ESPN Ithaca’s Night of Champions goes virtual

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This Sunday, June 14, ESPN Ithaca will be holding its seventh annual Night of Champions ceremony to celebrate the top scholar-athletes and coaches around the Interstate Athletic Conference and Southern Tier Athletic Conference. This year, though, instead of a dinner banquet, the awards will be presented virtually through a half-hour video premiering Sunday night.

This change came about due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which also caused the Section IV spring sports season to be canceled earlier this year. Many gatherings have been canceled this year, but for Night of Champions, that was not an option, according to Vizella Media President Todd Mallinson.

“It was never a question of canceling,” Mallinson said. “This has become a premier end-of-year event for these athletes and coaches. We’re able to recognize every top scholar-athlete and coach from the fall and winter season, and we have some exciting additions to the recognition video that will have some ‘oh, wow’ moments.”

Mallinson added that the goal was to deliver a production that is similar or equal in quality to the live ceremonies of years past. The show is hosted by ESPN Ithaca operations manager Nick Karski, who will admittedly miss some of the aspects of the live show.

“To me, [the gathering] was always the most rewarding and coolest part of Night of Champions every single year, seeing hundreds of people in one giant room and being able to celebrate all that was accomplished,” Karski said. “Whether it was getting to reconnect with a familiar face or meeting someone for the first time, I always found so much joy in the event.”

With that in mind, people will still be able to get together in a way this year. The event will premiere on Sunday night at 7 p.m. on ESPN Ithaca’s Facebook and YouTube pages as well as ESPNIthaca.com. Viewers will be able to tune in “live” and chat with others during the first showing before it goes on-demand afterward.

These adjustments required a concentrated effort and support to ensure a worthwhile year-end celebration after the disappointing cancellation of the spring season.

“This has always been a total team effort,” Mallinson said. “Once we determined the format, we just had to prepare the finer details weeks earlier than usual, and not having the spring sports season did provide some relief in that respect. While it was a significant change of plans, both of our presenting partners, Guthrie and Visions Federal Credit Union, didn’t hesitate to affirm their support of our alternative plan.”

One of the initial challenges was how to format the show in a way that is easy to digest for viewers and making sure it all came together smoothly.

“Truthfully, some of the ideas just came to me,” Karski said. “Todd Mallinson and I had a handful of discussions and ideas on the table in terms of execution, but it seemed like the ideas flowed pretty easily. If you’ve ever attended [the event], you’ll see there are still many similarities between how it’s been done in the past and what viewers will see Sunday night.”

As mentioned earlier, this is an important event to celebrate high school athletics in a year that saw many senior athletes miss out on their final seasons. There were simply too many hardships endured by student-athletes, including the cancellation of winter championships and having to adjust to online learning, to not give athletes something to cheer about.

“So many different things have been taken away from student-athletes and coaches – including the spring sports season,” Karski said. “While we can’t recognize them, I think it would have been a tough decision for us to take away Night of Champions entirely. At the end of the day, I hope people know we’re celebrating everyone involved with local sports here in Section IV, whether they’re an award-winner or not.”

There were many great moments and outstanding performances in Section IV athletics this year, and they will be honored accordingly.

“The fanfare of it all is what makes it such a unique night for us, so hopefully, we’re able to do some justice to that as everyone gets to watch the show from the comfort of their own home,” Karski said. “This sports community is a special one, and we feel honored and lucky to be able to cover it every single day.”

Once again, those interested in watching Night of Champions can tune in on ESPN Ithaca’s Facebook and YouTube pages on Sunday, June 14, at 7:00 p.m. as well as ESPNIthaca.com. After the first showing, the video will be available on-demand.

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