What winning an Oscar means for ESPN

How will winning an Oscar for its exhaustive documentary on O.J. Simpson affect ESPN and ESPN Films going forward?
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This is not hyperbole: ESPN’s exhaustive documentary on O.J. Simpson—O.J.: Made In America—is the best content the company has ever produced. The film was thrilling and uncompromising filmmaking—clocking in at seven hours and 43 minutes—and it made you look at the most famous murder case in United States history with fresh eyes and under a larger prism. Last Sunday, in a decision not involving Warren Beatty, Faye Dunaway or mistaken envelopes, the film (directed by Ezra Edelman and produced by Caroline Waterlow) won the Academy Award for best documentary feature.

The honor is the culmination of a 10-year-run that started in 2007 when former ESPN-er Bill Simmons and ESPN executive Connor Schell kicked around the idea of doing a series of 30 one-hour films by 30 filmmakers covering the biggest sports stories over ESPN’s first 30 years. The first project from ESPN Films was the basketball documentary Black Magic in 2008, followed by the launch of the 30 for 30 series. Fast forward to Sunday, a surreal moment for all still involved in ESPN Films, including Schell, now a senior vice president and executive producer of ESPN Films and Original Content.

“We are immensely proud of the success of OJ: Made in America,” said Schell. “It is truly not anything that we ever could have imagined and surreal for ESPN Films to be in the company of such prestigious creative work. I am in awe of Ezra, and the unbelievably talented team that brought this film to life really raised the bar for what is possible in this form.”

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Give ESPN credit: This was a flawless PR campaign—Edelman worked the interview and doc film circuit hard and ESPN’s lead communications people such as Jay Jay Nesheim (who ran point on the PR campaign) pushed the film to entities well beyond sports outlets early in the process—for something that deserved the PR. (Instead of, say, many of the things ESPN promotes daily.) The question now is what does an Oscar mean for ESPN Films, if it means anything at all. Upcoming 30 for 30s include docs on Ric Flair, the Celtics-Lakers rivalry, and John Calipari, but with an Oscar as part of its calling card, ESPN Films is in the rare position to house nearly any kind of project it wants. Bloomberg reported this week ESPN will produce a new multi-part program from Oscar winner Alex Gibney about the limits of human performance and what motivates people to push those limits, legally or illegally.

“I am not sure that it changes anything creatively—we remain committed to the premise of finding great stories with a beginning, middle and end, where sports serves as a window into the greater culture at large,” Schell said. “We have always been and will continue to be director driven, finding unique voices like Ezra and then doing our best to give them the space and canvas to express themselves.”

I asked Schell if the success of OJ: Made In America had impacted in a tangible way the kind of project pitches they have received.

“We have certainly been approached by filmmakers and producers who want to tell longform stories in the format of OJ: Made In America, although we certainly understand what a difficult undertaking that is,” he said. “As the entire landscape has become more and more crowded, I can say that we believe going forward it is imperative for us to continue to take big, creative, ambitious swings like we did with Ezra. In a world where competition for people’s time is more intense than ever, it is gratifying to know that when a story is told as well as Ezra told this story, people are more than willing to engage for nearly eight hours.”

The Noise Report

(SI.com examines some of the notable sports media stories of the week)

1.  When Adnan Virk was a guest on the Sports Illustrated Media podcast last May, one of the subjects that came up was Virk being the first Muslim anchor to work at ESPN.

“There have been trailblazers in other disciplines much more important than me being the first Muslim sportscaster at ESPN, but it is pretty cool when I go to the mosque or when I meet kids and they say, ‘It’s very cool you are on ESPN.’ …But it had never been an issue until recently with unfortunately the rise of Muslim extremists, and then [Donald] Trump and [Ted] Cruz [speaking out],” Virk said.  “People will go to me and ask, ‘I wonder what you think about these big issues?’ I think to myself, ‘Can I tweet about it? Can I not tweet about it?’”

What Virk ultimately decided was to be public about his faith via the #TrueIslam campaign. Over the past eight months since that interview, the dialogue in the U.S. on Muslims and Islam has gotten much more heated. President Trump signed an executive order on Jan. 27 temporarily banning travelers from seven predominately Muslim countries (Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen) and halting entrance of all Syrian refugees. After a court-imposed suspension on the ban, the White House said there will be a revised travel ban.

That was the backdrop to a column I did on Monday, in which I impaneled seven Muslims working in the sports media voices for a roundtable discussion on a number of issues:

The panel:

• Adam Amin, ESPN, play by play broadcaster.

• Shireen Ahmed, freelance writer and sports activist.

• Habeeba Husain, editorial assistant and contributor for SLAM Magazine.

• Nabil Karim, anchor, TSN SportsCentre (Canada).

Arda Ocal, host, Madison Square Garden Network.

• Faizal Khamisa, anchor, Sportsnet (Canada).

• Adnan Virk, anchor, ESPN and ESPN Radio.

Here’s the panel. Think you will find it interesting.

1a. On Wednesday morning TSN confirmed what many expected: After the announcement last week that Fox Sports would not renew the contracts of Jay Onrait and Dan O’Toole, marking the end of a three-year run that began with significant fanfare and ended with the Canadian duo being hidden deep into the night on the FS1 opinion-above-all schedule, TSN is bringing back the duo to Canada. Onrait and OToole co-hosted TSN’s SportsCentre together from 2003 to 2013.

2. Sports Business Journal writers John Ourand and John Lombardo reported that at least 20 NBA teams are posting lower or flat ratings compared with the same point last season. According to the publication, as of the first week in February, NBA game ratings on regional sports networks were down 15%. Ourand and Lombardo reported the NBA’s biggest drops are in Dallas and Orlando. The Mavericks’ ratings average had fallen 53% while the Magic were down 50%.

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2a. The Daytona 500 drew 11.922 million viewers, up 5% over 2016’s average audience of 11.357 million, but down 11% from 2015 (13.4M). Here’s a chart from Sports Media Watch on Daytona 500 ratings.

2b. NBC said its Stadium Series game last Saturday between the Flyers and Penguins at Heinz Field (the game aired on NBC) was the most-watched NHL regular-season game in three years, excluding Winter Classics. The game averaged 1.917 million viewers, the most-watched regular-season non-Winter Classic game since the 2013-14 season (The Penguins-Blackhawks drew 2.759 million on March 1, 2014.)

3. Episode 105 of the Sports Illustrated Media Podcast features Fox Sports broadcasters Jamie Little and Shannon Spake. Little covers pit road for the NASCAR Cup Series and NASCAR Xfinity Series and is a reporter for NASCAR Raceday, FS1’s prerace show. Prior to joining FOX, she spent 13 years at ESPN/ABC as a reporter for NASCAR and the IndyCar Series. Spake joined Fox Sports last July and covers NASCAR, college football, college basketball and the NFL. She is the co-host of FS1’s NASCAR Race Hub and NASCAR Raceday Xfinity after each race.

On this podcast, Little and Spake discussed the significant decline of NASCAR’s television viewership and how that impacts them; how they both started in racing reporting and why they wanted to cover NASCAR; how Little prepares each week to work as a pit reporter; how Spake prepares for her hosting role; the most forthcoming drivers, crew chiefs, and owners in the sport; what it’s like to get cursed out by drivers; how viewers should view the inherent conflicts of interest with broadcasters who have financial relationships with drivers and teams; navigating working in a sport that is overwhelmingly male; balancing motherhood with an intense traveling job; the difference between Fox and ESPN; what stories both want to do, and much more.

You can subscribe to the podcast on iTunes, Google Play and Stitcher.

4. Episode 106 of the Sports Illustrated Media podcast features ESPN NFL analyst Jim Trotter, who appears on NFL Insiders, SportsCenter and other ESPN programs. Trotter previously worked at Sports Illustrated and the San Diego Union-Tribune. The podcast will come out Thursday.

In this podcast, Trotter discusses the coverage of Roger Goodell and the league office by the NFL media and whether it is effective; why Goodell and NFL owners are not accessible to media; the impact of access journalism in the NFL and whether that’s good or bad for the public; morphing from print/digital work to television; how the NFL Hall of Fame voting works inside the room; what the Hall of Fame future will be for Paul Tagliabue and Terrell Owens; why Hall of Fame voters should be criticized for a lack of transparency; why Trotter makes his vote public; how voters see players who treated the media poorly during their careers; how Trotter was laid off by Sports Illustrated and what he did in the immediate days afterward; the advice ESPN reporter Sal Paolantonio gave him about appearing on television; how fans outside of San Diego should view what is happening with the Chargers; and much more.

You can subscribe to the podcast on iTunes, Google Play and Stitcher.

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5.YouTube announced its own streaming TV service, which will include many sports channels. For an impact on how this might impact college football, read this post from FootballScoop.com.

5a. FS1 will air No. 1 U.S. vs. No. 2 Germany in a women’s soccer friendly at 7 p.m. ET on Wednesday.

5b. CBS (via Showtime’s production) will air a bout Saturday night between Danny Garcia and Keith Thurman live from 9-11 p.m. Showtime said Garcia-Thurman will be the first world title unification bout in any weight division on live network television in over two decades, and just the second primetime boxing presentation on CBS in nearly 40 years. 

5c. The former New York Times sports columnist William C. Rhoden has joined The Undefeated as a columnist and editor-at-large. ESPN said it will establish the Rhoden Fellows, a sports journalism internship program that will identify and train aspiring African-American journalists from Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). Well done by all parties.