Mary Jo Fernandez
Mel Kiper Jr.
Stephen A. Smith
Jeff Van Gundy
Scott Van Pelt
ESPN’s Talent Department, born in 2008, was created to recruit, manage, coach and retain the more than 1,000 commentators the company employs — from TV/radio personnel to digital/print reporters to international staff.
“The realization was that production folks who had worked closest with commentators were understandably focused on producing content,” said Laurie Orlando, Senior Vice President, Talent Planning and Development, who returned to ESPN in ’08 to help start the department.
The talent office has become an important resource and differentiation point for ESPN.
“We have a year-round planning and development strategy, in collaboration with day-to-day production staff and management,” Orlando said. “For each sport, we meet to talk about talent a week or two after a season ends or at a set time for SportsCenter anchors, reporters or radio hosts.
“At those points, we’ll review the season, discuss who we’d like to renew, whose skills we can develop through training [ESPN coaching resources include interviewing, vocal quality, presence/performance] and who from the outside may be available now or in the future to make us better,” she said.
Contract planning also takes into consideration the length of ESPN’s programming rights deals.
“Take college football for example,” said Orlando, a former ESPN Classic producer and executive at multiple networks. “Given the scope of ESPN’s long-term conference rights, if you’re a college football person, this is the place to be. On top of that, no matter what your sport is, we have a variety of unmatched news content that gives talent the opportunity to talk sports daily across our outlets.”
With more competition in the sports media industry than ever, ESPN’s talent office just completed a calendar year (2012) which saw 97 percent of all commentators retained.
“While we can’t keep everyone, the 97 percent is a pretty extraordinary record and it speaks highly of people’s desire to work here,” Orlando said. “We are very strategic in our approach.”
Why the great retention rate? Orlando, a Scotia, NY native and a Syracuse University graduate, acknowledged being mindful of increased competition.
“What sets us apart and attracts people is the proven, fully integrated, multi-platform, multi-sport world we offer,” she said. “Provided your skill set matches up, there is great opportunity to do many different things at ESPN all under the same roof.”
Orlando said you can’t overlook the value of the peer-to-peer mentoring that exists at ESPN. “Talent is so invested in the product,” she said. “They help each other. We have people with a wide range of experience — from a couple years out of school to decades in the business. There is a real care and feeding system here.”
Because ESPN’s talent office is relatively new and uncommon in the industry, Orlando suggested that even people at ESPN might be surprised at “how much planning and preparation goes into each negotiation. It involves thorough research, numerous opinions and months of planning and discussion before any offer is made.”
Once the proposal is approved, negotiations can take months.
“When you think about hundreds of negotiations, that’s a lot we are doing each week,” she said.
Despite the complexities and time necessary to lock up deals, it comes down to simple goals.
“Ultimately, we are looking for smart, credible people who can inform sports fans,” Orlando said.