Tuesday September 2nd, 2014

ESPN tennis analyst Chris Evert was reared by her mother Colette not to speak badly of her opponents, so being critical as a broadcaster has not come easy for the Hall of Fame tennis player.

“I know if you are an analyst or commentator, you have to take stands and you have to be critical when needed,” Evert said. “It just took me a while to feel comfortable with that. I feel different about my commentating this year. I feel like it has been more authentic, more real and more honest.”

Evert joined ESPN three years ago after a decade-long gap between broadcasting assignments (she previously worked for NBC), and her work has steadily improved each year she has been on ESPN’s airwaves. She’s never going to be an analyst on the Mary Carillo level — and she certainly has her critics on social media — but she’s become knowledgeable about the players on tour and an enjoyable and often-thoughtful voice.

“When I came on the scene three years ago I was really going on my experience as a pro more than being opinionated or knowing the players that well or the ins and outs of the game today,” Evert said. “I came in sort of green and now in my third year I feel comfortable talking about the players and their games. I know the coaches. I feel like I have more information. I am not afraid to make a controversial statement or something I feel strongly about. I trust my instincts a lot more now.”

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Evert and ESPN colleague Pam Shriver rightfully drew heat for their commentary involving the withdrawal of Serena Williams from her second-round doubles match at Wimbledon. The nadir was borderline reckless statements from Evert bringing up the specter of drugs (“Is it something unintentional or intentional in her system that they may drug test for?”) and Shriver following up that with,  “They have drug testing at all the majors.”

Those statements came with zero reporting. Shriver and Evert were well within reason (and thoughtful) in saying Williams should not have been on the court that day, and all of us who cover tennis have experienced Serena’s camp being heavy-handed and short with information. But her comments were unfair. I asked her about the incident and she said she reached out to Williams by text after Wimbledon.

“I talked to Serena after that episode,” Evert said. “I wanted to explain it to her and we are fine. She reacted very well. She could not have been cooler. I think she was getting it from a lot of commentators. I don’t like having enemies and knowing people are upset with me. I’d rather have it open and confront them. I try to be balanced and if I find myself being too critical, I try to remind myself that not everyone was like me on the court, where I was such a perfectionist and mentally intense.”

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One topic of conversation among those who follow tennis on social media is Evert calling matches of players (e.g. Madison Keys) who have traveled through the Evert Tennis Academy in Boca Raton, an academy that is a partnership between Evert’s family and IMG.

“I wish people luck and say ‘Great match’ to my girls, but I am 100 percent completely balanced when I do those matches,” said Evert. “These players have gone through my Academy but they are pros now, they have their own coaches and I have no problem being critical of them. If anything I am more critical of them because in my mind I’m like, ‘Darn it, we worked on that four years ago.’ There is not one player out there that I am so close to that I feel would threaten my authenticity with this job.”

Evert said her ESPN contract is up next year and she would like to continue broadcasting.

“I’m not looking to have 10-year contract, but I would love to go another two or three years,” Evert said. “The more I do it, the more I feel I know the players and the more accurate information I can give. I may not have the storytelling or the big vocab, but I can reveal how a player is feeling under pressure and on the big points. I can see momentum changes and how players react to the nerves. I can get into their heads and try to explain the intangibles in a match.”

THE NOISE REPORT

SI.com examines the most notable sports media stories of the week

1. In a shift that I fear will further bury the audience for both shows, ESPN has moved Outside the Lines and Olbermann to afternoon time slots on ESPN2. Olbermann will now air at 5:00 p.m. and OTL at 5:30 p.m., pitting those shows against ratings-heavy Around The Horn and Pardon the Interruption (as well as competition from local news and other sports channels). The lead-in for Olbermann — a vehicle for noted sports sociologist Colin Cowherd — is unlikely to help host Keith Olbermann with his audience, though it does confirm Cowherd’s status as the man who can do no wrong in Bristol Land.

While ESPN management does not consider sister networks competition, the talent and producers for individual shows absolutely do and it will be interesting to see how it shakes out. Norby Williamson, executive vice president of program scheduling and development, explained the move as follows in a statement: “We feel that strategically shifting the time of [Olbermann] will not only provide access to a broader audience, but gives us greater flexibility for Keith to do cross-platform opportunities, including hosting key editions of SportsCenter surrounding major news or events throughout the year, while enabling us to secure a more consistent time slot to showcase his distinctive voice.”

2. Former Texas coach-turned-ESPN-analyst Mack Brown gave an interesting answer last week during a conference call on criticizing coaches as analysts.

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Said Brown: “Very honestly, for the first time in the last 30 years I can probably have an opinion that's mine instead of coach-speak, because it's harder when you're the head coach and you've got an athletic director, you've got a president, a compliance department, you've got a legal counsel, assistant coaches and wives; you're worried about recruiting with everything you say. So I'm really looking forward to that. I think at the same time I can probably sit there in some cases even if the coach calls something that didn't work and say here's what he was thinking, it didn't work. I wouldn't have done it that way, but here's why he did it.”

On the same call, Brown said he and new Texas coach Charlie Strong “made an agreement early, and I really suggested it, that I not talk about Texas and let him be the head coach and let him get started because obviously I know too much about that program.” ESPN said that extended to interviews with Brown about Strong, not his commentary about the school. I’d call that a slippery slope and that’s something for viewers to watch this fall — how Brown addresses (and if he addresses) games involving Texas.

3. The Cauldron, a sports vertical on Medium.com, re-launched Monday with Medium acquiring the full rights to the content. The vertical was founded by Jamie O’Grady and is edited by O’Grady and former ESPN and SI.com staffer Andy Glockner. O’Grady said the site has added a number of well-known sports writers to the roster on a regular freelance basis including former Sports Illustrated and New York Times senior writer Selena Roberts.

Some other quality names you might recognize: Andy and Brian Kamenetzky, Greg Hanlon, Howard Megdal, Steve McPherson and Josh Zerkle. O’Grady said a number of other writers have been hired as contributors, including former SI staffer Jeff Pearlman, TBS baseball analyst Dirk Hayhurst, longtime baseball writers Susan Fornoff and Wendy Thurm, and college sports writer Lauren Brownlow.

4. On Monday I examined how an ESPN report on Michael Sam's showering habits ended up on the air, the problems with the piece and how reporters can better report on gay athletes.

5. The 2014 Little League World Series was the most-watched ever on ESPN networks (ABC, ESPN and ESPN2 combined). The 54 games averaged 1,724,000 viewers, up 71 percent from 2013.

5a. ESPN’s E:60 has added a series of specials called E:60 Profile this fall, and one of the subjects will be Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton. That profile will be fronted by Cari Champion, who thankfully has escaped from the Shawshank prison otherwise known as First Take. E:60 will also profile the woman once known as “Morganna the Kissing Bandit,” who became a pop culture icon in the 1970s and '80s by running onto Major League Baseball fields during games to kiss well-known players.

5b. You want a behind-the-scenes name that has great impact on what you see and read on ESPN? Marie Donoghue. Last week ESPN president John Skipper promoted Donoghue to executive vice president of global strategy and original content for the company, making her arguably the most powerful female executive in sports broadcasting. Her responsibilities include ESPN Films, FiveThirtyEight, Grantland and making sure Bill Simmons and Nate Silver feel good about themselves. Donoghue's group will produce The Grantland Basketball Show this fall, which will feature Simmons and air in primetime.

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