The Undefeated is impressive, but not radical, on opening day
The Undefeated also could be called The Unconventional.
At least, that's the plan laid out by Editor-in-Chief Kevin Merida.
During many interviews, including one with Poynter, Merida repeatedly articulated The Undefeated’s motto: “Not conventional. Never boring.”
The Undefeated, which has been in the works since 2013, finally made its long-awaited debut Tuesday. The new ESPN site, aimed at finding “the intersection between race, sports and culture,” launched with a Merida note to readers.
At The Undefeated, every day will feature a surprise. Every day, some joy. And no day without swagger. We want The Undefeated to feel urgent, necessary, not dutiful. Ours won’t be a site of sermons and scoldings (unless, of course, they’re earned).
Day one featured a Lonnae O’Neal story on the media-unfriendly Marshawn Lynch and what he is doing to aid his hometown of Oakland. O’Neal didn’t get an interview with Lynch, but there is an interesting exchange at the end of the piece.
There is a story about a lynching in Waco that took place in 1916 and a profile on one of the few African-American producers for Marvel. These are examples of how the ESPN site will go beyond sports.
The Undefeated also has its own anthem/video performed by rapper Dee-1.
Much like with a new television show, it hardly is fair to make any rash judgments about a new site on the first day. However, if anything, The Undefeated felt a bit restrained in its presentation given all the talk about being different. While it is visually impressive, there wasn’t anything radical on opening day.
But give it some time. Merida says if everything falls into place, an upcoming Undefeated package on new Cleveland quarterback Robert Griffin III “could blow up the internet.”
Given ESPN’s resources and talent, The Undefeated has the potential to be a game-changer. Managing Editor Raina Kelley says the site will employ various platforms for storytelling, ranging from video to poetry. There is a section called “The Uplift” that features feel-good stories and pictures, a counter to the often heavy tone of race discussion.
“We need to be open to thinking outside of the box,” Kelley said. “We’re trying to be unlike anything that’s out there right now.”
Ultimately, the quality of those stories will determine the success of The Undefeated. Merida calls race “the subject of our time.”
Kelley said the key word for The Undefeated’s mission is “intersection.”
“Where is the intersection between sports and race?” Kelley said. “That’s where the interesting stuff is.”
Undoubtedly, The Undefeated will have much to examine. Surely, new eruptions like previous controversies involving Donald Sterling and Ray Rice, not to mention another Ferguson, Mo., are just around the corner. That’s when the site really will hit its stride.
“On any given day, we’re going to ask, Is there an Undefeated way to into this story?” Merida said. “What’s The Undefeated angle?”
The Undefeated was originally conceived with Jason Whitlock at the helm. However, ESPN soon realized that Whitlock lacked the management skills to oversee a staff and eventually parted ways with him.
Whitlock, though, did have one important vision for the site; he saw it as an opportunity to increase the number of African-American journalists in the business. Now there are 40 people on The Undefeated’s staff.
“One of our missions is to discover new voices, new talent; give some people opportunities,” Merida said. “We haven’t struggled to find people. We could have staffed three or four Undefeateds. There were many people who sought us out and made themselves known.”
The site’s name is based by a line by poet Maya Angelou: “You may encounter many defeats, but you must not be defeated.”
The Undefeated looked to be defeated in the aftermath of the Whitlock fiasco and ESPN shuttering Grantland last fall. That ESPN remained committed to the concept of the sitespeaks to the fortitude of the network's executives.
Now it finally is alive thanks to the efforts by Merida, a former managing editor of The Washington Post, Kelley, formerly of ESPN The Magazine, and the staff. The next step is finding an audience with quality content every day.
The Undefeated is confident it will deliver.
“These subjects [about race] aren’t going away,” Kelley said. “There is a huge untapped appetite for this kind of discussion.”