Now in his 39th year at ESPN, Bob Ley has hosted countless shows and events for the network, most notably SportsCenter, the World Cup and current staples “Outside The Lines” and “E:60.” Last week, Ley won the Sports Emmy award for Outstanding Sports Personality— Studio Host.
A couple of days after his win, Ley spoke with Awful Announcing on a wide range of topics, including the World Cup, the journalism OTL does on a daily basis, the risks and benefits of Twitter and that pesky ESPN liberal agenda.
Note: This interview has been edited for clarity and length
I was at the Emmys in Manhattan last Tuesday, and just to see the respect and the adoration you received just from everyone, really, around you after you won was kind of striking. What was that moment like for you?
I gotta tell you, the best part of this has been seeing what it means to other people, and that has been truly gratifying. I had spent— that night lying in bed back at the hotel, the next morning and on the train yesterday [Wednesday] afternoon— hours trying to answer each one of, and there have been several hundred at least, phone calls or texts or emails or outreaches. And it’s very gratifying. That has been the neatest part of it because people have said some very kind things. It’s nice.
And the folks on our show, our little band of brothers and sisters who put this together five days a week, they’re thrilled. And I meant it as I tried to basically give them thanks, I think, in my remarks the other night, it means a great deal. It really does.
— Josh Krulewitz (@jksports) May 9, 2018
What you do on OTL and E:60 is different from the other nominees in that category— Rece Davis, Ernie Johnson, Curt Menefee and Dan Patrick— your role as the host of more of a news-based and oriented program. What do you think about that difference?
As I told Rece backstage, and he was very kind and generous in his remarks, what Rece— and before him, Chris Fowler— do on College Gameday for example, I sit there and I marvel at it. I’ve been in front of live audiences, the World Cup comes to mind, and I know how challenging that can be. But to do it with 10,000 people over your shoulder, with the passion of college football, and as entertainingly as Rece does it. What Ernie does with the NBA talent, I was on Dan’s show yesterday. Our show’s different, but I don’t think any of them’s spent five minutes interviewing the man who smuggles fish in his pants today at the Nashville Predators games. So I mean, you gotta take your joy where you can find it.
Catfish is a very big deal down there
Yup. And he would not cop on our show today to whether he would be the one to throw the fish tonight, or it might be someone else. He’s being a little bit cagey with us. We had a lot of fun with that.
Listen, what we do with our show is we have a chance, for example, today with the Matt Patricia story, to do a story and to take the audience through the real story, which is not the charge against Matt Patricia. The real story is that the Detroit Lions didn’t know about it. They never asked about it, they didn’t know to ask about it. And it’s information readily available through any commercial search site. That’s just a very small example of how on a daily basis, we have the opportunity to do things and I have a chance to work in areas…no one else is doing something on Royce White and his anxiety disorder, and how that kind of derailed his whole attitude toward his pro basketball career. Or that Nashville catfish guy. Three very different topics, for example, in today’s show. And every day, we try to make every day different.
In a landscape where there are a lot of easy clicks or clickbait in sports media, how important is the work of OTL and E:60 with the hard reporting and longform journalism that you really don’t see as much anymore because it’s just easier to make money off of other things?
Well, I don’t know if it’s easier to make money off of other things, because if you adopt that attitude, you look like so many other things in the marketplace. And the way you succeed in the marketplace is through quality and being distinctive. Listen, we’re not a 501(c)(3), Shlomo. We get paid every second Thursday, and we do run commercials. And so the ratings are important, the social media hits are important, the pickups on our posts on Twitter and Facebook, they’re all important.
So we use as many different platforms as we can. The key thing— and this is something I think we’ve tried to do for, Outside The Lines has been on the air for, 27, 28 years— is to be able to describe the macro with a sense of the micro that works. To be able to give you the examples that highlight the bigger issues. To be able to give you enough sugar with your medicine, if you will, that you’ll sit there and take it and enjoy it. And that’s a challenge. And some days we succeed, and other days you’ll say maybe we got a little too much in the weeds.
Look, we’re very proud of what we do, and we have a lot of latitude. We’re fortunate to be given a lot of independence in how we approach these things and we try to be responsible with it.
What do you think has been the most successful recent sugar/medicine mix that’s really worked well on OTL that stood out to you?
Oh, boy. I don’t know that this is an analogy that would answer your question, but I think the Larry Nassar story is so horrible, and at certain points almost off-putting that it requires a great deal of sensitivity as you do it, as you produce it, as you decide how you lay it out in a show and how you book the guests and describe it and write it so that you’re observing people’s feelings towards it.
There’s such a volume of stories about it in the journalistic marketplace, so you’re trying to be distinctive with it, and I think we felt we’ve done a very responsible job there. I watched about, I’d say, three-quarters of the women who testified in those sentencing hearings and it just left you numb. And we were on this particular issue of sexual assaults and athletes, and have been for a number of years. We have not come to this late. We were on head injuries, brain trauma, concussions, as far back as 2000, vigorously. So I think you have to be conscious of how you— with a topic that may be off-putting to people and may also have a lot of other things about it out in the marketplace— tell the story, fairly, in a way that will engage people and be true to your mission.
What would you say your mission was?
Our mission is to do the important stories of the day as in-depth as we can, given time constraints, and tell you why it’s important. Our mission is not to tell you about ‘tonight’s injuries, approaching Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals,’ or ‘are the Yankees going to sweep the Red Sox?’ If there’s bleep all happening that day in sports, we’re not above doing something that will dip six of our 10 toes into that area. But our charge is to be, dare I say it, outside the lines. And our ratings, our year over year increase has been pretty healthy. The numbers show and suggest that we’re succeeding.
Moving on to the World Cup, are you going to be there this year?
What’s it going to be like watching the World Cup not being on-site?
Well, now the question is what’s it going to be like watching a World Cup not televised by ESPN? And the answer to that is that’s it’s going to ache a little bit. But that’s a business decision made many pay grades above mine a number of years ago. And so we’ve moved beyond that. That’s probably occurred in an atmosphere of bribery and illegal behavior on the part of FIFA.
We’d love to be there in one respect, but I’ve done enough World Cups to know that the level of commitment it takes, to televise, to host a World Cup as an anchor, to work in a World Cup as a talent, as a producer, or someone in a lead position, that’s at least a one year commitment out of your life. And then you’re in country for six weeks, and you have the time shifts and the volume of programming.
It’s a lot of work, and I’ve done it a lot. A part of me wishes I was there, but we don’t have the rights. So if you don’t have the rights, going to it to cover it as a journalist— especially as an electronic journalist— is extremely limiting. There are very few things you can do, only in mixed zones, and it’s very restrictive. And I’ve been to Russia, so I don’t need to check that country off. I’ve been there, and it’s not the most convenient place to get around, and it’s been a few years since I’d been there.
So having set all that, I have a lot of very good friends who are part of the Fox broadcast effort, in fact I saw some of them the other night. And I wish them nothing but the best of success. But I think that Fox has already announced that of their six announce teams, only two of them are going in country and their wrap-up shows will be produced not in Moscow or St. Petersburg, but back in Los Angeles. And I think that’s a recognition of the logistical and financial challenges to televising the World Cup.
Having all your coverage on-site is a commitment, a substantial commitment that it requires. But every World Cup presents a different financial challenge, and this is how it’s being addressed this year. I’ll be watching and rooting for my buddies on those broadcasts, I really will. And I saw Andrés Cantor the other night at the Emmys. And I told him, I’ll be coming over to watch you too, my friend. I know a little fútbol español. But it will be a little out of body to watch and not do it, but you get to a certain point where you realize man, it’s a hell of a lot of work.
I do have to ask this because my editor says it’s still catnip to our readers. What are your thoughts on ESPN still being perceived as being liberally biased?
I think— and I said this last year, and at the time I said it, it was true— I thought our company had done a great job of diversity across the workplace but still had miles to go in diversity of thought. Just by being in the Northeast, in a blue state, in an athletic culture where the issues are evident and where they play on the political spectrum, there’s going to be a dominance of liberal, progressive thinking on topics. I perceive a recognition that there needed to be a reassessment of how we were approaching some things. Diversity of thought, I think, is on the road to being much improved.
How would you say it was improving?
How do you know the sky is blue? Because you walk outside and you take a breath. Look, Shlomo. People who maintain that there was a cabal, a plot, a secret society of thought police who gathered in a conference room and laid down a liberal political agenda for people to observe and adhere to were just full of shit, and had no understanding of how the world works.
That wasn’t the case. It just was, you’re in the Northeast. Look at an electoral map. What do you think the thinking is? If you were based in Atlanta, if you were based in Mobile, if you were based in Dallas, you’d be in a different environment. It’s just simple geopolitical common sense. It is what it is, but I think there is an absolute recognition that the talking point was out there, that a lot of it was based in invalid reasoning and just off-base thinking, but that is was worth having a conversation about. And I think it’s better than what it was.
Maybe I think it’s that way because I don’t go on the devil’s tool, which a lot of people call Twitter.
Perhaps, which I’m constantly on. I don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing
I’ll tell ya. If you have a front-facing public persona, you do so advisably. I’ll lurk and I’ll read opinion leaders, but even then. I’ve got a great staff of people who are harvesting what I need to know from Twitter, so I spend a spend a lot less time there. And I find myself enjoying life a helluva lot more.
Definitely breaks in Twitter consumption is something I find very healthy and something I personally need to do a little more of
Look, it’s got great value if you follow aggregators or opinion leaders. But the most damaging, powerful and potentially injurious button in the world is not the nuclear launch button. It’s the button or the tab on Twitter that allows you to see where you’re being mentioned. Like, who gives a rat’s behind. Seriously. Are you that ego-deprived that you need to know what people are saying about you?
I mean, if you want to use it to promote your show, fine. If you want to use it to consume and aggregate things, great. But if you want to get involved in a dialogue on Twitter, have at it. I’ll hold your beer.
Last question: How long do you think you want to keep doing this for?
As long as it continues being fun. We’ll see.