Nearly three years ago ESPN poached Jason Whitlock away from Fox Sports with the hope that the outspoken columnist could spearhead a new project. ESPN was looking for a way to better serve its black audience and also to get more black employees under its tent. It hoped Whitlock could be the brains and voice behind this endeavor, which was later officially handed the title of The Undefeated.
As has been reported by various outlets, Deadspin chief among them, Whitlock turned out to be the wrong choice. He was was eventually pulled from the position and is now back dishing out takes for Fox Sports. ESPN tapped Washington Post managing editor Kevin Merida as his replacement in October 2015.
Merida has made a number of hires since accepting the job — such as veteran Washington Post journalists Kelley Carter, Michael Fletcher and Soraya Nadia McDonald, Yahoo! Sports NBA reporter Marc Spears and former NFL player Domonique Foxworth — and spent the last six months building a culture and banking content. The Undefeated, according to Merida, will officially launch on Tuesday, May 17 at 7 a.m. ET, though Merida has yet to commit to a launch story.
“I marvel at how fast we have built it and the way people come together,” Merida said Tuesday afternoon to a group of reporters invited to ABC’s Manhattan offices for a conversation about the site. Merida, Fletcher and ESPN executive vice president, global strategy and original content Marie Donaghue spent a little over an hour discussing The Undefeated. Below are some key takeaways.
- There will be four verticals on the site: one on sports, one on culture, one titled The Uplift and one on Historically Black Colleges and Universities. The Uplift will be “a daily stream of joy, something that will make you smile everyday,” Merida said. He added that it could be an inspirational story or even just a photograph.
- As for the HBCUs, Merida said, “Culturally, their sports life, they don’t get enough attention. We’re going to develop a network of college correspondents out of there, we talked about having a weekly band competition, rankings.” Merida added that he might have a reporter embed with an HBCU basketball program and do a version of Hard Knocks.
- The Undefeated will also have a daily blog titled All Day. Former Washington Post writer Clinton Yates, who will also host a weekly podcast, will be the lead writer.
- But don’t expect many posts breaking down trade rumors and coaching carousels. The goal, Merida said, will be to come at things differently in order to show people an angle that they might not be seeing otherwise. “Is there an Undefeated way into the subject?” Merida said is a question he’s always asking his writers. “Sometimes, if not, we’ll leave it alone.” As an example he mentioned a story written by Jason Reid on Robert Griffin III and what it means to be a black quarterback, which Merida plans to run opening week.
- OJ: Made in America, the highly anticipated 30 for 30 film that will air in June, will serve as a major launching pad for the site. Merida, for example, said The Undefeated plans on doing “something” on Johnny Cochran and hopes to take the lead in conversations about the film.
- Spike Lee will produce short films for the site, titled Spike Lee Lil’ Joints. One, Redemption Song, on the 1970s Howard University soccer team that had a national championship, the first ever won by an HBCU, mysteriously stripped away, is already complete. The video will be accompanied by a reported piece from writer Justin Tinsley.
- There will be a series of wide-ranging essays examining the presidency of Barack Obama. “They will be deeply reported essays,” Fletcher said. Fletcher added that The Undefeated will attend and cover the Democratic and Republican National Conventions and the presidential race. Merida said there have been talks about collaborating with Five Thirty Eight as well.
- Another recurring feature will be something called “Show Me the Receipts.” The focus will be to fact check cultural figures that claim to have once been big-time athletes.
- Merida said he’d like to bring a lot of athletes in to pen first person, Players Tribune-like essays.
- Asked what assurances he had that ESPN would continue to permit The Undefeated to dive head first into controversial race conversations, Merida said, “I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t have that confidence.” He added that his hope is to build a site that will be “fearless but not reckless.”
- Both Merida and Donaghue were asked about Grantland. Merida said it was hard for him to speak about the behind-the-scenes aspect of the site since it was folded before he was hired by ESPN. “I know Grantland just from being a reader, it was on my navigation bar,” he said. “I hope that fans of Grantland will be fans of The Undefeated. And I hope we have some different fans too. Because we’re not Grantland. We have our own thing.” Donaghue said she views each of ESPN’s vanity sites differently and added that she sees more similarities between The Undefeated and Five Thirty Eight. As for how she’d define success for The Undefeated: “Quality of product, creativity, impact on ESPN’s content and audience overall, critical acclaim would be nice but is not the be all and end all. We want an engaged audience that finds something we’re not currently offering on ESPN.”
- Michael Smith and Jemele Hill’s “His & Hers” podcast will be closely involved with The Undefeated. Merida also said Michael Wilbon is planning on writing something for launch week. Other regular ESPN writers and talent expected to be involved with the site are J.A. Adande, L.Z. Granderson and Reese Waters.
Of course these things can always change, and often do as new sites go about finding their footing. But clearly The Undefeated is being led by smart people who have an interesting vision for what the site will be when it finally launches after over two years in the making. Whether or not they can succeed is unclear. But at least ESPN appears willing to try.