ESPN’s College GameDay, Fandom and a Fruitless Reclamation of Youth

College GameDay Set
The empty set of ESPN's College GameDay with the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum in the background.

Originally published on LAist on Oct. 30, 2011.

The coldest time of the day is the immediate hours before sunrise. At least that is what we are told. I’m usually safely ensconced in the layers of bedding in various states of unconsciousness unless there is a sudden urge to evacuate my bladder. Regardless it’s a rarity that I am outdoors when it’s so cold*, but there I was in the Saturday predawn walking towards the torch-lit Coliseum and into the condensed remains of my breath in the still dark morning.

* I know full well that it was snowing on the East Coast and power got knocked out to two million residents. But I also know I pay more to live in a place that should always be sunny and 80 degrees year round. So I will complain about the cold, and all of the people who question my complaints can just get fucked.

Sun Rise
The sun rising in the east behind ESPN's College GameDay set.

ESPN’s College GameDay has become a phenomenon. Week after week host Chris Fowler with analysts Kirk Herbstreit, Lee Corso and Desmond Howard go to the site of the biggest football matchup and do their pregame show using the cheering students as a backdrop for their set. Like other pregame shows, they give out the talking points of the day’s matchups. What does Duke need to do to upset Virginia Tech at home? Will Russell Wilson shake off last week’s disappointment and have Wisconsin win big on the road at Ohio State? Is Kansas State’s head coach Bill Snyder the best coach there is?

But it’s become more than your standard run-of-the-mill pregame show.

“We want to be analytical,” GameDay coordinating producer Lee Fitting told me after a production meeting Friday evening. “We want to be historical. We want to be educational. We want to be entertaining. That’s the goal to find the mix.”

For three hours, the first hour hosted by the lovely Erin Andrews on ESPNU, it chugs and chugs on until their final segment, the climax of the morning. Offstage goes Howard and onstage comes a celebrity guest who along with Herbstreit and Corso pick games. The final game they pick is the game that is hosted at the site they are at and culminates with Corso wearing the mascot headgear of the team he picks to win.

That’s the money shot. That’s why the hungover masses from last night’s parties braved the lines (at least approximately 15% of the folks I asked in my highly unscientific poll). As to why I’m there, that is something a bit more complicated.

Back in the spring of 1997 while looking for colleges I didn’t base my decision on the state of their college athletics: I based it on who would accept me as an electrical engineering major**. That’s how I wound up at UC Santa Barbara, a school without a football program in any division.

**One of a string of horrible life decisions I made. Obviously I’m not an engineer. I suppose if I could have gotten in to UCLA or Cal as an English major or undeclared, but what can I do about it now?

I have never experienced the thrill of pre-funking in the dorms then making the trek down to the stadium on game day blitzed out of my mind. Although looking back at it not having a football team didn’t really make a difference: I still don’t remember much of my Saturdays in college.

There were no fight songs. No chants. No cheerleaders. Not even a Division III game. And there definitely was no GameDay for me.

I have no context as to how autumn Saturdays work for the millions of college students across the country. So that’s my best guess as to why I dragged my 30-something corpse to a place that belongs to teenagers and 20-somethings – to figure out what all the hubbub of Saturday football is all about.

The Start of the Broadcast
The view of walking towards the set of ESPN's College GameDay set with the lit torch of the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum in the background.

The broadcast starts at 9 a.m. Eastern time which means it’s a pre-sunrise 6 a.m. on the West Coast. “It definitely adds a different dynamic to the show,” stage director Mike Ruhlman told me. Despite having to be awake at 3 a.m., “we can get some great shots of the sun rising.”

The glow of stage lights could be seen from miles away, a stark contrast from the dark sky. I followed that glow until I made it to the set where they were 15 minutes into the first hour where the students had already gathered with their signs.

At the heart of the show are the students. When I asked coordinating producer Fitting what was the best part about doing GameDay he replied that it was going to a campus for the first time.

“To see the excitement and the thrill these kids have to see the guys and be a part of the show, it’s awesome. It just adds to the show when you have a group of kids that excited.”

Obviously the GameDay crew has been out to USC on eight separate occasions, but nonetheless the students seemed to be filled with enough enthusiasm. There were the signs: “Yahoo should investigate the NCAA.” “Occupy the NCAA. 99% of sanctions. 1% of violations.” Admittedly I didn’t get that one. There were also the douchebaggery signs: “We are the 1%.” And there was the funniest one: “9 out of 10 California girls are hot. The 10th one goes to Stanford.”

The Signs
Some of the signs held by students for ESPN's College GameDay broadcast.

What really incurred my wrath was how awake the students seemed to be. Here I was feeling it required Dr. Frankenstein to get me alive and walking much less coherent at such an hour. I guess that’s why they don’t do GameDay against a backdrop of 30-somethings.

There were a couple of kids who had stayed up from the night before. Most were like a group I encountered near the bronze nude statues at the peristyle entrance of the Coliseum: “Coffee and more coffee,” they answered when I asked how they were alive.

It was at that point when my initial dose of coffee was beginning to wear off. As I was heading backstage to get some much needed coffee, I hear two whistles and a charging scream as if I were on the set of Braveheart. The Stanford band dressed up for Halloween decided to charge the crowd. I narrowly missed the stampede and made it safe behind the barricade by a half second.

The Stanford Band
The Stanford band playing a song after their stampede towards the crowd.

The show was not supposed to come to Los Angeles. The original plan had them going to the Little Apple of Manhattan, Kansas for a Big 12 duel between what would have been undefeated Oklahoma Sooners and Kansas State Wildcats teams. Only Oklahoma didn’t follow the script losing at home to Texas Tech. With the enormity of the game diminished, GameDay made the last minute decision to come out for the Standford-USC battle.

“It’s something we always talk about,” GameDay coordinating producer Lee Fitting explained to me Friday afternoon after a production meeting. “We can change directions at a drop of a hat.”

With a dedicated crew that travels with the show, Fitting told me they can have the set broken down in three hours and packed in trucks ready to head to their next location. They haul ass to get to the next location where it takes a day to set things up, and voila! Television magic ready to happen.

And like that moment with the unruly Stanford band charging, it was television magic indeed. It was all a spectacle befitting of an epileptic fit of Guy Debord. Throughout the three hours, there were producers on the speakers telling the crowd, “More energy!” and “We’re shooting this corner and need to fill it up!”

There were even moments while the guys were discussing something on set that the male cheerleaders were jumping up and down in place holding up the cheer cards right behind the set. I didn’t have a monitor in front of me but it probably would have looked like a lot of background energy in the shot.

What made it surreal was the fact that these cheerleaders were absolutely silently. They were smiling and looking enthusiastic, but not one peep was heard from them. The crowd behind them were quiet too, the wear of standing for hours in an unnatural time of the day starting to take its toll.

As Debord said about the spectacle in his sixth thesis of The Society of the Spectacle, “It is the very heart of society’s real unreality.” Everything did feel unreal.

Even backstage behind the scenes watching Erin Andrews trying to warm up donning a baby blue snuggie adorned with penguins; the Stanford tree mascot guy generously allowing Corso to borrow the getup for the headgear segment of the show.

Where rejected signs go to die.

It didn’t seem real at any point. The steady build up going up the hill until finally Corso prances around the stage in the Stanford tree. No denouement, no resolution. Just the catharsis of the climax, a couple of deep breaths and a walk of shame.

As I was walking down Figueroa I was wondering what the hell I learned in the previous three hours.

1. I still don’t fully understand the Saturday rituals, and I never will. It’s all right though. Since I don’t have that school loyalty, I won’t understand.

2. Stanford kids are more fun than USC kids. I don’t know whether it was because Stanford was the visiting team or whether it was because they don’t have a history of excellence. With USC it’s different. They have “Conquest”, “Tribute to Troy”, “Fight On”. There’s an austere pretentiousness*** about the Trojans that induces yawns. But with Stanford they just don’t give a fuck. I would much rather have drinks with them (although towards the end of the show I found a couple drinking Bud Lights and had to immediately reconsider that previous statement.)

*** And yes I fully understand that I am criticizing USC’s pretensions in one breath and citing Guy Debord in another. I’m a hypocrite, what can I say?

The Stanford Kids
A view of stage right where the Stanford band and kids had congregated.

3. I will never ever work an assignment that requires me to me up at 5 a.m. unless I’m covering a seven-overtime playoff game in the NHL.

The students posing for a shot at the camera.