We’ve been fortunate enough to land a couple of memorable interviews – Whitlock, Kornheiser, Wilbon and Gary Smith, to name a few – but we’ve probably never reeled in a bigger TV presence than one of ESPN’s longest-tenured and most well-respected Sportscenter anchors, Bob Ley. After the jump, he talks about ESPN and politics, ESPN and competition, and the increasing levels of scrutiny for ESPN’s employees. Also, he likes soccer.
Q: You’re closing in on 30 years at ESPN. You and Chris Berman are the two original Sportscenter anchors still at the network. Considering most our readers haven’t been alive as long as you’ve been at ESPN, and we’re in an era when few people stay at the same job for five or 10 years, much less three decades … how much of a long strange trip has it been going from struggling network to No. 1 in the sports world?
Well, I obviously can’t find real work. As my wife calls to me most mornings as I leave (quoting from “The Princess Bride”), “Have fun storming the castle.” No one, repeating, NO ONE, in the beginning thought we were establishing a cultural staple, a global brand, and a revolution in sports entertainment and communications. We were just getting better jobs. Chris and I were, and strangely enough still are, the same age, so we were 24 when they offered us some princely sum to begin working here. We very nearly didn’t make it. It took four or five years for the promise of this place to become apparent, and for ABC to exercise its option to buy most of it from Getty Oil. But the growth of the network’s popularity, its impact on sports and the way it’s reported, has been geometric, especially in the last 12 years or so. The crime of it is that so much of the magic and attraction of our company, we take for granted. We’re too close to it. We forget, far too often, how good our product is, what it means to so many people, and how fortunate we are to work here. I brought a group of buddies through on a tour this past summer, guys each very successful in their respective fields, and after they had seen the amazing array of digital technology, the studios, the high-def, all the buzzers and bells, they had one startling observation. How happy everyone appeared to be at their job. Now, it’s not a “Whistle While You Work” scenario, but it is true. There is a tangible ESPN ethic, a unique blend of frantic energy and pride that first built, and now sustains and grows our company. And all too often, we’re not even thinking about that, because we’re late to get down to the studio for a taping, or running to a meeting. Just today, Magic Johnson was in the building doing a series of interviews (what I dubbed years ago as ‘the car wash’), and as he was making his way out of the newsroom, we caught sight of each other and he made his way over to say hello. To know that one of the greatest champions in sports wants to make sure to stop by and say ‘hey’ is pretty neat. May we never get so jaded, we don’t realize that.
Q: Through the years, who have been some of your favorite and memorable Sportscenter anchors to work with? Why?
Oh jeez, now I’ll leave someone out and there will be hell to pay. Well, I spent so many early years working with George Grande, who hosted the very first Sportscenter with Lee Leonard. George may be the most liked person in the history of the industry, and to work next to him was to absorb, at a young age, a lot of professional polish simply by watching. The shows I did with the late Tom Mees were always a joy, because Tommy brought such energy and enthusiasm and unrestrained opinions to the desk. It’s been a while since Boomer and I did a show together – the last one may have been the 20,000th SportsCenter (and who IS the unlikely intern chained to a wall counting those shows, and why do the landmark shows ALWAYS just so happen to hit on a Sunday night, the most-viewed night of the week?). Working with Chris is stepping into a time machine, back to when the parking lot wasn’t paved, and the future was uncertain, so we had no chance BUT to enjoy the show and tell our viewers what WE would want to know were we at home. Anchoring the 6pm ET SportsCenter for a number of years with Charley Steiner was an absolute treat, though the off-camera political discussions were more entertaining than our shows. And the troika of Chris McKendry, Josh Elliott and yours truly on Sunday morning SportsCenters was a special time, and rare chemistry. An atmosphere where we had as much fun during the breaks, than doing the show, and that certainly showed on the air and made our SportsCenters better.
Q: A morning Sportscenter anchor, Josh Elliot, said you were the greatest Sportscenter anchor of all-time. “I’m partial to Bob Ley. He’s the hardest worker in the building, with the most natural talent, and perspective for days. They come no better.” Being one of the senior Sportscenter anchors in Bristol, do you find yourself tutoring the newbies? Do some of the young guys lean in you for support?
Apparently, that check to Josh has cleared. His comments are embarrasingly kind, and our time together co-anchoring the Sunday morning Sportscenter was one of the special passages in my time in Bristol. Perhaps there will be a rare stroke of inspired sanity reuniting us at some point – if only to read “Attention, shoppers…” announcements at the Wal-Mart in Avon, CT. He’s disgustingly handsome and even more offensively tall – and never missed an occasion, on a stand-up two-shot to start our Sunday show, to step even closer to the camera to further distort his Yao Ming height advantage over his dumpy partner and resemble a marauding monster from a badly lip-synched science fiction movie. But I digress. As to your question (oh yes, that) … anyone brought in here to anchor SportsCenter or ESPNEws has been hired because they can do the job, so the last thing they need is someone offering unsolicited advice. That’s why God put producers on this Earth, and there may be a referendum on whether they’ll make the next Ark quorum call. Seriously, I’ve always been a great believer in probably the most astute thing Joe DiMaggio ever said (aside from, “Hello, Marilyn…”) , which is, give your best, every day, every game/show, because somewhere out there is somebody who’s never seen you play. In one of the more pleasant coincidences (NOT an irony, class – study the difference) of my tenure, the folks in charge hired Anish Shroff to anchor ESPNews – a fella from my old high school in Bloomfield, N.J. I met him when he was in for his audition, and watched it on an in-house channel, and like all the folks we bring aboard, it only took 20 seconds to reach the judgment that this guy HAS IT. But, from time to time, as if my Lucy sign (“the Doctor is In”) is hanging, folks drop by with questions – less about the industrial mysteries of making television, then interpreting the tea leaves of our bureaucracy. And I usually point out, that if I had THOSE answers, I’d be down at Mohegan Sun with the mortgage money.
Q: How did you feel about ESPN’s strict no-politics policy leading up to this year’s election? The ombudsman tackled the issue delicately in her latest column. Do you believe there’s a place for a polarizing topic like politics in the sports discussion? Have you specifically heard from readers either way?
First, let’s dispense with the nonsense that there is not a prevailing political philosophy in the mainstream national media. There was, in the Presidential campaign. And there is, day-to-day. Just today, as I’m typing this, Sally Quinn of The Washington Post said as much, in an aside – no less, to Don Imus – and impartial polling showed as much. I saw a statistic, late in the campaign, that there were more scientific Presidential polls taken and reported in October of this year than in all of 2004. The media landscape of 2008 left you with dozens of outlets from which to get your political news and analysis. In fact, there was so much political media overload, that even this political junkie just had to get it over with and I voted by absentee ballot 10 days before Election Day. In short, there was so much ‘stuff’ out there, that I honestly believe ESPN was a refuge for people who simply wanted their sports news and analysis, and a respite from O’Reilly and Olbermann. There was so much public emotion invested in this year’s Presidential campaign, and the ESPN brand encompasses so many platforms, media, and programs, that a policy was needed. We had one, and I believed it was thoughtful, and well administered. Coverage of Presidential candidates can be so emotional, I often compared our careful compilation of which candidate got how much coverage, and in what forums, to a delicatessen scale – making sure the McCain liverwurst weighed the same as the Obama boiled ham. As it was, I interviewed John McCain on September 14th, in Loudon, N.H. at a NASCAR race. We had 10 minutes – firm. There had to be 50 people surrounding us during our well-produced sit-down in a vacant garage. In such a venue, you’re not going to spend the entire time drilling down on serious topics. Some of that time, sure. But, just as with Stu Scott’s interview with then-Senator Obama, you’re going to take the opportunity to get some lighter material, along with the important sports issues. At the end of the day, we shot 10 minutes, and about three minutes made air. Incidentally, the day I interviewed McCain was the absolute high point of his campaign, as he was leading in all polls, and had actually hit 50 percent that morning in the Rasmussen poll. Ten minutes with me, and he was on a luge ride to the short end of the Electoral College.
Q: Soccer might be the most popular sport in the world, but despite the mild success of MLS, the sport hasn’t gained a strong footing among American sports fans. Does it have to? Everyone seems to pay attention to the World Cup, but many sports fans could tell you Derek Jeter’s career batting average or all of Peyton Manning’s records before they could tell you who is playing in this weekend’s MLS Cup. How do you feel ESPN has handled coverage of soccer, on both a domestic and international level?
Ah, now we revisit a topic that I’ve discussed, oh, only since the late 1970′s when I was public address announcer for the Cosmos at Giants Stadium. Domestic soccer, on ESPN in the United States, is more than a niche sport, but less than a major. But I know that we are constantly attempting innovations and initiatives in our coverage to expand that base. The irony is (rather than coincidence) that in the same newsroom where we put together SportsCenter and Outside the LInes, the ESPN International programs are prepared, where football/soccer is given its primacy to a global audience. We show a very good selection of soccer on ESPN2 and ESPN360.com, but you can also sit in our building on Route 229 in Bristol, CT and flip through the in-house channels showing in-coming satellite feeds, and salivate at the number and quality of matches you can see, which are only being broadcast internationally, This, too, I know. Our bosses, specially content chief John Skipper, are great believers in the growth potential of international soccer, specifically European soccer, to our domestic television audience. It is never going to draw ratings akin to the NFL, but to be a success, in a smartly-done contract, it doesn’t have to get anywhere near those numbers.
Q: You hosted ESPN’s coverage of the NFL Draft in the 80s. Was Mel Kiper even around back then? It has become one of ESPN’s true gems in recent years, and two-day extravaganza of excess. Can you even begin to fathom the changes in how the network – and the media in general – has covered the draft? The NBA draft hardly gets similar coverage – and NBA rookies have a much more immediate impact.
First, let us all bow our heads and reflect upon America’s secular religion. The NFL. Before we even get to the transformational journey of the NFL draft from shot-in-the-dark programming event to two-day Papal Election vigil, consider how the NFL, in the last 5-7 years, has grown into a 12-month sport. If you’d told me a decade ago that ‘NFL Live” would air all year long, that Chris Mortensen and John Clayton and Ed Werder and all our remarkable football reporters would be breaking significant NFL stories throughout the entire year, I’d say you had stumbled upon an NFL Marketing Plan that had been filed under “Get Real.” But, that’s exactly what’s happened. Certainly, ESPN has had a huge hand in that, stoking the public interest in the game – around the draft, yes – but also the stories and personalities and intrigue of the sport. Part of that is out of necessity of producing enough ancillary programming in which to, ahem, sell commercial time and pay the significant freight to carry Monday Night Football. But the NFL is the Gold Standard of television programming. Back in 1980, the network’s President, Chet Simmons (who had come here from NBC) understood that well – when he approached Pete Rozelle and asked if we could televise the NFL draft. It’s reported that Rozelle – who knew the power of TV better than anyone in sports – responded, “Why would you want to do that?” So, we embarked upon our first draft. Only several days later, after I had hosted from Bristol, and George Grande had hosted in New York City, only after we had gone from, what I recall as, 8 am to about 6 pm, with a couple of scouting books, a bunch of note cards, and gobs of nervous energy — only then did we learn that Chet had told his #2, Scotty Connal, that if this thing wasn’t going well, to simply sign it off and go back to taped programming. Well, we literally made it up as we went along – and it worked. Tapes of that first draft now resemble the one known photograph of the Gettysburg Address. Today, we have competition on the draft, from our good friends at the NFL Network – so, there is a challenge to be smart, and sharp and innovative. Having hosted 10 drafts, I marvel now at the sophistication we bring to bear – and of the endurance required to wrangle that sucker, over two days. It is No Event for Old Men.
Q: Are you the type that thinks ESPN could use a fierce competitor? Online there are competitors in Fox and Yahoo, and in the print world, Sports Illustrated (depending on what you read) may have relinquished its crown to ESPN the Magazine. But ESPN has taken over sports radio, and it is has no peer in TV coverage. Can it possibly be healthy for ESPN to have no competition?
Any right-minded capitalist would hope for competition, for two solid reasons. First, the aesthetic that I noted above – the impetus for a better product. And, the dirty commercial reason – the possibility of getting Spacely Sprockets to bid against Cogswell Cogs for your services. That, alas, is not on the horizon. Whether it’s ‘healthy’ or not, the fact is, we sit in a leadership position, and often the most intense competition for a story, a ‘get,’ an interview, or a breaking news bulletin, is from within your own shop. And with the economy currently writhing like a soccer defender undone by a just-less-than waist-high free kick, the chances of some company or capitalist plunking down the coin, and corralling the managerial, administrative and production talent to truly mount a 24/7 challenge, is slight. Now, that reality could lead to an arrogance. I’d like to believe, though, it breeds a sense of responsibility; the need to get it right – from the largest breaking stories to the smallest pronunciation on a highlight. They all define our credibility. Those of us on the news and information side can’t control the business climate. In the wake of our recent BCS deal, I saw a quote in the Sports Business Daily this week attributed to Howard Katz of the NFL, and my former boss at ESPN. He was quoted as saying â€œThis is going to force the market to create a competitor to ESPN.” I emailed him to congratulate him on his characteristic astuteness, and kid him that he should have continued the phrase with “…and one that will bid aggressively for talent.” Howard emailed me back to tell me he did not make the remark in question; someone else on a panel had.
Q: Regarding coverage and critique of ESPN, do you read most of it? We’re of the opinion that up until a few years ago, the print media largely gave ESPN a pass – perhaps because many one day hoped for a shot at working there in some capacity. But in the last few years, the criticism seems to have exploded – maybe nudged along by blogs – and everyone from Chris Berman to Erin Andrews to Sean Salisbury and Emmitt Smith have been intently scrutinized. Do you get a sense most of the critique and coverage has been fair?
Two things have obviously changed. The media, and, the image of ESPN. First, where there was just the media column in USA Today and the 5-10 major newspapers in the country whose critics watched the network and wrote about its shows and its people. Now there is a 24/7 swirling, vibrant, and viral blogosphere, unrestrained by deadlines – and unfortunately, in some cases – standards. Secondly, whereas ESPN was once the up-and-coming spunky cable network challenging the three broadcast networks (well before Fox), today our business brand and cultural affinity is such that we are a large and inviting target. So it’s only natural that the guys on top draw the attention, and the criticism. Fifteen or 20 years ago, it was good copy to write about the great job ESPN had done in covering March Madness, taking viewers game to game (as I sat, hour after hour, next to my good buddy Dick Vitale), or, that year’s coverage of the NFL draft, or, Chris Berman’s nicknames and ebullient persona. We were new, and we were underdogs. Today, all of that is expected – it’s old news – and the drive to distinguish a reporter or blogger leads one to focus on the unique. And that can be our quirks or mistakes. From time to time, all of us provide easy targets for that. What you do on the air is fair game, though at some point there should be a compassionate statute of limitations to end the flogging of a topic. But in the era of the cellphone camera, and the wireless PDA, the degree to which on-air personalities are scrutinized and – in some cases – their privacy violated, is astonishing. And that is not fair. Those of us who do what we do for a living must assume we are constantly under scrutiny. And I think such incidents (and I’ve had a few myself) color our thinking when there is thoughtful criticism and reviews of our work. I think each of us has a mental list of those whose observations we respect, and those whom we hold in a diminished regard.
You can own season tickets for any team in any sport. The choice? Assuming I can’t travel back in time to the Cosmos of the late 70′s and reclaim my season tickets at Giants Stadium, section 134, Row 2, Seats 9 and 10 (right on the 18-yard line where I could reach out and touch Carlos Alberto), I would opt for Tottenham Hotspur.
Is there one of your many Emmy awards that means more than the other? A one-hour special we reported on steroids in 1991. I was very proud of the reporting we did which saw us establish that a physician in East Texas was supplying steroids to a center at Baylor University. We confronted the doctor, on his ranch, on camera, and he copped to it all.
A blogger goes to Bristol and must dine at _____ restaurant. Hmmm, company loyalty leads me to mention the ESPN Cafe, which is a marvelous facility lacking only a wine list. Otherwise, The Landing Zone restaurant, on the Harwinton-Burlington town line where you can chose from alligator, frog legs, gourmet pasta, or seafood. They’ve flash-frozen meals and shipped to Hawaii from there. Biker gangs drink at the bar, and the 212′s from Litchfield County inhabit the 8 small dining tables.
Favorite soccer player of all-time? Toss up between Hristo Stoitchkov, and Claudio Reyna.
Has a relative ever called you tearful about an Outside the Lines story? There have been several stories, yes, that folks have admitted to being a bit misty eyed about. The best focus group, for immediate feedback on any story, is our studio crew. These ladies and guys produce and see so much television, it’s easy for most shows to simply wash over them, unremarked. So when you see crew members watching intently, and reacting, you know we’ve produced a powerful story.
Your most memorable Sportscenter moment. It if wasn’t having a second row seat in Lexington, Kentucky to see and report Villanova defeating Georgetown for the 1985 title, it was interviewing President George H. W. Bush aboard Air Force One in 1992 for our “Outside the Lines” on Sports and the Presidency.
- Baltimore Orioles Wearing Canadian Tuxedos (All-Denim) For Their Trip to Toronto
- TNT Celebrated Chris “Birdman” Andersen With a Post-Game Interview After His Historic Game 1 Performance
- Roundup: Horrific London Attack, Fast & Furious 6 and Hangover III Arrive, Roy Hibbert Speaks Up
- LeBron James Hits Game-Winning Layup at the Buzzer in Overtime as Roy Hibbert Watched From the Bench [Video]
- Paul George Hit a Ridiculous 3 to Send it Into Overtime After Throwing the Ball Away Moments Earlier [Video]
- Nada on Roundup: Horrific London Attack, Fast & Furious 6 and Hangover III Arrive, Roy Hibbert Speaks Up
- somewhereoverthedwaynebowe on Roundup: Horrific London Attack, Fast & Furious 6 and Hangover III Arrive, Roy Hibbert Speaks Up
- NinoBrown on Roundup: Horrific London Attack, Fast & Furious 6 and Hangover III Arrive, Roy Hibbert Speaks Up
- Nada on Roundup: Horrific London Attack, Fast & Furious 6 and Hangover III Arrive, Roy Hibbert Speaks Up
- NinoBrown on Roundup: Horrific London Attack, Fast & Furious 6 and Hangover III Arrive, Roy Hibbert Speaks Up
Leave a Reply
You must be logged in to post a comment.