Q&A: ESPN exec on launch of The Undefeated, future of FiveThirtyEight
Her formal title at ESPN is executive vice president, global strategy and original content, but the shorthand on Marie Donoghue is that she is one of the most powerful behind the scenes figures at ESPN and a member of ESPN president John Skipper’s inner circle. Donoghue is top business executive for FiveThirtyEight, ESPN Films, as well as ESPN’s upcoming site on sports and race, The Undefeated (which launches May 17). She also has a hand in some of ESPN’s afternoon bloc of programming, and notably was the top business executive in charge of Grantland, including when ESPN folded the site.
Donoghue doesn’t do many long-form interviews—I requested her roughly 10 times over the course of the last year after Skipper decided not to re-sign Simmons and Grantland was shuttered. Those requests were turned down, no doubt via counsel from ESPN PR. Whether execs working for a company that employs the most sports journalists in the U.S. should turn down interview requests is a discussion for the ESPN ombudsman in 2026.
But Donoghue agreed to talk to SI in connection with the upcoming launch of The Undefeated. SI appreciates her time.
Below is the Q&A, with only a couple of answers edited for brevity. During the interview, longtime ESPN PR domo Mike Soltys sat on the line, though he was professional throughout and did not interfere during the questions.
Richard Deitsch: How would you define your management role for both The Undefeated and 538?
Marie Donoghue: I have a two-fold role at the company in general. I run strategy and business development and I also am responsible for original content which includes FiveThirtyEight, ESPN Films, The Undefeated, and Grantland previously.
RD: Why do you believe The Undefeated can be a long-term success?
MD: What I would start with is that I ultimately think The Undefeated is additive for ESPN. I think it provides new entry points for potentially previously untapped audiences and experiences with ESPN. It broadens our audience. On a personal level it is an opportunity with its focus on sports, race and culture to create a platform for the next generation of journalists from diverse backgrounds. I ultimately think The Undefeated will be a success based on the quality of the people and its content. I also think it will be a success because it will make a difference at ESPN.
One of the things I am most excited about is bringing the views, creativity, people, and perspectives of The Undefeated to ESPN overall. We are launching next month but Ramona Shelburne, one of our best voices, worked on the Kobe Bryant story with Raina Kelley, one of The Undefeated’s top editors. We did some video around that piece and it was all over our platforms. The Undefeated will expand beyond The Undefeated.com. You will see the voices throughout ESPN and beyond including on ABC News. The quality, perspective, uniqueness and difference will make a difference to our audience and to ESPN, internally and externally.
RD: How committed is ESPN to The Undefeated for the long-term?
MD: Totally committed.
RD: Let me follow up: Is there a minimum number of years ESPN would give The Undefeated to be profitable?
RD: Management has said in the past that they were committed to previous sites such as Grantland and then that site was folded. What makes you self-assured that the commitment here is truly for the long-term?
MD: Because I think we are committed and we were committed to those previous sites. Some things are not in our control. But I can only tell you what I believe and what I have been told which is this is a top priority at our company. I can tell you on a personal level that it is a top priority to me. Last Monday I introduced The Undefeated management team in Bristol at an internal event where we announced the launch date. I will tell you what I told that crowd: I have been at ESPN a long time and this was one of the happiest days of my career, to finally stand in front of those ESPN colleagues and say we are launching The Undefeated in a month, and that I can’t wait for you to get to know this team and what they can do.
RD: How will your experience with Grantland shape you for running The Undefeated?
MD: Grantland, 538 and The Undefeated were, are, and will be successful ESPN content properties that live or lived outside the ESPN app and ESPN.com. Other than that similarity, the three of them are very different from creation, execution, premise, content, their audience, and their fit within ABC News and ESPN. Look, it is easy to fixate on the past. With Grantland I learned some things but I can’t tell you. Those are trade secrets. But my job is to ensure ESPN and my team learn from it and focus on the future and we are incredibly excited about the future of The Undefeated and the current and future of 538. And ESPN Films is maybe having the best year it has ever had with the OJ project being aired in June.
RD: If part of The Undefeated's mission is to be ESPN’s home for insightful black journalists and editors, should ESPN have done more to retain Wesley Morris, Rembert Browne and Jonathan Abrams?
MD: You have to understand people make their own choices. I am a huge fan of Wesley, Jonathan and Rembert and I celebrate their success wherever it is and support their choices.
RD: What is the television plan for The Undefeated talent?
MD: You have already seen a few on SportsCenter and [writer] Kelly Carter was on His and Hers. [Writer] Jesse Washington made his TV debut on his Charles Barkley story. We absolutely expect them on different shows, and we will be launching some podcasts. We will have a small studio in Washington D.C., where many of the staffers are based.
RD: How should the public and potential audience look at the delay it took for this brand to launch?
MD: First, the general thing I’d say is startups are hard and take many twists and turns. But I would also tell you part of that was my doing. I only came on board during the end of [former editor] Jason Whitlock’s time at ESPN. I thought the most important thing that I could do was to be deliberate and get the right people. I felt a really strong commitment to the original team that was there. We call them The Magnificent Seven. They were hired by Jason and are really committed to the project and remain committed to the project. I really had an obligation to them. When I started, I talked to many people inside and outside ESPN, many candidates, friends, and people I respect in the industry. [The Undefeated’s new top editor] Kevin Merida’s name kept coming up. I reached out to Kevin and I thought we had no shot at getting him. He had an enormous reputation and a great job at the Washington Post. I remember I called him on a Saturday morning when he was at Newport Jazz Festival, the end of July. We didn’t announce him until the end of October. It took three months to get him on board. He is a deliberate guy, incredibly smart and creative. It was a thoughtful, important decision for him and I respected that.
After I hung up with him at Jazz Festival, I called John Skipper and said, “This is the guy we want. I need you to go meet him.” I knew John would also want to be onboard with him. John met Kevin for breakfast shortly thereafter and then I spent the next three months talking about what this project could be. It is a bit of a reboot but I knew Kevin was someone we really wanted. Raina Kelley was one of our best and respected editors at the magazine. When I met her in June, she was different than Kevin but amazing. The ideas were just flowing out of her and she was so passionate about this project. It took me awhile to get her on board. The most nervous I was for this project was when I introduced Kevin and Raina. I had been talking to each of them separately and I desperately wanted both of them. I thought they would be an amazing team. Kevin wanted to stay in D.C. which we agreed on and we agreed on centering the site in D.C. But it was really important to have a news desk in Bristol and Raina was happy to stay in Bristol. I knew they would make a phenomenal team but they had not met previously and I could not force them to be a team. In September I took the train down to D.C. with Raina. I introduced her to Kevin. We shared a drink and then I left them to have dinner. I got back on Amtrak and was a nervous wreck until the next morning. I just think we have an amazing team at the top and the talent they are recruiting is phenomenal. If you would have told me we would have [former Vibe chief content officer] Danyel Smith as an editor at The Undefeated, I would not have believed you.
RD: What are the staffing demographics of the Undefeated?
MD: About half women and I want all sorts of diversity on our team. ESPN Films is over half women. It is important we have those different voices.
RD: Are there internal traffic metrics or numbers that have been set for The Undefeated?
MD: No. I met with the staff a couple of weeks ago and that they asked me that question and I said no. Kevin has goals, similar to [538 editor-in-chief] Nate Silver and how Bill was. These guys are competitive. I think relevance is a metric of success. But we are not as focused on the traffic. It is much more relevant to me what the relevance and additive nature they bring to our other platforms. That’s an honest answer.
RD: There are some who posit that Grantland was shut down because ESPN needed Grantland's head counts for 538 and The Undefeated. What is your response to that supposition?
MD: That is not true (laughs). I can actually tell you that the headcount for The Undefeated sat in a budget while I tried to find the right leadership. There was no trade or anything.
RD: What will be the number of staffers for The Undefeated at launch date?
MD: Mike, are we giving that number publicly?
Mike Soltys: We generally do not.
RD: Do you want to give an approximation?
MD: I can say it is an adequate number to produce a site that we aspire to produce.
RD: Okay, what kind of traffic is 538 doing monthly?
MD: Nate Silver has a good line about this. He said it’s a good year to be a site focused on sports and politics when you have Steph Curry and the Warriors and Donald Trump. For March they had 11.5 million viewers according to comScore, an all-time high, and for the third straight month they set new records for monthly uniques and total minutes
RD: Obviously those numbers should be strong in a Presidential Election year. How do you view the future of FiveThirtyEight after this election?
MD: I view it strongly. I can give you some of the background here to explain that. FiveThirtyEight was never intended to be predominantly a political site. When we hired Nate, he was particularly interested in sports and politics. As we came up with a content plan we kind of had a rough target mix of about 1/3 sports, 1/3 politics, and 1/3 of everything else. The traffic fluctuates a bit based on what sporting events are going on and what politics or election events are there. But we fully intended from a content production standpoint to stick to that content mix.
But then the 2016 election came into being and it has been astonishingly newsworthy. It also fell into our wheelhouse because FiveThirtyEight is very good at explaining the background and the rapid shift of public opinion, state by state strategies of insurgents, and establishment candidates on both sides. Now we are getting very deep into delegate selection. So with the traffic soaring, we had some meetings about it and decided It was an enormous opportunity to bring new traffic to the site and show them what we can do in other areas. We are benefitting and capitalizing on this election traffic but we are also expanding. We finally hired our first fulltime sports editor, Kyle Wagner. He came from Deadspin and is amazing. So we are intensifying and expanding our core sports coverage. During March Madness, the game win probability charts that FiveThirtyEight did for all the March Madness games led ESPN.com in the app during each live game window…You will see that even during the election we will continue to focus on sports. You will see huge baseball interactives from us. And don’t forget these prediction systems we can expand to other areas. So the NCAA Live probability I talked about will apply to other games. Football is really tough but we are hoping to have something done by this season. That thought process is informing us on how we do our delegate accumulation. During the New York primary, our live blog had hour by hour delegate accumulation.
RD: Why does FiveThirtyEight rarely get cited elsewhere, in my opinion, at least compared to the Morning Joes and other political outlets.
MD: I actually disagree with that. I will tell you it is cited regularly on NPR. We are doing a year-long project with On The Media and the talent from FiveThirtyEight are increasing getting requests. A couple of weeks ago Jim Cramer on CNBC said people should not write off Disney and he mentioned he gets all his political coverage from FiveThirtyEight. It is interesting you say that because I don’t feel that way. If you are talking sensationalist coverage, that is not what FiveThirtyEight does. The other thing is FiveThirtyEight does not trust conventional wisdom and a lot of what they do is to go against conventional wisdom. So this is anecdotal and I would suppose that maybe outlets that like to focus on conventional wisdom might not site them.
[Writer's note: ESPN PR passed along after the interview a long list of 538 citations in the press. I thought they made a fair point here.]
RD: How would you classify ESPN’s commitment to FiveThirtyEight as a longtime play?
MD: The same as The Undefeated.
MD: How you would you classify Nate Silver’s commitment to ESPN for the longterm?
Donoghue: I would never speak for Nate Silver.
RD: Are you confident that he is happy with what he is doing?
MD: I am absolutely. I know for a fact Nate is happy and loving what he is doing and I will tell you, I think he is doing an amazing job. The site is important to Nate. It’s not about Nate Silver. Nate is happy when he is not the biggest traffic driver. He is getting a kicking it of managing and expanding this type of journalism.
RD: Could 538 survive on its own as a standalone site without ESPN corporate support?
MD: I generally don’t answer hypotheticals. I know the traffic is really good, and the content is really good. I can’t answer a hypothetical but I don’t know why it wouldn’t.
RD: FiveThirtyEight is unique in the ESPN universe in that there is political discourse or dialogue there. Given that, what kind of rules exist for FiveThirtyEight staffers regarding political discourse on their social media feeds and personal platforms?
MD: FiveThirtyEight is different. One of the key reasons we acquired FiveThirtyEight and hired Nate was ABC News had great interest in including Nate and this content on their coverage. So their polices are kind of a combination of ESPN and ABC News.
RD: Are you comfortable with the diversity numbers for 538 staffers?
MD: I think they are improving. I would say I am never satisfied on diversity anywhere in my department. We have great numbers throughout our department but I never want to rest on the numbers we have. FiveThirtyEight will admit they had a challenge at the start but they have gotten much better and they continue to focus on it.
RD: How much more do you see FiveThirtyEight expanding in the near term?
MD: I’d have to talk to [managing editor] David Firestone and Nate about specific plans. They are doing amazingly well with the staff they have. I would not say no expansion but I think they are doing pretty well where they are. They have not put a big ask in front of me.
RD: What are the current levels of staffing at 538?
MD: Sufficient for the amazing answers they produce.
RD: How would you classify your current relationship with Bill Simmons?
MD: I’m a huge fan of Bill’s work. He is a creative, innovative guy and I really wish him the best at his new site and his new show. I am looking forward to what he can do. I know he’ll be great.
RD: Respectfully, you didn’t answer the question about your current relationship with him.
MD: I never answer personal questions to the media.
RD: Do you feel your involvement in Grantland has been portrayed accurately in the media?
MD: I don’t know that it was portrayed or what you are specifically referring to?
RD: Your role [in the dissolution] has been referenced in Vanity Fair and some other places.
MD: No comment.
RD: Okay, one last one on Grantland. From what I understand, ESPN owns the Grantland brand including its archives and social media feeds. Are there plans in the future for ESPN to use the Grantland brand in some form of content?
MD: We are considering different things and that’s for ESPN, not necessarily me.
RD: Would it be valuable to use Grantland’s social media feeds to send out existing ESPN content. There are a lot of people who still follow those feeds.
MD: I don’t know of any plans that exist for that.
RD: Is there anything you wish to add in closing?
MD: The one thing I would say on the content side that I have learned and I started with the Films group about six years ago regarding content and I also learned it on the business side is that I really think it is important that we look for new and different voices. Both behind the scenes in my business groups as well as the content people, I tend to focus on diversity and diversity of voices is really important to me. That’s what you see with the Undefeated. FiveThirtyEight, while we are working on the diversity and having more people of color and women there, we have upped the numbers on women and we are still trying on people of color. It’s really important. That’s why you will see me involved in other things like being involved in bringing Rachel Nichols back. So if there is one tie across content that I get excited about, it is finding those voices and giving those people opportunity.
THE NOISE REPORT
(SI.com examines the most notable sports media stories of the week)
1. Skip Bayless personified the worst of ESPN, from the network’s pathological need for self-aggrandizement to its penchant for disagreement as theater. ESPN executives enabled this professional wrestling heel for years because his show—the unctuous First Take with Stephen A. Smith—over-delivered in its time slot. Through controversy after controversy and near-daily mocking of LeBron James, ESPN’s suits looked the other way if the show drew 400,000 viewers and beyond on ESPN2, which it often did during the NFL season. The show is consistently the highest rated non-game programming on ESPN2, even when it falls into the 300,000s during the NFL off-season.
On Wednesday, ESPN put out a preemptive press release announcing that Bayless would be parting ways with the network after 12 years. His contract is up in August. For months, Bayless and his reps have been talking with Fox Sports executives about the 64-year-old joining that network and having an afternoon debate show on FS1 built around him. Fox Sports Networks president Jamie Horowitz, a former ESPN executive, has long been a fan of Bayless and was the lead executive on First Take through many of its most controversial days. It is a match made in heaven if you like sports television from hell.
For more on what Bayless to FS1 means for ESPN and Fox, click here.
2. On Monday afternoon, Sports Business Daily’s John Ourand reported a story that will have major reverberations at multiple sports networks: Ourand reported via multiple sources that Mike Tirico is leaving ESPN for NBC Sports. Here’s my piece on what the move means for ESPN and NBC Sports.
3. Episode No. 53 of the Sports Illustrated Media Podcast with Richard Deitsch features ESPN MLB analyst Jessica Mendoza, who works on Sunday Night Baseball with Dan Shulman and Aaron Boone.
On this episode, Mendoza goes in-depth on her preparation for games each week, which starts more than a week in advance. Mendoza also discusses her thoughts on criticism and the influx of opinions she receives on social media about her work, whether she views her pioneering role as a responsibility, how she balances raising two young kids with a job heavy on travel, her relationship with Curt Schilling and how the two are linked incorrectly, why she’s trying to convince Dodgers pitcher Clayton Kershaw to let her stand in the batters box against him, her relationship with fellow broadcasters Shulman and Boone, the future of softball in the Olympics, her journey at ESPN and much more.
A reminder: you can subscribe to the podcast on iTunes, Google Play and Stitcher, and you can view all of SI’s podcasts here. If you have any feedback, questions or suggestions, please comment here or tweet at Deitsch.
4. Episode No. 54 of the Sports Illustrated Media Podcast features Sports Business Daily media reporter John Ourand for an hour of sports media talk.
On this episode, Ourand and Deitsch discuss Mike Tirico leaving ESPN for NBC Sports, Skip Bayless departing ESPN for FS1, whether ESPN is experiencing a real talent drain or whether that is a false narrative, FS1's strategy to build a morning block around loud opinionists, the upcoming HBO show featuring Bill Simmons and whether "The Ringer" will resonate in the market, how women in the sports media are treated on social media, the Big Ten television and digital rights deals, Sean McDonough and other replacements for Tirico at ESPN, the future of Katie Nolan, the strategy of CBS Sports' cable division, the future of the Pac 12 network, working with the PR departments of sports television networks and much more.
A reminder: you can subscribe to the podcast on iTunes, Google Play and Stitcher, and you can view all of SI’s podcasts here. If you have any feedback, questions or suggestions, please comment here or tweet at Deitsch.
5. Kudos to the Just Not Sports group (Brad Burke, Adam Woullard, Joe Reed, Gareth Hughes) out of Chicago for coming up with a truly impacful video highlighting what women who work in the sports media face online (obviously, this isn’t limited to women in the sports media). The group got One Tree Forest Films (a Chicago film company) and director Chad Cooper to shoot the video featuring ESPN’s Sarah Spain and The Cauldron’s Julie DiCaro sitting and listen to the verbalization of actual tweets they have received online, while the men grimace and struggle through the reading of them. “We just did it to do it, and the film company comped it,” Burke said. “I spent $300 total in pizza/chips/drinks for the two shoot sessions. Money well spent.”
Here’s the video, which is worth your time.
5a. Comcast SportsNet, the television home for the Chicago Blackhawks, delivered its highest-rated Blackhawks game telecast in network on April 25 with a 19.07 Chicago market household rating for coverage of Game 7 between the Blackhawks and Blues St. Louis Blues. Comcast SportsNet said it attracted approximately 662,703 Chicago market households for the entire length of the game (7:30–10:30 PM CT).
5b. Game 4 of the Warriors- Rockets series on ABC was the most-watched first round NBA Playoffs game on any network in 14 years (since 2002), according to Nielsen. The broadcast averaged 7,238,000 viewers and peaked from 5:30- 6 p.m. ET with 8,346,000 viewers.
5c. Fox Sports host Curt Menefee is branching out beyond sports. He’ll host a new series on the Travel Channel called “Hello Goodbye,” which captures everyday people arriving and departing from some of America’s largest airports. The show premieres on Monday, May 9 at 11:00 p.m. and 11:30 p.m. ET/PT. In each of the six half-hour episodes, Menefee strolls through terminals talking to travelers about arrivals and departures.
5d. Raúl Ibañez has joined ESPN as a baseball analyst. He’ll provide commentary for Baseball Tonight and do selected games.
5e. Here’s SI’s Lee Jenkins’s Sports Illustrated cover story on Craig Sager.