Q & A with Darren Rovell, Sports Business Reporter at ESPN

By Jason McIntyre

I met Darren Rovell at the Super Bowl in 2005. He was at ESPN at the time, and wrote about the Super Bowl parties. As a media observer, I tracked his career to CNBC and last summer, back to ESPN. Rovell is very active on twitter (the Journal mentioned Kobe follows him) and the best word to describe his feed is polarizing. I decided to check in on him six months into his 2nd ESPN tenure, and ask him about life at the Worldwide Leader. He’s not at the Super Bowl this week, as he’s hanging out with Clydesdales. We swapped emails this week.

Q: You left CNBC for ESPN a little over six months ago. How would you characterize your return to ESPN so far? In your current role, what’s different from when you were there last?

Rovell: It has been a great start. I’m thrilled to be back. I’ve done extensive work on Outside the Lines, have my own feature on SportsCenter (“Money Talk” on Tuesday nights), have done extensive work for ESPN.com and have already written more pieces for the Magazine than I did in my previous six-year stint from 2000-2006. Having so many outlets means the opportunities are endless. What’s different? I’d say the resources to make reporters better at what they do are better. The research department is robust. The news editors on both the TV side and the .com are tremendous in keeping us updated with what is going on in the sports world by the hour. On the outside, I think there’s more talk about how ESPN works than ever before, including the intense scrutiny from media sites like yours. There’s much more interest in media reporting than there was when I left in 2006.

Q: How much do you miss having a TV show? The time slot and the ratings weren’t good, but what do you think are the chances you’ll get a sports business show at ESPN?

Rovell: I do miss having a TV show. Friday night, which is what I had for about 90 percent of the shows, was not ideal. There was a lot of press about the initial ratings on those Friday nights. I was proud of the content and thought that the cumulative ratings reflected that there was an audience for it. NBC was tremendous. There wasn’t a single conversation about ratings. Not once. Before I left, I gave them 48 shows and brought on the biggest names in sports business. I do think there is room for a sports business show as the niche has grown and fans can’t be fans any more without knowing the business. As of now, I’m happy about having a weekly feature on SportsCenter that reminds our viewers how big this business truly is. If ESPN believes there could be an audience for a standalone show, I’m ready to go.

Q: What’s the biggest conflict you’ve come across when it comes to covering the business of sports since your return to ESPN? Given how ESPN has spread its tentacles across so many sports, I imagine occasionally, there are some issues.

Rovell: There honestly have been none. I know that’s hard to believe since there seems to be an a lot of dialogue that reporters are working together with executives based on the content we own, but that’s just not true. Wasn’t true when I was here last and isn’t true now. I have had conversations with executives regarding TV deals but I called them in the same way I called them when I was at CNBC. I don’t cover or critique sports media itself besides rights fees so I think that frees up some conflicts.

Q: One word to describe your twitter feed is polarizing. Do you think the tone/style of your feed has changed since you went back to ESPN? I don’t see every tweet you send, but the majority seem to be quirky sports-related images from fans, and I don’t recall that totally being the case at CNBC. Is that accurate? If so, why the change?

Rovell: I think a lot of people want to say that I’ve changed since I’ve come to ESPN. I don’t think I’m much different at all. I still report the business of sports and weave in what is going on in the business from fans. I think I do more of that because frankly my followers are sending me better content. For those that follow me, they know what I’m looking for, and they’ve done a great job sending me things that I can’t possibly see. Anyone who follows me knows that I love being the conduit. I love passing on something that someone has seen and I think I’ve proven that there’s great value in that.

Q: What’s your blocking policy on twitter? When people have been blocked by you, they seem to boast about it. Why do you think that is?

Rovell: Up until about two months ago, I blocked no one. I didn’t want to give someone the gratification in knowing that they got to me enough for me to click that button. But then I had a conversation with a friend at the New York Times and he kind of convinced me that the people who are serial trolls should be blocked. I took his advice and started blocking people. To answer your second question, you’d have to ask them. It does seen like when I say something perceived as bold, those same 50 people tip it within the first 20 minutes. It’s part of the game. i can handle it.

Q: We’ve all sent out tweets we regret and later delete. Yours would be … I imagine the Playboy party one, right?

Rovell: Can’t really point out one that stands out. I think the lesson here is that what you sometimes think is a valid point is not. Or that Twitter is the wrong forum to bring up a topic because it’s much more complicated than that. The good thing about Twitter is that you know right away whether something really missed.

Q: I’m probably in a small minority, but I do like the ’empty stadium series,’ regardless of sport. We’re going to be seeing more empty arenas/stadiums in the coming years as the viewing experience from home is significantly better. Yet people seem to get angry and defensive when it is their team or sport and you pass along a photo. Can you recall some of the nastiest responses you’ve gotten to those?

Rovell: Never seen a response like the Sacramento response I got when I tweeted out an empty Suns at Kings game last week. That was predictable given that the city is on edge because they might lose the team. Many of the fans said that my picture was misleading — which is always the line — but at the end of the day, the announced attendance was less than 13,000 for what some will consider the biggest draw in the west now in the Thunder. Fans also said I didn’t know what I’m talking about despite the fact that I’ve covered more relocations and arena and stadium deals on a national level than probably anyone out there. They come back and say this is different. Well, they actually all follow the same basic pattern. You can argue that what I tweeted hit a nerve, but it’s pretty hard to argue that I don’t know what I’m talking about.

Q: Which sport do you think will have contraction first: MLB or NBA? Or have the (relatively) recent lockouts improved each sport so that there’s no need for contraction? Obviously the city that loses a team will lose a lot of jobs, but for the health of each sport, couldn’t contraction help to improve the product?

Rovell: I think it’s very hard to contract teams. We saw that with the Twins and Expos. The fight with the players union on killing jobs. I think there are enough suckers out there and teams are still scarce enough that I really don’t think contraction is going to happen anywhere anytime soon — certainly not in those two leagues.

Q: Back to twitter. Sometimes, I’ll follow someone who provides good links or witty banter, even though they over-tweet (hell, I over-tweet). But recently, someone was so excited you followed them and sent them a message about getting a ‘24-hour trial period,’ that they tweeted out the image and it made the rounds. Do you do this regularly? What has the reaction been? Do you really find it necessary to let people know that?

Rovell: For the people I’m intrigued with but don’t necessarily see anything in their timeline that is appealing, I do give these trial runs. Most of the time it doesn’t work out, but it’s often kids who are trying to make it in the business and it’s nice to tell them “I’ll give you a try, impress me and I’ll keep you on.” There are some under the radar people that I have found on Twitter that are just tremendous.

Q: Last twitter question: You often seem to get involved in back-and-forth exchanges with sports media types. I’d say this happens with you more than any other sports media person I follow. Is this people swinging up at you, trying to gain followers? Or are you tweeting things that open you up for criticism?

Rovell: I do engage frequently, though I’ve actually toned that down a bit because I frankly don’t think my followers care about this petty stuff. I’ve learned to step away from Twitter more often, but if someone in the media is coming hard at me, it’s harder to resist.

Quick hitters:
Favorite sport growing up: Baseball
Favorite sport now: College Football
Being a Dad has changed you how: Made me realize that my family is really the only thing that matters.
The next time Northwestern will be in a Rose Bowl is …: Next season. Die hard fan can’t believe anything less.
Rank, in your opinion – no need to quantify – the 5 most popular sports in America: NFL, College Football, NBA, MLB, NASCAR.