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“In difficult circumstances, the best of our people has been on full display”

As the sports landscape changes, EVP, Content, Connor Schell, discusses ESPN's WNBA, NFL Draft coverage and responding to fans' calls for "The Last Dance"

(Illustration: Rich Arden from ESPN Images photos; NBA Finals: Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images)

On Thursday, Connor Schell, ESPN Executive Vice President, Content, joined ESPN President Jimmy Pitaro, Disney’s President, Advertising Sales Rita Ferro, ESPN Executive Vice President, Programming Burke Magnus, Senior Vice President, Brand and Marketing Solutions Sean Hanrahan, and SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey on two group calls with more than 1,000 sales partners to discuss the changing sports landscape. Schell also provided Front Row with the latest content updates.

Connor Schell
(Joe Faraoni/ESPN Images)

Can you talk about the adjustments ESPN’s content team has made?
We are particularly proud of how nimble we’ve been and of our ability to come up with programming that, in different ways, continues to surprise, engage, delight and sometimes inspire sports fans of all types. Think [SportsCenter anchor] Scott Van Pelt and Senior Night. Or quickly working with our partners to finalize elements of “The Last Dance” so we could move that air date up. We’ve served up fresh content filled with humor and heart and hopefully, we’ve provided a sense of normalcy in a very difficult time.

How would you describe the focus of ESPN’s studio programming without live events?
Our studio programming has been phenomenal, particularly given the circumstances. Despite the absence of live events, we have consistent audiences of fans coming to ESPN every single day because sports news hasn’t stopped. We are reporting on those stories, while also providing commentary, analysis, opinion, interviews, storytelling and fun video – all of which drive the daily conversation in the sports world that is still alive and well. Get Up and First Take have been real leaders for us every single morning. As it has for ESPN’s entire history, our flagship SportsCenter continues to play a crucial role in keeping fans informed and entertained. Led by Van Pelt’s nightly show, our studio programming has become the destination for newsmakers and the biggest athletes to talk directly to fans. Just over the last few weeks, we’ve had Rob Manfred, Adam Silver, Sabrina Ionescu, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Carli Lloyd, Nick Saban, Jason Tatum, Adrian Peterson, Michael Phelps, George Kittle, Peyton Manning, Steve Kerr and so many more. On top of that, we feel so good, particularly in this moment, about the people who populate our air every single day. It’s an incredible array of smart, talented, accomplished journalists, analysts, and commentators who represent us so well.

While the presentation is decidedly different from past years, it will be no less relevant and no less special. – Connor Schell on ESPN’s upcoming NFL Draft coverage

What should fans expect from the upcoming live telecast of the NFL Draft?
First off, this past Friday was a tremendous WNBA Draft on so many levels. The technology execution was extremely impressive and the presentation was informative, poignant and engaging. This week, the sports world will turn its attention to the NFL Draft, which is shaping up to be a great showcase of creativity and innovation. While the presentation is decidedly different from past years, it will be no less relevant and no less special. We’ve worked closely with the NFL to develop an ambitious plan for the two distinct telecasts, giving this marquee event the coverage and resources it deserves. The NFL installed in-home cameras for 58 of the top draft prospects, who we plan to interview during the show. We will feature in-home cameras for all 32 NFL head coaches and GMs, plus one for Commissioner Roger Goodell, who will be announcing picks from his home.

What role has innovation played in ESPN serving fans in these unprecedented times?
The way our operations and technology teams have adapted to these changing circumstances is nothing short of spectacular. Along with production colleagues, they have allowed ESPN to produce much of this studio content, including The Jump, completely remotely so that we can get high-quality, desirable programming to fans in the safest, most responsible ways. Think about that: We are doing live TV shows with not one person in a studio or control room. Over the next few weeks, you will see us add back more shows to our lineup in this fashion. In difficult circumstances, the best of our people has been on full display.

“The Last Dance” is the most ambitious piece of original content we’ve ever undertaken, and we are thrilled that we were able to respond to the calls from fans to get this out into the world at a time when we are all missing sports dearly and craving entertaining content. – Connor Schell

How do you think “The Last Dance” will be received and what other original content projects are on the horizon?
“The Last Dance” is the most ambitious piece of original content we’ve ever undertaken, and we are thrilled that we were able to respond to the calls from fans to get this out into the world at a time when we are all missing sports dearly and craving entertaining content. On top of that, the series is really, really good. It’s captivating and comprehensive. Through wide-ranging access and interviews, it tells the story of one of the greatest players and dynasties of all time in Michael Jordan and the ’98 Bulls. On the heels of “The Last Dance,” we have a few 30 for 30 films ready to air – all of which involve accomplished filmmakers, huge stories and icons that will surely make a splash. We are working on plans around when to release documentaries about Lance Armstrong, Bruce Lee and the 1998 home run chase involving Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa.

NOTE: Since this Q&A originally posted, viewership information was released for the first two episodes. A staggering 6.1 million viewers tuned in on the first night alone, and Schell offered this reaction:

We were so thrilled with the response to the premiere of “The Last Dance.” The feedback from fans and critics was overwhelmingly positive, the viewership numbers were historically strong, and the series dominated the social conversation — registering 25 of the top 30 trending topics at one point during the night. Clearly, fans are craving high-quality sports content and we look forward to building upon the momentum in the coming weeks as the series continues to get better with each episode.

What might coverage of sports events look like when the games return?
We are in daily conversations with our league partners and are collaborating with them to get ready for sports to return. A lot of scenarios are being discussed, and our production teams are engaged and thinking through how in each of those scenarios we can be innovative, capture the excitement of the highest level of competition in the world, and bring the best possible experience to fans. We are talking about things like camera placements, putting more microphones on players, announcers remotely covering games and much more. No one misses sports more than we do, and when it’s safe and responsible to be producing and televising live events, ESPN will be there.

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