BRISTOL, Conn. — The juxtapositions become apparent, if they weren’t before, the moment a visitor enters the sparkling, sprawling studios on ESPN’s campus, where its “SportsCenter” program is produced.
The futuristic set, large enough to comfortably house a small airplane, is nearly three years old, cost a reported $125 million to build, and has little to do with the purpose of a visit on a recent Monday. But it remains a crown jewel for the network, a point of pride, and so it remains impossible to resist showing it off, even if it is the home to the network’s flagging flagship show.
It is undeniably spectacular. It also stands as a strikingly blatant symbol of some curious financial decisions that preceded a talent bloodletting — just the week before the visit — that cost 100 employees their jobs.
Contradictions such as this are unavoidable nowadays at ESPN, which remains a singular behemoth in sports media even as it shrinks its workforce in response to a loss of 12 million cable subscribers over the past six years while paying out multibillion-dollar rights deals with the NFL and NBA.
It’s unfortunate that this is the first thing one notices, because amid the recent chaos and the lingering pall in Bristol caused by seeing longtime colleagues pushed out, ESPN deserves a significant amount of credit for a couple of commitments it has kept and even enhanced. The network is making a conscious effort to allocate resources to an area that so often nowadays receives the first and deepest slash when bills come due: journalism.
Bob Ley and Jeremy Schaap are two of ESPN’s longest-tenured on-air talents. Ley joined the network three days into its existence in 1979. Schaap, son of the legendary Dick Schaap and an accomplished journalist in his own right, has been with ESPN since 1994. And they might be the two most respected journalists at the network. So there is reassurance to be found in ESPN’s reinforced commitment to highlighting their work.
Schaap and Ley are teaming up on the revamped “E:60” newsmagazine program, which for the first time in its 10-year existence has a set weekly timeslot, at 9 a.m. on Sundays. They will also share content on the Ley-hosted “Outside the Lines,’’ which has a stylish new set of its own and airs daily in the afternoon on ESPN, its most stable situation in years.
“It’s been an extremely difficult time, seeing friends in the workplace, respected colleagues, lose jobs they loved and did so well,’’ said Ley. “We’re still working through it, and it’s a cruel reality of the business these days, as anyone who works in a newsroom can attest. But as a professional, you acknowledge their contributions and celebrate them, but you also have to continue to use the tools at your disposal to do your job well. We are fortunate to have those tools.”
The commitment to Ley and Schaap — both of whom signed recent contract extensions — signifies a commitment to the high-caliber, issue-oriented journalism and storytelling that both are known for.
“Journalism isn’t cheap,’’ said Schaap, citing the considerable resources put into an upcoming story on the Syrian soccer team, which required nine months of reporting. “Sometimes reporting a story properly and thoroughly can be very expensive and time-consuming, and the payoff may not always come in terms of ratings or viewership. It really is about the commitment to telling a story that needs to be told, and we could not have a greater appreciation for that, especially in the current landscape.”
Rob King, ESPN senior vice president for “SportsCenter” and news, said the network’s commitment to distinctive, complete journalism has never wavered.
“In long-form journalism, you can go down a list. Story A, he or she was ill and now she’s better. Story B, he or she was raised in dire circumstances and is now great. Story C, he or she was great and now they’re bad.” said King. “Our folks work very hard to ask how a story is unique, and to challenge people to go to the next level. We commit to it, and it must be distinctive. There is no template other than telling the story in the best and most thorough way.”
During this reporter’s visit, three ESPN employees cited “CBS Sunday Morning” as the model for the feel of “E:60.” Schaap and Ley will both appear on the program, as will reporters who will join the set to discuss their long-form stories after they air, similar to the format of HBO’s “Real Sports.” Schaap and Ley will also provide commentary on “E:60,’’ which premieres in its new slot this Sunday.
Schaap acknowledged that it is somewhat bittersweet to essentially be replacing “The Sports Reporters,’’ which was hosted by his father for years, in the time slot. That show’s final episode aired last Sunday.
“Anything that connects me with my dad in any way is fun to me, though I’m sad to see that show go,’’ said Schaap. “A generation of viewers think of Sunday mornings on ESPN as belonging to my dad and his friends, and that’s wonderful. But I also have to acknowledge that ‘E:60’s’ floating status has been a source of frustration for years. It’s going to be nice to have that regularity, where viewers will know where to find you 52 weeks out of the year.”
“Outside the Lines” will be more geared toward breaking news and investigation, but feature stories are also prominent. During a rehearsal on the new set, Ley flashed his familiar easy manner, bantering with his staff. “I just sit here like an idiot and read this thing,’’ he said, pointing at a teleprompter.
The banter revealed a dry sense of humor that may be more apparent on the revamped program. When a visitor sneezed, Ley responded quickly: “Bless you. Allergic to quality television, I see.”
The visitor insisted he is not. More important, it’s clear ESPN, even after all it has gone through, is not either.Chad Finn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeChadFinn.