All sports everything
Inside the studio where ESPN is betting billions on the future of sports
By David Pierce
"Oh my goodness," NBC football analyst Cris Collinsworth shouts into his headset mic over the roar of the MetLife Stadium crowd. "This is sick. Put this to music. I don't think he stepped out, either. That may be the greatest catch I've ever seen. You have to be kidding me. That is impossible. That is absolutely impossible what he just did."
It’s Sunday night on the weekend before Thanksgiving, and Odell Beckham Jr. has just given his New York Giants a big lead on their arch-rival Dallas Cowboys in the beginning of the second quarter. He lies on the turf, briefly savoring the 43-yard touchdown pass he’s just caught. It was an unbelievable, once-in-a-career catch. He’d leapt backwards, stretching the length of his body and snaring the football with two fingers and his thumb. Despite an illegal hit by Cowboys defensive back Brandon Carr, he’d held on: 14-3, Giants. Beckham’s team will ultimately lose, but it’s the catch that everyone will remember.
Beckham gets up, tosses the ball into the air, and struts through the end zone with his arms outstretched as the 80,520 fans in attendance roar in appreciation. In an otherwise unremarkable game, Beckham has made an utterly remarkable play — a play that will be seen around the world.
Photos of the catch flood Twitter instantly. Most depict paused TVs showing the replay, the TiVo interface visible everywhere. A minute or two later, a Vine appears in everyone’s timeline: six seconds of the catch, recorded by a user named Chipper with a dog for an account photo. To date, the Vine has been viewed nearly 7 million times.
While Beckham is still celebrating, the @ESPNNFL account tweets "HOLY COW ODELL BECKHAM!!!!!!!!!!!!!" (That’s 14 exclamation points.) But it takes a full 15 minutes before ESPN shares a picture on its SportsCenter Twitter account, with the caption "Catch. Of. The. Year. #sctop10." The account’s 13.5 million followers go rabid: the tweet is shared and fav’d upwards of 50,000 times. Such is ESPN’s power that it can show up late to the party and still dominate the scene.
Under president John Skipper and the Disney umbrella, ESPN has spent the last decade amassing an untouchably large amount of live sports programming. The network’s empire extends from football and basketball; to auto sports and the X-Games; to ultimate frisbee, poker, and bowling. It broadcasts the World Cup and the Masters, Monday Night Football and the NBA Playoffs. By any measure – it’s the most popular cable channel by a mile; it commands a per-subscriber fee from cable companies equal to the next five most expensive combined; it’s valued at more than $50 billion, 13 times as much as Disney-owned ABC — ESPN is the country’s most powerful media company. The calculus is as simple as it is devastatingly effective: sports is practically the only TV that millions of people still insist on watching live, and ESPN owns almost all the sports.
But it may not stay that way for long. When ESPN launched in 1979, the company competed for attention with TV, radio, and newspapers. But in 2015 sports fans have online fantasy teams and prop bets; they’re on Twitter, Vine, Snapchat, and Facebook; they’re watching games on their phones, their tablets, and their laptops. They want to read about sports, talk about sports, and watch sports while they watch other sports. If ESPN doesn’t provide those services, someone else will.
ESPN’s long-stated mission is to meet sports fans wherever they are. And so the company is embarking on a sweeping mission to expand its dominion beyond cable TV to whatever comes next — even if it’s not sure what that will be.
In short: ESPN’s not okay with Chipper winning the Vine battle anymore.
SportsCenter is the most important property at ESPN. It's live 18 hours each day, beginning with the 9AM show. It was the first show to air when ESPN switched on its satellites on September 7th, 1979 – the second was a slow-pitch softball game — and has been the network’s flagship brand ever since.
During that first broadcast, Lee Leonard, sitting in front of an impressionistic montage of sports figures, told viewers ESPN would be where viewers could come find "where all the sports action is, as of right now." As the camera zoomed in on Leonard’s enormous glasses and beige suit (which matched the wall a little too well), he introduced SportsCenter: "Now here’s another innovation on ESPN, and it’s going to be a big part of our future: the SportsCenter with George Grande. He’ll have the latest on what’s happening all around." And indeed, for over three decades and more than 50,000 episodes, SportsCenter was the place you went for dispatches from every corner of the sports world. There was no Twitter, no Vine, no YouTube; for sports fans, there was only SportsCenter.
In 2015, SportsCenter is different. It’s glossier, more personal — a Good Morning America for sports fans. It’s still a water cooler of sorts, designed to fill you in on things you missed and tell you everything you need to know about them. But now its vaunted "Top 10" segment shows more niche sports, more viral videos; its anchors spend more time on news and analysis and far less on showing the games themselves. Like every other show on the network, it’s been forced to adapt to a new audience: the relentless consumer, the one who’s already seen the plays of the day and tunes into SportsCenter to see what they missed and, just as importantly, how they’re supposed to feel about it.
When everyone gets the news from Twitter, SportsCenter has to be something different
The morning after Beckham’s catch, I’m standing just off-camera in the SportsCenter studio, in sleepy Bristol, Connecticut. You can hardly make a left turn in Bristol, a town of 60,000, without ending up on ESPN’s sprawling campus. Outside, it’s a dark and dreary Monday. But SportsCenter’s updated set, which debuted in June and looks a bit like the bridge of Star Trek’s Enterprise — only bigger and with more buttons — is buzzing.
While an army of producers and camera operators gathers around a desk in the center of the room, co-anchor Kevin Negandhi paces the catwalk (yes, there’s a catwalk, about 18 inches off the ground), perfecting his blocking with a cameraman. Behind him, an enormous screen displays a photo of Odell Beckham Jr., his outstretched right hand completing last night’s catch. Negandhi, who’s anchored the show since 2011, checks his tie clip in the camera’s reflection and asks if he’s in the right spot. To his right are dozens of screens; to his left, more screens, 114 in all. Over the next hour, the screens will work individually and in tandem as they’re moved constantly around the set, broadcasting tweets and videos as Negandhi and co-anchor Hannah Storm show athletes responding to Beckham’s catch, talk about its place in NFL history, and later dissect breaking baseball news.
After SportsCenter wrapped for the morning, I sat down with Negandhi and Storm on comfortable orange chairs inside the stunning new Digital Center 2, where the show is taped. DC-2, as it’s widely known, is the 18th building on ESPN’s campus. It’s an immaculate, slightly sterile new production facility that was under construction for more than three years before opening its doors last summer. It is 194,000 square feet of technological progress, from the studios and the suite of editing rooms to the energy-efficient server rooms and the "social media lounge" upstairs. Every corner of DC-2 is a reminder of the intersection of sports and technology: the lobby is outfitted with large vertical screens, one showing every single "This is SportsCenter" ad ever made. Walk further and you’ll see a gigantic ticker on the wall scrolling news and scores. As you walk up the stairs to the studio, there’s a wired CableCam floating above you, ominously watching.
The new SportsCenter set is the crown jewel of the building: 9,700 square feet of space that will be used to broadcast the show on ESPN’s mass of channels. The revamped set was designed to make SportsCenter more personal, to show anchors moving around and interacting, but also to help the show move at the speed of the internet. ESPN has long been criticized for allowing news to break overnight while it ran repeats of the previous day’s shows; now the premier show in sports can update and broadcast in real time.
TV still matters at ESPN, and in every way DC-2 is wired for the future of TV. It’s capable of broadcasting in 4K and 8K, and if by some miracle 3D actually takes off, ESPN will be ready for that, too. TV is still where the network makes most of its money, and it will be for the foreseeable future. But when – not if, but when — that changes, ESPN says it will be ready. It has moved staff, built buildings, and overhauled how the company operates to make sure of that.
The strategy to keep ESPN on top breaks down along two broad lines. The first is an adjustment in how ESPN sees itself: the company has reorganized to promote more sharing across platforms, even launching the buzzword-friendly Content Sharing Initiative. ESPN the TV network, ESPN the radio provider, ESPN the magazine, ESPN the Instagram account, and ESPN the app maker are all becoming one.
That’s Rob King’s project. King is the senior vice president of news and SportsCenter, which means he oversees everything from the flagship show to its apps and Twitter handles. In his previous role, he oversaw a merging of ESPN’s digital and print operations into a single publication. He’s also combined the company’s many disparate breaking news and highlights teams into cross-company groups, which funnel information and assets to every ESPN outpost on any platform.
"Whatever platform [fans] are using," he says, "whatever time of day it is, however they’re connecting with their friends, we need to be there because that’s holding up our end of the relationship."
Holding up its end has meant a complete overhaul and upgrade of ESPN’s technology to make it faster, more efficient, and more capable than before. ESPN has a track record of success when it comes to capitalizing on new technology: ESPNet SportsZone, a primitive website, built a huge early-internet audience in 1995; in 2011, WatchESPN let you watch live cable TV on a mobile device for the first time in history. The company has even won accolades for seemingly simple TV innovations, like putting a yellow line on the screen to indicate the first-down line or a square around the plate for the strike zone. In sports TV, most of what’s now ubiquitous began with ESPN.
This time, the biggest change is one viewers don’t see: the 1,110 miles of fiber-optic cable wired throughout DC-2. Fiber replaces the copper wire used elsewhere throughout ESPN and has fundamentally changed the speed at which the network can operate. A single fiber cable can carry 15-20 times as many signals more than 200 times farther than copper; that upgrade makes it possible for ESPN to have more footage at its disposal at all times.
Years ago, Joe Sack remembers, it was all done on videotape. "You can only do one thing at one time with one tape. Right? So if you want to do two things live, you’ve got to record it twice. If you want to do three things, you’ve got to record it three times." That led to confusion and clutter and slowed every process down. Copper cabling sped up the process, but even that only moved one signal at a time. During that era, ESPN had to build huge, impossibly complicated facilities that couldn’t grow or adapt to new uses.
Today ESPN is struggling to keep up with the speed of mobile and social audiences. And speed is everything.
"If you are slow," says Anthony Mormile, ESPN’s VP of digital video, "and want to make it beautiful, you can’t live in the Twitter space. Because some guy just held his phone up to his TV and put it up on Twitter, or some guy just GIF’d it, or some guy made a Vine and got the whole play up, and here we come eight minutes after it happened with a ‘ta-da! look at this beautiful opening. And we’ve got music and natural sound!’ And you’re like ‘we already saw it, dude.’"
ESPN’s brand has long gone beyond TV, but the shift is accelerating. "There are still a number of people on this campus who are shocked when you give them an all-in report," he says. "They say ‘whoa, more people watched my video on Twitter than ever saw it on SportsCenter?’ And you’re like, that’s the power of social." To do its job properly now, ESPN needs to optimize sports for every platform at once – and the list keeps growing. "We [even] have gas station TV now," says Mormile, "so when you’re filling up at the pump you have ESPN content. And the platforms keep changing, whether it’s Apple TV or Roku or you’re trying to make it prepared for Snapchat or Instagram."
That development is on display at Building 13 of the Bristol campus, known to employees as Transmission. As many as 110 streams can be captured at once here, either via the satellites or through the fiber network, and all are stored on a set of servers. Even as footage is recording, it’s available to be immediately cut and clipped. That means ESPN is now able to take a single stream of a game, and in real time make it available absolutely everywhere — for ESPN’s producers and for fans around the world.
When something huge happens — Odell Beckham makes an earth-shattering catch, Usain Bolt breaks another world record, a minor league hockey fight breaks out while the players are all wearing Batman costumes — the SportsCenter team can cut highlights while the mobile team grabs the play that matters and sends it to your phone with a push alert. Meanwhile, the ESPN.com crew can put together a clip of the five best catches of all time, while the social media team is making GIFs. This is ESPN at its best and most internet-native: everything in its right place, and everything in real time.
ESPN can capture a game, and make it available everywhere in real time
Much of ESPN’s historical success is rooted in the fact that covering sports is predictable business. "In most organizations," says Rob King, "you can’t plan for big events other than elections and hurricane season. But in our world, you can say, this will be a big game."
That means much of ESPN’s planning is done weeks and months in advance. On this Monday morning, the digital team is already sussing out angles for this weekend’s Packers-Patriots game, and they’re thinking about ranking all 636 players who will make the playoffs two months from now.
But in the age of Twitter, viewers are hungry for off-the-cuff, unexpected viral moments that no one plans for. "The best part," King says, "and the most fun, is when Odell Beckham does something you’ve never seen before. And that’s when it’s like alright, where is everybody? And what is this like? And how does this show up in the social space? And how can we compare it to other catches? And, you know, we’ve got the ESPYs coming up in July, how do we make sure that that’s going to be a play of the year nominee?" This is the tension, King says: the best time to be a sports fan is when the crazy things happen. But that’s when it’s also hardest to be a sports network.
"Welcome to my nightmare," says Mormile when I bring up Beckham’s catch. Moments after Beckham landed on his back, Mormile’s team sprung to action. "So now everybody goes ‘I didn’t see the catch! I heard there was a sick catch last night.’ So I turn around and I say, how do I get that catch to mobile fans?"
It’s a race, one ESPN is investing heavily in winning. "The fans," Mormile tells me, "just want to see the play. They don’t care that you ripped it off the TV with your cellphone. So for us, we made a concerted effort to be even faster, and because ESPN technology is just amazing at what they do, we now have essentially real-time plays. And the real-time plays have all but eliminated the piracy. So we get a play up, maybe it’s on a social platform 15 to 30 seconds after it happens, and there’s no need for anybody to [copy]."
There was only one problem in the Beckham example, Mormile tells me with a smirk: "No video on mobile." ESPN doesn’t own the rights to NFL highlights on mobile platforms (for now), so they have to develop workarounds. "We get real creative with a still shot, and analysis of ‘is it the greatest catch of all time?’" Even without video, the tweet went viral.
On Mormile’s desk sits a Sanyo MVP, the black, ESPN-branded flip phone released in 2006. It represented the beginning of a company-wide effort to bring sports content to cellphones. This was two years before the iPhone and Android, and there was no useful way to get sports news and scores to the growing mobile market. So ESPN announced it was becoming a cellphone provider and would be making devices for sports fans. The MVP shipped with a simple Java app that delivered real-time scores (often ahead of the TV broadcast) and text message alerts whenever your team scored.
Mobile ESPN, as it was originally called, failed. Spectacularly. The phone was big, slow, and expensive, and it was useless for anything but getting sports news. Steve Jobs famously called Mobile ESPN "the dumbest fucking idea I have ever heard." Seven months after launch, ESPN shuttered the project at a loss of $150 million.
But the MVP is surely part of why ESPN’s mobile offering was more popular than its desktop website as long ago as 2006. It’s also why ESPN is a launch partner for Snapchat Discovery, the company’s first tentative foray into professional content. The whole ethos here is to throw things at the wall and see what sticks. For all its faults, Mobile ESPN helped the company see what works (and what doesn’t) on phones. It may have been clunky, but it gave the company a huge head start on mobile that’s still paying dividends now.
Long-term, ESPN’s future will have to exist somewhere in the massively distributed content landscape. But for now, it’s still mostly a TV network.
And inside DC-2, a floor below the SportsCenter studio, there’s another show to plan for. The Monday Night Countdown stars sit around a table with the show’s producers, debating the merit of Beckham’s catch. Keyshawn Johnson and Cris Carter, two Hall of Fame-caliber wide receivers turned Monday Night Countdown analysts, practice for the show: Carter talks about "clearing your shoulders" to make a catch, twisting his body to demonstrate. New gloves, he says, make difficult catches easier than they once were. Johnson says he made a catch similar to Beckham’s when played for the Jets, but decides not to mention it on-air when he laughingly remembers the pass wasn’t actually intended for him at all.
They work on transitions and monologues, making sure their analysis is interesting and distinct. Then each makes his pick for the evening’s two games and talks about who’s going to win the AFC West. (Four analysts, four strongly worded and radically different opinions.) The group breaks, off to prepare and change before the show starts at 6PM. Keyshawn Johnson bounds up the stairs to the studio two at a time, and Cris Carter ties his scarf back on, whistling "Oh Christmas Tree" to himself. Mike Ditka, who is referred to exclusively as "Coach," ambles off without a word. Tom Jackson stays to chat with producers about the rundown.
By the time the games start on Monday evening, almost everyone on the ESPN campus will have gone home. Covering the game is the easy part, they all tell me. It’s what ESPN has done for decades, and does better than anyone. ESPN’s concern is making great television. And, increasingly, with making great Snapchat, and great Instagram, and great Twitter, and great Xbox.
The mission statement: "To serve sports fans wherever sports are watched, listened to, discussed, debated, read about or played"
It all comes back to the company motto, which I first saw in giant letters hanging outside the building, facing the parking lot: "To serve sports fans wherever sports are watched, listened to, discussed, debated, read about or played."All over ESPN, people recite the motto to me and to each other, and they consider the question it poses: how do you do that in 2015, when the number of channels starts to lurch toward infinity? ESPN has a lot of answers, and a lot of technology to throw at those answers, but the questions come up more and more frequently.
It’s been a long Monday, and a chaotic one, but it feels like everyone at ESPN is hoping something crazy happens tonight: that someone makes another internet-shaking catch, or breaks a record, or says something so outrageous that sports fans across the planet snap to attention and look to ESPN for coverage. And as I stand in Transmission, where hundreds of screens capture hundreds of games and prepare them for immediate broadcast to every platform you use and a half-dozen you don’t, I get the sense ESPN loves the opportunity to prove what it can do.
Anthony Mormile certainly does. As we talk in the afternoon, he runs through the day: two high-profile baseball players traded to the same team, two important football games, and that Odell Beckham catch. He riles himself up just talking about it. "This is an amazing sports day." Then he pauses.
"Actually, Mondays are already pretty fun days for us."
Note: piece has been updated to more accurately reflect Rob King's role, and that the Cowboys and Giants played at MetLife Stadium, not in Dallas.