Jalen & Jacoby has become a major hit across platforms for ESPN. Here's the story of its rise and that of its hosts.
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NEW YORK—As David Jacoby recounts their first taping together, Jalen Rose laughs. He’s certainly heard this story before. Who knows what exactly he finds humorous? Yet each Hahaha! sounds genuine.
“I’ll never forget that very first moment,” Jacoby says. “I remember looking across at this dude being like, ‘What is happening right now?’”
At a lunch spot near ESPN’s new Manhattan studios, a re-run of Rose on Get Up! airs in the background as the man himself chuckles at Jacoby’s one-time discomfort. Jacoby opened The Jalen Rose Report back in 2011 by explaining what the new Grantland Network podcast would cover before introducing his co-host.
Then, out of nowhere, Rose began to scream-sing: Got to give the peopleeee, give the peopleee what they waaannttt. “I was honestly shocked,” Jacoby says, Rose now nearly cackling beside him. “You’ve got to remember this was like the first sentence on the first date. I was like, ‘this is weird.’ I didn’t know he was going to start singing!”
Except the outburst—regularly repeated for seven years as the show morphed from weekly podcast to daily radio show to late-night TV program to hourlong afternoon regular—didn’t really come out of nowhere. Far from it. Rose had decided his new vehicle needed a tagline, and after much deliberation settled on a lyric with deep Motown roots which was also featured in a Fab Five era rap. It would be perfect.
And it wasn’t just the tune Rose had picked. The rest of that scene was equally crafted. As Rose would say, Here’s why.
Rose’s media career began five years before his basketball ride ended, and his television ambitions date even further back. A mass communications major who would commentate Madden games in his dorm room, Rose spent his offseasons working for NFL Network, MTV, Top Rank Boxing, anywhere that would get him chances. When he retired in ’07, he immediately slid into an NBA gig at ESPN. But Rose wanted to do more.
For a while, he held weekly live chats on Ustream for a few hundred viewers. Then Bill Simmons’s Grantland launch in June 2011 presented a bigger opportunity. A month after the site’s debut, Rose found out where top ESPN employees would head after the ESPYs—to the rooftop of the W Hotel. “Guess where I was,” he says. “Right there. I was just letting everyone have their few drinks. I was like, ‘I’m going to wait until midnight before I strike,’” Rose continues. At the right moment, he approached and pitched his own podcast.
Simmons was game, but Grantland’s head of audio and video thought Rose should do a few one-off episodes before getting his own regular series. “He was the person telling him, ‘Don’t do it!’” Rose says, shooting a glance at Jacoby. “How about that!?”
“No, naw, hold on,” Jacoby interrupts. “20 second timeout,” failing once again to fully absolve himself from Rose’s mental list of doubters.
The first time the two got on the phone, Jacoby asked Rose who he wanted to do the show with—maybe a former teammate or longtime friend. “He literally said, ‘You don’t want to do it?’” Jacoby recalls. Rose says he had been researching possible co-hosts and found Jacoby’s set of skills and interests meshed with what he was looking for.
“You definitely picked me to do the show with you because I was in charge,” Jacoby adds. “You knew I wouldn’t cancel myself.”
“That too,” Rose allows. “Correct.”
“It was smart,” Jacoby says.
A few minutes past 9 a.m., an ESPN co-worker walks over, breakfast in hand, to praise Jalen & Jacoby—to explain, anonymously, how their program pushed the entire genre of sports talk forward, by speeding through some topics and then diving deep into others, by having athletes talk about sports outside their own, by seamlessly integrating pop culture discussions.
Just then, Jacoby asks show producer Harlan Endelman, “Remember the photo of Michael Jordan holding a tequila bottle?” That afternoon, the episode will open with a new clip of MJ dancing in a leather jacket, and Jacoby wants to provide some context. Monday Night Football ended less than 12 hours earlier. The NBA’s Christmas Day slate approaches. That all can wait.
While off-beat topics have long carried the show, chemistry elevates it. Jacoby’s children refer to his co-host as Uncle Jalen. At lunch, Jacoby orders fries, knowing Rose will gobble them up.
When 30 for 30 senior producer and host Jody Avirgan is asked to provide podcasting advice, he turns to Jalen & Jacoby. “The thing they show is just the power of a genuine friendship and great chemistry,” he says, “the power of getting reps in.”
Their connection has generated hardcore fans and confident executives. Bill Simmons promoted the project. “None of this happens without the Podfather,” Rose says. After Simmons left the company, ESPN VP Dave Roberts pushed the show onto radio. Connor Schell put it on TV in the afternoon. This year, executive vice president Norby Williamson helped carve out an hour for Jalen & Jacoby at 2 p.m. on ESPN2. Each decision-maker believed the show’s fan base would follow their leaders.
But some of those fans began to complain. “The pod is sliding,” one wrote on the show’s reddit page in February. “I hate it because I feel like I’m friends with both guys, but I haven’t been entertained by the pod in some time,” another added. “Do you guys think the show is in jeopardy?” someone asked.
Rose was moving to New York to launch Get Up!, ESPN’s new “all things to all sports fans” morning show, while Jacoby stayed with his family in L.A. The show was finding its footing as a televised afternoon experience. J&J-heads were pining for the old days—the good stuff.
“This is actually Jacoby,” u/JacobyJacoby posted on Reddit days after those comments. “I couldn't help but notice that the tenor of this subreddit has somewhat shifted from a celebration of our work to criticism of it. I am not here to chastise you for that, I am here to thank you for that. We can't say we ‘give the people what they want’ in every show and not consider the thoughts and feelings of the people.”
After the school year ended in June, Jacoby relocated to Manhattan as the show gained a new groove. Not long after, Get Up! underwent its own overhaul, with Michelle Beadle departing. Rose now bounces between working with her on NBA Countdown in Los Angeles and sitting alongside Greenberg in New York, with J&J in between. That’s fine with him. “It’s just kind of how life works, how sports works,” Rose says.
“To be on a show that survived the early turbulence and people taking shots at it and wondering if it was going to have staying power,” he says, “I knew once it stabilized itself and football season came, the ratings would pick up, which they did.… It’s worked out great for me.”
Rose is able to join his J&J crew to discuss the day’s rundown between Get Up! segments. Fans of the show often get the impression that Rose sits down for the taping without having done any prep, ready to rely on his instinctual responses and deep log of personal stories.
“That’s game, g-a-m-e,” Rose says. “As a pro athlete, that’s in this industry, I like to act like, ‘Oh this comes so easy to me, I just showed up.’ I only do that because I know I’m outworking everybody.”
Having offered his take on Cam Newton’s health in the newsroom, Rose silently disappears, only to pop up on Jacoby’s monitor moments later for a live debate with Stephen A. Smith about Larry Bird and Kevin Durant. Those two have provided some of Get Up!’s most dramatic moments, and when they are done, Jacoby often finds he’s fallen 10 minutes behind preparing his scripts.
ESPN’s new 21,000-square-foot Seaport facility in downtown Manhattan houses three studios. Studio 1 hosts Get Up! in a 3,900-square-foot space. Studio 2—home to First Take—is only slightly smaller, containing the high-tech wizardry necessary for the revamped Around the Horn as well. Then there’s Jalen & Jacoby’s headquarters, a podcast and radio room that’s closer to 300 square feet. They’ve made it their own with intricately placed photos, from shots of Harriet Tubman to, yes, Bill Simmons.
“There are people that walk right past our studio everyday that don't even know it's there,” Rose says. But, Jacoby adds, “If they said, ‘Hey guys, we are going to move you over to the big studios,’ we’d go, ‘Ahh, we’re fine.’”
The small digs help the show remain what both hosts lovingly call a ‘pop the trunk production’, a free-spirited outfit within a larger conglomerate. The two also keep their first followers in mind. Before starting the TV show each day, they record podcast-only content, stuff that’s too personal, eccentric, or edgy to make the main product. Seven years in, only one other multi-sport ESPN talk podcast (The Dan Le Batard show with Stugotz) has more iTunes reviews and a better rating than Jalen & Jacoby.
In 2019, Jalen & Jacoby plan to go on the road, hoping to bring Rose back to Ann Arbor along the way. “We’re a show that has always been slept on, and I think it’s time to graduate from being the little brother to being one of the big boys,” Endelman says. If the show does manage to walk the tightrope next year of growing up while staying fresh, it will be because of the man who found fame in Michigan 27 years ago and has since mastered the art of prepared authenticity.
Rose used to carry a totem of realness: the bat. “For the first however many years, he did every single show with a baseball bat on his shoulder,” Jacoby begins to explain. “People were always saying, ‘What does the bat mean? Why do you have the bat?’”
But as he pivots to say “The truth of the matter…” this time it’s Jalen who interrupts Jacoby.
“There is a truth to this,” Rose says. “I wanted to be trustworthy to the audience. I didn’t want them to ever think that I was a puppet or a shield for the man. So if they allowed me to carry a bat, then I was getting the chance to say what I feel.”
Now though, the bat only rarely finds itself on Rose’s shoulder. Why?
“Cause we sold out,” Rose answers quickly. A beat later, he looses one more laugh. You know he’s just playing.
THE BROADCASTER WITH A STRONG RIGHT JAB
On New Year’s Eve, Sean O’Connell will fight for his reputation.
A year ago, O’Connell thought his mixed martial arts career was over at 33 years old, passed over by not only the UFC but Polish and Asian organizations as well. So when the rebranded Professional Fighters League sent him an invite, he was excited, but he was also focused on his future. He’d fight, O’Connell told them, but he also wanted to broadcast.
At PFL 2 in Chicago, O’Connell won his first fight in over three years, knocking out Ronny Markes after working the broadcast booth for Facebook-streamed prelims. Other fighters had tried to dissuade him from doing both—Are you crazy, they asked—but O’Connell found that his announcing gig kept him from getting nervous before fights.
Following two more wins in October, O’Connell will fight Vinny Magalhaes Monday for the league’s light-heavyweight title and $1 million (focused on the prize, O’Connell won’t be doing any broadcasting). “People have a hard time taking me seriously in both roles,” O’Connell said. “Hopefully the PFL is changing that a little bit…. I hope people can realize I can be good at both.”
After a fight, O’Connell has learned how to review his call of a match the following morning before watching tape of his own battle later in the week. After his one loss, to Bozigit Ataev in August, he focused on his broadcasting even longer before analyzing his defeat. He has also learned how far from meritocratic both industries are—training with superior fighters who never made it to the UFC like O’Connell did, and then “I’ve tuned into radio shows and TV shows and seen guys that are just awful breaking down sports I love and I go, ‘Man, I’d be so much better than that guy.’”
The PFL has given him new life in and out of the cage, giving him the chance to show in a single night what kind of hustle fighters at his level need in order to continue chasing dreams. “You don’t make retirement money in this sport,” O’Connell said. “A lot of other people have to explore other avenues, in real estate, or broadcasting, or firefighting. People always act surprised like, ‘Oh wow, you can speak into a microphone and you can punch people?’ That’s not that big of a deal. A lot of people in this sport have to do way, way tougher things to make it by.’”
And that’s not just limited to fighting, O’Connell adds. “Everybody out there has a hustle and a side hustle if you want to make it,” he says. “I want people to stop acting so surprised that athletes aren’t just athletes.”
● Danny Heifetz has ranked ESPN’s “Good, Bad, and Truly Absurd ‘Monday Night Football’ Graphics” for The Ringer.
● I did not know Domain Name Wire was a thing until I saw this story that NBC has registered NBCSportbook.com.
● “As it nears its 50th season, ESPN's venerable Monday Night Football is struggling with a mid-life crisis,” Michael McCarthy writes for Sporting News.
● According to John Ourand, Spero Dedes, Trent Green and Tiki Barber will call the first Alliance of American Football game on Feb. 9.
● Head to AdAge for a new story on how the NFL is using Snapchat this season.
● Kelsey McKinney is not a fan of digital tickets, as she explained on Deadspin.
● Rising media star Nate Burleson was on The Peter King Podcast this week.
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