ESPN's Creative Chief Talks New Michael Jordan Doc, Rethinking 'Get Up' and Negotiating League Pressures
Connor Schell, executive vp content at TV's embattled sports empire, opens up about opinionated talent, working for a new boss and Sage Steele's future.
Connor Schell just moved into a new office on West 66th Street in Manhattan, a 120-year-old building that once served as a National Guard armory. The military symbolism is apt. Schell, a 15-year ESPN veteran who rose through the ranks after co-creating the groundbreaking doc franchise 30 for 30 with Bill Simmons, is taking incoming on a number of fronts.
There's intense competition in the documentary space, relentless scrutiny from the scandal-primed sports blogosphere and the pains of industrywide cord-cutting. But all of it is forcing a content and distribution reinvention at the worldwide sports leader that culminated in 2018 with the launch of ESPN+. While ESPN — the largest revenue driver in Disney's TV portfolio, earning second-quarter revenue of $5.53 billion — is still in 86 million cable homes (down from more than 100 million in 2011), the direct-to-consumer offering earlier this year passed 2 million subscribers after nailing a deal for UFC content. For Schell, 41, who splits his time between New York and ESPN's Bristol, Connecticut, campus, the mandate is to reimagine legacy studio shows in an era of the instant highlight while building content for the direct-to-consumer offering. That includes series from Kobe Bryant, Kevin Durant and, as of this summer, Peyton Manning. (Peyton's Places, an ambitious 30-episode series, finds the Hall of Famer showcasing his comedic chops as he interviews key figures about football history.) "There is a clear approach toward athletes as content creators," says Schell.
A married dad of three young children, Schell began his career in 1998 as a college intern at ESPN the Magazine. He got his first real job at ESPN in 2004, after earning an MBA from Columbia, and now oversees all ESPN content across TV and digital and nearly 4,600 employees. That includes event production (see the recent NFL Draft extravaganza, manned by 600 staffers, that aired across ESPN platforms and ABC) and studio shows (the many iterations of SportsCenter and fledgling morning show Get Up!, which lost original co-host Michelle Beadle after only a few months). Schell invited THR to his new digs to talk about ESPN's journalistic mandate, the culture shift under ESPN president Jimmy Pitaro and why the 500 hours the NBA shot during Michael Jordan's final season with the Chicago Bulls never saw the light of day (until now).
What are the origins of the 10-hour Chicago Bulls documentary The Last Dance, which is set for a summer 2020 debut on ESPN and fall 2020 bow on Netflix?
In 1997, [current NBA commissioner] Adam Silver was running NBA Entertainment and Michael Jordan was entering what they all believed was going to be his final season. Having access then was very different than it is now, when every athlete gets followed with an iPhone. Back then it meant big 16mm cameras, shooting on film. It was a major undertaking to get intimate access with the biggest sports star on the planet. They have 500 hours of footage following the team through the season. And it is the whole team — Steve Kerr, Dennis Rodman, Scottie Pippen, Toni Kukoc, [coach] Phil Jackson — but it's really focused on Michael.
Why has it gone unused?
They needed Michael to be engaged and to want to tell his story. I was involved in a dialogue with [the NBA] back in 2005. In 2009, Spike Lee was talking to them about maybe [doing] something with it. Then it just sat there. Mike Tollin [of Mandalay Sports Media] really was the person who ultimately wrangled all the parties and got [director] Jason Hehr [The Fab Five, The 85 Bears].
You got a new boss about a year ago. What are the differences between working for Jimmy Pitaro and John Skipper?
You're going to get me in trouble with this. (Laughs.) John was a mentor to me; he meant a great deal to me professionally and to this place. He was a creative leader. Jimmy has had a remarkable effect on the place in just over a year. He is very clear in his vision and defining priorities that everybody can rally around.
What kind of guidance do you give anchors and producers about navigating unflattering stories about partners like the NFL or the NBA?
First and foremost, we have to get it right. We have to be fair. And we try really hard not to catch our partners by surprise, which doesn't mean we hold back on what content we'll create or what our opinionists will say. We are always mindful that we have a business relationship [while] not holding back in our editorial mission. Candidly, it's not always easy to manage. There was obviously a lot of speculation that Jimmy was going to somehow change course there. But we have never engaged in that conversation.
So when Michelle Beadle says on-air that she doesn't watch football anymore that doesn't create problems?
No. We do want to put people on the air who love the things they're covering. But she had never expressed that directly before. Michelle is great. And part of why people love Michelle is that she is incredibly authentic. And by the way, that's what we want from people we put on the air.
Athletes don't need ESPN to speak to fans anymore. Does this trend make it harder for bookers?
On occasion. But in the aggregate we still do really well in booking the guests we want and having the conversations we want. Look at the array of interviews that Rachel Nichols was able to book throughout the NBA season. It's because she's credible and we have a platform that reaches a lot of people.
There was a disputed story about Sage Steele not participating in 2020 Masters coverage because she criticized the organization's history of discrimination. With so much competition for live rights now, are the leagues throwing their weight around more?
I don't think so. And the Sage Steele thing, that was a completely false report.
So she'll be there next year?
I believe so. I don't see it like you laid it out. We want to be appropriately celebratory — and appropriately critical when necessary.
Get Up! lost an hour and repositioned Mike Greenberg as lead anchor. What's the postmortem on the quick overhaul?
Maybe we didn't do a great job of positioning it the right way. I think [three hours] was too long. We didn't have the pace right. We understood that immediately. Michelle [who relocated back to L.A. and is hosting NBA Countdown] is unbelievably talented and is someone that is clearly still really important to us. I think her and Mike driving the content just didn't work.
Reporter Adnan Virk was fired in February after a leak investigation. Was his transgression really that bad?
I have always really liked him and respected his talent and his work. It's unfortunate how his time at ESPN ended, but I am happy that he landed in a good spot [at Skipper's DAZN] and wish him success going forward.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
This story first appeared in the May 13 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.