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With ESPN’s “Serena vs. The Umpire,” Dahl invites audience to experience the “Backstory”

On Sunday, more than nine months of investigative reporting will come to light with the debut of the new ESPN series Backstory, featuring the reporting and insights of award-winning ESPN journalist Don Van Natta, Jr.

With a deep dive by Van Natta into the controversial ending to last year’s US Open women’s final, the premiere episode “Serena vs. The Umpire” debuts at 1 p.m. ET on ABC. It will re-air multiple times across ESPN.

John Dahl, Vice President and Executive Producer, ESPN Special Projects and Original Content, who created the Backstory series with Van Natta and ESPN senior writer Wright Thompson, spoke with Front Row:

What was the genesis for the creation of Backstory?

Backstory was born out of the 30 for 30 film “The Last Days of Knight.” That documentary focused on the journey that Robert Abbott went through as a CNN producer investigating why there had been some high profile players transferring from Bob Knight’s program at Indiana. I approached Robert and said people know that Knight was fired, but don’t really understand how it all happened. What I want is your experiences, your journey – that’s the story that hasn’t been told.

I was inspired by the film to tell other stories like that. I called Wright Thompson and told him I wanted to develop a series. Wright was enthusiastic, talked it through with me and said I needed to connect with Don Van Natta. As it turned out, Don was looking to expand his horizons and the timing was perfect. Together we sorted out the concept and started coming up with ideas, and we got Robert on board along with Bluefoot Entertainment.

What can viewers expect to see in each episode?

It’s a chance to experience Don’s outstanding reporting skills in a different way. With each of these stories, we look for unresolved issues and aspects that haven’t been told or aren’t quite understood. It’s like a cold case for sports journalism – Don as that investigator who returns to a story and peels back the layers while bringing new insights, new reporting and a fresh way of telling the story.

I’ve been calling it “Journey Journalism” because we’re going on a ride with Don to explore each story. He’s there to represent the audience to ask those questions and look into the issues that everybody sitting at home might want to look into.

Glenn Stout’s The Best American Sports Writing 2019

Glenn Stout’s annual The Best American Sports Writing  book will be out on October 1. This year 5 ESPN journalists have been included.
Wright Thompson’s When Winter Ends.
Sam Miller’s What Happens as Baseball Player’s Age?
Jack MacMullan’s When Making the NBA Isn’t a Cure All: Mental Health and Black Athletes
Bonnie Ford’s Holding Her Own
Heather Dinich, Adam Rittenberg and Tom VanHaaren’s The Inside Story of a Toxic Culture at Maryland football

– Molly Mita

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