Behind The ScenesESPN History

Jeremy Schaap reflects on growing up with The Sports Reporters

EDITOR’S NOTE: After a nearly 30-year run, ESPN’s The Sports Reporters airs its final edition Sunday, May 7, at 9:30 a.m. ET. On Sunday, May 14, ESPN will bolster its commitment to journalism and storytelling with the debut of live, weekly editions of E:60. Jeremy Schaap, who will anchor that new program, offered the following perspective on the incredible legacy of The Sports Reporters, a show he appeared on with his late father, Dick.

When I think of The Sports Reporters, and I do, often, I think of the big brown paper bags filled with dozens and dozens of H & H Bagels that producer Joe Valerio brought to the set every Sunday morning—when the show was still in New York and before H & H went out of business. (By the way, how exactly does the best bagel bakery in New York go out of business, ever? A pox on Atkins.)

I think of those early mornings, still kind-of-warm bagels — the obvious but still true New York analog of the Proustian Madeleine — and, as they were being consumed, the pre-taping banter among the panelists. In the tradition of producers of talk shows everywhere, Valerio, who’s been producing the show since 1989, would tell everybody to save their best material for the set, not to leave it in the makeup room, but there was never more than semi-compliance.

The Sports Reporters: A rich history, legacy

It began on Sunday, Oct. 5, 1988, and continued every Sunday morning for the next 28 and 1/2-years on an ESPN network. Sunday, May 7 will mark the final episode of The Sports Reporters, a groundbreaking and influential series that helped pave the way for some of the most accomplished sports journalists to transfer their skill set from the sports pages to the airwaves.

Longtime Sports Reporters mainstays Mike Lupica, Mitch Albom, William C. Rhoden and Bob Ryan, will comprise the final show’s panel. The “Parting Shots” segment will focus on each panelist’s reflections about the series.

Gary Thorne was the original Sports Reporters host, and the first show (10/5/88) featured Jackie MacMullan (Boston Globe), Scott Ostler (Los Angeles Times), Lyle Spencer (New York Post) and Ralph Wiley (Sports Illustrated) (see video above).

Dick Schaap soon took over hosting responsibilities, anchoring the program until he passed away in the fall of 2001 (his final show was Sept. 16, 2001 – the first Sports Reporters episode after “9/11”). John Saunders succeeded Schaap as host until his passing in August 2016.

Joe Valerio, the show’s independent executive producer for three decades, noted, “We started at a time when there was no other show like it on national TV. For so many sports fans, it became appointment viewing, and for all of us working on the show, we couldn’t wait to come back the next week.”

The Sports Reporters was produced from various New York locations (IPC Studios, HBO Studios, ESPN Zone) from 1988 through 2010, before moving to ESPN’s Bristol, Conn., studios.

Among the many who appeared (including some who made their national TV debuts) on The Sports Reporters include: Albom, Skip Bayless, Christine Brennan, Bryan Burwell, Howard Cosell, Bob Costas, Kate Fagan, John Feinstein, Israel Gutierrez, David Halberstam, Jemele Hill, Tony Kornheiser, Lupica, MacMullan, Al Michaels, Jim Murray, Jim Nantz, Buster Olney, Rhoden, Selena Roberts, Ryan, Adam Schefter, Hannah Storm, Lesley Visser, Michael Wilbon, Wiley and many more.

In addition to the weekly Sunday morning shows, over the years The Sports Reporters included on-site episodes from big events (e.g. – Super Bowl, Final Four, World Series, Olympics) and weekday episodes on ESPN2 for several months in the early 2000s. In all, more than 1,500 episodes of The Sports Reporters were produced.

– Josh Krulewitz

Beginning in about the year 2000, I occasionally would appear on the show as a panelist or guest host, but most of my memories come from the previous decade, when I attended the taping regularly because it was fun, the bagels were plentiful and I got to spend time with my father, who was the host until his death in 2001, and the rest of the gang. Back then, too, if I got tired, I could take a nap on the couch in the back of the control room at the HBO Studios, where the show was taped for most of the 1990s. After the move to the ESPN Zone, there was no couch (and the tapings were frequently interrupted by the sounds of crashing plates and silverware).

This was also before the advent of the digital universe and the proliferation of shows based to one degree or another on The Sports Reporters’ model. It felt as if The Sports Reporters was the first and final word on every subject on the sports landscape. There was no PTI or Around the Horn, no First Take, no Highly Questionable — none of those shows that are the progeny of The Sports Reporters.

– Jeremy Schaap

Joe and Rob Cowen, who directed the show for more than 20 years, were always pro’s pros, and it was an education watching them do their jobs. Joe had the toughest job, managing all those gallant knights of the keyboard, to misappropriate Ted Williams’ famous putdown. This was before the decimation of the newspaper industry and these columnists – Mike Lupica, Bob Ryan, Mitch Albom, Tony Kornheiser, Mike Wilbon, Ralph Wiley, Bill Rhoden, Skip Bayless, Jackie MacMullan, to name a few — were giants in their respective cities and the industry.

This was also before the advent of the digital universe and the proliferation of shows based to one degree or another on The Sports Reporters’ model. It felt as if The Sports Reporters was the first and final word on every subject on the sports landscape. There was no PTI or Around the Horn, no First Take, no Highly Questionable — none of those shows that are the progeny of The Sports Reporters.

The format was simple. Give the best sports writers in the country a lavalier microphone and let them talk. But, of course, nothing is that simple. Execution is everything.

In its earliest years, The Sports Reporters was a little bit different. Several of the most regular cast members were the same as now, which is remarkable, three decades on – but the show was slightly less concerned with the games themselves and a little more concerned with the way sports are covered. But the show has stayed true to its core mission: To inform, illuminate and entertain, with a literary and journalistic sensibility.

When my father died, John Saunders became the permanent host. For 15 years until his death last year, he brought to the role his trademark grace and intelligence. His strong presence perfectly complemented the regular cast. For me, working on the show with John, which might have been awkward, was instead always a pleasure.

But now, at the end of the run, I am thinking a lot about the early days and all those midtown mornings with Joe and Rob, Mike and Mitch, Ryan and Rhoden, Kornheiser and Wilbon, and about Ralph and Bryan Burwell, who are both gone, and my father, who loved being the host of The Sports Reporters, and getting the last word, every week, even more than he loved those H. and H. bagels.

Samantha Baron produced the video above.

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