It takes a village: Clockwise L-R: Alexandra Stephenson; John McEnroe; Howard Bryant; Rennae Stubbs. (Willie Winebaum/ESPN)
Have you ever noticed how ESPN’s many platforms – SportsCenter, other studio shows, event production, ESPN.com, ESPN Radio, social media, and more – react so quickly to breaking sports news?
Be it a retirement or death, trade or firing, a milestone or broken record, ESPN laps the industry in being instantly ready and thorough with perspective, retrospective pieces, and expert commentary.
Tonight, Serena Williams, the transcendent tennis superstar with 23 Major titles (one short of the record), plays in the first round of the US Open on ESPN at 7 p.m. ET, and don’t doubt for a second that ESPN platforms aren’t ready for what could be her swansong to the sport. The near-41-year-old recently wrote in Vogue that she will be “evolving away from tennis.”
Most around the sport interpret that to mean the last tennis Major of 2022 – which she has captured six times, a record she shares with ESPN’s Chrissie Evert – will be the last event of her legendary and influential career.
So, when that story hit the Internet on Aug. 9, did the Content team suddenly say, “Hey, we should do something with that.”?
In Vogue’s September issue, @serenawilliams prepares to say farewell to tennis on her own terms and in her own words. “It’s the hardest thing that I could ever imagine,” she says. “I don’t want it to be over, but at the same time I’m ready for what’s next” https://t.co/6Zr0UXVTH1 pic.twitter.com/YtGtcc18a9
— Vogue Magazine (@voguemagazine) August 9, 2022
“We started talking about being prepared for Serena’s retirement in June 2021,” says Amanda Gifford, Vice President, Sports Content Strategy and Audio. “We have these types of discussions in the weekly cross-platform Content Strategy team meeting that I lead on a rotational basis along with Lauren Reynolds [Vice President, Executive Editor, ESPN Digital], Maria Soares (Senior Vice President, Production and Content Strategy) and Rob Guijarro [SportsCenter coordinating producer].
“With the oversight of the Features Unit, helmed by Craig Lazarus [Vice President, Original Content and Features], last year, senior writer Howard Bryant prepared a career retrospective that aired upon the appearance of the Vogue article,” Gifford continued. “We also have retirement pieces prepared for her sister Venus Williams and Roger Federer in tennis and many others across the spectrum of sports. We are constantly discussing, ‘what do we need to prepare for?'”
The key to the process for all platforms to be ready is making a list of content we have and then, from there, figuring out what more we might need.
“The keys to such a cross-platform effort are preparation and communication. The key is to be smart and efficient with resources while also best-serving sports fans.” – Amanda Gifford, ESPN Vice President, Sports Content Strategy and Audio
“We ask the studio shows what they would like,” Gifford says. “We check with all the different arms of the company – for example, Elizabeth Baugh [ESPN.com deputy editor], Monique Jones [Andscape managing editor], Jena Janovy [senior deputy editor with the Enterprise Unit], and in this case with Jamie Reynolds, Vice President, Production, the head of the ESPN tennis team at the site to see what is being produced.
“For Serena Williams, we have a lot ready to go,” Gifford continues. “We have retirement pieces, pieces on what she has meant to the sport, and a new career perspective piece by Bryant. Also, our on-site production team has prepared a list of who from their commentator roster is available for any discussions we would like to have in our studio shows.”
Meanwhile, the sound team is gathering sound bites from news conferences, and the talent team is looking to book non-ESPNers for interviews, such as other players.
It is a routine process for Gifford and the rest, given all the news in sports.
“We were ready for Tom Brady’s retirement, the decision on Deshaun’s Watson’s suspension, and we had multiple pieces ready to air if Kevin Durant was traded, depending on his destination,” she explains. “We work to be ready for what coaches might be fired. Some of these never air, but we look smart when they do.”
Gifford mentions many ESPN strengths and values in providing the big picture.
“The keys to such a cross-platform effort are preparation and communication,” she says. “The key is to be smart and efficient with resources while also best-serving sports fans.”