Front Row sat down with father-son team Jeff and Jon Israel, both current ESPN employees. While we have many families with multiple members working at ESPN, the Israels’ story is somewhat unique. You might even call it the first of its kind.
FR: Tell us about the “first baby” legacy.
Jeff: Under 100 people worked here at the time, so they’re your extended family. There were all these milestones that we would try to hit and celebrate, so ESPN’s first baby was kind of a no-brainer.
Jon: I’m absolutely proud to be ESPN’s first baby, even though I had nothing to do with it. When I walk through Building One, I remember playing GI Joes in there as a little kid. I’m 31 years old now, I have my own child now, and there was a photo of her on ITK [ESPN’s internal website] and I thought wow, it’s come full circle.
FR: Jeff, what was it like to come to work here in 1979 – not knowing what exactly a 24/7 sports network would possibly look like?
Jeff: Wherever I traveled, there was a buzz going on that nobody thought we were going to make it at that point, but when we came to work, we were all pulling for this place to really be something. No one even thought of failure. When we first showed up to cover events, we took a backseat to the major networks, but now everyone’s looking to us to see how we do things.
FR: John, in contrast, what was it like for you to come into a company already established as a “cool” place to work?
Jon: I would say I grew up here. We would come and visit [my dad] and hang out here. I remember when there were only a couple of buildings, so I’ve seen a lot of it grow. I feel like it’s the family business almost. It’s ingrained in me.
FR: Was Jeff the cool dad growing up?
Jon: One of my best friends growing up – we’ve known each other since we were three – his dad was a teacher. While his dad was doing science projects, mine was at the Super Bowl. He was the cool dad. When he was at an event. I would always try to watch to see him. It’s like Where’s Waldo, but with your dad.
FR: What’s it like bumping into dad at work?
Jon: It’s nice, but the thing that’s always made it interesting, when I first started and I didn’t know as many people, and I needed help, someone would always look at me and say, “You kind of look like this guy I know…” It’s an icebreaker before I even say anything. I’m a second generation ESPN employee, and not many people can say that.
Jeff: I think what’s unique is that a lot of people used to say, “Oh, you’re Jeff Israel’s son,” and now I’m meeting people for the first time and they say, “Oh, you’re Jon’s dad!”
FR: Jeff, how have we changed since you started 32 years ago?
Jeff: When I came off the road and onto campus 14 years ago, after a career of traveling, I found myself working with people half my age. When I say that, I sound ancient, but that’s what keeps me young. It’s not until I wake up in the morning and I’m shaving and see the face looking back at me that I think, “Who is that?”
FR: Jon, you’re part of this young, next generation of the business. Where are we going from here?
Jon: I didn’t graduate college too long ago, but I couldn’t have majored in what I do now back then. That’s crazy to me. It says a lot about us being a leader in technology. It will never stop. It’s not like we will look back and say, “Remember in 2011 when we stopped building?” We’ll run out of land before we stop growing.