ESPY Awards Producer Talks 2019 Honorees, Highlights and "Points of Inspiration"

U.S. Women's Gymnastics ESPYs - Getty - H 2018
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Ahead of Wednesday's live broadcast, Maura Mandt opens up about the platform the show provides for athletes sharing inspirational and political messages.

The ESPY Awards typically feature several inspirational and newsmaking moments, and the executive producer of the show says this year will be no exception.

For example, during last year’s show, the "Sister Survivors" — led by Aly Raisman, Sarah Klein and Tiffany Thomas Lopez of the U.S. Olympic gymnastics team — spoke out about abuse by USA Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar as they accepted the Arthur Ashe Courage Award. The moment was later cited in a congressional hearing on sexual assault and won the ESPYs a Peabody Award.

In the past, the ESPYs also have honored athletes like Muhammad Ali, Caitlyn Jenner and Billie Jean King for their courage. This year’s recipient of the Arthur Ashe Courage Award is Bill Russell, the retired 11-time champion Boston Celtics star and the NBA’s first African-American coach. The Jimmy V Award for Perseverance will go to Rob Mendez, a football coach with tetra-amelia syndrome, a rare disorder that caused him to be born without arms or legs. In addition, the Pat Tillman Award for Service will go to retired Marine Corps Sergeant Kirstie Ennis. (Tracy Morgan hosts the show; see a list of nominees here.)

Before the 27th annual ESPYs air live Wednesday night on ABC from the Microsoft Theater in Los Angeles (8 p.m. ET, tape-delayed on the West Coast), longtime producer Maura Mandt spoke with The Hollywood Reporter about her 25 years working on the ESPYs, the legacy of the awards show and what viewers can expect this year.

What led you to the ESPYs?

I went to ESPN out of college. I was studying journalism, I was working in local news and newspapers, and it was being able to tell stories in the backdrop of sports, which had a much larger impact than telling stories without that backdrop, that led me there. 

Specifically, I had that experience very early on in my first few months at ESPN. Where I had a story, right after Magic Johnson announced he had AIDS, that he was HIV-positive. I was in a position to tell a story that I had done a year early for a local paper in Detroit. It was about an AIDS hospice in Detroit for women and children with HIV and AIDS. So I told that story for a local newspaper, and when I was at ESPN and Magic Johnson made an announcement, they were looking for ways to cover it within the context. There was a connection to that house through the Pistons Wives Charitable Fund, and so I pitched it as a feature with a sports connection. I went and did that exact same story with the exact same people, and it had a much stronger impact when it was on ESPN. And I noticed the difference. What I got involved in was finding ways to tell stories that matter, and sports was the backdrop for those stories.

So my work, especially with the ESPYs, with the Arthur Ashe Award, and the Jimmy V Award, has been to find a way to unite everyone under sports, and propel forward a narrative. Sports has been at the forefront of every social change, and there is something about it having a sports backdrop, I find it has a larger impact. So 25 years later, I started as a PA on the ESPYs and now here I am just because I love it. There is never a lack of something really important to the world that crossed over in the sports year.

Like this camaraderie around sports you’re discussing, what makes sports such a good medium to say these political messages, to say cultural messages? What about sports makes that a great way to tell a story?

First and foremost, the majority of people have participated in sports in some way — whether they played sports, they enjoyed watching sports, or they experienced a moment in their own personal history that is connected to sports. In itself, it is about a team. Whether you play or whether you root for someone who plays, it is a point of connection.

They say "a little sugar let’s the medicine go down," so sports is that sugar that allows these serious messages to go through. This goes all the way back to Jesse Owens in the Olympics; it was through sports. We are relaxed and we are ready to root, and there are athletes who have taken the mantle to speak what they believe, and it has been a very effective tool. And then there are people like me who find the stories and tell them.

You’ve been a part of the ESPYs for 25 years. Have the political messages changed over time, and in what way?

Our show is a reflection in a year in sports, and as such it is a reflection of the year of history. I don’t know if the messages have changed or the messengers have evolved, but we cover what happens so there is a simplicity of the message of equality. That was the message from Jesse Owens, of respect, rights and equal opportunities, and that was the same message given from the Women’s World Cup team. So I think they all have the same message, one of unity and one of equality.

Also sports shows us the message of perseverance, belief and being able to accomplish something that you thought was impossible. Those messages are in the every day. Whether there is a political part of that story, I don’t think that has changed. I think that has just evolved as the medium has gotten bigger and the messengers have changed.

You go back to the early Arthur Ashe Award: Billie Jean King was one of the early winners, and her message is literally what the women today are saying. [U.S. Olympic sprinters] Tommie Smith and John Carlos were fighting for equality and fighting for civil rights. That is what Bill Russell is talking about. And Arthur Ashe — the very first ESPYs was about Arthur. I think each year, there are different things that come to the forefront because the athletes are at their core citizens of the world, that is what Arthur said. He said he was a citizen of the world, and so they are a reflection of what is going on in the times.

So with these athletes, who are the messengers in a way, do you work with them on what their messages are when they are at the ESPYs? Are you aware of what they are going to say? And do you encourage and work with them on how to get that message across?

There are people who are here if they [winners of the Arthur Ashe, Jimmy V, Pat Tillman Awards] want help with their scripts, but I am certainly not going to tell Bill Russell what he is going to say. Or Rob Mendez or Kirstie Ennis. We are here to help if they need it, but this is their stage and they are being honored for what they’ve done. This is a television show and we have some time constraints, so we will work on them to help focus their message. We are not writing their messages for them. 

Can you give us a preview of what kind of messages might be addressed in this years ESPYs?

Again, let’s look at the year. I would ask you the question of looking at the year in sports and the things that happened. We were just looking at the highlights of the World Cup and the entire stadium chanting “Equal pay! Equal pay!” So that is not the ESPYs putting that out there, that was already put out their by the fans.

It was announced that the women’s soccer World Cup champions will be at the ESPYs. Do they have anything planned along the lines of equal pay?

No, we are not planning anything. They are nominees. They are attending the show as nominees for best team.

And continuing on, the victims of Larry Nassar spoke out last year receiving the Arthur Ashe Award, and the moment won ESPN a Peabody Award and was ultimately cited in a congressional hearing about sexual abuse. Do you aim for that kind of impact?

I think the women who stood on that stage were the reason why that moment happened, and the ESPYs were not the reason why it was cited in the hearing. It was the women. We aim to tell the best stories that we possibly can, and honor the athletes who have accomplished, whether that be off or on the field, who leave us in awe. So if we can do our job, to simple turn the camera on them and offer them the stage, then we have done our job. We are not the story. We are the vehicles for their stories.

How do you think this has become such an important platform for people to speak out? Is it just the idea of sports, or do you think you have been able to build the ESPYs to this place where people are welcomed to be vulnerable?

There are many people involved in this. Like any team, there are a lot of people that build it up. The athletes are the biggest part of what this show has become. It is because of their vulnerability in their speeches, and what they have done. We build a stage, quite literally, and offer them a platform and we are telling their stories. I hope we have made it safe and inviting.

Credit to ESPN and ABC, who have allowed for these moments to happen and are incredibly important. Last year's Ashe Award, they gave us the resources to do it the right way because it is a large process to make sure we take care of these athletes and these stories in the right way. But I don’t think the production or the producers can take credit for any kind of impact that the athletes stories we cover have on the world. We are only as good as the stories we have to tell.

Are there any other big stories viewers can expect from this year’s show at all?

I think the Arthur Ashe Award, the Jimmy V Award, the Pat Tillman Award, have become highlights of the show and are all points of inspiration. Those awards are all individuals who are very conscious of their role in inspiring others.

The other awards and stories, the triumphs of accomplishment, are also inspiring on their own. It does not have to be something political in order for their to be something to make us feel like we are in this together. At the end of the day, in a production, in a team, in a game, it really kind of comes down to we are all in this together.

You briefly talked about ESPN and how it has been able to give you the resources to make such a platform for people. Since it is the 40th anniversary of ESPN, from your perspective because you’ve worked with them for so long, what is the impact of ESPN on the cultural landscape today?

I don’t think you really have the space to answer that question in a full magazine! Where hasn’t it impacted? Forty years is a long time. On a personal level, it has changed my life, and it has been my whole life, but ESPN has always been a brand who has looked at serving the fan in every area that they can.

The ESPYs is no different than that. The show is a celebration of the year in sports. It is for the fans, and the athletes are also fans of each other. The presenters that come are also fans. It has been a place for fans to collect and gather, and has provided an opportunity for fans all over the world to join together whether it be for a single game or a season, or many years of one show. There are a lot of people who have grown up in a world with ESPN and don’t know a world without it. Any brand like that is going to have a cultural impact.

What do you see as the ESPYs' legacy at the end of the day?

I think that we have always hoped and looked at the ESPYs as one night that the sports world can unite. We cannot get every story that happened in sports in a three-hour show, but between the red carpet, the ESPYs and the stories told around them, our goal is to create a platform to celebrate that year. Those who are involved in any way, whether they are the champions, or the athletes, or the fans of those teams, have a night where everyone can unite across all sports.

And for you, why do you enjoy following these stories? What is driving you?

It is not the politics of it. They are stories of triumph, there are stories of accomplishment, they are stories of perseverance and courage. They are human stories. Why wouldn’t I want to follow a story of someone who overcomes, sets a goal, achieves and is successful, and brings along a city or a country with them along their journey?

Ultimately, win or lose, a loss is a journey. Sometimes the best story is one of a comeback where someone has failed and been vulnerable, and it allows us to connect. It becomes a story of inspiration. It is important to not look at these as political stories but human stories of courage and perseverance. Why not be inspired, and entertained, hopefully, at the same time?

Interview edited for length and clarity.