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The Sun Bowl to the Super Bowl, a Polar Bear on the Beach and ... Paradise Hotel? An Interview with ESPN's Wayne Drehs

Here’s a nice way to end the month – getting inside the brain of ESPN general assignment writer Wayne Drehs. He’s the one who picked up on the heroic Claire Markwardt story while the rest of the media was twiddling its thumbs. He gets paid to travel the world and search for compelling sports stories, which is good work if you can get it. He’s had internships at the Omaha World-Herald and Dallas Morning News, and went to school in Iowa. We’re curious, though, if you can guess the columnist he’s talking about in the Randy Moss incident. Strangely, this man has never seen Friday Night Lights, but he is a fan of American Idol.

Q: One of the most envied jobs in journalism is that of a GA sports writer. Never have to be in the office, always jet-setting for cool and neat stories. How’d you land this coveted role?

I honestly lucked into it. When I graduated from Iowa in 2000, John Marvel, the former Editor in Chief at ESPN.com, was looking to add some young writers to his staff. He loved my clips and, despite the fact that the biggest event I had ever covered at that point was the Sun Bowl, said he wanted to send me to the Super Bowl. He gave me this big spiel about throwing me to the sharks to see if I would sink or swim. Lucky for me I never got rid of my floaties.

Q: Can you talk us through how a story meeting might go? Are you always on the looking for quirky stories, or are the editors the ones coming to you with them? Take us through the Claire Markwardt story. Is that something you saw and thought, ‘wow, there’s a neat story?’ Or are you being pitched story ideas by random folks, like your mom or your friends or publicists or agents?

I would say my story ideas are about 70-percent mine and 30-percent my editors. I know people think that we all gather in a boardroom in Bristol and talk about how we’re going to set the sports agenda, but it’s not like that at all. I’ll pitch ideas to my editors, they’ll pitch ideas to me and then we usually have a great dialogue about what we do and don’t want to tackle.

My ideas come from so many different places. Friends, colleagues, agents, publicists, newspapers, magazines and yes, blogs. For all the anti-blog journalists out there, folks who think blogs are ruining journalism, I start each morning with a bowl of cereal, a glass of orange juice and, after I read the Chicago Tribune sports section, a trip through the sports blogosphere. The Claire Markwardt video, for example, was something I saw on your site one morning. I emailed my editors, pitched them the idea of telling Claire’s story and two days later, it was the most-sent story on ESPN.com (on a day when Barry Bonds was indicted).

Q: You’ve had some pretty sweet trips for stories – Alaska, , Florida to hang with referees, California to chase Bonds, Germany for Dirk – does any stand out in particular? Why?

I had a great time in Germany during the World Cup. Rented a car, grabbed a GPS and drove the Autobahn between the different venues. But without question the answer is Alaska. Just the flight alone – from Newark to Seattle to Anchorage to Fairbanks to Prudhoe Bay then finally, some 16 hours after I originally departed, to Barrow.

Then you get there and it’s the beginning of August, it’s 30 degrees and it’s snowing. There’s no grass, no trees. Everything is just brown and gray. The hotel where I stayed asked you to take your shoes off at the front door. So every night, there would be this massive pile of muddy shoes at the door.

But the highlight had to be the night we saw a polar bear on the beach. Apparently only like 4 percent of all visitors to Barrow get to see a polar bear, so I was pretty lucky.

Q: Have you ever turned a story down on principle? If someone approached us now with an idea for an OJ Simpson story, we’d have to turn it down.

Not that I can remember. Usually, if there’s an idea that I don’t get or an assignment that for some reason I don’t click with, my editors are cool enough that I can discuss those issues with them. I’ll tell them I don’t get it, I don’t see it, whatever the issue might be and we’ll figure it out. I’m lucky – I have a very comfortable relationship with my editors. From what some of my friends in the business have told me, that’s not always the case.

Q: If you are a fan of Friday Night Lights, this question will be much easier to answer: Let’s say ESPN picks up the show from NBC. Do you think the cross-promotion would kill it? Someone jokingly said they could see Buddy Garrity in the Budweiser hot seat, and after laughing, we snarled because this kind of thing could happen. Would you tinker with the show?

Honestly, I’ve never seen the show so I have no idea how it would all work out. I will say that I miss Playmakers, though.

Q: The best writer-athlete spat you’ve seen or heard about is ______.

That’s a tough one for me. I mean, because I’ve never worked as a beat writer or focused on one sport for a lengthy period of time, I’m not always privy to these sorts of insider spat stories. I’ve seen photographers and writers slug it out in postgame interview scrums, but that’s honestly about it.

I guess one story comes to my mind: I covered a Saints – Vikings playoff game a few years back, a game the Vikings won. After the game, I walked into the Vikings locker room and there was Randy Moss, standing on top of a folding chair in front of his locker, screaming out the name of a Minnesota columnist who had picked against the Vikings. Randy was going on and on and on and wouldn’t give any interviews until said columnist showed up and took the heat from Randy. That was pretty entertaining, but again, I couldn’t tell you if that was some sort of long-running spat or just Randy being Randy.

Q: Got any theories on why bloggers often are at odds with ESPN?

Well, in my opinion, ESPN is on your computer at work, it’s on your television at home and it’s on your radio as you drive between work and home. Heck, it’s even waiting in your mailbox and buzzing on your cell phone. Like any big company, there are going to be people who like you and people who don’t. Some parents are going to name their firstborn “Espn,” and others are going to become nauseated by another mention of those four letters.

In the blog world, ripping on ESPN seems to move the needle. Our Ombudsman, Le Anne Schreiber, will tell you – there’s some things that we do well and some things we don’t. Bloggers seem to pounce on the don’t, which is what I think frustrates people, especially since so many of the perceptions about ESPN are completely false. We’re not a bunch of angry, evil people that, in between sending out massive company-wide memos, sit in conference rooms and try to plot ways to make the sports storytelling experience as miserable as possible.

And at the same time, blogs present this great service to sports fans and, at least for me, provide a fertile ground for all sorts of story ideas. The Emmy Award-winning story I did a few years ago about the Barrow Whalers, the first Arctic high school football team in America, was a story that came from a post I had read at The Wizard of Odds. A few years ago, before the blog explosion, I probably never would come across that post and never would have written that story.

So as much as bloggers might seem at odds with ESPN, we help each other as well. And one has to look no further than Buster Olney, Matt Mosley or Eric Karabell to see the effect the blog explosion has had at ESPN.com.

Q: What’s on your TIVO?
Let’s see …
– Super Bowl XLI: I grew up a Bears fan so I keep replaying Devin Hester’s kickoff return hoping that one of these times the Bears win. But Peyton Manning still manages to show up every time.
– Paradise Hotel finale: The greatest reality trash TV show of all time. A guilty pleasure.
– The Soprano’s finale: Clearly I can’t let go. I refuse to believe it’s actually over.
– The Office: Probably my favorite show on TV.
– Curb Your Enthusiasm: Probably my second favorite show. It’s prettttty good, pretty, pretty good.
– Amazing Race: Apparently there’s this entertaining show where teams of two race across the world for a million dollars. I just discovered it this year.
– E:60: I had a great experience working alongside Lisa Salters for the TV version of the Jason Ray E-Ticket and really believe E:60 has the potential to be the best show on ESPN.

Q: Last two books you’ve read, one non-sports, and one sports.

I’ve been thumbing through old favorites lately. Non-sports: Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain. The things that go on in and out of the kitchen blow me away. And sports-related: The Miracle of St. Anthony, by Adrian Wojnarowski. One of my all-time favorite sports books by one of my favorite writers.

Q: Some subjects probably aren’t down with the extensive features. There’s just nothing for them to gain. For instance … A-Rod, or Tom Brady, or perhaps Derek Jeter. Do you have an ultimate feature you’d like to pull off?

I have to confess – I have a story in mind, but I’m working on getting the access as we speak and wouldn’t want to jeopardize it. So I’m going to keep idea No. 1 tucked away for now. My second choice would be to write a profile of David Beckham. I know that’s been done, but I’d love to spend a weekend with Posh and Becks and really find out what they are like. Is she for real? Is he as down-to-earth as he sometimes seems in candid interviews? What are they like as parents? How do they live under that white-hot spotlight? I’d like to peel back the Hollywood façade as much as possible and see what’s really there.

Quick Hitters:
Q. Your favorite sports radio host to listen to. Tony Kornheiser
Q: The restaurant where you had your best meal. Candela in New York.
Q: Everyone would be surprised to know you like _____. American Idol.
Q: A journalist you enjoy reading who isn’t a national name. Wayne Coffey of The Daily News.
Q: If a movie were made about you ____ would play the lead role. Kevin Connolly.

 

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