I did an ESPN carwash speaking to talents and executives earlier last week. On Wednesday we posted a podcast with 6PM SportsCenter co-host Kevin Neghandi. Thursday, we ran a Q&A with Burke Magnus, EVP of Scheduling and Programming, who oversees sports broadcasting rights acquisitions. Friday, we published interviews with Will Cain, Matthew Berry, and Norby Williamson (EVP and Executive Editor, Studio Production). Below are conversations with Scott Van Pelt and executives Ryan Spoon, and Marcia Keegan.
SCOTT VAN PELT
You were quoted in the recent WSJ piece about ESPN as saying that you feel the morale in Bristol has been better of late. Can you quantify what you mean by that, what it was like before, how you see it improving, etc?
SVP: I think as I said was that when there’s an understanding that there will be challenges to encounter, that many in our business have encountered, it’s human nature to have concerns about what that reality means. What will happen, how do we get through it, what’s the cost, and having friends that had their jobs go away. There’s no way to minimize that, nor would anyone do that — those are difficult times and days to get through.
But I think that there is a prevailing optimism, particularly as people meet Jimmy [Pitaro], and get a sense of what his vision is for this place. When they get to know him, you can’t help but be impressed with him as a person.
In life they say you can be in charge of very few things. You can be in charge your attitude. You can choose to be optimistic or pessimistic. I have a sense that after difficult days that people are choosing to be optimistic. I’m in a room with these folks [referring to a staff meeting of a couple dozen for midnight SportsCenter] every day.
Maybe it’s just that I’m on an island and we’re removed from things but we have an overwhelmingly positive outlook and energy in our room with people that show up every day fired up for what we get to do. I feel like our room reflects that, and I’m choosing to be positive just based on what I see on a daily basis.
It’s undeniable that your show has been very successful, and we’ve talked about this before, melding traditional SportsCenter with sports talk radio. When they tried to do that in other places with other people, it didn’t work as well. Why do you think that what you’re doing wasn’t necessarily a replicable model elsewhere?
SVP: I had the benefit of having been an anchor here on SportsCenter for a long time before we attempted to do what we did. I also had the benefit of having done radio, which provided me with the opportunity to blend the philosopohies of radio and SportsCenter, put them together in a space, where I also had the benefit of having the results from games.
What I can do is, through my eyes and the room of people we’ve got, take the results of the day … Other places are earlier in the day and don’t have the benefit of those results … So I think you have to fill in the blanks without game results. I’ve got game results and I have 10-15 years of having been a SportsCenter anchor, with an idea of whatever that means, to lean on.
So, I think ours is different, but it’s still closer to the flavor of an old-school SportsCenter because it’s still about who won the game and why, and we had the benefit of years of people knowing who I was. Whether they liked me or didn’t, at least I was a familiar person in the space.
I’m thankful that it’s gone how it has. Apparently our numbers in May were insane. Most of that was because we were following games, and the games have done really well. We created an identity for our show and I think people have come to anticipate the weekly or daily franchises we’ve got. All of those gave us an opportunity to be successful. They were unique. I don’t think other times, regardless of who the person was, would be able to lean on what we have that no one else does, just given the time of day we come on.
You mention the NBA. Obviously this time of year they’re going to be a big topic of discussion, especially when the games are compelling and well-watched. But as you watch the proportion year-round that the NBA has been picking up market share in the proverbial conversation, how does that make you feel as a person in this industry?
SVP: I look at what people are interested in. There’s a saying in radio play the hits. I got it. You revisit topics several times a day — the hit songs, so to speak.
Basketball’s willingness to live the way society lives is fueling all this. What I mean by that is we’ve become a world where social media is equal to the real world. You’ve got the stars getting involved in these petty squabbles, and they like tweets that say something negative about a former teammate, and then it becomes a beef, and then that beef becomes fuel for the engine.
The stars are spread out across the league. You’ve got young stars like Joel Embiid, who’s out in Philadelphia dunking on people on playgrounds. There’s just an explosion in the interest of not just the games and the teams, but the personalities that are involved in the sport.
And so I think you’ve seen, whether it was us or TNT, the ratings this postseason have been remarkable. As someone who’s job it is to talk about the things that interest me, I’m also interested in what interests my audience. And it’s obvious that that’s something that, even more than a year or two ago, the interest in that has become undeniable.
How do I feel about that? As someone who comes on after NBA games and inherits those audiences, I feel really good because we’ve got a ton of people watching because the personalities — and their willingness to behave like they do, and by that I mean get involved in Twitter beefs, Instagram squabbles, and whatever — it just reflects society at the moment.
The NFL, for a long time, was dominating the conversation, even in the offseason whether it was Saints bounties, Deflategate, etc. But I’m noticing that NFL conversations are not having the traction that they did 3-4 years ago. Is that cyclical or do you think they’re on a concerning longterm trend as far as interest away from the games?
SVP: The number one television show in network television was the Super Bowl. The number one weekly series was Sunday Night Football on NBC. Our highest rated show on ESPN is Monday Night Football.
There’s an undeniable shrinking of the might of the NFL. You can’t look at ratings going down and say they haven’t gone down. That’d be a lie. But you also can’t deny that they still maintain a place of dominance over everyone else.
Two things can be true at once: There can be an erosion, and at the same time there can still be an undeniable dominance of the NFL as it relates to their place on TV.
As for the topics, because the NFL has 22 starters on a team vs. 5 in the NBA where there’s fewer players, the ratio of stars to players in the NBA is much higher. The NFL doesn’t do as much as the back-and-forth beef as the NBA does. Not that they should, but the fact that they don’t is what allows the NBA storylines to blend into the space that used to basically be dominated by the NFL.
What the NBA’s done has been amazing. I was just changing my schedule to be here on June 30th and July 1st, because that’s free agency. We’ll have Woj on the air at midnight and it’ll be a circus. Like, it’s midnight June 30/July 1. They dominate a time that used to be dead. Well, they took it over.
Those are things that are happening. Is that encroaching at the expense of the NFL? I don’t look at it that way. I think they’re just becoming a topic that has a stronger shelf life and longer legs in places where they didn’t used to.
It will be fascinating to see what happens in the NBA machine, whether it can endure once LeBron is gone. Obviously young stars like Embiid and Giannis have these great personalities, but they don’t have the mysterious edge that LeBron does.
SVP: There will be a time when LeBron’s not here, and the game will miss him more than you can even imagine. He’s been the yard stick by which all others are judged. A singular force of greatness and dominance.
But, to your point, the global nature of the game and the fact that there are stars not in every city but most cities — you’ve got Philly in the mix, Boston’s there, DC’s got some stars. You can go up and down and around the country and it’s represented.
Think about this: The NBA is going through an explosion of ratings at a time when the LA Lakers don’t exist.
Or the Knicks.
SVP: They never have in my lifetime, or yours. They’ve never mattered.
They mattered in the mid-90s.
SVP: Yes, for a minute, they mattered. They’ve won one title since ’71. New York and LA as glamor franchises are not even in play, and it doesn’t matter because the league has all these superstars. If New York ever becomes a thing or the Lakers get back to being a thing, things will transition. Water, levels, all that stuff. But there’s no replacing LeBron.
I saw this observation somewhere and I’m not sure who I’m stealing it from, but it used to be that you went online to avoid your real life. And now you do things like hikes or other ways to design hours away from social media to escape the internet. What do you do to try to escape for a few hours or God forbid a day?
SVP: I have little kids. I sit on my computer — I did it today — I’m looking for topics. Today [a day without an NBA playoff game] we don’t have ready-made topics, so I’m sitting here looking for stuff.
We had a big, giant bouncy house that’s hooked up to a hose with sprinklers. My kids were in the back yard jumping up and down on that so I said, ‘You know what, I could sit here on the internet or I could go be a dad and go hop around in the yard with my kids.’
They’re a great reminder — young kids who don’t know anything about people telling you you suck on Twitter, and trying to figure out what tonight’s one big thing is — you could do that all day, all the time.
The people I know who unplug from it are almost all happier for it. I don’t know how to do it, because I don’t think you do your job as well if you disconnect from it, but I envy the people who don’t spend their existence on the constant churn of looking for content or consuming content.
Russillo’s line, and it’s so true, is years ago when we didn’t have access to all the information we were way smarter. Because now there’s just so much of it that it’s like being stuck in a bowl of pudding. It’s everywhere. How do you get out of it? I don’t know how you get out of it. So, I try my best, and I fail mostly, but I’m thankful that I have my kids to be the diversion from living in an [entire] existence of being in a content churn.
MARCIA KEEGAN, Vice President, National Radio Programming and Production
It seems like Will Cain’s radio show is off to a good start. I know it takes a little while for radio shows to build an audience, but there have been positive signs.
Keegan: It takes a long time for any radio show to really catch on, but he has a good start. We’re seeing some small increases month-to-month even in the ESPNEWS broadcast. As you know, ratings in radio aren’t as immediate as in TV.
Yeah, it’s quarterly and you need to cobble them all together from different markets…I can’t figure them out unless Jason Barrett publishes them; nobody will tell me what they are.
Keegan: Not everybody knows is my theory. There are people who need to know. It is hard to tell and they’re so delayed. We look at books and it’s hard when you have a new show. It’s hard to make a comparison to last year’s show. It takes a long time for shows to build up a base, but all signs — anecdotal, and what little ratings we have — are positive for Will.
The Dan Le Batard Show with Stugotz took a little bit of time to find its footing moving from late afternoon to 10-1, at least in adjusting my routing, and it seemed like at the beginning the affiliates were complaining about having the show there instead of Colin Cowherd. They don’t really discuss the games very much, they have zookeeper Ron Magill on, etc. But now, I think it’s almost the anchor of ESPN Radio’s day. Would you agree with that?
Keegan: I wouldn’t say it’s the anchor. I think the morning show is still the anchor. The Dan Le Batard show is a very popular show, it’s amazingly popular in podcast form. Some of that may be because people are downloading it to listen to it on their way home when they may have listened to it live before.
It has a very loyal following. I think it’s a little bit of an acquired taste but it’s a great show and the podcast numbers show that people are still coming for it, whether it’s live or delayed.
You mentioned the morning show. For me, Golic & Wingo hasn’t really struck a chord yet. In Chicago, for example, I know that ESPN Radio lost to The Score in the recent book, mainly because of that show being down versus how Mike & Mike was, and the effect that has on lead-ins. How long do you give a radio show that’s new like this — I know you’re not gonna say ‘We’re giving Golic & Wingo six months’ — but how long do you give a show before you gauge whether it’s working or not?
Keegan: Well, there’s a number of things. I wouldn’t blame Chicago’s ratings entirely on Golic & Wingo. I’m not sure what made you think that. But they are the anchor and they set the tone for the rest of the day.
If you start out with a lower rating, I understand that reason, but I think it’s a stretch to say that affiliates’ ratings are down entirely because of Golic & Wingo.
I’ll just tell you a story my boss Traug Keller always tells: 18 months into Mike & Mike, people wanted to get it off the air. It’s no good. Ratings are terrible. It ended up being probably the most successful sports talk radio show for 18 years. So, it’s a lot more than six months you give a show. And we haven’t talked about that at all.
It’s actually in many ways — revenue-wise, affiliate carriage-wise — it’s solid. Ratings are down compared to last year but we expected that.
Could you see Morning Roast with Mina Kimes, Domonique Foxworth, and Clinton Yates becoming a daily ESPN2 show?
Keegan: I love that show. I have no idea what the plans are but I think they’re three really talented people.
Can I just give you a public service announcement for radio? I came from 10 years in TV. Radio is fun. Don’t let anyone tell you it’s a dying industry because there’s a lot of potential here and the people here are passionate.
If you had to guess a date, when will Michael Kay beat Mike Francesa in the quarterly ratings?
Keegan: Oh gosh. If I had to pick a date, I hope by the Fall.
That might be ambitious.
Keegan: I said I hope by the Fall. But we don’t know. Michael Kay, by the way, is a great guy. This is just an aside but if you ever do a story on him, my son-in-law is in the Navy and out to sea. So, on Memorial Day, he and the other YES Yankees announcers did a ‘Hey, thank you for your service’ to my son-in-law and everyone else on his ship, and just sent it to me.
I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, you don’t know what this is going to mean to a lifelong Yankee fan who’s in the middle of the ocean away from family and friends and everything.’ And I told him that and he was like ‘My pleasure, no worries.’
RYAN SPOON, Senior Vice President, Social Content
It’s interesting how ESPN is transitioning to live more within the social networks. Previously, the strategy was you wanted to drive everything to the platforms that you own, and the social networks were almost frenemies. But now, that’s changed especially with Twitter and Snapchat in the last year.
Spoon: And Facebook. We have a Facebook-native show called First Take Your Take, which we do three times a week, so it’s significant. First Take is obviously highly important to us so it’s a big deal. We are clipping and sharing shows like PTI, Finebaum, Get Up, and the Dan Le Batard Show with Stugotz on pages for the shows. We’re experimenting a lot.
First Take Your Take is just a very different exercise. [He pulled it up and showed it to me on the Smart TV in his office]. They’ll set up the conversation topic — i.e. do the Cavs stand a chance? — and then there are many submissions and on Friday a winner is selected and he gets to come in and debate live:
They do about 750K views per episode. Some do a million, some do 600K, it kind of depends what the topic is. This is an example of a show that we only do on Facebook.
Do you see the social networks almost as a farm system for TV — not First Take Your Take, but some of the Twitter shows — or do you see this as the whole means to an end is we want this show to be successful in social and stay there forever?
Spoon: To me, I see it differently. We see them as platforms to reach sports fans and talk sports and grow fandom. And I think there’s positives that come from that if you do it successfully — from us, from other people — but we want to drive and be part of conversation.
In this case [FTYT], this is a show that we can only do on Facebook. It’s highly interactive. We posted a topic, it all runs through the group, there are dozens of people commenting. That’s only something we could do on Facebook, whereas on Twitter we only focus on live, and making the live moment interactive.
Twitter is very good at live moments, conversations, and interactions. For us, while you can eventually watch those on replay, all the shows we’ve announced that we’ve experimented with are all live. NBA Finals, College football talk, our Fantasy Focus podcast. [With regards to the latter], we are going to take a very successful podcast, and say we’re going to livestream it in the morning and say if you want to participate in it, the medium to do that in is via Twitter. If you want the best-edited version in your pocket or car or whatever, great, you can use it as a podcast as well.
On Snapchat, it’s itself. It’s its own very different young, hip, maybe a little funnier effort. It’s reaching fans where they are and trying to drive and be part of conversation.
What were your thoughts on the New York Post story on Katie Nolan that you were quoted in?
Spoon: She’s great. She’s utilized in many ways. She will continue to be utilized in many ways. Some of that is on TV, but a whole chunk of it and what she’s great at is also on other screens. She’s a talent who we’re excited about, who we’re invested in. I think she’s excited about us and invested about being here. My main feedback to that article is I don’t think it does a service to the amount of work and the amount of viewers who enjoy the work that she does today.
Do you think that her in-development Twitter show will be live?
Spoon: She has an in-development show, but it won’t necessarily be for Twitter. It’s unclear exactly where or what it will be. She’s done some Twitter shows for us. She’s so unique we ask that she appears in certain places where it makes sense, but the show that we referenced in newfront/upfronts we did not specify a location.
What other shows do you have in development that you’re excited about?
Spoon: We announced a few on Twitter. I talked about Fantasy Focus Live. I think it will be really good because it’s natural — the talent of those folks who are really good at radio, which works really well here. They are very good at interaction, so that will be a great community and the fact that it will be every day is rhythmic.
We’re bringing back the rankings reactions show with Mike Golic Jr. and Jason Fitz, who are also excellent and have really good chemistry. And we’re going to announce a weekly college football show around the biggest game of the week, which as an example I give — and this is vague — it might be the Duke game at noon or the Hawaii game at 2 a.m. We don’t know. It will be whatever game dictates it.