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21 October, 2015

ESPN - Thanks for the memories

   When I was 12-years old and living in Greenwich, Connecticut, ESPN opened their doors. Cable television was a mystery world back then. Somehow it meant there were more channels to watch and a greater variety of content coming into my living room. When I heard there was an all-sports TV station opening just an hour north of where I lived, my mind was blown. I daydreamed about some day being able to work there.
   15 years later, ESPN opened their doors to me. I had been producing local news in Orlando and had worked with Stuart Scott. He helped get me an interview and in December of 1994 I was hired. My career began as a producer of the overnight show, which was then a half-hour show that came on at 2:30 in the morning. I worked with Craig Kilborn, Brett Haber, Gary Miller and Karl Ravech. The hours were tough but we had a lot of fun and I was learning on the fly. I provided the guys with some catch phrases that stuck and developed a good relationship with those guys. In the immediate years that followed I worked with Bob Ley, Charley Steiner, Robin Roberts, Dan Patrick, Keith Olbermann, Kenny Mayne, Steve Levy, Linda Cohn, Bill Pidto, Rich Eisen and Stuart Scott. It was virtually impossible to not improve as a producer working with people like that. Being an anchor was what I had really wanted to do with my career but when ESPN offered the producer job, I decided going to the major leagues as a producer was a better career path than trying to be an anchor in some super small market. Because of my desire to be on air, I was always drawn to those people and their craft. Over the years I dedicated a lot of my time trying to help the talent be better at their jobs. In fact, just a few months back I was given the role of talent coach and was really enjoying that exciting new opportunity. My dad was a teacher and a coach, so in some way I was kind of following in his footsteps. The last six weeks of my time at ESPN ended up being some of the most rewarding work I ever did there.
   When I look back on my 20+ years at ESPN I am grateful for the opportunities working there provided me. I was at the Daytona 500 when Dale Earnhardt finally won that race. I worked multiple Final 4s and the US Open at Pebble Beach when Tiger obliterated the field. I was at the '96 summer games and produced our live coverage of the bombing in Centennial Park from the moment the bomb went off around 1:20am until well into the following afternoon.
   My 7 years on Baseball Tonight allowed me to attend pretty much every All-Star game, Hall of Fame induction and World Series from 2000-2007. The highlight came when I was standing on the field for batting practice before game one of the Mets and Yankees World Series. I called my dad, the man responsible for teaching me to love baseball and a man who grew up a Brooklyn Dodgers fan (later to convert to the Mets when the Dodgers skipped town) and I said to him "You know where I am right now? I am standing on the field before game one of the Subway Series. Thank you for making me a baseball fan." I still get emotional thinking about what that moment meant to me.
My last year producing the inductions in Cooperstown I had my dad go up there with me and was able to take him behind the scenes and meet all of the Hall of Famers. It was my way of paying him back a little for all he did for me. It was a great weekend for both us. I could never have done that, or experienced all those other great moments, without my job at ESPN.
   Over my time in Bristol I have been blessed to work with so many talented people, both on air and behind the scenes. I thank all of them. The anchors, analysts, producers, directors, production staff, the researchers, news editors, assignment desk workers, talent bookers, TDs, ADs and all the others who contribute every day. As a producer you walk in the door every day with a vision for what your show will be, but it takes dozens and dozens of people to help you execute that vision. It's hard work, but it's incredibly rewarding when everyone gets on the same page and it goes well. In my 20+ years the successes far outweighed the non-successes (I refuse to call them failures) and that would not have been possible without the efforts of so many talented people.
   It's hard to have thick skin about the shots people take at ESPN when you live inside those walls and understand the determination and dedication we put into making a product that people could enjoy. There was never a day that I walked in the door at work and said "I need to make sure today we ignore west coast sports or don't talk about hockey." The goal of any television station is to get people to watch. If the ratings go up when we talk about the Red Sox and Yankees, then we'll probably talk more about the Red Sox and Yankees. If McDonalds doesn't sell many Filet O' Fish, they probably dial back on how hard they push that product.
   Were there people with agendas? Of course. But in the day-to-day grind of doing shows, my objective and the objective of the people I was working with was to produce the best show we possibly could. That's something of which I will always be proud. And for those of you who have grown to "hate" ESPN for various reasons, at the very least you have to recognize what a pioneer the company was. All the other sports channels you watch, all the regional sports networks and ESPN competitors exist because of ESPN. Many former ESPNers work in those places now, applying the skills they learned in Bristol to make high quality programming for other networks.
   When I started in 1994, ESPN was still a relatively small operation and over the next 20 years it grew into a world wide corporation. That process is going to come with growing pains, missteps, bad decisions, struggle and setbacks. It also allows for growth, creativity and ingenuity. It was a great time to be with the company and be part of all of that. It was basically the puberty of my professional career minus the acne and awkward conversations with teenage girls.
   I forged many great relationships over the years with my co-workers. Some of the best friends I have, I met at ESPN. That can never be taken away from me. And for all it's warts and issues, ESPN rallies around it's employees when they are in need in incredible fashion. When personal tragedy strikes you can count on the ESPN family to come out in full force offering their support. And when we suffer our own tragedy, like we did when Stuart died last January, we bonded together to help each other get through it. It's easy to forget stuff like that when a company decides they don't need you anymore, but I'll always appreciate that about ESPN.
   When I first started producing SportsCenter, a weird sensation came over me. I realized I could never watch the show the way I had over the 15 years before I got there. I had peeked behind the curtain. There was no turning back. The wonderment of being a fan was gone. Now, all these years later, I'll be watching it differently again. I'll always be proud of the mark I made. I'll always be glad for the friendships I've made. It will always be an honor to have "ESPN 1994-2015" on my resume.
   I've never been let go before. I'm still processing it. A lot of good people were let go today, many of them had been there longer than me. Many of them I had worked closely with on projects I am quite proud of. It sucks. I know everyone goes through it, some multiple times. But it's new to me. I'm not bitter, not yet anyway. I hope I never am, but I can't blame any of the others for feeling that way. At first blush, I am grateful for my experiences over the last 20+ years. I can't imagine what my life would have become if I opted for the other path.
   It's hard to mentally put myself in a place like I was in 1979, dreaming of what might lay ahead some day, but I'll get there. Who knows what's next? Not me. All I know is getting off exit 31 on I-84 in Bristol isn't part of the journey anymore.