Behind The Scenes

Unseen and Unheard: Behind the scenes glimpses of ESPN

SportsCenter anchor Bob Ley, circa 1980 (ESPN)
SportsCenter anchor Bob Ley, circa 1980 (ESPN Images)

In 33-plus years at ESPN, I have been fortunate to be a part of the evolution of a company that has changed the way sports are consumed. We were once alone. We are not anymore, and that’s a good thing for sports fans.

Still, one could reasonably argue ESPN remains the leader of an increasingly crowded field. In the midst of constant change and unpredictable days (and nights), the people of this company find time to think about the answer to this question: What makes ESPN different?

My job takes me all around the company and sometimes around the world. Again, quite fortunately, I have a window into how colleagues at all levels of the company answer that question every day. This recurring column will attempt in part to share some of that with you.

Bob Ley, Duke Snider and Cinemax

The first time I “met” SportsCenter anchor Bob Ley, he almost ran me over.

It was 1980, ESPN was doing the Baseball Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony, and I was in the original Broadcast Center watching the event (I had just moved to Bristol and didn’t have cable installed in my apartment yet). Dodgers great Duke Snider, in the midst of his speech, was on the verge of tears when, suddenly, a commercial for Cinemax exploded on the screen. Cinemax!? Apparently, the folks who booked our satellite time didn’t know that Hall of Fame speeches have the propensity to go long. Rookie mistake.

Just as suddenly, Bob appeared out of nowhere, dashing past me into the studio, where he did 20 minutes of unscripted television and made it look easy. Ley 1, Satellite Time 0.

Last Thursday, some 33 years later, there was Bob again, volunteering to anchor our breaking news coverage of Nelson Mandela’s passing. Again, flawlessly and with great perspective.

Time clearly had not dulled his edge, nor his energy.

You can have fun at work?

I had lunch the other day with a young colleague who spent six years at a company whose business was as far from sports as you can get. She joined ESPN less than a year ago. The opportunity for me to try to see the company through fresh eyes, warts and all, is always important.

The conversation was encouraging. Her ideas were heard enthusiastically. She was doing things beyond her job description, like participating in Darius Rucker’s visit to Bristol for a “Car Wash” (she’s a big country music fan). But the best revealing thing I learned was how struck she was by how much people enjoy working here. As a result, the energy and vibe made it fun for her.

“I don’t know why, but my image of a job out of college was that it was work and you weren’t supposed to have fun at work,” she told me.

Now, she knows otherwise.

Family Ties

Some time back – I’m not really sure exactly when – SportsCenter anchor and ESPN Radio host Scott Van Pelt stopped me by the registers in the ESPN Café… the same café you see in many of the “This is SportsCenter” spots. He asked me this question:

“What’s it like being an older dad?”

Like I said, I have been here 33 years; I basically got here right out of college. I have a grown daughter and two little girls, 5 and 7. You do the math.

“To be honest,” I said, “I wondered that myself. I thought it could go one of two ways: It would either hasten my demise or keep me young. The young part is winning and I am having a blast.”

Last week, I paid for my salad and who do I run into, in almost the exact same spot, but SVP. First thing he does – the very first thing, we barely say hello – is this: He takes out his phone and shows me a pic of his adorable baby girl.

We talked for a few minutes about our kids, holidays and the realization that he is perfectly happy with visitors descending upon his home not to see just him.

You all see SVP as the talented, glib, knowledgeable guy on TV and ESPN Radio, with daily access to the biggest names in sports. He is all of that, and we are better for it. But he’s just like the rest of us outside of work.

We sometimes talk about ESPN employees as “fans serving fans,” and I thought of that phrase as Scott and I said our goodbyes.

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