ESPN's Rachel Nichols to Host NBA Talk Show as Part of New Multiyear Deal (Exclusive)

Rachel Nichols - P 2016
D Dipasupil/FilmMagic/Getty Images

'NBA: The Jump' will feature a rotating panel of current and former players as well as ESPN commentators and reporters, who will debate a range of topics.

A version of this story first appeared in the Jan. 29 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

Rachel Nichols will hold court at ESPN, literally. The top sports reporter will moderate the new talk show NBA: The Jump as the keystone of a multiyear deal that returns her to the sports giant after three years at Turner Sports and CNN. Nichols, 42, tells THR a rotating panel of current and former NBA players as well as ESPN analysts and reporters will debate a range of topics: "We can argue about who should make the All-Star Game," she says, "and we can [also] talk about what it means to be gay in sports." In addition to The Jump, which will bow Feb. 18 and air weekdays at 3:30 p.m. ET, Nichols will be a significant presence on SportsCenter and occasionally host Outside the Lines and contribute to primetime newsmagazine E:60. Although her CNN show Unguarded was axed after a year as part of a network-wide slate-cleaning, Nichols credits CNN and Turner for giving her the opportunity to develop her voice. "A lot of sports reporting isn't just about sports anymore," she says. "It's about those big-picture issues through the lens of sports."

Give us a little preview of The Jump.

Because it's on in the afternoon, it’s not going to be a highlight show. This is going to be a conversation. What’s great about the NBA is it gives you so much room for really good conversation. It’s a fun sports and a really accessible sport. It’s also a sport that really lends itself to those bigger issues. And we’re putting together a group of people who have the smarts and the dexterity to do both.

What happened with Unguarded? Was it just on the wrong network?

[CNN Worldwide president] Jeff Zucker was incredibly committed. He was willing to try things. I would work for him again down the road. I could not have been happier with how the show turned out. We won a bunch of awards. We did a bunch of newsmaking interviews. I think by a lot of measures the show was a real success. It just wasn’t right for CNN. When they shut down Unguarded, that same day they shut down all of the topic-specific news shows. Sanjay Gupta’s health show was shuttered. [CNN Money] was shuttered. So it was a larger move. It turned out ratings-wise to be the right decision [for CNN]. I understood why Jeff made the change. If it had just been our show, I think it would have been a little harder to take, frankly.

You grilled NFL commissioner Roger Goodell during his infamous 2014 press conference to address the Ray Rice scandal. Was that at all intimidating?

If it’s a fair question, it’s not that difficult. If you know you’re not trying to gotcha someone or spin something and it’s a tough but fair question, then there’s nothing scary to me about asking those questions. That’s the gig. I think especially in that case, it was really important to ask those questions. The NFL’s own statistics [say] that 80 percent of Americans watched an NFL game last year, which is amazing. You don’t get 80 percent of Americans saying they went to church last year. You certainly don’t get 80 percent of Americans saying they voted in the last election. So if this is a cultural touchstone for America, then we need to make sure we hold [the NFL] to the standards we expect.

You also hammered Floyd Mayweather about his history of domestic violence. Did you feel a responsibility to speak out on the issue because it overwhelmingly affects women? 

The week that I interviewed Floyd Mayweather, all of that Ray Rice stuff was going on. For me that was an important topic of conversation. I was disappointed not to have seen more of that earlier, just as a consumer of journalism. It would have been irresponsible for me not to ask him hard questions. Again, if you’re fair and straightforward, you can ask the tough questions and it’s a fair interview. There might be people who don’t like it. I was certainly let known later that his camp didn’t like it. But that’s not the part I worry about.

Do you think the NFL's domestic violence crisis crystallized, for some male sports media executives, the need for more women in prominent roles?

There definitely was a ripple effect. And I’d love to turn that ripple into a wave. Let’s not trot the woman out just when it’s a female-related issue. There were more women talking because it was an issue that related to women. And in that time, media outlets and the people who run these companies said, "Wait we’ve got some really smart, articulate people here."

What do you think of the NBA’s recent gun-violence awareness campaign?

I thought it was fantastic. I thought it was interesting that they kept saying it was about gun-violence awareness. I understand why politically they felt they needed to do that. I don’t know if we as a country need more gun violence awareness. I think we’re all pretty aware right now that there is a gun-violence problem in this county. Whatever the semantics are, I applaud the NBA for being brave enough to address it. No other league has even touched this issue.