ESPN rolling out a first-of-its-kind plan to cover the Sixers

Sixers’ stars Joel Embiid (left) and Ben Simmons will feature heavily in ESPN’s plans to offer blanket coverage of the team ahead of Friday night’s game against the Thunder.

Tightness in Joel Embiid’s back forced the Sixers’ phenom to be a late scratch in the team’s 131-124 loss to the Pelicans Sunday night in New Orleans. My colleague Keith Pompey wrote after the loss that the team is “falling apart,” and blasted the Sixers’ lack of transparency in his most recent Locked on Sixers podcast.

It was the low point in the team’s current four-game losing streak, but the team’s woes aren’t stopping ESPN from going all-in with an ambitious plan to cover the 13-13 Sixers from morning to night ahead of the team’s Friday matchup with the Oklahoma City Thunder, which will tipoff at 7 p.m. on ESPN.

The plan to cover the Sixers on Friday across all ESPN properties, from Golic & Wingo and First Take in the morning to The Ryen Russillo Show and SC6 in the evening (with a healthy dose of Snapchat and Twitter thrown in) is the brainchild of Mark Gross, the network’s senior vice president of production and remote events. Gross said he hatched the idea back in the preseason, during conversations with NBA senior vice president Dion Cocoros, and sees the daylong plan as a way to experiment with the network’s NBA coverage.

“I hope to give people a sense of what it’s like on game day for the Sixers, from morning to noon to right before tipoff,” Gross said of the experiment, a first-of-its-kind for ESPN. “Maybe it turns into a nice little franchise for us and the league, and it’s something we trying to do annually or a couple times a year.”

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“First Take” host Stephen A. Smith will broadcast live from Philadelphia on Friday, and interview Sixers phenom Joel Embiid.

Certainly, it seems like a good time for ESPN to devote resources to its NBA coverage. As of Dec. 1, NBA telecasts on ESPN averaged 1.84 million viewers, up 18 percent compared to the 1.56 million viewers who turned in last year, according to Nielsen numbers. According to AdAge, ESPN’s NBA telecasts are also up 33 percent in the key 18-49 demo, drawing slightly more than 1 million adults per broadcast.

“People want to watch the 76ers,” Gross said. “This team is really interesting to watch and has a lot of personality. It’s a really fun team to follow.”

Some highlights from ESPN’s tentative plans:

  • Sideline reporter Doris Burke is slated to sit down for one-on-one interviews with Ben Simmons and Sixers president Bryan Colangelo
  • Embiid is scheduled to appear on First Take with host Stephen A. Smith, who will broadcasting live from Philadelphia
  • Reporters Royce Young, Ian Begley and Nick Metallinos (of ESPN Australia) will also be on-site to cover different angles of the game in Philadelphia

ESPN isn’t just planning on producing the typical three-to-five minute segments that normally air on the network’s shows. Gross said he’s looking for bits that might make interesting 20-to-30 second elements, such as shooting b-roll footage of Sixers head coach Brett Brown’s 4 a.m. run ahead of home games and covering the team’s Thursday practice.

“Not everything needs to be three, four, five minutes,” Gross said. “We’re hoping we kind of stumble into more of those little things that we can roll onto ESPN.com, SportsCenter or any of the other shows.”

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ESPN announcers Jeff Van Gundy (left) and Mike Breen will call Friday’s game between the Sixers and the Thunder at the Wells Fargo Center.

Despite the pregame emphasis on the Sixers, Gross said ESPN’s coverage of the game itself, with a crew consisting Mike Breen, Jeff Van Gundy and Burke, will be balanced. Both Brown and Thunder coach Billy Donovan will be mic’d up, as will one player from each team.

“It’s not like the Sixers aren’t playing anybody,” Gross said. “The Sixers are playing the Thunder, so we’ve got to make sure to be really balanced.”

Other highlights from ESPN’s plans include:

• A look inside the training program of 2017 No. 1 overall draft pick Markelle Fultz, who has been sidelined since October with soreness and a scapular muscle imbalance in his right shoulder

• A feature on JaeHee Cho, who rose through ranks of the Philadelphia restaurant scene to become the Sixers’ team chef

• A piece on Simmons and his love of Australian Rules Football from ESPN the Magazine’s Kevin Arnovitz

• Sixers CEO Scott O’Neil appearing for an interview on ESPN Radio’s The Ryen Russillo Show