Inside ESPN's tribute to late SportsCenter star Stuart Scott
They all talked about what it would mean if the piece ever aired. It meant their friend and colleague was dead. But the small group of ESPN staffers who worked on the feature honoring the life of Stuart Scott believed they owed it to their colleague to produce something with love and care if that awful day ever came.
On Sunday the awful day came when Scott passed away from cancer at the too-damn-young age of 49. A popular anchor on ESPN for two decades, he had a 14-minute feature on his life and career aired on the network, a piece that appropriately first ran on SportsCenter, the show that gave life to his television fame.
The video obit, a beautiful, moving tribute that should be watched and shared, was completed months ago. ESPN feature producers Mike Leber, Miriam Greenfield and Denny Wolfe, the point people for the project, began working on it shortly after Scott’s emotional speech at the ESPYs last July 16, when the anchor amplified how difficult his cancer had hit him. The group completed the feature on Sept. 18 and silently hoped the original would stay in Leber’s desk forever.
“All of the people interviewed for the piece, and all those working on it, we all said at one point during the process that we hoped this would sit on the shelf for a long time,” Leber told SI.com on Sunday afternoon. “It was something that nobody wanted to think about or talk about, but to pay the proper tribute, we knew we had to do it.”
Leber said he and Greenfield cast a wide net for subjects; they wanted people who had worked with Scott for a long time, including those who had left ESPN, like the NFL Network’s Rich Eisen and NBC’s Dan Patrick. Out of respect and care for Scott, Mark Gross, an ESPN senior vice president for production and remote events, informed Scott’s longtime agent, Jacqueline (Jackie) Harris, that the piece was being constructed. Gross asked Harris if she thought Scott would want to know about the piece. Harris suggested they go forth without informing Scott. Most of the ESPN people I spoke with on Sunday believe Scott never knew such a piece existed.
“We definitely discussed whether to include him and the discussion was along the lines of maybe he would want to contribute in some way, or maybe he would feel hurt if someone said the wrong thing and he found about it through other means,” Leber said. “But the other side of it was he was in a position where he needed so much positive energy and positive reinforcement and the idea that his friends and colleagues were preparing for the end is such a negative. Being a professional, he may have known something was up and chose not to ask about it. But to my knowledge, he was not aware of the piece."
Greenfield had the task of interviewing many of the people, including Gross, who said he watched the piece by himself in his office for the first time last month.
“I shut the door in my office and just watched,” said Gross, whose father, Harvey, passed away from colon cancer last month. “And I was sort of numb from watching it because I could not believe what I was watching. I was a producer on [ESPN2’s] Sports Night when Stuart came here from Orlando [in 1993] and doing something called Sports Smash updates. I was working with him then and worked with him on all sorts of things. I remember like it was yesterday when he went into the hospital in Pittsburgh after a Monday Night game [in November 2007] for appendicitis and that’s when all this started. They discovered cancer during that procedure.
"I just want people to know that this was a great guy, whether he was on TV or at home or playing basketball. It wasn’t an act. Some people loved him on the air. Other people did not love him. The bottom line for me was he was who he was and he never altered from that. There will never be another Stuart Scott. He made shows feel bigger and you wanted to be producing a show that Stuart Scott was part of because he had the ability to make it bigger. He was a great and caring guy, a hardworking guy.”
Leber and Greenfield found out Scott had passed before sunrise on Sunday and hustled to get the piece ready for air. Leber said producers were working on some of the auxiliary Scott pieces that ran on Sunday as late as two weeks ago. There are a lot of advanced pieces that live on ESPN’s servers until they run, but Leber and Co. intentionally did not put the main Scott feature on the servers because they did not want the piece living electronically. “God forbid someone hits a wrong button or sees that we are preparing it and starts to talk, and word got back to Stuart,” Leber said.
The Scott family asked ESPN to hold the piece until 9:45 a.m. ET so relatives, friends and loved ones could be informed it was running. ESPN, in my reporting experience, has always been an exceptionally good employer when illness hits one of its own and this was another example. Scott is survived by his two daughters, Taelor, 19, and Sydni, 15; his parents, O. Ray and Jacqueline Scott; and his three siblings Stephen Scott, Synthia Kearney, Susan Scott and their families. Scott’s companion, Kristin Spodobalski, informed close ESPN colleagues early this morning that Scott had passed away.
Asked what he hoped viewers took away from the piece, Leber cited his own growing family. “As a new Dad [of a 10-month old girl] what I take away from this whole process is this was a guy who was good at his job and cared about his job and changed the way sports broadcasting is done, but there was no question where his priorities were, and especially later in life, and that was his daughters,” Leber said. “I hope the piece tells a complete story of both the professional Stuart Scott was and the personal man he was, too.”
The noise report
SI.com examines some of the more notable stories of the week in sports media.
1. Perhaps the biggest legacy Stuart Scott leaves at ESPN is that his presence moved the company forward in terms of diversity on the air. I asked Jemele Hill, the co-host of ESPN2’s His and Hers and the most prominent front-facing African-American woman at the network, if she would write what Scott meant to her. Her words are below.
The painful reality of cancer is that you know the day will come when you must say goodbye to somebody you love. Usually, when you aren't ready to let go.
Like countless others, I have hoped and prayed that I would never have to say goodbye to Stuart Scott, one of the finest people I've ever known. Not like this, anyway.
There will be a lot written about the iconic impact Stuart had on sports broadcasting. Deservedly so. There is no doubt Stuart influenced a generation of journalists, especially African Americans, who were inspired by Stuart's passion and loved that he infused his own style, despite being in an industry that was unaccustomed to seeing a brash black man smoothly intertwine slang and pop culture while doing highlights.
But when I think of Stuart, I'll think of all the things that he did that most people weren't fortunate enough to know or see. There is a lot of jealousy and pettiness in our business. There are plenty of broadcasters on Stuart's level that wouldn't even take the time to say hello to you, much less establish any kind of relationship with you.
But not Stuart. He graciously gave his time to younger journalists like me, because he cared about us personally and wanted those that came after him to know he was their biggest supporter.
Stuart often sent me encouraging texts (that's when I knew for sure I'd done something well). He always had time for me when I needed his advice, or just a sounding board. He always was honest about mistakes he'd made. He just had a way of telling you exactly what you needed to hear.
But as much as I admired him professionally, I loved Stuart even more because of how he treated his loved ones. Stuart always was an upbeat person, even when we could all see the physical toll fighting cancer repeatedly had taken on him. But when Stuart talked about his daughters -- his "babies" as he often called them -- the affection, and pride he felt for them just transformed him. His girls meant everything to him.
It's difficult to imagine ESPN without Stuart Scott. My heart is heavy because I'll never receive another text, tweet or phone call from him. I can't stop him in the hallway anymore and say, "Hey Stu, what do you think about this?" or "what made you approach it this way?"
The only solace I have is that I had those opportunities at all.
1a. Tragedy often brings out poetry. This tribute from NFL Network host Rich Eisen for his longtime SportsCenter partner Scott was, in my opinion, Eisen’s finest moment in television.
1b. During our interview Sunday, Gross said something I thought was really interesting about Scott. He said Scott earned the respect of the current SportsCenter production people because he remained loyal to the show. “Even as big as he got, he still loved doing SportsCenter,” Gross said. “And he kept doing SportsCenter. Some men and women want to do this or that following SportsCenter but Stuart wanted to do SportsCenter X number of times a year. Internally, people love that. He certainly did not forget where he came from.”
1c. ESPN.com compiled Twitter reaction on Scott’s death, including tweets from Barack Obama, LeBron James, Kobe Bryant and a statement from Michael Jordan.
1d. Deadspin’s Tim Burke put together a collection of the fine work by ESPN’s on-air staffers reacting to the death of their colleague.
1e. ESPN.com writer J.A. Adande paid tribute to Scott here.
2. For fans of HBO’s Hard Knocks, here’s the list of NFL teams eligible to be drafted by the league should no team volunteer to take part in the series: Giants, Redskins, Vikings, Bucs, Rams, Browns, Texans, Jaguars and Titans. The exemptions include teams with first-year head coaches, teams that have made the playoffs the last two seasons, and teams that have been featured on the series in the past 10 years.
2a. NBC said the Ravens' win over the Steelers drew 28.0 million viewers, the second most-watched Saturday AFC wild-card game in the past 20 seasons. The top Saturday AFC wild-card game was the Jets’ 17-16 win over Colts in Peyton Manning’s final game with Indy on Jan. 8, 2011 (33.3 million viewers).
2b. ESPN’s first-ever NFL playoff game (Carolina over Arizona) drew 21.678 million viewers on Saturday, the eighth most-viewed telecast in the company’s history. Viewership peaked at 24,300,000 viewers from 7-7:15 p.m. ET.
2c. NBC said Sunday Night Football was on pace to rank as the No. 1 primetime show on television for the fourth consecutive year. (That data is based on September-May Nielsen ratings of people who watch live or the same day.) SNF averaged 21.3 million viewers for its 19 broadcasts this year and a 12.5 household rating. Those are solid numbers when you consider the average margin of victory for the season was 18.3 points. The network said that its NFL telecasts ranked as 11 of the 12 most-watched primetime shows since Sept. 4.
2d. Denver was the top-rated Sunday Night Football television market in 2014. The rest of the Top 15: 2. New Orleans; 3. Las Vegas; 4. Seattle; 5. Milwaukee; T6. Indianapolis; T6. San Diego; 8. Sacramento; 9. Dallas; 10. Baltimore; 11. Pittsburgh; 12. Phoenix; 13. Richmond; T. 14, Norfolk; T14. Albuquerque
2e. NBC said this was the seventh consecutive fall TV season that SNF ranked No. 1 among Adults 18-49, though read this because AMC would counter that with its data for The Walking Dead.
2f. NBC’s Football Night in America studio show averaged 8.2 million viewers (through Week 16).
2g. Who performed the best -- and worst -- among NFL Media in 2014? I did an end of the year media awards column for The MMQB.
2h ESPN Monday Night Football analyst Jon Gruden offered Rex Ryan some advice for making the transition from coach to broadcaster. “Just prepare like he prepared as a coach and be yourself and try to be a great listener,” Gruden said. “Try to listen to the producer and the director and the people that are running the show and just be a great listener, be a great teammate. He'd be great at whatever he decides to do. I can't imagine him not coaching, though, honestly.”
2i. NFL Network analyst Michael Robinson probably wants this one back from Sunday morning’s GameDay First program. Said Robinson: “Andy Dalton is better without A.J. Green. The Cincinnati Bengals, therefore, in the playoffs will be better with a better quarterback.”
2j. Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan was impressive as a guest analyst on ESPN’s Sunday NFL Countdown -- poised, smart and didn’t duck any questions asked of him. He has a future in broadcasting after his playing career if he wants it. Such in-house guest spots carry a lot of weight with sports network executives and producers, who keep active lists of current coaches and players who would make good hires after their NFL careers conclude.
3. If nothing else, $7.3 billion buys you strong television ratings. ESPN’s coverage of the two college football playoff semifinal games last Thursday produced the two largest audiences in cable television history. (The network is paying $7.3 billion over 12 years to telecast college football’s postseason -- four major bowl games, two semifinal bowl games and the national championship game.) Ohio State’s Sugar Bowl win over Alabama averaged 28.271 million viewers while the Rose Bowl (Oregon’s 59-20 blowout of Florida State) drew 28.164 million viewers.
3a. ESPN said its combined six bowl games on New Year’s Eve averaged 14,682,000 viewers.
3b. Some specific New Year’s Eve game viewership numbers:
• Georgia Tech’s win over Mississippi State in the Orange Bowl drew 8.935 million viewers, the most-viewed New Year’s Eve game on ESPN on record.
• Boise State’s win over Arizona in the Fiesta Bowl averaged 7.406 million viewers.
• The Peach Bowl, featuring TCU’s rout of Ole Miss, averaged 5.013 million viewers.
3c. ESPN said Alabama-Ohio State drew 912,000 unique viewers on WatchESPN, making it the most watched college football game ever on that service. The Oregon-Florida State game, which faced significant technical issues and drew the ire of many on social media, averaged 816,000 unique viewers. The network said the New Year’s Six games on WatchESPN attracted 505,000 unique viewers.
3d. ESPN college football analyst Chris Spielman, an Ohio State alum, on Michigan’s hire of Jim Harbaugh:
“When you look at Jim, everyone knows he’s an excellent football coach. But he can also go toe-to-toe with Urban Meyer in recruiting. And I think when you look at Michigan, maybe one area that they have fallen off is talent. When you look at head coaches, every coach that I know is pretty good at Xs & Os. The next thing you look at is recruiting, and recruiting at a high level. I think it was the hire that needed to be made.
3e. I flipped between ESPN and the SEC Network for the Alabama-Ohio State game and amid what was clearly an SEC-biased broadcast (The Finebaum Film Room), I was impressed by analyst Greg McElroy’s ability to dissect plays on the fly. The most impressive example: A couple of seconds prior to Alabama quarterback Blake Sims throwing a killer pick-six in the final quarter, McElroy recognized Alabama was in trouble by its formation and said on the air that it should "call timeout.” I spoke to McElroy in March and he has a very bright future as a game or studio analyst.
4. Sports pieces of note:
• The Sacramento Bee’s Matt Barrows offered a Jim Harbaugh operations manual for Michigan-area reporters.
• Via Brad Wolverton: Confessions of a Fixer: How a former coach helped hundreds of athletes cheat.
• Interesting piece by SI’s Pete Thamel on whether Ohio State’s win over Alabama represented a power shift in CFB.
• Vice’s Jessica Luther examined the Jameis Winston conduct hearing transcript.
• Writer Ed Hinton, arguably the best NASCAR writer ever, retired with this farewell column.
• Deadspin’s Greg Howard profiled MMA star Jon Jones.
• ESPN.com’s Mechelle Voepel wrote a heartfelt tribute to her mother, who passed away last month.
• Vice News, on what may be the most dangerous and costly photo (with an Olympic twist) in Japan.
Non sports-pieces of note:
• Really enjoyed this New York Times piece about a man who walks around Central Park at 4 a.m.
• The New Yorker's Elizabeth Kolbert on Mario Cuomo.
• This month's cover story in The Atlantic "The Tragedy of the American Military."
• Luise Rainer was the first actress to win consecutive Oscars before quitting acting. She lived to 104. Amazing NYT obit here.
• David Sanger on his visit to North Korea 22 years ago, and the difficulties of reporting the Sony hack.
• How a young entrepreneur built an empire by repackaging memes.
• ProPublica on how Anita Chanko watched her husband die on the reality TV show NY Med.
• Via The Washington Post: The misguided misery of the open-office trend.
• This Dave Krugman photo of a glowing Times Square on New Year's Eve was pretty stunning.
5. The Winter Classic is trending in the wrong direction when it comes to viewership. This year’s game produced the lowest overnight rating (2.3) since the game’s debut. The stats:
2015: 2.3 (Capitals-Blackhawks)
2014: 2.9 (Maple Leafs-Red Wings)
2013: No game.
2012: 2.4 (Rangers-Flyers)
2011: 2.8 (Capitals-Penguins)
2010: 2.6 (Flyers-Bruins)
2009: 2.9 (Red Wings-Blackhawks)
2008: 2.6 (Penguins-Sabres)
NBC’s counter-spin would be this: The game averaged 3.472 million viewers, the seventh most-watched (behind the other Winter Classics) and seventh highest-rated NHL regular-season game since 1987. Viewership for this year’s Winter Classic exceeded all Stanley Cup Playoff games on NBC last year (11 games), except for the three Stanley Cup Final games.
In the end, to use the cliché of clichés, it is what it is. The game still looks great on television but the novelty aspect has worn off for casual viewers, and this year’s game faced stiff college football bowl competition. In my opinion, New Year's Day still remains a great day for the event, given the large universe of people in front of televisions. But one thing that seems clear is that the teams really matter if the arena isn’t iconic. On that note, the NHL should really think about using Montreal in the future.
5a. The Clarion-Ledger offered a front page that perfectly captured a rough day for Mississippi football.
5b. Here are 31 sports media members predicting the most fascinating person in sports for 2015.
5c. NBC will air a one-hour documentary (Lindsey Vonn: The Climb) on the rehab of U.S. Olympic ski champion Lindsey Vonn. The network said the doc will air Jan. 25, at 3 p.m. ET on NBC and will give viewers an inside look into the past 22 months of Vonn’s career.
5d. Tennis is not dead in America: ESPN will air more hours of tennis in 2015 than any other year prior.