- From Booger McFarland to Maria Taylor, SEC Network has produced several of ESPN’s rising personalities. Now the ACC Network hopes to do the same.
Booger McFarland was hosting his Tampa Bay-area daily sports radio show one afternoon in 2013, waiting for the next guest to call during a commercial break, when opportunity rang instead. It was the ESPN talent office, asking if he’d be interested in joining a not-yet-launched SEC Network. Okay, McFarland responded, but I’ve got like 90 seconds to talk.
He reconnected with them after getting off air and flew to Bristol in January 2014 to audition, taping alongside Joe Tessitore. Another audition in Texas followed that March, before he was brought aboard in April.
“I was nervous,” McFarland says. “It was new. I’d never really done TV like that.” ESPN veteran host Dari Nowkhah taught the former defensive linemen about the nuances of studio work, and McFarland got plenty of practice on the new channel. Nobody’s watching this, McFarland told himself, trying to relax during those early days, even some of the mothers aren’t watching this.
Soon enough, he was making appearances on Mike & Mike and SportsCenter. This year, he’s the Monday Night Football analyst, one of the company’s biggest gigs. Meanwhile, former SEC Nation host Maria Taylor will reportedly host NBA Countdown. Her Nation successor, Laura Rutledge, now has a new show on the network and anchors SportsCenter as well as Get Up!, where Marcus Spears, who was hired alongside McFarland, will appear twice a week this football season.
“That group (executive vice president) Stephanie Druley hired—Maria, Laura, Marcus, myself, Greg (McElroy)—everybody has just shot up the ladder,” McFarland says. “It’s just a testament not only to Stephanie having an eye for talent, but also the opportunity we were given to take advantage of.”
Now a new generation gets that shot. Thursday, ESPN will launch the ACC Network, having already hired a brigade of young talent and built them a modern studio just down the hall from the network’s power centers.
“I’m not going to fall in love with too many of these guys,” ACC Network head of production Amy Rosenfeld says, “because I don’t know they’ll all be with me forever.”
Searching for talent after the network was greenlit in 2016 was “sort of an all-hands on deck” effort, Druley said. And she means it. Take Kelsey Riggs for example. “I said to Amy one day, There’s this woman in Charlotte doing the weekend sports reports,” Druley said. “My mom (Cynthia Williamson) really likes her. You might want to take a look at her. My mom’s a tough critic.” Riggs will host All ACC this year, with Williamson’s finder fee still unpaid.
Another tip came from ESPN’s transmissions department, where thousands of game feeds stream into the company’s servers. There, an employee was impressed with Bucks sideline reporter Katie George, and a couple emails later, the Louisville alum’s name reached senior talent evaluator Patrick Donaher.
“I liked what I saw,” Donaher says. “Very personable and real and authentic. That’s what I’m looking for now.” The only problem, he added, was “I couldn’t find a way to connect with her,” so he walked out of his office, found a younger staffer and took a course in Instagram 102: Drafting DMs. I’m sending out my e-mail and phone number in this, he asked at the time, it’s not going out to the world, is it? George got the message and will be working the sideline for the ACC Network’s top football games this fall. (Semi-related: five years ago, it was Spears tweeting at Druley that got him on ESPN’s radar.)
Other newcomers arrived via more traditional methods, either after being sold by an agent or through sending reels. “There are countries that don’t have as heavy a population as the number of resume tapes I received,” Rosenfeld said. Even with the network launching this week, there are still more jobs for grabs as the company continues ramping up towards basketball season, which will bring the brightest spotlight.
In some cases, positions were filled in-house, such as NFL Live host (and Notre Dame grad) Jac Collinsworth also hosting ACCN’s top football studio show, The Huddle. Eric Mac Lain, EJ Manuel and Mark Richt will serve as the main analysts alongside Collinsworth, each getting a similar opportunity to the one offered McFarland back in 2014.
“Your measurement of success when you’re building these college network rosters,” Druley said, “is that, down the line, you want to see them on really big things.”
While the college networks have become a reliable feeder for ESPN’s biggest programs, they aren’t treated like farm systems. “They don’t look at it like that,” McFarland said. “The producers, to them it’s no different than being on ESPN. That’s the way they approach it. They approach it that way graphically, research-wise, how they do things. There aren’t any corners cut, and I think that prepares you.”