williamson is scheduled to be back on the network on January 26 as the Pelicans host the Boston Celtics.