ESPN's traveling carnival known as "College GameDay'' is hunkering down in central Missouri for the first time. And it's causing quite a stir in Columbia, where Francis Quadrangle on the Mizzou campus is being prepared for what figures to be a raucous show Saturday morning as several elements meld to create what an ESPN producer calls an ideal setup for the network.
"The exposure is phenomenal,'' Missouri coach Gary Pinkel said this week in Columbia. "We don't have a bank account big enough to be able to get that kind of exposure, not only for our football program but for our university."
"GameDay" is the pregame show leading into a full day of college football telecasts on ESPN and companion networks, this week with the Oklahoma-MU contest in the prime-time showpiece slot on ABC.
"GameDay'' airs from the site of a big game or compelling college football story each week, and a marquee ingredient is a gaggle of "enthusiastic'' students, cheerleaders and band members performing on site. They create an atmosphere much more energetic than the show used to have when it originated from a studio.
Whether some of this throng comes across as looking like a bunch of drunk college kids or simply a group that will act silly just to get on television is open to debate, but what isn't in question is that the decision to hit the road has been a ratings success. The program was seen in about 912,000 homes each week in 1993, the year before it started becoming a road show on a regular basis. This year, it's viewed in about 1.7 million households.
Now MU gets its first visit from the crew that's fronted by host Chris Fowler, analysts Kirk Herbstreit, Lee Corso and Desmond Howard and reporter Erin Andrews. That program runs from 9-11 a.m. on ESPN after an early version of the show, at 8 a.m., is anchored by Andrews on ESPNU.
They'll be in the Quad, with MU's signature columns and Jesse Hall as the backdrop. ESPN also is scheduled to do some taping and live segments there from about 9 a.m.-noon today.
"People always ask me what our favorite place to do the show is and my answer's always 'anywhere we've never been before,'" said Lee Fitting, "GameDay'' coordinating producer. "The excitement and the anticipation from the students is unmatched.''
"We never go into a show in a new place without an extra bounce in our step,'' he said in an interview Thursday, a day after saying on ESPN that "we've been promised a wild welcome.''
In the interview, he said MU fans had a big reaction on social media sites soon after it was announced that "GameDay'' was Columbia-bound.
"Within a few minutes ... the messages came pouring in by the hundreds,'' he said. "It's exciting. There are a lot of exclamation points at the end of the messages, so I can tell they're excited.''
"Perfect 'GameDay' site''
Adding to the atmosphere is that it's homecoming weekend at MU, with the parade being moved from its usual early-morning start to noon to allow people to attend it as well as "GameDay.''
Fitting said the scenario for Saturday is about as good as it gets for "GameDay.''
"The set-up we're going to have this weekend is a recipe for success,'' he said. "It's a first-time school, a school hosting the No. 1-ranked team in the country (in the BCS standings) and we're set up in the ultimate collegiate setting on the Quad, with the buildings surrounding us. If you could draw a perfect 'GameDay' site for us, this would be it.''
Fowler, who broadcast the MU-Nebraska game in Columbia last season, said he is looking forward to returning.
"What we're excited about being in Columbia is being on the Quad, in front of the admin building, in front of the columns,'' he said. "We're looking at that being a real positive part of the show.''
ESPN and MU officials scouted out the location Monday. The appeal of the Quad, its proximity to student housing and the fact the contest doesn't start until eight hours after "GameDay'' ends — meaning there will be few people near the stadium early in the day — led to a simple decision.
"This will make it easier for students to roll out of their beds and come down and watch the show,'' Fitting said.
Some students will be rolling out real early — or just staying up. Students will be allowed in the Quad beginning at 3:30 a.m.
But even with all the planning, there could be a big damper put on the festivities. The Columbia forecast calls for a 50 percent chance of rain Saturday morning.
"It can be a big bummer if it rains and turns kids away,'' Fitting said. "Or it can be a wild scene if pouring rain and all the kids stay out there and it's muddy and sloppy. It can be fun in a way.''
The show is about people having fun as well as providing information. And although the crew members sometimes get the rock-star treatment, Fowler keeps things in perspective.
"I want the focus to remain where it should be — we're there because the game is big,'' he said. "If people at Missouri want to feel our Saturday-morning appearance validates the program or the size of the game, great. But ... we're not delusional to think the five of us (on the set) are the reason why many, many thousands of people show up. It's because they want to show how they feel about their program, that it's a big game. That's not some sort of false humility — I really do feel that way. But it is flattering, people respond well and we generally get a very warm welcome when we go to a place the first time, and we expect that here.''
ESPN Radio (WXOS, 101.1 FM locally) simulcasts "GameDay'' from 9-11 a.m., then continues with its own college football coverage hosted by Ryen Russillo with analysts Trevor Matich and Brad Edwards. That program, from 11 a.m.-6 p.m., originates from the north end of Mizzou Arena — where the men's basketball team has a scrimmage at 2:30 that's open to the public.
Then Brent Musburger has the play-by-play of the game on the national telecast (KDNL, Channel 30 locally at 7 p.m.), with Herbstreit doing analysis and Andrews reporting from the field. MU gets even more attention after the game, because a key portion of ESPN's college football wrap-up programming on Saturday nights comes from the "GameDay'' site.