Michael Eaves has been with ESPN since 2015, following a long career at Al Jazeera America, Fox Sports West and Prime Ticket, WPTY/WLMT-TV in Memphis and WKYT/WDKY-TV in Lexington, but the past few weeks have been particularly unique for him. There, Eaves has played a key role in ESPN’s coverage of what may wind up being three of the year’s biggest sports moments.
Eaves was in Las Vegas two weeks ago to lead ESPN’s SportsCenter coverage around Jan. 18’s UFC 246, headlined by Conor McGregor’s win over Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone, then wound up anchoring ESPN’s coverage of Kobe Bryant’s death in a helicopter crash this past Sunday for five and a half straight hours (the first three without any commercial breaks), and he’s now in Miami to host several editions of SportsCenter around Super Bowl LIV. Eaves spoke to AA Friday and said it’s been a wild ride for him, especially considering that the Bryant news was so unexpected. He was set to host a standard 6 p.m. SportsCenter that night with Zubin Mehenti, and it wound up being anything but standard.
“The crazy part is I only expected two of the three, the UFC and the Super Bowl; the Kobe thing really came out of nowhere,” Eaves said. “It was a very surreal moment because it was the first time in my career that I reported the death of someone I knew. I’ve been doing this for 25 years, and I realized a long time ago that if you do this job long enough, you’re probably going to have to do that at some point. Sunday was that day for me. That was a lot to process, but quite honestly, I didn’t have time.”
Eaves said very little time passed between when he heard the first reports and when he and Mehenti wound up on air, hours ahead of schedule.
“Between the time that I learned that TMZ had reported he was on that helicopter and the time that I was on the air announcing the news was 20 minutes, 25 minutes max. It was a quick turnaround. That was before we had independently confirmed the news ourselves. So I just ran over, I got dressed, got my mic and my earpiece, got on the set, ‘We need to go on,’ and then we’re on. And we didn’t know how long we were going to be on. All that stuff, it was just gathering information, processing it, and giving it to the viewers in real time. I didn’t have much time to think about the personal aspect of the story because I was in news-gathering mode.”
He said time flew by while they were reporting and relaying information.
“And I was getting text messages and DMs from all these people I knew from LA, they’re asking me if it’s true, but I was also reaching out to other people to get more context to this thing. And you don’t realize three hours have gone by without you going to commercial, you don’t realize that you haven’t gone to the bathroom or had anything to drink, your mind is so focused on something else that any other aspect of your body really just doesn’t register at that moment. It was crazy.”
Eaves said it’s impossible to specifically prepare for a situation like that. However, he added that his journalism background (including a bachelor of arts in journalism from the University of Kentucky, plus the aforementioned decades in broadcast journalism) gave him the right approach.
“They don’t teach you that in journalism school. There’s no class that you can take that’s going to prepare you for this moment exactly. But it was like basic journalism 101: who, what, when, where, and why? Your basic fundamentals. We often talk about athletes, the greatest ones have the best fundamentals and rely on them in certain situations. That’s 1,000 percent true, and not just for athletes; for me on Sunday, early on, it was just basic fundamentals of journalism being practiced.”
He said that Mehenti’s work as his co-host was invaluable, too.
“On Sunday, he and I sitting there, I couldn’t have asked for anyone else to sit next to me. We have a lot of anchors at ESPN that are more than capable of doing the job, but since I’ve been there, I’ve probably done more shows with Zubin than anyone else. So that chemistry was already there. He and I have been doing that Sunday six o’clock show for the last couple of years anyway. But in that moment, when everything is live and we’re trading off interviews—I would start one, he’d throw in a few questions, and he and I are doing hand signals and all of that kind of stuff that no one at home is seeing—I had complete confidence that if I sent him the signal, he could pick something up while I answered a text message, he could do it. He was so rock-solid on that day, and that just proves why he’s one of the most stable anchors we have at SportsCenter.”
There was plenty of information initially circulating on that crash that wound up being wrong, including that former Lakers’ star Rick Fox was also on the helicopter and that all four of Bryant’s daughters were on it. Eaves said he and Mehenti were determined to only present what was confirmed rather than try to be first on particular details, which wound up being a smart approach.
“We live in different times now when it comes to media and information, but when it comes to death, that is a very serious thing, clearly. That’s not saying that a player is going to sign with a new team. That’s not saying a coach is about to be fired. I was not going to be wrong. I didn’t care about being first, I really didn’t. I heard the erroneous reports about the number of Kobe’s daughters that were on the chopper and about Rick Fox being on there, and people were texting me asking about that information, they’d heard the same things. And a lot of times, the more people that reach out to you, the more likely that it’s true. But I was not going to allow that to creep into our coverage, I was not even going to say ‘We have reports that…,’ I was not going to say that about that situation. I guess in some regards it was easy, because I just wasn’t going to do it.”
While the time on air went by in a blur, Eaves said the emotions of the story really hit him later Sunday night after he went home.
“It was heavy, it was really heavy. When I got home that evening, my wife went to bed, so I sat up for quite some time, had a couple glasses of bourbon—I’m from Kentucky, so I’m a big bourbon drinker. So I just sat there drinking some Basil Hayden and I was on my computer for three, four hours—I didn’t go to bed until about three-thirty or four in the morning—just watching people respond, and sharing some of my thoughts as well, because I hadn’t been able to do it in that character earlier. I was just trying to absorb the entire gravity of it, that a 41-year-old man at the height of his second life, if you will, dies in such a tragedy.”
He said covering the Bryant story was particularly difficult considering that he knew Bryant socially, which went back to his time working for FOX Sports West and Prime Ticket (2003-13), including as a sideline reporter on Lakers’ coverage.
“I knew the dude—we weren’t friends, we weren’t considered friends, but we were cool, we were friendly. I spent time with him away from the gym and the arena, socially, you know, he liked tequila, I like tequila, stuff like that, so we were out having drinks at times. And some of the people I worked with back in LA sent me a couple pictures that had me and Kobe and Gigi in the same picture; I was out there doing an interview after the game and he had her out there. It just reminded me of how close I was to this story.”
Eaves arrived in Miami Friday for Super Bowl coverage, and he said it feels good to have a big event to shift his focus to and to have so many colleagues around him.
“I needed to get here so I could focus on something other than Kobe’s death. And walking into our hotel and seeing people, it feels like half of Bristol’s down here, and it reminded me of the scope and depth of our coverage when it comes to the Super Bowl. It’s like ‘Oh yeah, we’re doing a shitload of coverage here.’ At our hotel, we have two places set up for live stuff, SportsCenter standard. And on the beach, and at the other one, the Clevelander, where PTI and First Take have been going on. All this stuff, it’s just a reminder of the work ESPN does when it comes to content, the countless hours of content that we produce on a regular basis. Coming down here reminded me ‘We do a lot of stuff,’ and I’m just thrilled to be a part of it.”
He said while much of the coverage he’ll be doing will be matchup-focused, one of the storylines that intrigues him the most about Sunday’s game is the Chiefs’ attempt to win their first Super Bowl since Super Bowl IV in 1970.
“As you get closer and closer to the game, you just dive into more of the matchups, looking at whose strength is stronger than someone else’s, what weakness could be exploited. You get the opening night, the media day and all that sort of stuff, and then you sort of get more into the nuts and bolts of it as you get to the weekend. But for me, the storyline that stands out is that Kansas City can win a [NFL] title for the first time in 50 years. …There’s also the storyline of the stars that you have developing, Patrick Mahomes, Travis Kelce, George Kittle, Jimmy Garoppolo, there’s so many storylines, but to me, the big one is Kansas City trying to do something that hasn’t been done in so long.”
Eaves said he’s excited to be covering another big event from the road so soon after UFC 246, an event where he wound up hosting coverage on ABC. He said that felt special given not only the hype around McGregor’s first fight since October 2018, but also considering that it was a chance to talk about a MMA event on network TV.
“With the UFC, that was such a huge deal for our company, quite honestly, but also the sport. In addition to all the coverage we’ve done, we’ve covered the UFC before, especially since we got the contract, but that Saturday show on ABC was a huge deal. And that’s an industry-insider thing, the common sports viewer may not realize it, but the MMA family, they understood how big of a deal it was. Dana White said to me after our interview how big of a deal it was. And I understood that going in. And the coverage has been well-received, because I understood how big it was for the UFC and also the fans who have followed MMA for years. That was a cool thing for them.”
He said hosting a show like that for ABC rather than ESPN changes his approach a bit, as it has to be more accessible for a wider audience, especially for people who might not be as familiar with specific MMA terms.
“It totally does, because you know there’s going to be some crossover audience. So I try not to speak in very specific terms, too many inside-sports terms. On that show, it was really about the characters involved in that fight as opposed to the matchup. We were explaining how big of a comeback this was for Conor McGregor, the trials and tribulations of his life. Anybody can relate to that type of a storyline even if you don’t know the difference between fighting at 155 versus fighting at 170. And then for Cowboy, it was the culmination of a long career; he was going to get the biggest fight of his life at this moment. Those are the things that I was trying to sell on the ABC show. We did a little bit of the matchup when we had Stephen A. [Smith] on and Chael [Sonnen], a ‘Who’s going to win’ type thing, you get more into it. But the overarching theme was the characters and storylines.”
Eaves said getting to cover big events like this is something he really loves, so he’s excited about what he’s been able to do so far this year.
“I do enjoy doing the bigger events, I really do. As a sports broadcaster, if you equate it to an athlete, if I play in the NBA, I want to play in the All-Star Game and the NBA Finals. If I play soccer, I want to be in the World Cup and the Olympics, play in the Champions League and/or La Liga. I want to be in the biggest thing. That’s my approach to my career, I want to be a part of the biggest events in our industry. That’s always been my goal, and I enjoy doing the big events; I’ve got the Masters coming up, the PGA Championship, I’m going to Tokyo for the Olympics, that’s the stuff I really get up for. …It’s been a tremendous start to 2020 for me; that’s an understatement, to say the least.”
He added that the key to success with covering a big event is sticking to the fundamentals, though.
“But the approach is supposed to be the same; you’re supposed to be delivering information and perspective to people who tune in. That’s how I approach SportsCenter on a nightly basis, but also coming down here for the events. It may be bigger, but going back to the fundamentals, my job is to present information and analysis, and sometimes my job is to use analysts and other people to get that out, but the approach is the exact same.”
[Photo from ESPN Press Room]