“Mr. Brazil …”
Never think with your stomach. You’d think a man who recently consumed 14 tacos in 10 minutes for naught would know that by now. Alas, it truly is hard to teach an old dog new tricks.
That’s getting ahead of things.
A few weeks ago Jason McIntyre forwarded me an email about attending a Media Day for the new SportsCenter set on the ESPN campus in Bristol — a short 45 minute drive from my home in Connecticut. Once I saw the itinerary included a scheduled break for an outdoor barbecue lunch it was a no-brainer. Listening to some executives praise their new 140,000 square foot Digital Center — DC2 — for a couple hours felt like a small price to pay for some free BBQ. (So much for that journalism ethics class.)
Smash cut to Thursday morning and the sun was nowhere to be seen, in favor of a gray, damp, overcast day. In short, a day warranting a jacket. Rushing out of my house and running late I grabbed my yellow/green/black Puma track jacket — look, most
media blogger types aren’t fashion mavens. Little did I know a scant 120 minutes later the person some term the “second-most powerful man in American sports” would call me out on said jacket.
The man was ESPN President John Skipper, speaking to the assembled media inside one of DC2’s vast studios. Skipper, a soccer fan with next month’s World Cup on the mind, jokingly asked in his genial Southern accent if I was a Brazil supporter right as the question and answer session began. “No way, America,” I blurted out. Fair game to Skipper. The brief exchange made my mind quickly flash back to that “Golden Era” episode of The Simpsons when Homer wears a pink-colored shirt to the power plant, causing a stir and winding up in a mental institution with a guy who think he’s Michael Jackson. Fortunately, during the rest of the day in Bristol we didn’t encounter any futuristic technology which produced a holographic King of Pop — although I’m sure the new studios are capable of pulling it off.
Questions about the technical aspects of DC2 admittedly flew over my head. Apparently there is something called “4K resolution” — the next evolution of HD — rest assured that ESPN’s new crown jewel is “future proof” and ready for whatever comes next. Joking or not, the new facility — home to 18 hours of live SportsCenter every day starting in late June, along with 1,100 miles of fiber optic cables, 114 monitors and five 1080p-ready studios — is fairly amazing. Some of the screens in the big SportsCenter studio jut out of the wall — intentionally — to create a different perception of depth. Panels glide out of the wall on a track, while others pull apart to reveal more monitors. A huge LCD ticker with amazingly crisp images sits in the background, although somehow it’s not that distracting. Touchscreens appear to be everywhere. A glass-encased editing/graphics room sits in the background, in the middle of everything.
Above all the new SportsCenter studio looks like a high tech science lab or a level from the game Portal — very clean and precise — although the colors can change hues based on the team or player being discussed at the moment or even by the time of day. The new look fits in, too, with the new ESPN graphics packages are clean, sharp, uncluttered and dominated by a soft white background.
Within a week the new studio might make the current SportsCenter set look like these by comparison:
Personally? The most impressive part of the entire facility might be the wall of touchscreen columns in the lobby that allows visitors to scroll through every “This is SportsCenter” commercial at your own whims. Admittedly an “adult” shouldn’t be so amused by the ability to dial up Craig Kilborn, Juwan Howard and Cherokee Parks playing the Bristol Plumbers, but it’s a cool little addition. Call it a nice reminder to the days when people loved SportsCenter rather than bitching online about how much time the show spends on Tim Tebow-type stories (or non-stories).
Eventually it was my time to ask a question to Skipper. As the microphone — this was all very formal — came to me, Skipper and PR maven Josh Krulewitz jokingly called me Mr. Brazil. My question, stumbling out of my mouth, was about how much of an influence Fox Sports 1 had on the new building or about SportsCenter’s presence in general.
“Is this because of the competition?” Skipper said. “Clearly the timeline doesn’t work. We’ve been planning this building for 5-6 years. Well before anyone announced. Literally it has nothing to do with it. It is very fortuitous and an excellent opportunity for us to continue to create the signature news and information program. It’s a good thing, right? In the face of competition you’re glad you planned this 5-6 years ago.”
Oops. Call it a swing-and-a-miss. But Skipper continued.
“To date they’ve been serious competition in terms of talent, in terms of rights,” he said. “They are very early on in terms of being competitors relative to actual ratings points or getting people to move over to their programs, but we continue to take it seriously. We’re competitive guys. People always think I’m kidding when I say we like the competition. We do like the competition. We actually think it’s helped us. We did some things. We sharpened some things. We’ve had a long head start and a lot of advantages. We’re never disrespectful. This is the News Corporation. We do respect them. They’re a big company with a lot of resources. NBC, Comcast again has a lot of resources. We respect the competition. The best thing we can do is continue to make the best shows we can, continue to build on our digital platforms, facilities, technologies. The only thing we’ve tried to do recently, and we’ve been very aggressive about it is combat the notion that there’s any sort of sudden horse race. … If it was a horse race it’s Secretariat. We’re not a neck ahead, we’re 35 years ahead and that will not be trivial to overcome.”
That’s almost a soundbite!
The day continued with a light-hearted Q&A with Steve Levy and Stuart Scott — who’ll host the first new show from DC2 on June 22. Whether they were both towing the company line or not, both seemed genuine in their affection for still working on the show, watching it evolve from “scores, highlights and catchphrases” at 2 a.m. to its position as the defining, ubiquitous brand of ESPN.
Lunch — the highly anticipated aforementioned BBQ took place inside. Oh well.
The second half of the day — more of a Field Trip by now — included a panel with John Kosner (Executive Vice President, Digital & Print Media), Rob King (Senior VP, SportsCenter & News/Information) and Craig A. Bengston (Vice President, Director of News). The trio spent a lot of time talking about how the SportsCenter brand will be integrated across all platforms, especially digitally via smartphone apps. They touted how the new SportsCenter set leaves room specifically set aside for a social media producer.
King, who formerly ran ESPN.com, made some interesting points about how television (along with news in general) and social media have blended. He talked, glowingly, how Jimmy Fallon — in one show — transforming the perception of The Tonight Show. So how does a show like SportsCenter, which is used to setting the sports agenda in America, react to the online, viral world — does it let it dictate where the show goes?
“The world of media consumption has changed so rapidly that there isn’t like this massive audience, there’s this massive audience of individuals. They all want to have a 1-to-1 experience, content that’s going to relate to me somehow,” King said.
For what it’s worth, a year ago SportsCenter used one social media staffer. Now it has 10.
Interaction with all things ESPN continued, as the tour began to feel a little bit like Willy Wonka’s factory — albeit without the chance to sneak off for fizzy lifting drink. Three glass paneled rooms showed off ESPN’s digital technology. Smartphone apps and watching ESPN on a Roku wasn’t anything mind-blowing, however this new “VFX package” that can seamless integrate live programming with a commercial was unlike anything I’ve ever seen and is difficult to describe without video. You’ll see it in practice soon enough — it’s going to be an advertiser’s dream.
Finally in the room we got to mess around with some touchscreens. Here’s my fun mock NBA draft.
The tour concluded with me falling into a chocolate river. Wait, I already made a Wonka reference. Actually the conclusion was only slightly less embarrassing than Augustus Gloop’s sad demise: a fake SportsCenter “Top Three” highlight package taped on a mini set alongside the lovely (and very professional) Jaymee Sire.
ESPN PR, bless them, thought this was a fun idea. Given my brightly colored track jacket and affable personality someone “volunteered” me to go first, stuffing a cut sheet into my hand and strapping a microphone onto me (and my jacket). Little did they know once the camera goes on, I’m a total ham — as anyone who’s seen me belt out Toto’s “Africa” on karaoke night can attest — despite a voice made for silent films or a bad Ray Romano impression. In my mind this was a chance to drop a perfect, “Jumanji!” in homage to the great (at least on SportsCenter) Kilborn.
Instead, whomever picked these fake highlights screwed me with a pedestrian John Wall layup, a ball stuck in a infielder’s shirt and finally a diving stop in a college baseball game. Live television is difficult, especially if you don’t write your own copy. It was over almost as soon as I could blurt out, “Aloha means goodbye.” Everyone applauded my game attitude. The guy who wrote the ESPN book, James Miller, even shook my hand.
But … hey.
I’m not going out like that, so I went again.
This time I did my homework about Sire, learning about her love of cooking and her food blog. I cleverly worked in the words “tasty” and “delicious” as we jib-jabbed on the set like a pair of seasoned morning hosts as the highlight tape reset. The next time Wall drove the lane, oh yeah, “Jumanji!” When the shortstop from Auburn made a diving stop instead of stammering, “He makes the play,” it was, “SMELL THE GLOVE.” (If memory serves I snuck in a Keith Olberman-style “Guh,” too.) The chemistry between Sire and I was palpable in Round 2.
A star is born. I’m going to look good in 4K HD.
Hopefully Skipper allows me to wear the jacket for future appearances, that’s probably the only thing keeping me from signing on the dotted line.
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