The annual Harvard-Yale football game secured its place on the New England sports landscape generations ago. A gridiron meeting does not earn the enduring, more-precise-than-pretentious label as The Game without volumes of extraordinary history to support such status.
It matters every year. But Saturday’s 131st Harvard-Yale matchup has drawn more interest — particularly outside of our parochial neighborhoods — than usual. Part of it is because of what’s at stake. Harvard is 9-0 overall, 6-0 in the Ivy League. But the Crimson haven’t shaken Yale, which is 8-1 overall, 5-1 in the conference, and has a win over Army to its credit.
The Game should be a heck of a game. But its magnitude is enhanced again by who is in Cambridge to tell us and the rest of America about it.
ESPN’s “College GameDay” is originating from Harvard’s campus Saturday morning. With Harvard Stadium as the backdrop, host Chris Fowler and analysts Kirk Herbstreit, Lee Corso, and Desmond Howard will deliver what is the studio program of record for the sport beginning at 9 a.m.
The arrival of the wildly popular program — it averaged 1.83 million viewers during the 2013 season and has won four Sports Emmy awards since 2008 as the best studio show — has generated plenty of buzz locally. And the excitement is reciprocated by the program’s personnel even though GameDay typically spends its Saturdays at a Football Bowl Subdivision powerhouse.
“I am an enormous fan of doing quote-unquote ‘alternate-type’ shows, which means non-FBS power schools,’’ said Lee Fitting, senior coordinating producer for ESPN’s college sports studio shows.
“It gives all of us a different jolt of energy during the week when we do a show like this. It takes a lot of extra work if it’s not the most familiar teams in the rivalry, but it’s an exciting kind of work.”
This is just the seventh time “College GameDay” has originated from a non-FBS site. It’s the third time the show has come to Massachusetts, having broadcast from the Amherst-Williams game in 2007 and from Boston College in 2009. This will be Yale’s debut and Harvard’s second appearance, having played at Penn in 2002.
“A lot of what we’re going to cover on Saturday is the traditions and the rivalry, the emotion of it and the passion,” said Fitting. “I think it’s important for viewers to see that the passion of this rivalry matches the passion of the Iron Bowl [Auburn-Alabama] or Michigan-Ohio State or USC-UCLA or whatever the rivalry is.”
“College GameDay” is in its 28th season, and its 22d originating live from a campus site. Even though the undertaking seems to grow each year — the program was expanded to three hours last year — ESPN has the logistics down to a science.
When it became a possibility Harvard could host the show, ESPN sent a crew to visit the campus to make sure the site and circumstances could meet “GameDay’s” requirements.
“The majority of my work is done Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday in figuring out the logistics and making sure they have everything to make it work,’’ said Fitting.
That visit happened the week of Nov. 10, with the UCLA-Southern Cal and Lehigh-Lafayette (the only rivalry that runs longer than Harvard-Yale) games also drawing consideration.
“We were hoping we’d get a chance to come to this game,’’ said Lee Corso, who has been an analyst on the show since its inception in 1987. “Every year we look at it. It’s a hell of a game nationally. It means so much to so many people.”
The nine production trucks began arriving Wednesday, and most of the 85-member crew were in town by that evening. The entire set, which can include as many as 14 cameras, is constructed on Thursday.
The fenced-in fan area — the most fun and distinctive element of the show has a capacity of 600 people, with another 300 outside the pit.
The on-air talent fly in on Thursday, with the crucial production meeting scheduled for Friday.
“When you get to Thursday afternoon, you get to a pretty good spot,’’ said Fitting. “The show is formatted out, and we’ll spend the next day and a half, two days fine-tuning, trying to take what we think is a good show and make it a great show. Everything is in motion, some things have a place already, reporters are out working on their features. We will tweak and we will fine-tune.”
One aspect that probably will not require fine-tuning is Corso’s pick to win the game, one of the most popular and enduring staples of the show. Each week, “GameDay” ends with suspense and humor as Corso reveals his choice by donning the headpiece of the mascot of the school he believes will win.
Corso said he makes his decision on the team he believes will prevail well before it’s unveiled on the show. And he’s had an uncanny knack for predicting the previous six non-FBS games from which “GameDay” has broadcasted. He’s yet to get one wrong, including Penn’s 44-9 victory over Harvard in 2002.
“I remember that one well. I dressed like Ben Franklin,’’ said Corso.
But if you ask him for a hint on which way he’s leaning — or, should we say, what his headgear might be — he laughs and offers a couple of words he’s probably never said on the show.
“No comment,’’ said Corso. “You’ve got to watch to know.”