What’s a great 50th birthday present for an avid golfer? How about a chance to compete against Tiger Woods?
That’s what ESPN is giving birthday boy Michael Jordan on Sunday, matching MJ against Eldrick in the initial bracket-round contest of ESPN’s on-going “The Greatest Athlete of All Time” series.
“Strictly coincidental,” said Don Skwar, senior coordinating producer. “Well, maybe not strictly. We were originally going to start Feb. 5, but we didn’t want to run it while Jordan’s 50th birthday content was airing, so we figured we’d start on its last day, which happens to be his birthday.”
When ESPN Sport Science entered the project last spring, the research and production teams were charged with gathering data on 86 athletes (five in each of 16 categories, except football which had 11 athletes), but actually “did homework on five times that many” according to show host John Brenkus.
“We’ve been able to gather so much data on athletes over six years by either having them come through the lab or by doing segments on them, that we always wanted to take that data and settle the argument on who’s the greatest athlete,” Brenkus said.
“We try to be both educational and entertaining, gathering information first, then presenting it in as visually a stimulating way as possible.” (ESPN Sport Science pieces — experiments on human performance using the latest scientific technology and seen across various ESPN platforms — have received three Emmys and been nominated nine times).
This Sunday, the 10 a.m., noon and 6 p.m. SportsCenters will air the Tiger-Jordan showdown, the winner of which will be revealed at the end of each of the segments.
While ESPN Sport Science analysis will determine daily advancers from Sunday through March 3, it was the fans’ vote which whittled down the original nominees and created some surprises along the way.
“I was pleasantly surprised that Jim Brown won the football category,” Skwar said. “ESPN.com gets a younger audience, so I thought voters might go with Jerry Rice or someone like that because Brown is from another era.”
Brenkus, who recently chatted with fans on ESPN.com regarding the bracket, said: “I was surprised LeBron did not fare better with the public. As purely an athlete he was very high on our metric system, but it seems the negative feelings toward him have not totally gone away.”
Brenkus warns the road to the ESPN Sport Science “Greatest Athlete of All Time” remains unpredictable.
“There are big surprises in each of the remaining rounds — someone people will not expect,” he says. “And there’s an athlete in the Final 4 no one would have picked, but once they see, they’ll get it that absolutely that athlete deserves to be there. That’s what’s been fun — making people think, ‘Wow, I didn’t know how good that athlete really was!’”
ICYMI: Highlights from the past week on Front Row
• In a Front & Center podcast ESPN Monday Night Football’s Jon Gruden talks about the upcoming fourth season of Gruden’s QB Camp beginning Thursday, April 4 at 8:30 p.m. ET (ESPN2).
• ESPN Radio’s Ryen Russillo participated in Friday’s NBA All-Star Celebrity Game. Beforehand, Russillo offered a few words for his ESPN colleagues who set the over/under on his point total at five.
• ESPN The Magazine and ESPN.com senior writer Wright Thompson discussed his recent Michael Jordan feature which chronicled Jordan’s journey as he reaches his 50th birthday.
• ESPN’s Bomani Jones shared details about the upcoming “Moment of Loud” vignette which will highlight some of the top accomplishments by African-American athletes. The vignette, scheduled to debut Monday, Feb. 18, is part of the ESPN’s annual Black History Month programming.
Row of Four
Our favorites from across ESPN over the past week
• By espnW’s Graham Hays: NDSU finds solace in basketball
• Olympian Usain Bolt talks NBA on First Take.
• From Bill Simmons and Grantland: Ewing Theory Revisited
• Enjoy an array of photos in this gallery ESPN Images.
Dan Quinn contributed to this post.