'It's just off the charts': Why ABC broadcasting the WCWS is a huge deal for NCAA softball

Dean Ruhl
Oklahoman
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Since Oklahoma City landed the Women’s College World Series back in 1990, Rick Quinton has missed only three times.  

In 1996, the tournament traveled to Columbus, Georgia to preview the upcoming Summer Olympics. Another time ABC sent him to the Belmont Stakes instead, and in 2020, COVID-19 canceled the event.  

Quinton, a camera operator for ESPN, has seen a lot in his 30 years working at the tournament. He reminisced on the great pitching performances. He recalled when the stadium seating was only behind home plate and families would set up picnic blankets along the sides with little kids rolling down toward the diamond.  

All are special moments for Quinton. But Saturday brought another unique moment.  

Quinton helped broadcast Oklahoma’s 7-2 victory against Texas, but that’s not what made it special. The broadcast was the first WCWS game on ABC, a seismic moment in the tournament’s 40-year history.  

“That’s pretty cool,” Quinton said.  

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Oklahoma and Texas softball players pray following Saturday's WCWS game in Oklahoma City.

As monumental the moment is for the sport, it didn’t come easy. Through hefty investment from ESPN to grow the sport and a scheduling change this past offseason, the window opened for WCWS to make the move. 

The Saturday format changed from four games to two, allowing scheduling windows for ABC to fit the tournament in.  

“It allowed programming to identify and hone in on ABC windows, and that opened up a lot of opportunity,” said Meg Aronowitz, ESPN’s coordinating producer who has worked 16 WCWS’s.  

Years ago, softball was lucky to get a couple games on ESPN. Now, they’re claiming the weekend matinee on a nationwide channel. 

Jessica Mendoza, a current color commentator for ESPN and former Stanford outfielder, said people are starting to realize how big a deal the tournament is, resulting in ratings and attendance growing.  

“I just think back to when we only had one or two games on ESPN and how huge that was for the sport,” Mendoza said. “I never would have imagined, even though I always felt like our game deserved to be on ABC, that is where we could get with women’s sports.” 

She also credits the amount of money ESPN invested in the event for its substantial growth. Mendoza, along with commentators Beth Mowins and Michele Smith and sideline reporter Holly Rowe, are calling their 15th WCWS together.  

When the crew started, the setup was starkly different. Mendoza recalls operating out of one TV truck in the early years. Currently, the ESPN crew uses nine trucks, a catering tent and a massive generator.  

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TV analyst Jessica Mendoza is one of more than 200 ESPN employees who came to OKC for this year's WCWS.

There are trucks solely for editing, graphics and producing. A trailer for hair and makeup. The expanded space gives the crew the ability to use more technology for broadcasts. Mendoza said seeing the final, on-air products — with flashy graphics and expansive camera shots — makes her “giddy.” 

“As an announcer you’re trying to really bring out, ‘This is how great these players are’ but then when you have even more tools to make it show that much more, it makes it better,” Mendoza said.  

The broadcasting schedule has also been revamped. Quinton remembers when the crew would only broadcast the championship game decades ago. More games slowly oozed onto TV sets throughout the years. The on-air talent used to announce games from a room the size of a closet.  

“Now, someone could live in there,” Quinton said.  

The original crew size when Quinton started was less than 30. This year, more than 200 ESPN employees came to OKC. The broadcasts have gone from using five cameras to 40. More than 120 microphones are spread throughout the stadium.  

“We even have a drone for the first time,” Mendoza said.  

Along with the drone, roughly the size of an iPhone and fitted with a detailed telephoto lens, the other new camera is hooked on a crane, similar to one seen on a movie set.  

ESPN’s investment has resulted in the WCWS getting the treatment pro league playoffs have. On Sunday, the tournament again will be broadcast on ABC at 2 p.m.  

Mendoza has ideas about continuing to grow the sport. Continuing coverage of early-season tournaments and more on professional leagues are at the top.  

For now, Mendoza is ecstatic with where things are trending. For Oklahoma coach Patty Gasso, whose Sooners played on ABC last season during the super regionals, she’s just honored to again play on the network.

“To me it is the Wide World of Sports,” Gasso said. “I’ve been watching it for that long. To think that we are in a game on ABC is just a wow factor for me personally. 

“For our sport, for women’s athletics, it’s just off the charts.” 

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