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If one is to judge a sports media brand based on its external press, the last 12 months have not been good for ESPN. From hemorrhaging subscribers to declining ratings for its flagship show to excruciating company layoffs to high-profile talent leaving the network, it’s been a steady drumbeat of negative news coming out of Bristol Land.
But on Tuesday at 7:00 a.m ET, with the launch of The Undefeated, ESPN’s micro site on the nexus of sports, race and culture, the company gets a big opportunity to boast about something transformational and positive within its walls.
The long-awaited project, which has featured catastrophic management choices, cynical public relations and endless delays, is a personal one for ESPN president John Skipper, who appears serious about giving writers of color the opportunity (and financial wherewithal) to create multi-media content at a national outlet. Skipper and ESPN executive vice president Marie Donoghue, who oversees 538 and The Undefeated, are also well aware that they need to fight the elephant in the room when it comes to how they handle this microsite. Grantland, the now-deceased sports and pop culture site, was championed publicly by these same ESPN executives until House Lannister cut off the head of its Ned Stark, Bill Simmons.
Now comes hope in the form of Kevin Merida, the former Washington Post managing editor who was hired by Donoghue in October 2015 to re-launch, rebrand and staff The Undefeated. Merida did not come cheap, but he came with a terrific reputation as a newsroom leader, thinker and journalist. I spoke to seven people at the Washington Post when Merida was hired; all said he was the genuine article and would be a huge loss to their newsroom.
Last week, in a conference room on the 22nd floor of ESPN’s New York offices featuring sweeping Upper West Side views, four ESPN public relations staff members, Merida, the site’s editor in chief and The Undefeated senior writer Michael Fletcher laid out their vision of the site for a handful of reporters, including this one. I came away impressed by the site’s intellectual ambition and potential.
The Undefeated will be broken down into four verticals, including Sports, HBCU (Historically Black Colleges and Universities), Culture and “The Uplift,” which will include daily tales of inspiration, acts of heroism or altruism. Merida said the site would develop a network of correspondents from HBCU schools (great news for young sports writers of color), create weekly HBCU band rankings and sponsor a national black band competition. They will also have long-form and investigative pieces as well as daily commentary and video. Among the daily features will be a blog (“All Day”) anchored by former Washington Post staffer Clinton Yates, who will also co-host a podcast with staff writer Justin Tinsley and style writer Jill Hudson. (The site is in discussions with ESPN Radio for a permanent weekend show.) Merida said he wants to reach an audience through music, comedy, spoken word and other forms. The Undefeated also plans to do live events. The ESPN2 show His and Hers, featuring African-American hosts Jemele Hill and Michael Smith, will have a major presence on the site.
“It’s important for people to see us behind the digital wall,” Merida said. “We want to reach people where they are. We will be working out our identity in real time. The audience will react to you and let you know if they think you are any good. I think people are looking for understanding and more light than heat, and I think there is lot of heat on the Internet right now.”
As far as specific sports projects, look for an early deep dive on Robert Griffin III through the prism of what it means to be a black quarterback and how sports fans process that. There will also be a series of essays on the Obama presidency including some sports-focused pieces. (Fletcher, a longtime Washington Post and Baltimore Sun news reporter, is leading that project.) The Undefeated will house short films and feature pieces that are part of the Spike Lee’s “Lil Joints” series, which Lee developed with money for ESPN to help young filmmakers. One of the first subjects is the 1971 and ’74 Howard soccer team, which improbably won national titles. (Check out this Grant Wahl profile on the team.)
Donoghue said The Undefeated will have influence across all ESPN platforms, and that landing Merida to run the site was her most successful ESPN deal ever. The site is expected to have around 40 staffers around launch, which indicates a serious commitment by ESPN. As for how she’d define success for The Undefeated: “Quality of product, creativity, impact on ESPN’s content and audience overall,” she said. “Critical acclaim would be nice but is not the be all and end all. We want an engaged audience that finds something we’re not currently offering on ESPN.” (Here’s a long Q&A I did with Donoghue three weeks ago on the site.)
Those are nice words, but it’s similar to what we heard about Grantland; ESPN management said publicly they were committed to Grantland for the long term just five months before they folded it. The onus is on the company to make an audience believe they should invest in The Undefeated and its staff for the long term. Merida said Grantland’s experience has zero to do with what he is attempting to build at The Undefeated. “It’s hard for me to speak on Grantland because I wasn’t here,” he said. “It’s hard for me to know what lessons to draw from it.”
Merida inherited seven staffers from the previous regime and said he admired them given “the travails and difficulty and drama” the site has gone through since 2013. He has since staffed up with talented editorial people, including senior writer Marc Spears (who previously worked at Yahoo! Sports), senior writer Jason Reid (Washington Post), senior culture editor Danyel Smith (the founding editor-in-chief of Vibe) and Kelly Carter (Buzzfeed) and former Washington Post writer Lonnae O’Neal, who will be a senior writer specializing in profiles. He also hired former NFLPLA president Domonique Foxworth as an analyst. Merida said ESPN staffers Michael Wilbon and LZ Granderson will be writing something for launch week. The acclaimed writer Ta-Nehisi Coates, a friend of Merida’s, had interest in writing for The Undefeated, according to Merida, if not for his ongoing editorial commitments. “We have been in touch and I would call him a friend of The Undefeated,” Merida said. “I tried to hire him at the Washington Post and I’m proud of his career.”
It will be interesting to watch how ESPN as a corporate entity reacts when The Undefeated addresses race, which will be often. Race and politics have always been third rail issues for ESPN, with more negative than positive results given too often such discussions were spitted out under the silo of ham-handed embrace debate television.
“I have said we will be fearless but not reckless,” Merida said. “We want to be smart, we want to be cool, we want to be thought leaders and not predictable. So hopefully the way we talk about race will be smart. There’s not one way to think about it. There’s not one way to be black. There’s not one way to be white. There’s not one way to be a woman. There’s not one way to be a millennial. Sometimes people might feel they are walking on egg shells when talking about race but it’s is a part of life, like religion or any other subject.
“Race is the subject of our times,” Merida continued. “It's talked about everywhere in our politics, in our economics, in our culture, about movies, music and everywhere in life and in sports. We can’t escape it. I have to create a site that has to be unafraid, unapologetic and brave, which we will be.”
All sounds promising. The journey begins on Tuesday.
THE NOISE REPORT
(SI.com examines some of the week’s most notable sports stories)
1. The Marly y Max show hosted by ESPN’s Max Bretos and ESPN Deportes’ Marly Rivera—a pioneering sports podcast given the hosts do it simultaneously in both English and Spanish—featured an interesting discussion on how Astros outfielder Carlos Gomez was recently quoted by the Houston Chronicle, and in both Gomez’s and Rivera’s opinion, the outfielder was ridiculed for no reason. (Gomez was a guest on the show.) The show also discussed the continuing cultural issues in MLB with Latin American players (approximately 20% of the league) and lack of diversity in newsrooms.
Given the Gomez discussion, I thought it would be worthwhile to republish one section from a roundtable last March that I did with seven baseball reporters (Shi Davidi, Sportsnet (Canada); Derrick Goold, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Cardinals writer; Jeff Passan, Yahoo! Sports MLB columnist; Rivera, ESPN Deportes, writer and reporter; Ken Rosenthal, Fox Sports and MLB Network reporter; Susan Slusser, San Francisco Chronicle, A's beat writer; and Jayson Stark, ESPN national MLB columnist. In the roundtable, I asked the group whether baseball players’ whose first language is not English were accurately reflected by the baseball press and I thought their answers were really interesting and reflected a problem that hasn’t yet been solved by either baseball or the media. Here were their answers:
Davidi: Aside from the players who end up developing a very strong grasp of English, I don't think so, primarily because it's hard to have an in-depth interaction through an interpreter. Something is always lost when the words are translated through a third party, and you usually lose the nuances of intonation, body language and expression. Also, players speaking outside their native tongue are likelier to be more cautious in what they're saying for a number of reasons, from fear of being misunderstood to discomfort with their command of language. As reporters, we should always remember what it must be like being in their shoes.
Goold: We have seen this improve greatly in the past decade-plus. That’s partially because of how conscientious teams, the union and players themselves have become. It’s obvious the importance of translators or English classes, or both, even in the minor leagues. It’s also worth pointing out that there are many bilingual and talented baseball writers who show how valuable that can be to accurate coverage, and I think that has made our business better equipped and just better.
Passan: Beyond the language barrier, I think there's often a cognitive dissonance culturally between the media and Latin players. As much as white, American writers try to understand the society in which many of them grew up, we can't fully, and their background informs their worldview. It's something you have to be conscientious to acknowledge, particularly when those who are just learning the language are speaking. With someone like Jose Bautista or Ubaldo Jimenez, both of whom grew up in the Dominican Republic learning English, I'm less wary because they know what they're saying. If I hear something that doesn't sound right from another player, though, I'll make sure to ask a follow-up just to ensure there's no misinterpretation. The bigger issue is lack of comfort, and I don't blame some players. If you're in a second language and you're not confident with it, your words might get twisted by someone who isn't as conscientious. And considering some of the translators employed by teams aren't translators but just employees who speak Spanish, the idea they're providing accurate and full translations seems unlikely.
Rivera: No, not always. In my experience, many players whose first language is Spanish are sometimes thought of as being ‘simple’ or lacking in intelligence because they use basic sentences to express complicated thoughts. Someone’s level of intelligence should never be evaluated as being dependent on the language they grew up speaking. I do believe that learning English is an important asset for any player that comes to the U.S., but that does not mean that they should be ridiculed because they can’t express complete thoughts in a language that is foreign to them.
Rosenthal: The answer, sadly, is no. And it’s a failing of ours, in my opinion. I regret not mastering Spanish when I was younger; it should be a prerequisite for anyone entering our business today (at my advanced age, I’m a lost cause). I try to make a point of writing about players whose first language is not English, and interviewing them on television when possible. Their stories need to be told every bit as much as the stories of players who grew up speaking English as their first language.
Slusser: It’s a mixed bag, sort of a case by case basis, and there are any number of reasons for that. The quality of translation is the biggest, and the range of translator ability is extreme, to say the least. I like the requirement that teams are now expected to provide translators for Spanish speakers and hope that clubs will follow up with at least adequate translators. There are more bilingual reporters all the time, which also helps. They are almost all happy to help facilitate interviews when asked and they often will provide some insight into players’ personalities and backstories. The Spanish-language and Japanese-language media are also just a blast to work alongside; they bring some fresh voices and different perspectives. The more foreign-language media the better. Many non-English speakers are just not comfortable doing interviews, even with a translator. Bartolo Colon is one, but his personality still somehow comes through. Still, I would love to have gotten to know him better—and have only myself to blame for that ultimately since my many attempts to learn Spanish have fallen short. I do have a long list of rude Japanese words helpfully provided by the Hideki Matsui media, so have managed to learn a little something to foster foreign relations.
Stark: Not in every case, no. And to some degree, that’s our fault. I know a little Spanish, and I’ve even done a few interviews in very basic Spanish. But in general, the American media doesn’t make enough of an effort to learn Spanish, let alone speak it. I’ve seen instances where the media doesn’t take the same time to get to know Hispanic players that it does American-born players, even when I know that player speaks better English than he’s given credit for. I’d like to see the sport do some programs, maybe in spring training, that give the media a better feel for how to relate to players who speak other languages. That would be good for everyone.
1a. ESPN drew 1.88 million viewers for last Sunday’s Red Sox-Yankees, the network’s lowest audience for Red Sox-Yankees game on Sunday Night Baseball since September 2013, according to Sports Business Daily’s Austin Karp. ESPN had the same matchup the week prior (May 1) and drew 2.44 million viewers.
2. Here is the Kentucky Derby viewership since 2010:
2016: 15.5 million
2015: 16.0 million
2014: 15.3 million
2013: 16.2 million
2012: 14.8 million
2011: 14.5 million
2010: 16.5 million
NBC said this year’s Derby viewership peaked with 17.9 million viewers from 6:45-7:00 p.m. ET when Nyquist crossed the finish line. That was the same peak viewership as last year’s Derby won by American Pharoah. The network said the pre-race coverage, which included the 6 p.m. ET open, averaged 9.3 million viewers—second-best ever for a pre-race show (since 1992).
2b. The top 10 TV markets for the Derby:
3. Ft. Myers
4. West Palm Beach
5. Tampa-St. Pete
2c. Last year’s Preakness drew 8.9 million viewers (down from 9.6 in 2014), so I’m curious to see how interested the viewing public is in Nyquist. Unlike the Derby, which has a lot of casual sports fans tuning in for the pageantry as well as those who gambled on the race, the Preakness audience is traditionally much more of a hardcore (and this lower viewership) sports audience.
3. Episode No. 57 of the Sports Illustrated Media Podcast features ESPN announcer Sean McDonough, who last week was named as the new voice of Monday Night Football. McDonough had previously called college football, college basketball and golf for the network
On this episode, McDonough discusses how he got the Monday Night Football job, his frustrations with not being the lead announcer on a signature package, whether Tirico advocated for him internally, his chemistry with analyst Jon Gruden, how he prepares for a broadcast, his father, Will McDonough, a former Boston Globe writer who morphed to television and pioneered the role of an NFL insider on TV, his relationships with Chris Spielman, Bill Raftery and Jay Bilas, and replacing Jack Buck as lead MLB play-by-play voice on CBS back in the ’90s.
We also get McDonough to discuss some of most famous calls, including a six overtime basketball game in 2009 between UConn and Syracuse, Joe Carter’s Series-ending home run to win the 1993 World Series; the 2015 Michigan State-Michigan college football game which ended on a game-winning touchdown for the Spartans; the final game of the 1996 College World Series and Game 7 of the 1992 National League Championship Series which ended with a dramatic game-winning hit from Atlanta’s Francisco Cabrera.
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 me.
4. Non sports pieces of note:
• If cancer has ever hit your family, read this piece about an boy’s cancer journey.
• For more than a year, New York Times reporter Nina Bernstein worked on uncovering the secrets of New York’s mass graves on Hart Island.
• Law enforcement logged nearly 16,800 calls in one year to Walmarts in Pinellas, Hillsborough, Pasco and Hernando counties, according to a Tampa Bay Times analysis. That’s two calls an hour, every hour, every day.
• The New York Times’s “The Upshot” blog categorized every Donald Trump insult delivered to well-known people or industries on Twitter.
• Life as a North Korean refugee.
• How Stanley Turkel, 90, spends his Sundays.
• From The Moscow Times: What does life look like after being jailed for protesting against the Kremlin?
• Why do we care if Facebook is biased? The New Yorker’s Vauhini Vara examines.
• Eli Saslow on the decline of the American middle class reaching another town.
• Spread the word on some unconscionable behavior by the authorities in Iran.
• Seven writers on seven European cities.
• Via The Washington Post: Don’t forget how the Soviet Union saved the world from Hitler.
• Via Rembert Browne: The Black Conversation Around Larry Wilmore’s ‘N----’ Remark Was Really About Something Much Bigger.
• From Wired: The Ukrainian Hacker Who Became the FBI’s Best Weapon—And Worst Nightmare.
• From Buzzfeed: The Miami plastic surgeon chasing social media fame.
Sports pieces of note:
• A detailed report from the New York Times on a Russian insider who said state-sponsored doping fueled gold in Sochi.
• And a cool graphic from that piece.
• Much respect for WNBA player Stefanie Dolson, who writes with honesty about her sexuality in this essay.
• If you missed Tom Verducci's SI cover story on Vin Scully, you’ll really want to read it. It’s terrific.
• Toronto Star columnist Bruce Arthur on the Raptors finally arriving.
• ESPN’s David Fleming on how Reche Caldwell Googled his way from the Patriots to prison.
• Says Dr. Celine Gounder: From a medical standpoint, we absolutely shouldn’t cancel the Rio Olympics.
• From the NYT’s Jere Longman: Man vs. Marathon.
• Golf.com’s Jeff Ritter’s on golf’s Olympic return in Rio.
• NYT’s Harvey Araton looks back at the WNBA’s debut game 20 years ago.
• From the Indy Star’s Zak Keefer: Tyler Varga and the concussion that lasted four months.
5. Scully spoke to ESPN 98.7FM (New York) radio host Michael Kay. Stay until the end where Scully gives NYC a shout-out.
5b. The latest subject of ESPN Films’s SEC Storied series is Ruthie Bolton (titled “Mighty Ruthie”), on how the former Auburn and Olympic women’s basketball player became an advocate for women after being a victim of domestic violence. The doc debuts May 22, at 9 p.m. ET on the SEC Network and is directed by Lisa Lax and Nancy Stern.
5b. Fascinating to read this Chicago Tribune piece today from 1999, where Ed Sherman reports on Sean McDonough being let go by CBS.
5d. SiriusXM FC will air a special on Leicester City’s season on Monday between 1-3 p.m. ET.
5e. The Solid Verbal had its annual college football “Verbie” Awards.
5g. Here’s ESPN’s WNBA television schedule for 2016. The league will take a couple of weeks off in August for the Rio Olympics.
5h. ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith tells Curt Schilling, “I’d rather be bad than stupid.” Then he says other words.
5i. Here’s the first promo for HBO’s Any Given Wednesday, the show fronted by Bill Simmons that debuts June 22.