The confusing times at ESPN have produced this strange contradiction: The network says it is increasing its commitment to journalism less than a couple of weeks after it dismissed a virtual All-Star team of the best journalists in sports.
Yet Bob Ley and Jeremy Schaap insist their new Sunday morning “E:60” show represents ESPN’s premium on reporting and storytelling on important sports issues from around the world. In fact, Schaap says, the new format is “a redoubling of ESPN’s commitment to journalism.”
“E:60,” the longform feature and investigative series that aired periodically during the year, now will have a weekly home at 9 a.m. ET on Sundays, with the debut set for Sunday. Hosted by Ley and Schaap in a new state-of-the-art studio, the one-hour show also will feature stories from ESPN’s elite “Outside the Lines” team.
“Let’s face it,” Schaap said. “Many of these stories are difficult to produce. They are time-consuming and they are expensive. It’s not necessarily about eyeballs. It’s about journalism.”
Surely, some eyebrows will be raised by that statement. The timing of the new show’s launch comes on the heels of what felt like a gut punch to the entire industry, not just ESPN. Ley and Schaap also experienced the pain of the network’s stunning cutbacks of top journalistic talent. Many respected colleagues now are out of work.
All week, as they did interviews promoting the new “E:60,” they had to address proverbial elephant in the room — allegations that ESPN is de-emphasizing journalism.
“I hear the voices. I understand what folks are saying,” Ley said. “It was a question of (ESPN’s) distribution (of resources). The company had to make some difficult decisions. But when you talk about the commitment to the stories you’re going to see (on ‘E:60’), the proof is in the product. And the product is very good.”
Schaap takes a historical perspective.
“When you think about ESPN in 1993, it might have had a couple dozen people in news gathering,” Schaap said. “Now we have hundreds of people. (The cuts) were painful. But ESPN still has the single largest news gathering entity in sports broadcasting.”
Ley and Schaap remain as ESPN’s main standard bearers. An ESPN release promoting the show called them “sports journalism giants.” It hardly is an overstatement, given the awards they have received for the quality of their work.
“Anybody who has followed sports in this country, who has paid attention for the last 40 years, knows when they see Bob on the air, they are getting the truth,” Schaap said.
Schaap, meanwhile, has established himself on a myriad of award-winning stories by following in the footsteps of his father, legendary sports journalist Dick Schaap. The new “E:60” show actually is bit bittersweet for Schaap. It will take the place of the long-running “The Sports Reporters,” which Dick made popular as the host in the 1990s.
“It’s tough, but it is exciting to know what’s coming next,” Schaap said.
The new “E:60” will be the sports version of the popular “CBS Sunday Morning.” It will be a platform for longer investigative stories and features.
Ley points to a feature on Sunday’s show in which reporter Steve Fainaru, ESPN producers and crew spent nine months working on a story about the Syrian soccer team. He says it speaks to the potential of the new format.
“We showed a portion of that story to (ESPN president John Skipper) and 20 other people,” Ley said. “When it ended, there was silence in the room. It was like, ‘Wow, that’s why we’re doing this.’ Stories like this will educate people. They will affect people.”
Schaap spoke of the massive commitment of resources by ESPN to produce this story. Also, he said, let’s not overlook the courage required by the reporters to travel to some dangerous hotspots to report the piece.
“You’re not seeing these stories getting covered in other places,” Schaap said.
In addition to the long stories, “E:60” will feature commentary and interaction between Ley and Schaap. That in itself would be worth watching.
Also, Ley is looking forward to working in a new studio that he says “is something out of ‘The Jetsons.’” When he ran through a rundown of the big screens and graphics, Schaap interjected, “And it will make both of us look much more handsome.”
It was a funny line, but the reality is that it always has been substance over style for Ley and Schaap. The new “E:60” will be a welcome respite at a time when the trend in television news, not just sports, is all about who can yell the loudest in the debate shows.
There is no question the cutbacks caused serious damage to ESPN’s brand from a journalistic standpoint. You don’t ax that many people and not feel an impact.
However, the launch of the new “E:60” gives ESPN a chance to say, “Hey, we’re still doing some journalism here.”
“We have the opportunity to open people’s eyes, to engage our audience with these stories,” Ley said. “It still is a central part of our mission.”