Not unlike most people who work in sports media, I have mixed and scattered opinions about ESPN. On the one hand, I’ve probably spent, oh, 12 percent of my lifetime television viewing time watching the network. The coverage has been unparalleled and, in relation to broadcast journalism, medium-defining. Some of the shows are absolutely dazzling; some of the employees beyond elite.
And yet, ESPN can also drive a guy to drink. It’s non-stop. It’s (at times) brain melting. There’s often a blurring of the line between reporting and entertaining, and if I never have to hear that damned SportsCenter theme song again … well … um … yeah.
I digress: As much as I sometimes growl toward the network, I always—always—love the work of Bob Ley, ESPN’s longest tenured employee and the definition of a professional. Bob is not a guy with gimmicks and tricks and irksome catchphrases. He reminds me of the sportscasters I grew up watching—Len Berman, Jerry Girard, Sal Marciano. He lets the action speaks, and uses his voice and words as guides, not soundtracks.
As you read this, Bob, along with Alexi Lalas, is anchoring ESPN’s World Cup coverage from the network’s studio in Rio de Janeiro. He still hosts SportsCenter on occasion, but does his primary lifting as the host of the top-shelf investigative program, Outside the Lines.
Here, Bob looks back at the day he accepted $25,000 to join a network nobody had yet heard of; he talks TV egos and good vs. bad programming. He loves Pretzel M&Ms and the Soprano’s, can do without Superman II and Tweets regularly (and entertainingly) here.
Bob Ley, welcome to The Quaz …
JEFF PEARLMAN: OK, Bob, so I’m gonna start with an odd one. Years ago I left Sports Illustrated because I just got really bored covering sports. It started to hit me as repetitive—same uniforms, different names. I couldn’t take it. You’ve now been at ESPN for 35 years. That’s a lot of sports. How haven’t you lost interest?
BOB LEY: Those of us who go back a ways here in Bristol have a phrase that deals with the never-ending tide of highlights, scores, trades and contract stories—Cavs/Mavs/Jazz. Say that to an old-timer, and they get it immediately. Another (hopefully not generic) highlight, of another game, from another season. I anchor SportsCenters only on Sunday mornings for about half the year, so my Cavs/Mavs/Jazz quotient is not trending toward the immobilizing, but I get your point. There are times when you’re doing highlights with one side of your brain while the other is marveling that you can still summon the energy to sound interested.
J.P.: It won’t shock you to hear me say that I’ve seen m-a-n-y TV people with enormous egos. They think they’re important; they love the airport recognition; love signing autographs and hearing, “Hey, I love your work!” I’ve never heard anyone say a thing about your ego, arrogance, strut, cockiness. Literally, all I hear—repeatedly—is, “Good guy, real pro.” A. Do you disagree with my take on the field? And B. Why no crowing?
B.L.: Well, there is something I call Red Light Fever (borrowing from the old country and western “White Line Fever” written by David Allen Coe) and there is an intoxicating quotient about the attention and immediate feedback of doing this for a living. But at the end of a day, dude, this is just a job. The same as the folks operating the cameras in my studio, the same as the producers in my ear, and the same as the guy who gets up at 3 am to deliver my Sunday paper. A producer buddy of mine once said that getting a bunch of TV talent ( yes, the industrial term for ‘meat puppets’) together is akin to gathering a group of dogs in the park. They all get busy metaphorically sniffing each other, in sensitive areas, and sizing each other up. That’s inevitable. Perhaps part of my approach is that playing to the crowd, which I distinctly differentiate from being polite to folks who approach you, can be a bit of a waste of time. We got plenty on our ‘to do’ list. Maybe twice a month you’ll really nail a show, get a great interview, or illustrate a story ahead of the curve, and the show meetings after a program such as that are filled with the quiet satisfaction of doing what no one else has done that day, and doing it freaking well. OK, meeting’s over, time to go home … and then come back in tomorrow and do it again. And try to do it better. That will keep your chest thumping to a minimum. That, and reading Twitter, which vacillates between a revolutionary digital resource, and vivid proof that Darwin was right, and opposable thumbs can do some really stupid things.
J.P.: You’re from the mean streets of Bloomfield, N.J., you attended Seton Hall. But what’s your path? Like, when did you know, “TV—this is what I want to do!” And when did you figure you had a talent for it?
B.L.: I recall being 6-years old and standing in the announcer booth (rickety as it was) at the Langhorne Raceway in Pennsylvania, and watching a Wide World of Sports announcer (can’t recall exactly who) work a demolition derby. (You know, where cars take the track with the sole purpose of crashing into each other; last car running wins) My uncle was an assistant director at ABC, and an early age he introduced me to the magic of the business. I mean, that was 53 years ago, and I can still recall the gee-whiz factor, and how neat that all looked. Growing up in Jersey, outside of New York City, like so many kids in the late 60s and early 70s, I listened incessantly to Marv Albert announce Knick and Ranger games, and called games myself into cassette and reel-to-reel recorders; eventually, on a quite illegal pirate FM station a buddy had set up. Broadcasting was the sole reason I applied to Seton Hall, having listened to their basketball broadcasts on the student station WSOU (which covers the entire New York metropolitan area). And shortly after I graduated from school in 1976, a buddy I had written sports with at The Herald-News in Passaic told me that he heard a local cable system was setting up its own channel to broadcast sports. I had radio tapes, and they were paying $50 a game. How could you say no?
J.P.: You arrived at ESPN in 1979—when nobody knew what the damn thing was, and the idea of an all-sports network seemed preposterous. What do you recall from those early days? Did you guys are share in the vision? Was there doubt it’d last? And why did you even take the job?
B.L.: Grasshopper, you’ve asked me to write a book here. And some have. There were early visions and philosophies of how this place would sign on, prosper and grow. And the men who hired Chris, Tommy and me—Chet Simmons and Scotty Connal, both now gone—were in charge of managing that to fruition. Now, I did join ESPN when it started, but I actually had two job offers in hand. Exactly two weeks to the day before the network signed on, I drove from New Jersey to Plainville, Connecticut to meet with Scotty, having already sent a resume tape ahead. By the time I walked to the door with him at the conclusion of our meeting, he was offering me a job, doubling my local cable salary and promising to pay me the outrageous sum of $25,000 a year. This was late August, 1979. Scotty was sketching out a marvelous future. Of course, ESPN’s studio wasn’t yet finished, the building was a shell, and this interview was taking place in a rented, unfinished loft. I stopped poor Scotty in his tracks when I told him I had another job interview the next day, so I needed time to consider his offer. New Jersey Public Television, the next morning, offered me the No. 2 job in their sports department. Their building was constructed, they had plumbing, and the job meant anchoring on weekends in New York and Philly on the PBS stations, and reporting during the week. The money was virtually identical. I had about 18 hours to make up my mind. As I was coming out of a startup at a local cable system in Jersey, I saw the value of writing your own job description and taking charge of a blank canvas. But it wasn’t a clear-cut call. At least then.
J.P.: I’m a University of Delaware grad, and one of our famous alums—and a guy we all looked up to—was Tom Mees. I don’t mean to be overly depressing or dramatic, but what do you recall of Tom? And do you remember finding out about his death? How did that impact you?
B.L.: The words that inevitably spring to mind when I think of Tom are ‘irrepressible’ and ‘genuine.’ He did not possess an ounce of guile. Tom had a thorough and genuine love for the games, for reporting on them, and for his role at ESPN from the first month in 1979. He died August 14, 1996. I had just returned from a reporting trip to Cleveland on a story (which never did pan out) and I will always remember the phone conversations I had that afternoon with Chris LaPlaca and Howard Katz. We were all numb. The shared foxhole experiences of the early years, doing shows together at all hours and against all odds, in some of those times, frankly, when it was anything but certain that this enterprise was going to survive … you can’t appreciate the bonding and brotherhood of that unless you’ve experienced it. We would do a Sunday morning show together, and Tom would come over to our house (this was before he met Michele and was married) and my wife would cook us brunch, and we’d sit there having omelets and Bloody Mary’s, and wonder if just maybe this little network might work out. The picture displayed at his wake said it all. It was a casual shot of Tom, rinkside, at an NHL arena, with the broadest smile on his face. He was doing what he loved. Hockey was his passion, being from greater Philly, and pull out the videotapes; he was beyond excellent as a hockey play-by-play guy. All who knew him, think of him, especially around network anniversaries and the like.
Perhaps my favorite Tommy story is one he would never tell himself. It was after one of the Oilers’ Stanley Cup Championships, and Tom was doing the live interviews for SportsCenter with the winning players. SportsCenter was in a commercial break, and Wayne Gretzky skated over to talk with Tom. “Wayne, it’s gonna be a couple o’ minutes because we’re in a break. Sorry to make you wait.” And the greatest player in the history of the game said, “Tom, for you, anything. No worries.” We only heard that story after he died. He would never ever think of talking about himself like that.
J.P.: You broke the news of Pete Rose’s lifetime banishment back in 1989. How breathtaking and shocking was that? Did it have the magnitude of, say, Magic’s HIV announcement, or the OJ chase? And, years later, do you think Rose belongs in the Hall?
B.L.: Nothing will ever top Magic’s announcement for the sheer shock and breathtaking humanity. Remember, Pat Riley led the Madison Square Garden crowd in prayer that night. We all assumed Earvin would die. Rose’s ban was not unexpected by the end of August, 1989. We had developed multiple independent sources that summer as to the nature of his gambling on baseball. Over the years I sat down several times with Pete, before he came clean, and listened to his spin. Damn, what a ballplayer and American original he was, and is. Does he belong in the Hall? It’s academic, because he’ll never get in, but even if that weren’t the case, it pains me to say that his banishment should stand.
J.P.: You’re a big soccer dude, dating back to your stint as the New York Cosmos play by play man. Do you see a day when soccer is a legitimately big sport in the U.S.—right there with baseball, football and hoops? And why do you think it hasn’t happened already?
B.L.: The changing demographics of this country, the drip drip drip of soccer highlights into the daily highlight diet, the attention on the U.S. national teams (both men and women), the sterling job NBCSN is doing with the English Premier League, and the attendance figures for Major League Soccer all tell me that soccer, in 2014—and across the board—is already as big as hockey. This will honk off soccer-haters to an unfathomable degree but it’s a measure of how the sport has progressed that the once-fashionable disdain for the sport is loathe to slither out of its lowly hole, for fear of being beaten back by facts,and passionate disagreement. This summer in Brazil, we’re hoping to replicate the authentic and intelligent coverage of the World Cup we were proud to produce in 2010 in South Africa. Damn, that was quite something. We trusted the audience’s intelligence, and they came along for the ride. There are other floors in the television mansion that could learn from that.
J.P.: I hate watching broadcasters scream at one another—Bark! Bark! Bark! And yet, it seems to be a big thing at your network, at other networks. This whole debate-for-the-sake-of debate thing. How do you feel about it? And am I even right?
B.L.: Our brand is actually a big tent, with many shows, platforms, web pages, and files. Sports, more than anything, is about opinions, and exchanging those opinions plays to the heart of this entire enterprise. Now, are there times that the same issue is sliced eight ways from Sunday on any given day on our various platforms? Surely. We’re even guilty of that occasionally on “Outside the Lines.” It’s easy to criticize both the volume and passion of some presentations. But I’d suggest that, more often than not, having learned about this Talk Thing through the years, we attempt to present Informed Opinion. Where we invite the perception that it’s ‘all too much’ is in the fact that we have so many platforms. But we also have OTL, e:60, The Sports Reporters, smart conversations and interviews, unparalleled story telling, Grantland, fivethirtyeight.com and other similar pieces of the brand. You hold the power, Obi Wan. You have the remote. Find another channel.
J.P.: Greatest mistake you ever made on air?
B.L.: Well, there was that night about 23 years ago when I’m doing the 11 pm SportsCenter with Dan Patrick, it’s the middle of the summer, Claritin has not yet been invented, my hay fever is at Defcon 3, and I am medicated to the max. Opening theme, dissolve to the two shot, my turn to open the show …”Good evening and welcome again to SportsCenter, along with Bob Ley, I’m Dan Patrick…….wait…..that’s not right.” That lives forever on a blooper reel. In a serious sense, I remember filing a story during the 1985 Final Four in Lexington, Kentucky, when the University of Kentucky was about to replace Joe B. Hall as basketball coach. Dick Vitale and I had a source telling us emphatically (I forget if he said he was in the room or not) that Arizona coach Lute Olsen had a contract in front of him from UK, and he would be the new Kentucky coach. We ordered up a satellite (not something rashly or easily done in the days of Fred and Barney technology). and reported that Olsen would be the next Kentucky coach. Well, he may have had that contract in front of him, and, every intention of signing it … but he never did. Basic error, and huge lesson learned.
J.P.: What separates a great broadcaster from a so-so one? Voice? Oomph? Knowledge? None of the above?
B.L: You don’t need a voice, you need a mind and a heart; the ability to observe, to write, to synthesize quickly and to tell stories. It helps to have a solid baseline of knowledge beyond sports, so you can explain why these buildings that are your backdrop in Dresden, Germany still have burn marks on them, and why the main street in Soweto is named after Chris Hani, and how tonight’s match is being played in the most dangerous city in the world (San Pedro Sula, Honduras, if you’re scoring at home). Understand that it’s not about you, it’s about the game, or the facts, or the news, or the empathetic story you’re trying to tell. Talk to the audience, not at them, and trust their ability to follow a story. That’s the once advantage we have with decades of credibility. If we tell our audience something is important, they’ll give us the benefit of the doubt. But then we have to deliver.
• Would you rather listen to the SportsCenter theme song eternally, on an endless loop, or chop off three of your toes?: I could probably learn to re-balance my center of gravity and walk properly even with a 5 and 2 toe distribution. Actually some of the earlier SportsCenter themes are a gas to listen to.
• Rank in order (favorite to least): Louis Orr, guinea pigs, Pretzel M&Ms, Sally Jenkins, Oklahoma Outlaws helmets, sushi rolls, Pat Benatar, David Foster, Superman II, Real Housewives of New Jersey, Vince Evans, potholes, Disney World: Pretzel M&M’s (like Cheezits, an essential food group), Louis Orr (a classy coach in his time at Seton Hall), Real Housewives of New Jersey ( I keep watching for old girlfriends), Pat Benatar (classically trained voice, did you know?), Sally Jenkins (so smart, and with her dad’s DNA), Oklahoma Outlaw helmets (beyond cool), Vince Evans (looked so good in silver and black), David Foster (six degrees of separation with everyone in music, it seems), Superman II (sequels, like second terms, always suck), Disney World (our kids are grown, so it’s been a while, but we have our Cast Member Silver passes), Guinea Pigs (mine ran away when I was a kid), potholes (assuming you mean roadways and not hiding places for your stash; “Dave’s not here, man.”), Sushi (not on a bet)
• Five greatest broadcasters of your lifetime?: In no order, and recognizing I’m omitting so many fine people I admire: Red Barber (actually spoke to him once on the phone, and listened to him call Yankee games as I was growing up); Brent Musberger (has anyone done both the studio and play by play so effortlessly, and at the peak of the industry, for so long?); Jim McKay (words matter, and his were remarkable; his work at Munich stands alone in our profession); Marv Albert (learned from another idol, Marty Glickman, and is simply, the best); Jim Simpson (left NBC to join ESPN in 1979 ; I learned so much from watching him, and he is a gentleman of the highest order).
• Celine Dion calls. She’ll pay $50 million for you to spend the next year MCing her Las Vegas show, “Celine and Bobby Meacham Dance the Tango.” Only catch—you have to move to Vegas, paint you hair neon green and adopt the catch phrase, “What up, motherfuckers! Who brought the mustard?” You in?: Is that paint latex or oil based?
• Hardest sports name you’ve ever had to pronounce?: Djamolidine Abdoujaparov. When his name showed up on Tour de France shot sheets, my palms would glisten, my knees buckle.
• Are there rivalries in sports media? Like, you run into the Real Sports crew, is there any awkwardness or beef?: Where do you think those “Anchorman” rumbles originated? Though I’ve never killed anyone with a trident. Flesh wound, though.
• How do you explain the continued popularity of the Kardashians on TV?: Now you know how some people feel about soccer.
• Five all-the favorite non-sports TV shows?: Soprano’s—Final scene shot 3 blocks from my boyhood home, in an ice cream shop I haunted as a kid; The Wire—Nuanced, human, infuriatingly complex, and trusting its audience. (and it’ older cousin, Homicide: Life On The Streets); Rowan and Martin’s Laugh In—Inflection point for humor; The Monkees—The re-runs hold up, the music does too, and it was 15 years ahead of MTV; Mad Men—Learned on “The Actor’s Studio” that they do not rehearse. Think about that. Only a table read, and then they shoot. Astonishing.
• When I was in college I had a crush on Linda Cohn. Think you can snag me an autographed photo?: Get in line, bunky.
• Five reasons one should make Bristol, Conn. his/her next vacation destination?: Lake Compounce Amusement Park; ESPN Café (even if under year-long renovations); Mum Festival Parade (build your September around it); Relaxed pace of life; The holy waters.