5 Things I Learned About ESPN At ESPN

For a media and sports geek, touring ESPN was as cool as it gets.

I had a rare opportunity because I won a fundraiser auction for the Jalen Rose Leadership Academy (for which Tanner Friedman does PR work) a couple of months ago when ESPN basketball analyst Jalen Rose put up for bids a private tour of the ESPN Campus in Bristol, Connecticut. I bid just enough to win an opportunity I had wanted since cable TV was first hooked up in my house and I got hooked on ESPN.

ESPN takes and makes more than its share of heat for its news, programming and personnel decisions. But, its influence on our sports media culture, its coverage of games, its global brand prowess and its presence in sports fans’ lives makes ESPN a compelling force and, I hoped, a compelling place. During a morning of walking through every studio, sitting on every TV set (the photo with this piece is of Hannah Storm and Bob Ley anchoring SportsCenter) and behind every radio mic and meeting many of the people I have watched on TV for years, I spent much of the time in awe even though I have spent almost my whole life observing or working in broadcast environments. I even read “the book” (nearly 800 pages) on ESPN, yet the place didn’t take shape for me until I was there.

Here are some things I learned while there that I think are worth sharing:

1) Everyone seems to be a passionate sports fan.

In local TV and radio, I worked with sportscasters who really didn’t like sports. I worked with many newscasters who carried a disdain for the news content. I didn’t see any of that at ESPN. The Sunday NFL Countdown guys wanted to talk NBA with Jalen Rose behind the scenes. The anchors talked sports during commercial breaks and wore sports clothes on the newsroom while putting their shows together. It’s a perfect example for any business – a passion for what you do shines through to customers.

2) “New Media” is fully integrated

Many local broadcast operations are still having a hard time balancing TV and other platforms Apparently, not ESPN, where it’s all integrated. I had a chance to talk to NFL reporter Adam Schefter. His most valuable pieces of equipment are not mics and cameras – but his Blackberry chargers. He gets most of his information via text and relays it over Twitter. By the way, he also spends a lot of time on TV.

3) The newsroom is absolutely huge

It’s by far the biggest newsroom I’ve ever seen. There, anchors work side-by-side alongside producers to write scripts and put together shows, something I didn’t always see even in local news. It’s also the only TV newsroom I’ve ever been in without police scanners (which was nice).

4) The talent level is off the charts

The SportsCenter anchors, when seeing them on-set, immediately registered as some of the best broadcasters I’ve ever seen in action. They read every highlight like the viewer is seeing the game for the first time, even if they have seen it dozens of times already. The analysts work largely unscripted and are enormously prepared. They all try to be high-energy when on the air, regardless how little they have slept, to be interesting to the viewer. Excellent anchors surrounded by strong producers and relevant data from hard-working researchers combine seamlessly. Because of the Internet, it has to be much more than just “scores and highlights” now. It has to be a mix of video, facts and opinions, making the most of the TV medium. They all seem to get it and live it.

5) A really cool charitable element

ESPN has decided a well traveled corridor to banners for charity. There are ESPN banners (like those seen at venues where they broadcast) on both sides of the hallway with signs next to them explaining which charity will receive each banner as a donation. There are sharpies in containers on the wall. So, when personalities are walking the halls, they can easily sign the banners and know which causes are receiving them in which cities. ESPN makes it easy for them and they each sign many on their way from one assignment in the building to another.

I could go on. But I want to get home to watch a basketball game. On ESPN, of course. I don’t think I’ll be watching quite the same way again.