Sports Media Watch spoke to ESPN VP/Communications Mike Soltys again on Friday, discussing a wide variety of topics — from ESPN’s reporting on Ben Roethlisberger and the network’s decision not to suspend Mike Greenberg, to the possible additions of NCAA Tournament and NHL rights.
SMW: Trying to figure out why the Roethlisberger story wasn’t reported, by comparison to reporting on other stories – even up to, and including Michael Irvin from a couple of weeks ago. It seems like, even though there was apparently rule against reporting on civil suits, it seems like there’s a lot of exceptions to that.
Soltys: We were much stronger, prior to Roethlisberger, against doing the civil suits. Because we’ve seen many times when civil suits are filed, and they are subsequently dropped, and they are subsequently proven to be incorrect. Where there’s criminal charges brought, it’s on a different level. But on civil charges, basically anybody can bring a civil charge against someone, if you want to get into the territory of discrediting the person just because a civil suit has been filed. What we’ve seen, and where we’ve evolved since the Roethlisberger – we do a lot at ESPN, of deconstructing a situation afterwards, and learning from it, and making ourselves better. Coming out of the Roethlisberger situation, it just becomes clear that one factor we have to consider when we’re doing these, is the kind of overall media attention it’s getting. If we’re not doing it because our sense is, we don’t want to be ruining someone’s reputation by reporting it – meanwhile, the rest of the world is reporting it – that no longer has the same bearing.
So these days, with all these auto feeds off [Associated Press] on websites, if AP moves something on a civil suit, the chances that we’re going to report it go up, because at that point, it’s so widely distributed. So, the comparisons that I see on some blogs now, between what we did with Irvin, or what we did with other recent civil suits, and what we did with Roethlisberger before – we’ve changed. That’s not to say we’re not still very sensitive on the underlying problem with reporting civil suits. But we do recognize the changing media landscape, and where we fit in it.
SMW: Now the one issue, the one story that seems a little bit off, was the reporting on the Shannon Brown civil suit last year. Shannon Brown is not a very well known person, I don’t believe this got any attention anywhere else, and this is actually before Roethlisberger. So, can you explain what led to your decision making, I don’t know if you may remember that, on why to report on Shannon Brown. Also, that was one where the civil suit had not even been filed yet.
Soltys: I’d have to check it for you. To be honest, I don’t have a recollection of the circumstances. To come to your Irvin point, we reported [Friday] morning that – it had been raised at the time of the civil suit, that the Miami officials were looking at criminal charges, and they announced that they were not going to issue criminal charges, so we were reporting on that. But the one that you’re asking – I’d have to check it out for you.
SMW: With the suspension of Tony Kornheiser, I’ve been seeing a lot of readers questioning why Mike Greenberg did not receive a suspension following his – I guess he called it a slip of the tongue, when he accidentally said Martin Luther Coon, instead of Martin Luther King. Can you explain the decision making to not act in that situation?
Soltys: I think Mike’s apology that he issued, an explanation, kind of said it best. It was a slip of the tongue. People that know him well – and he’s got a ten-year track record – understood what happened, and different people heard it different ways. There’s no indication whatsoever, even a sliver of an indication, to suggest that there’s any sort of problem with Mike. So, it was perfectly reasonable to take him at his word. What we do, and we get a lot with blog coverage, of looking for a consistency across issues. Every single issue is different. Every set of circumstances, a person’s track record – there’s just so many different elements that are looked at, that there’s absolutely no way that you can be consistent between one problem and another. It would never be fair to the person that’s in the middle of it, to try to instill some kind of consistent standard, when really, life isn’t that consistent. There’s so many different circumstances that have to be played in.
SMW: This year, the NCAA might opt out of its contract with CBS. There’s been a lot of talk of potential expansion of the NCAA Tournament and potentially ESPN airing the NCAA Tournament. How serious is ESPN’s involvement in that right now?
Soltys: We’ve expressed for a long time that we would have an interest in the NCAA Tournament. We had it in our early days, the NCAA Tournament really helped put ESPN on the map, with the first round coverage that we did, and all the way up to the regional semifinals that we were doing in the early ‘80s. College basketball is such an important part of several of our networks. It’s something that we would love to be a part of. Whether that happens, short term or long term, not a whole lot we can tell you there. Certainly, there is interest from ESPN’s end.
SMW: Is there a potential, with ESPN being linked to the NCAA Tournament, the Olympics, already having the NBA Finals, the BCS, is there a potential to be stretched too thin?
Soltys: No, we’ve got a lot of outlets to be able to carry, a big staff to be able to cover. There’s so many big, top quality events in sports. There’s many of them that, outside of SportsCenter coverage, we don’t have any kind of relationship with, in terms of televising the events themselves. So I don’t think that’s a real concern.
SMW: Do you see ESPN potentially getting some NFL playoff games down the line?
Soltys: Down the line, that would seem like a natural extension for us. We would hope, seeing through our history, as we’ve evolved, some things that people couldn’t foresee being on ESPN have become [ESPN properties], so it’s hard to look down to the future. But certainly, it’s a possibility. The current deal doesn’t contemplate any, but down the line, certainly would like to.
SMW: We were talking about ESPN3D. Is that going to be the future of ESPN production? The same way that everything’s done with ESPNHD, and if you don’t have HD, you just see the standard definition picture. Is everything going to be done in ESPN3D, and if you don’t have it, you just receive it the normal way?
Soltys: ESPN3D will be a standalone channel. So if you don’t have a 3D set, it wouldn’t impact you at all. But if you invest in one this coming Christmas, ESPN’s going to be the first one to be providing you a network. Discovery Channel’s announced that they’re going to be following. So they’ll be a growing amount of 3D programming that’s available. What we’re doing back here with our ESPN Innovation Lab [at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex] is doing a lot of our learning and experimenting, because it’s a whole different way to produce and to shoot a game, and there’s a lot of learning that we’re doing. And that’s why so many of our people were down here [Thursday] night for the Globetrotters game, and trying to see what we could learn about shooting the game, producing it, can we produce – because the Globetrotters game [aired on ESPN2] – can we produce it in both 3D and standard definition, out of the same production truck. And if you looked carefully, I don’t know if you looked at the cameras last night, you had 3D camera – like on the skycam, you had the normal skycam, and then hanging underneath it was the two-eyed looking 3D camera, from the same skycam position.
SMW: Was it the same way with the cameras on the floor?
Soltys: Yeah, on the floor cameras. And then you had them on the backboard. So really, that was the first – we’ve done several tests experimenting with 3D as we moved to the decision to do the network. This was the first test that we’ve done since we announced that we’re going to do the network. But with this [ESPN Innovation Lab] facility, we’ve announced that this will be our official testing facility to do all the research and development that we need to do. The Wide World Complex just has all those fields, and the fieldhouse, and virtually every sport gets played there, and we have the ability to have live athletes on a field to test out any of the technologies that we need to do very easily. 3D is a good example of that. So we can bring in other technology companies that are looking to get involved in 3D technology to work with us as we develop the technology, develop the knowledge needed to do so many different sports. There’s a soccer field right next to the [Innovation Lab] … so much of the focus will be on the World Cup, because that’s going to get started.
SMW: Do you think there’s enough interest in 3D, or enough of a group out there that’s going to even be buying 3D televisions in the next few years? Do you think that’s going to be adopted quickly enough to justify having a 3D network?
Soltys: Well, we’ll find out. We want to be leaders in innovation, and 3D is the next big thing. Avatar is a clear example of how much it’s caught on, Alice in Wonderland is next, expectation for that movie is very high. Consumers are embracing it now. The next big wave will be sale of sets, particularly coming into Christmas season next year. Sony is on board to be the sponsor of our 3D network, because they are making a big investment into 3D. So, we think it’s coming, and certainly want to be a part of it.
SMW: Does ESPN have an interest in maybe reacquiring NHL rights down the line? Those are going to be up in 2011.
Soltys: We have been big fans of hockey going way back. As I mentioned earlier, we have agreements with them around the world. It’s got to be a deal that’s going to make financial sense for us, and it has to be something that we can get some of the high-quality telecasts. But we certainly have an interest. And any of those kind of rights that we don’t have, it’s hard to speculate. It depends on many circumstances, when they becomes available, but largely economically, if it makes sense for us, and makes sense for our viewer.
SMW: Would that be a situation where you would want to air the entire Stanley Cup Finals, or would you have that on ABC?
Soltys: A real hypothetical. It’s difficult to say. I think you’ve seen the direction, as you talked about with George [Bodenheimer], with more things being on ESPN than ABC. But we do look on each deal that we’re looking at where there’s an ABC component. The SEC basketball championship is on ABC, it has not been in the past. We are looking at doing some additional programming on ABC Sports that we don’t currently do. And that’s something that we’re evaluating internally now, and you can expect to see more ABC Sports programming coming up later in the year. But ABC Sports, certainly from the NBA Finals to the World Cup Final to the Indy 500 to Saturday night primetime college football – actually, we’ve got 16 consecutive weeks of primetime, the commitment there. Outside of NBC Sunday Night Football, you really don’t see the primetime commitment on broadcast television that anyone else can compare to, in terms of what ABC does with that Saturday night – which is largely college football, but includes some NASCAR and some Little League World Series as well. There is the commitment to ABC Sports, and continuing to have an ESPN on ABC presence on the broadcast platform.
SMW: To play Devil’s advocate, Saturday night is obviously the least viewed night in primetime. The networks have no real incentive to program on Saturday night anyway. Does it really count as a primetime broadcast commitment the way Sunday Night Football does? The most-watched night of the week?
Soltys: Well, Sunday Night Football is going to be on a separate plane, as anything with the NFL is. But if you look at the other broadcast networks, there’s not a whole lot that they’re doing. Saturday night is available to them as well, from a sports end. And it’s not happening, so it’s a big commitment, and it’s done very well. There are many Saturday nights that ABC is the #1 rated network, because of the fact that we’re providing sports.
SMW: You said you’re going to put more programming on ABC Sports potentially. This year, FOX is going to air two Major League Baseball games in primetime.
Soltys: I think they also are adding, they just announced the soccer that they’re adding as well.
SMW: The UEFA Champions League final. Same day actually, as the primetime.
Soltys: Right. So additional things on broadcast.
SMW: Are you thinking, as a potential move there, with the Saturday night commitment you were talking about, maybe more NBA regular season games and playoff games in primetime, or things of that nature?
Soltys: The NBA schedule for this season is set. But I was vague for a reason, and in favorite TV terms, stay tuned.
Soltys also took Sports Media Watch on a tour of ESPN the Weekend:
Soltys: Give you a sense of some of the things that we do at the Weekend here. Mostly centered on when you walked in, you probably saw that big hat stage. A lot of the celebrities that come in do a motorcade down the street, and they drop by the stage and they talk and do a Q & A with the audience. A good opportunity for the sports fans to be able to actually have a conversation with an athlete or an ESPN announcer.
SMW: You can tell the ESPN influence. Three [people in] jerseys just walked by.
SMW: And there’s an ESPN shirt.
Soltys: If you were here a couple of days ago, you wouldn’t have seen that when you get right in front of the stage. There’s a lot of people that come here on a vacation, they make a point of it, there’s people that come down for Spring Training vacations, and then come over and spend a day of two here.
SMW: There’s another ESPN logo. This is obviously very successful for you, and probably very successful for Disneyworld as well, to bring in probably a demographic that may not always come.
Soltys: It’s a good opportunity to bring in some extra people here. But we’ve also started out with ESPN the Weekend, the original challenge was to say, how can ESPN have more of a presence in Orlando. And a lot of what we unveiled yesterday, with the [ESPN Wide World of] Sports Complex is a result of that. Where now, it’s the ESPN complex, but it’s more than just hanging signs up. There’s that opportunity for people to come and participate in events or spectate at events, to be able to have part of the ESPN experience. And ultimately, some of those people will end up having their events on ESPN360. They’ve done the customized Bottom Lines, where you’ll see ‘Red Sox 7, Yankees 4 in the 6th’, and then the next thing that comes up will be ‘Johnny Jones from Toledo ran for 3 touchdowns today,’ in the same sort of Bottom Line.
SMW: That was one thing I noticed from yesterday, a lot of talk about making the kids [participating in events at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex] feel like they’re part of ESPN, or that they’re being covered by ESPN. Which … is a big thing. That’s why you want the video games with the ESPN logos on them.
Soltys: Right. And a lot of the interaction that – the surveys will show the real affection that sports fans have for the ESPN brand. But there aren’t many opportunities to have a personal connection. ESPN the Weekend is one, the Sports Complex is one, when [College] Gameday goes on the road, those kind of things.
[Passing Stump the Schwab and Dream Job attractions] But these two things are the two best examples. We’re walking by right now, Howie Schwab, Stump the Schwab theater, where people come in and Howie spends time with you, and he gets entertained with celebrities trying to stump him. So it’s a fun way to be able to connect.
These are two great examples. Howie Schwab was a researcher for us, Al Jaffe, who hires a lot of our commentators that we use, and they each got a little bit of fame through TV shows that we did, Stump the Schwab and Dream Job. And they’re here, doing this, and people are able to see, in effect, a live version of what those TV shows were. And they’ll be able to spend time with Howie, or Al, or any of the celebrities, as they walk around the parks or are mingling around the larger area.
SMW: Very interesting the way ESPN personalities interact. There’s a lot of ESPN personalities down here. Sage Steele and Jay Harris were here yesterday. I guess this is just outreach in a way? I also noticed the [NBA on ESPN] RV goes to a lot of charitable places, it goes to the Veterans Hospitals, it goes to the Boys and Girls Clubs. So how much of this is outreach, community outreach, things of that nature?
Soltys: Back to the earlier point, it is the way to directly connect with the fan. But we do have a whole Team ESPN corporate outreach area, that does everything from – probably the best known with the V Foundation – but many things this past year, with our 30th anniversary, we had a 30,000 hour volunteer initiative for employees. George Bodenheimer challenged employees to collectively volunteer 30,000 hours, and we were able to do it last summer. So the outreach is a big part of what we do in general. Here, we have, in previous years, had a Team ESPN booth in the interactive village. … This year, they’re not here, but they’ve had a presence there, as well as they do with the X Games each year. So it is an important part of it.
So we’re coming up here on the hat stage, which is kind of the central part of ESPN the Weekend. Mike [Greenberg] and Mike [Golic] are up there right now with Steve Spurrier. Half an hour ago, Steve Spurrier would have come in through a motorcade with characters, and everybody lines up like a parade. People love a parade at Disney. And they come up here to the hat stage, and they come out, and people hear them talk. And then each one of them takes questions from the crowd. So you look around the crowd, and all these people get an opportunity to have a conversation with celebrities. You can see the kind of numbers, when you look around, most people have a hat, or a sports shirt, or an ESPN shirt.
SMW: I guess this is more sports fans than you generally see at Disney.
Soltys: I would think so. This stage was also where we do Baseball Tonight, the actual TV shows that we do from here come from here. … And again, they interact with the crowd, they get a chance to see what our announcers are like, have a chance to ask their individual questions. So that’s the Stump the Schwab, Dream Job, the Premiere Theater, where we do all those events, and here, really kind of the central locations.
A lot of people will come here, and one or two family members are the diehard ESPN fans, and they participate in the ESPN things while the rest of the family does Tower of Terror.
SMW: So what kind of future do you see for ESPN the Weekend. What other things can you do? What other innovations, or integration do you see between ESPN and Disney? The Wide World of Sports Complex may be the biggest one so far.
Soltys: Yeah, it definitely is. It started out, the ESPN/Disney relationship began before Disney owned us. The [ESPN Club at Disney's Boardwalk] opened up prior to Disney purchasing us. And it’s still open, and very successful. … The ESPN the Weekend, now in its 7th year, and then at the Sports Complex – beyond all the things that we talked about previously about the Sports Complex, there’s a lot of events that take place there that we televise. The Old Spice Classic comes to mind, and a growing number that we’re doing on ESPN360 that are from down here.
What happens when we start doing some things, it just leads to more discussion about opportunities for other things that we can do. And I would think that with the big commitment that’s been made with the Sports Complex, that’s just going to spark a lot of ideas about further ways to do things with ESPN in Orlando.
SMW: An ESPN ride, something like that?
Soltys: It’s something that has been talked about. How do you exactly capture that, and —
SMW: Kind of like that Michael Vick experience commercial, obviously not using Michael Vick. Something to that extent, where you have a fan – a simulation of what it’s like to be a player. Or maybe even a simulation of being on SportsCenter. That wouldn’t seem like a ride ride to sit behind a desk, but a lot of people would love to do that.
Soltys: Did you see yesterday, at the Complex, the Video Game room? That’s with all the ESPN video games, I think [SVP, Disney Sports Enterprises] Ken Potrock touched on it in his presentation. They will have youth events where the athletes are left to wait for the next [game], so that’s the ideal thing for your youth athlete to spend some time. Again, part of the ESPN experience, because it’s ESPN video games that they’re using. …
So now, we’re in the interactive village. This part of Hollywood Studios is usually not open. And we invite in various sports organizations to come in here, and it’s their opportunity to connect with the fans. Dick’s is the title sponsor of ESPN the Weekend, does a lot in their stores around the country to activate off this sponsorship. They have a good opportunity to present their wares here. Then, you look around, and you’ll see Major League Baseball and the NBA, and the Harlem Globetrotters will be on display. There’s just a number of them, and as you can see, it’s jam packed, people are able to walk around, try some things out, and be part of it. And we bring in a lot of athletes and announcers for appearances in here, again another opportunity for people to meet the celebrities, have their picture taken with them, get their autographs, those kind of things.
SMW: So you said this is not open all the time.
Soltys: This is like a backlot area that they save for special things.
SMW: Is this special for ESPN the Weekend?
Soltys: Right. If you came here on Monday, this area would not be part of the Hollywood Studios package. But it’s a way to bring in all these things from the outside, and give the event a really good sports feel. There’s a lot of fun picture opportunities that are here. And we deal with all these sports organizations, a good chance for them to come out and connect with fans.
SMW: Is it all the sports, or just the ones ESPN has the rights to? Is there an NHL [exhibit]?
Soltys: While we don’t do the NHL domestically, on television, we do have an NHL relationship on an international basis, and on digital rights. I don’t believe they’re here. The NFL, NBA, baseball, we see all right around here, USTA with tennis, we’ve done some, over the years, a number of X Games participation things that we do. Champion, they’re a big sponsor of the Sports Complex, they’ve got something going on here. A lot of variety, a lot of chance for kids to have fun and take pictures.