After nearly 40 years of existence and climbing to the top of the television world, ESPN finds itself at a crossroads. They find themselves at the crossroads of business with massive talent layoffs becoming a nationwide story and constant pressure from Disney stockholders to make more profit. They find themselves at a crossroads of distribution with the proliferation of digital media overtaking traditional cable television. They also find themselves at the crossroads of content, trying to discern the best way to reach today’s sports fans.
At this crossroads, ESPN will launch a new show this Sunday morning that replaces an old one. After multiple decades on the air, The Sports Reporters aired its final episode last Sunday. In its place is a new, permanent Sunday morning edition of E:60 hosted by the heavy-hitting duo of Bob Ley and Jeremy Schaap.
Ley and Schaap are two of the most respected sports journalists anywhere and their new E:60 show represents the first time they’ve worked together on a weekly basis after featuring previously on the network’s breaking news coverage of major events. Their anchoring of the Boston Marathon bombings in 2013 is one example of their previous work that was at the level of any network newscast. So with ESPN at such an important pivot point in their history, investing in Ley, Schaap, and the reporting of OTL and E:60 stands out as a significant directional decision amidst these challenging times.
“I think probably the germ of the idea to actually formalize what has only in the past occurred through circumstance and happenstance… in the past, we’ve done some great stuff together but it’s been catch-as-catch-can,” Ley said in an interview this week with Awful Announcing. “To me, that’s the great attraction of this new program, plus E:60 finally getting its own destination on your DVR and in your heart at 9 AM.”
For Schaap, the significance of anchoring a Sunday morning show on ESPN isn’t lost on him, given the presence his father Dick had on the network for many years as host of The Sports Reporters.
“Anything that connects me with my dad in that way is fun with me, which is like the thrill I had when I would get to fill in on The Sports Reporters,” Schaap said. “There is a certain generation that thinks of Sunday mornings from the 90s at ESPN with my dad. When I go into the studios here in Bristol, although my father took inordinate almost perverse pride that he never came up to Bristol, when I walk into the radio studio that’s named for him and they have a picture up of him with Billy Crystal and Muhammad Ali on the wall, I am reminded. I am reminded.”
As veterans at the network with over 60 years combined working at ESPN between the two, Ley and Schaap have seen both ESPN individually and the sports media industry as a whole change drastically. Those changes seem to be happening more rapidly than ever as all media companies seek to find the pathway forward. Along the way, there are definitive challenges and difficult moments as ESPN experienced last month with the layoffs of dozens of talented individuals, many of whom were household names like Ed Werder, Danny Kanell, Jayson Stark, Andy Katz, Sara Walsh, and more.
Ley paid tribute to his former colleagues on Outside the Lines the day of the layoffs with an on-air commentary. But he stands firmly against any narrative that ESPN is crumbling or its commitment to journalism is wavering.
“What happened a couple weeks ago was very difficult professionally and personally,” Ley said. “We lost friends and colleagues of many, many years that aggregate centuries of friendships. Then people move from there to question the commitment to journalism, which is absolutely a false narrative. Witness the very tool we’ve been given to do the rebranded OTL and E:60 on Sunday morning.”
“I don’t think there’s another entity in media that wouldn’t want to change places with us. Do we have challenges? Hell, yes. But we have first-world problems. I saw one piece about the pending obsolescence. Please. Let’s get real, seriously. This is a very aggressively and intuitively managed company and anyone else in the field would change places with us in a heartbeat.”
Schaap added, “We’ve been very fortunate for a very long time at ESPN, there’s been unfettered growth for so long, but clearly there are challenges and there are pressures in the industry now that we’re all aware of. What’s being demonstrated here is a re-doubling of the commitment to journalism and news and the work that distinguishes us at E:60 and OTL.”
ESPN’s commitment to journalism has always been under the microscope, especially with the network investing millions and billions of dollars in rights fees with the leagues and conferences they cover. The separation between the business and content sides of the network deserves close scrutiny. But it’s perhaps more important now than ever in an age where other sports networks are moving away from news. We’ve seen sports cable outlets cut their news departments, websites favor more aggregation over original reporting, and companies do whatever they can to reach new followers on social media with things like photoshops putting Steph Curry’s face on Kenny Omega.
With the industry changing so rapidly, programs like the new Sunday morning E:60 take on a heightened importance as one of the remaining vehicles for in-depth news coverage and storytelling.
“I think it’s what distinguishes us from everybody else. This operation built over the last few decades is unmatched, certainly in the history of sports,” Schaap said. It is absolutely essential to what we do and if anything, the appetite has increased for news, storytelling, for an international sensibility for what’s going on. The world has become a much smaller place with the internet and social media.”
“I’m amazed. I grew up in New York City. And as recently as 16 years ago in New York, if you asked someone what their favorite BPL team is they would think it’s AA baseball. Now you get on the subway, there’s more people wearing Arsenal or Madrid or Barcelona jerseys than Mets jerseys. People have found places through the digital media to expand their horizons. What we can do is deliver the news and storytelling like no one else can.”
“You can never go wrong respecting the intelligence of your audience,” Ley stated.
The newfound commitment to E:60 and Ley and Schaap is an important distinction over what has happened previously with E:60 and Outside the Lines. In previous years, each show has struggled to find a consistent timeslot. With OTL specifically, the show was moved around the schedule in not just timeslots, but channels as well thanks to ESPN’s NFL empire. Ley now points to OTL’s consistent 1 PM ET weekday timeslot on ESPN where he says ratings are up and sees E:60’s new permanent home as a significant milestone. But his focus is not so much on ratings to define E:60‘s success as it is the stories that will be produced.
“We asked several times approaching this, ‘What are the metrics that will define the success of a Sunday morning show?’ If you look at OTL on weekdays, it’s very different than it was a year ago. Higher story count, writing, shorter but more interviews, more different topics. As a result we have a nine percent year over year increase, which is pretty damn good. As we take on this project, we’ve twice asked this question and twice from the top of the company, the answer comes back ‘Do good content.’ Because good content becomes good business,” Ley said.
Ley and Schaap will also have a brand new studio to work from that opens up new possibilities for the on-air presentation of E:60 and OTL. The storytelling capabilities have come a long way from where they were when ESPN first went with daily episodes of Outside the Lines more than a decade ago.
“It represents an enormous commitment to what we’re doing — a commitment of resources and creative energy,” Schaap said. “The new studio… when OTL became a daily show in 2003, Bob was hosting and I was the fill-in host, we were doing the show from a garage.”
“The infamous Studio C, which lives in lore here as perhaps the worst studio ever constructed,” Ley quipped.
“It was also robotic cameras,” Schaap recalled. “You were alone. It was like Kubrick. I felt like I was slowly going insane doing the show. This is a much more hospitable environment to do the work that we’re doing.”
“This set, I call the Jetson family room,” Ley said. “It’s in the round surrounded by screens and projection areas. It gives us so many different ways to tell our stories. It’s kind of like a Lamborghini and it’ll take a while before we get into fifth or sixth gear. We’ve been rehearsing this week and last week. We’ve seen a lot of different things here, the SportsCenter sets, nothing has impressed me more than this. This is pretty neat.”
While the new Sunday morning show has the E:60 brand, it really is a combination of ESPN’s two major storytelling and original reporting brands — E:60 and Outside the Lines. With Ley and Schaap combining, and the behind-the-scenes teams from both shows working on the stories, it promises to deliver unique reporting that won’t be seen elsewhere.
The show will also allow Ley and Schaap to do some new things as well, with room for commentary from the pair and dialogue with reporters and producers. And it will attempt to tell a wide range of stories. The debut episode this week features Schaap with a profile of Dallas Cowboys QB Dak Prescott and Steve Fainaru with an in-depth report on soccer in Syria. Next week’s episode will be an hour-long program centered on Ryan Leaf.
It’s almost reminiscent of a Wide World of Sports mentality, spanning the globe to bring the constant variety of sport. In fact, the one story Ley and Schaap glowed about the most was about the youngest qualifier for the National Spelling Bee.
“It’s Little Miss Sunshine with a dictionary. It’s outstanding, it really is. It’s not going to lead the show and it won’t be the longest piece of the show, but it might be the most memorable. Or it might not be. But it’ll leave you with a smile,” Ley said.
“It’s the best TV thing I’ve seen in a lot of ways,” Schaap declared.
“Everyone says, ‘You’re spending a lot on rights,’ well, there are no rights fees to tell the Ryan Leaf story or the Dak Prescott story or the young lady at the Spelling Bee,” Ley said. “In a sense, you own that story and you can put it wherever you like and there are platforms emerging every day whether it’s on your phone or your iPad and we’re providing content.”
It’s that pursuit of the story that keeps Ley and Schaap pressing forward and leading ESPN into this new and admittedly somewhat uncertain era. Even though the pair have reported on thousands of stories between them, they know there are still many stories out there to be told that can capture an audience. And with ESPN and the sports media moving into a future that is admittedly uncertain, being anchored in those stories and in a commitment to telling them is always going to be a foundational element of their work.
“I’m still on the internet every day looking for a story, whatever it is. One of the things that excites me is I’ll still be doing pieces and going to interesting places and do work that matters. Doing it with Bob every week is going to be an incredible thrill,” Schaap said.
“We’ve been asked ‘Is there a white whale of a story out there?’ I think we each have one not to get too specific. But if you don’t get up in the morning with a challenge fresh in your eye and your heart, you might as well roll over and go back to bed because the last thing that our culture for 38 years has dealt with is going through the motions,” Ley said.
“The fiercest competition that we have is in our own shop. It’s friendly competition, but when your own colleagues say ‘That was a hell of a nice show,’ that means more than anything. When your colleagues are appreciative of your work, that’s when you know you’ve taken it further.”
Schaap closed with what might as well be the mission statement for E:60 moving forward, “It inspires us to say there are stories out there. Let’s go find them and let’s go do them.”
Photos via Joe Faraoni/ESPN Images