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ESPN Daily: Sports Coverage Without the Sports

College football and Major League Baseball are hanging by a thread. A Floridian bubble is home to multiple sports leagues, all playing out experimental seasons. Stadiums and arenas are largely empty, filled in with artificial crowd noises and, in some cases, papered over with digital fans. Persisting within a pandemic, the sports world has never been stranger. So what is it like to make a daily sports podcast? This week, Nick spoke with Pablo Torre and Eve Troeh, the host and senior editorial producer of ESPN Daily, about the delicate balance involved in sports coverage during a most irregular time.

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SERVANT OF POD WITH NICK QUAH
Episode 12 Transcript: ESPN Daily: Sports Coverage Without the Sports

Sat, 8/29 5:49PM • 28:53

SUMMARY KEYWORDS

sports, laughter, espn, pablo, people, feels, podcast, nba, stories, episode, baseball, threads, mina, interview, eve, big, korean, week, high noon, major league baseball

SPEAKERS

Pablo Torre, Nick Quah, Excerpt from ESPN Daily, Eve Troeh, ESPN Excerpt

Pablo Torre 00:01

I believe that the pandemic has given rise to amazing, amazing content and stories that are actually, in my opinion--and this is as someone who's worked in sports for, God, a million years--I believe it's more interesting now than it ever has been.

ESPN Excerpt 00:22

The NBA shocking the sports world last night. The game tonight has been postponed. You're all safe. And all it's gonna take is one really bad outcome. If enough people get it, you're probably going to have a terrible tragedy happen, and what then? What will be the reaction of the public? College institutions just can't afford that and so it's no surprise that they're pointing to the spring until we can find out some more information.

Nick Quah 00:50

College football and Major League Baseball are hanging by a thread. LeBron James is playing in the bubble, pro athletes are opting out of whole seasons, and stands are either empty or filled in with digital fans. The world of sports has never been stranger. So, what is it like to make a daily sports podcast when a sports business is anything but usual? From LAist Studios, this is Servant of Pod. I'm Nick Quah. Today, the people behind the ESPN Daily podcast talk about the struggle and the unique opportunities in this moment. Pablo Torre is the new host of ESPN Daily, taking over from Mina Kimes, who just moved on to become an NFL analyst. When we chatted, he had just finished his first full week behind the mic.

Pablo Torre 01:44

It's been good, man. It's been super exciting. I've really enjoyed the metabolism of this show. I have a borderline drunken sense of power because we have a staff of really good people that care what I have to say to them all the time, which is really great. And the thing about doing a daily podcast at ESPN, and this is what Mina experienced, of course, when she was launching this thing, is that there really isn't anything else at ESPN like it. And so, it feels like we are both an island unto ourselves, but also deeply connected to the company, where we can kind of pluck all of this fun **** from around our content empire for our own purposes. So I am--yeah, I feel like I am both harvesting the fruit and the labor of other people, as well as planting some seeds for myself as we grow this thing.

Nick Quah 02:38

Eve Troeh is a senior editorial producer at ESPN Daily. Before ESPN, she worked at Marketplace and was the news director at WWNO in New Orleans.

Eve Troeh 02:48

There are a lot of people at ESPN, who, it's the only place they've ever wanted to work and it's their dream come true to have that name attached to what they do. I was not that person. I have always worked in pretty straight-ahead news or documentary-style work. So, to me even the idea of working at ESPN, when I updated my bio to say I had taken this job, people had a lot of question marks. [Laughter] Like, are you a big sports person? I'm like, "I am now, y'all!"

Nick Quah 03:20

But are you a big sports person? [Laughter]

Eve Troeh 03:24

I am a big sports person. I was very serious about running track in high school, for example. I went to a football-obsessed tiny, tiny high school in rural Missouri where my cousin Judd is actually the winningest football coach in Missouri state high school athletics history.

Nick Quah 03:42

That's a big flex right there. [Laughter]

Pablo Torre 03:45

Yeah, shout out to Judd! When are we getting Judd on the show?

Eve Troeh 03:48

Anytime. Anytime. [Laughter]

Nick Quah 03:51

Pablo has extensive experience both in print and television. Most recently, he co-anchored the television show High Noon from ESPN's New York studios. But what exactly did he hope to do on a daily news podcast?

Pablo Torre 04:04

I like to talk about things from angles that maybe aren't the most obvious ones all the time. So I think for us, the news magazine sensibility, it means "let's find topics, let's give people what they need to know about it, but let's also advance the discussion and leave them with things that maybe they weren't considering in the first place." So for me, I'm a big fan of enterprise stuff. I'm a big fan of--I mean, look, I love a good celebrity profile. I've done my share of them when it comes to sports. But for me, there is a breadth and depth to sports, insofar as sports is kind of America's biggest tent, where people gather underneath, and so communicating to the people in that tent, and getting to tell them, this is what I think is important, and interesting, and maybe different. I would say curiosity is probably the quality that I bring to this most organically. I'm just super curious about so much in our industry.

Eve Troeh 04:58

And I think that's such an opportunity to showcase the behind-the-scenes, exclusive-access, insider information that so many of our journalists have and have won over their years and decades of reporting on their beats.

Nick Quah 05:15

So I feel like we shouldn't avoid the big 800-pound gorilla in the room: the fact that sports basically shut down in March. And so, around that time--

Pablo Torre 05:24

What?!

Eve Troeh 05:24

[Laughter]

Nick Quah 05:25

I don't know where you were. Are you surprised? [Laughter]

Eve Troeh 05:29

"What did I miss?" [Laughter]

Nick Quah 05:31

So my--it was so fascinating to watch this show, first of all, deal with the lockdown on March 11. It kind of felt like the "it's not just Tom Hanks and Rudy Gobert" day. So, just looking back into the archive even, it also kind of felt like it was just a gradual acceptance that the sports world as we knew it would cease to exist, at least for a time. This probably is more for Eve, because you were working on the show at the time, but probably from your vantage point, I believe that was also the same month that High Noon was wrapping up. What were your experiences of that moment, within a sports media company?

Pablo Torre 06:05

Yeah, I appreciate the euphemism "wrapping up," by the way, it's way better than "canceled." [Laughter]

Nick Quah 06:10

[Laughter] Yeah, you're talking to probably one of the very few fans of the show.

Pablo Torre 06:13

[Laughter] No, no, no.

Eve Troeh 06:17

I count myself among those who were upset to see High Noon go.

Pablo Torre 06:19

It is a loyal army that has since gone underground and is plotting a revolution that I can't really go into further detail about, but I appreciate all of you joining that cause. So for me, very briefly at the top here, my whole life changed. So my daughter was born on February 24. That was the day of Kobe's memorial. The next morning, in the room at the hospital, I remember Liz looking at her phone and reading out loud a headline about Coronavirus, and I was thinking to myself, okay, let's keep tabs on that, I guess. And then as the days go on, obviously, everything you described happens, including the cancellation of High Noon, the pandemic taking over the world, sports going away. And so my vantage point has been, wow, my life is entirely different. But, and this is maybe the hottest take I have, Nick, on all of this. I believe that the pandemic has given rise to amazing, amazing content and stories that are actually, in my opinion--and this is someone who's worked in sports for, God, a million years--I believe it's more interesting now than it ever has been. And I'm not saying that as spin, I think my company, ESPN, would hate the fact that I'm in any way supporting the notion that without live sports, we can do really good work, because the business model, of course, is entirely live sports. But for me, the stories, and the issues, and the intersections of real world events, and then you layer on, of course, all of this with this moment in American history that's unprecedented, at least since the 60s, in terms of racial justice. The convergence of all of that under the big tent of sports is so historically fascinating to me that I've kind of loved it, as much as it's been horrible in all of the ways that are grave, and profound, and terrifying. I do believe that there's really good **** for us to talk about.

Nick Quah 06:34

So isn't it interesting that that happens in the sudden absence of sports, when the interesting things about sports get to have the opportunity to be talked about?

Pablo Torre 08:34

I think magazine writers have been made fun of for that for a very long time. "You guys don't care about the games? What the ****? You care about this kid's sob story? You care about his childhood?"

Nick Quah 08:44

"--the corruption in the league?" [Laughter]

Pablo Torre 08:46

Yeah, right! So for me, this is, again, that magazine sensibility blooming. When the most predictable day-to-day schedule has been disrupted, what do you turn to? You turn to these off-angle, off the fields--by necessity off the field--kind of storylines, and that's the stuff that I've always been interested in.

Nick Quah 09:09

So, it's March 2020. Pablo's world being up in flames, Eve, what was your experience of March?

Eve Troeh 09:18

Flames of a different type, I would definitely say--no childbirth involved. I will say that specifically on that day, on the 12th, I remember, late in the day, we were thinking about the P-word, "pivot," because we had the announcement that, I believe, March Madness was going to be held without fans. That was the big thing that dropped, and we had an NBA show planned for the next day, which no one will ever hear. That was with one of our favorite guests, it was sort of a nerdy basketball numbers technique kind of show, and we were trying to decide if we should pivot to talking about March Madness happening with no fans. And we're sort of going back and forth on that on Slack, when "hold up, hold up, hold up, guys, something's going on. We don't know what's going on, the game has been stopped, the current game with Utah," and "everybody just press pause for a second," and then the dominoes started to fall from there. And then it came home real quick with that NBA announcement. So we recorded at, I think, 11:30pm Eastern Time and got the show out, just scrapped what we had and went with a whole new thing, and then from there, I don't think that we knew what would happen. I will say that what has happened in the past few months is very different than what I expected. There has been so much more news to cover. We have not lacked for things to cover at all. There has never been a day that we looked at the calendar and just blankly stared and blinked and said, "Guys, what the hell are we going to put on this show?" There has been a ton, it's just been as much of a buffet as ever. A mix of things related to the COVID impacts, of course: the different plans taking shape for coming back, the different labor agreements that had to happen for any of these leagues to return, to come to an agreement with their players. The next week, actually, we had Tom Brady. Tom Brady is a Tampa Bay Buccaneer now! Who saw that coming? We're like, thank you, Tom Brady, some actual sports news to cover. We had the NFL Draft, we had the US Women's National Team, and we had our own Julie Foudy on, former US Team player to talk about the equal pay lawsuit and developments there. We had just all kinds of news pouring in. And I wanted to give one of my favorite sort of threads that showed how, like all good journalists, we just follow the threads. So we had Jeff Passan in that first week, our absolute star Major League Baseball reporter who's been on the podcast consistently since it started, come to us with an idea that he actually interview some people with first-hand, up-close looks at how the coronavirus was impacting baseball, and that he host those shows. It was a novel idea, novel approach. So he did some excellent interviews for us, including one with Dan Straily, who's a former US Major League Baseball pitcher who now plays in Korea, where baseball was able to restart months ahead, it turns out, of the US. So while we were on that interview, Jeff and I, afterwards, were texting and I think one of us jokingly said, "Hey, ESPN better pick up these rights to Korean baseball, and we might as well put it on TV because it doesn't look like we're going to get any American baseball anytime soon." And, lo and behold, fast forward to May 5th, and that happened.

Pablo Torre 12:50

Hold on, I didn't, I mean--

Eve Troeh 12:52

Korean baseball opening on ESPN! [Laughter]

Pablo Torre 12:56

When we talk about the drunk-with-power Asian agenda, that should be noted. [Laughter]

Nick Quah 13:01

It was a big moment for visibility, I think, for the Asian people. [Laughter]

Eve Troeh 13:06

Once we found out, on a content call, some bigger ESPN company called that that was happening, there's no expert on Korean baseball at the company more so than our own Mina Kimes, who did, I will say--Pablo, I hope you take no offense--but the premier reporting on Korean bat-flipping, which is a feature of the game there.

Pablo Torre 13:28

Yes, and how!

Eve Troeh 13:30

If you know of any other bat-flipping deep dives that come close, let me know, but I don't think so. I think we can say with authority Mina's got that topic cornered. So Pablo actually interviewed Mina, which was a flip, and who knew, a foreshadowing of things to come, on the day that the KBO opened on ESPN about Korean baseball, the different style of play there, the fan base there, what it's like to play games and follow baseball in Korea; sort of a primer on Korean baseball that included this thing that's very taboo in the US, which is they love to flip their bat.

Excerpt from ESPN Daily 14:04

It's almost like spiking a football, Pablo. It's a celebratory gesture. And, as you know, this is something that is taboo in the United States. In Major League Baseball it violates the unwritten rules and executing this maneuver will often result in a hitter getting drilled the next time he's up. But in Korea, bat flips are not only accepted, they're also extremely common.

Eve Troeh 14:31

So Korean baseball is going to be on ESPN. Watching Korean baseball was the first time that a lot of us noticed, "wait a minute, there's sound there. There's crowd sound there that's coming from somewhere. What's going on with that?" And yeah, look it up; they're piping in crowd noise. They have not only had these cardboard cutouts in the stands at the empty stadiums in Korea, but they were, for the broadcast, piping in the sound of crowds cheering and reacting to the different stuff going on on the field. And that put into motion an episode we did a couple weeks ago, just a bigger, deeper look at the role of crowd noise in sports and how broadcasters, players, and others would be adapting to this fact of there being no crowds, no fans in the stands to cheer--or boo, for that matter. So I got to say, overall, these past few months, we've just followed the thread and it's taken us where we need to go every time. And I do agree with Pablo, we've produced some of our most interesting, dynamic, creative work in these past few months.

Nick Quah 15:32

Past few months, but there's really no end in sight. So then what? More in a minute. So the show, to me, kind of feels like a rebuild process because it sounds a little different, it's paced a little differently. But it's also happening during what feels like sports leagues also rebuilding themselves. We're in the middle of this, but it does feel like a first push to get sports back into operation. We're recording this in early August, chances are it's going to come out in mid-August. I don't know the baseball league is going to be still playing around that time. It looks like the NBA bubble is gonna hold. The NFL, that's gonna pick up at some point, and college sports, probably. Maybe. I don't know.

Pablo Torre 16:39

I'm tugging at my collar, Nick. I am tugging my collar like a cartoon character.

Nick Quah 16:44

So I guess my question is, does this feel like everybody's holding their collective breath? Is that the feeling that you guys have going into every every episode at this point? Because it feels like naturally the frame of ESPN Daily in these next few weeks is looking at something that feels quite fragile.

Pablo Torre 17:00

The fragility of this is absolutely the--that's the number-one overarching story. That's the lens through which I think all of sports is seeing itself through. But I also think that existentialism is felt far more, probably, by the people in the C-suite at ESPN, who are managing live rights, and billion dollar contracts in some cases, and they feel it in that bottom line sense. For us, I think, it is this geyser of stories. One of the stories that I've really enjoyed following is exactly the story that you described, which is ostensibly terrifying. I mean, we had Dr. Fauci on the podcast last week. And that's not something that we have the opportunity to do when sports is not so teetering on the edge of this canyon. And so for me, like, oh, what, wow, somehow sports is in the center of this story, and that opens up all of these doors to people that are genuinely awesome guests for a podcast, and also people who I think the sports audience would really enjoy listening to. And so when that is married and multiplied--force-multiplied--by the movement in America towards racial justice, I think those two stories we could do--I don't think we will or should do this. But, Eve, correct me if I'm wrong, we could do a daily show that only talked about that stuff. And in some senses, the struggle is to make sure we leave space in our appetite for the rest of it, because there's also other stuff going on. But the terror of there not being sports is not even scary to me in that sense. It's actually, again, like, morbidly exciting as someone who covers this stuff.

Eve Troeh 18:48

Yeah, I would say that when we look back over the past few months, I would be remiss in not also mentioning the death of George Floyd as something that came in as a major topic for us, and something that we knew we had to and wanted to find creative ways to cover in terms of the conversations it was prompting in the sports world--all across the sports world. We just had some excellent episodes with athletes themselves, whether it's one of the Missouri football players who boycotted the season and stopped playing after Ferguson, or a player in the MLB who was the only baseball player to kneel at the time that Kaepernick did so and faced some really troubling consequences from that, and whose life and career took a fascinating direction, in a way, tied back to that decision. So we've had these two prongs of coverage going, both covering the virus, covering social justice and racial injustice causes that athletes have taken up, and those intersect in a lot of ways. I mean, if you think about the topic of the athlete's voice, and his or her agency, in negotiating with the league on whether and how they're going to protect their health and safety and that of their family in returning to their jobs--playing sports is a job. And if you also talk about that same right to use their job and their platform as an athlete to further causes they care about, and further progress in this country in areas that need to be furthered, and using their voices for that, that's all related. That's definitely not unrelated. And I think we've been able to tie those threads together in fascinating ways.

Nick Quah 18:48

Yeah. So here's something I've been wondering about. I'm curious about the tension when you're choosing topics for an episode. To what extent is it a choice between, a classic sports topic, like "how will Cam Newton fit into the Patriots?"

Pablo Torre 20:43

Sure.

Nick Quah 20:43

And is it a choice between that, and the grappling of, like, how sports has been changed by the pandemic and protests?

Pablo Torre 20:49

Yeah, yeah. I mean, so I'll take this week, and this episode will come out after this week, so I think, you know, spoiler alert. So yesterday, we interviewed J.J. Redick, from the New Orleans Pelicans, and we had a conversation that was very much about his life, and about what it's like to play with Zion Williamson, and sort of a more magazine-feature-y kind of dive, but that was layered with the fact that he was there for the "bubble opener," as we've come to call it, kneeling arm-in-arm with every other player on his team. He has been wildly involved in the NBA activism movement. So it is both things, and not one or the other.

Nick Quah 21:30

So what if this drought in live sports continues past six months from now? Or longer? What is the plan? Is there even a plan?

Eve Troeh 21:41

Let me just pull out this emergency plan in the drawer that I have over here. [Laughter] I do have one!

Nick Quah 21:48

Oh, wow.

Eve Troeh 21:49

It's not in a drawer. It's not printed out, but I do have one. [Laughter]

Pablo Torre 21:51

It's tattooed on my skin. I mean, I think something's gonna happen. And I don't even mean sports' return is assured. I think something else is gonna happen like, there's gonna be some unpredictable chaos that's going to befall our universe in ways that we don't foresee. Thinking about this, "what if everything is like this for six months from now?" That feels like an assumption of consistency, or a stable pattern. It's probably the least likely thing to expect of all, so I'm just anticipating another random chaotic turn here that we'll be forced into covering.

Eve Troeh 22:30

When we heard that the NBA was canceling its season, one of the things we did do the following week was ask people who've been at the company for a long time, doing big in-depth features, whether it's for E:60 or it's for the magazine unit, which now produces just fantastic reporting as digital features. They pulled together a list of 200 of the best long format, long read features that ESPN has ever done. We combed that list and there's just so much there that you could totally tell in podcast form over one episode, some of them could be two or three episodes, so that was a contingency plan that we put together that we did enact a couple of times over the past couple of months. We called it ESPN Daily Essentials, and those produced some really, really fun, just riveting narratives, asking whether the famous "Battle of The Sexes" tennis match was actually rigged, and some insight from a golf pro in Florida that suggested it looks like it probably was, amazing reporting by Don Van Natta. We did a fantastic sports crime story about a boxing coach who had a murder plot against him by his own wife, and actually faked his own death as part of catching her in that, and survived--amazing story from Tisha Thompson. That was an E:60 episode. We had The Last Dance! We had the programming gift of The Last Dance, the--

Nick Quah 24:00

Oh, man.

Eve Troeh 24:02

--unparalleled Michael Jordan documentary that got moved up to April, and we did fantastic programming tie-ins with every weekend that Last Dance episodes were airing. We just had fantastic conversations. I mean, that was about basketball in the late 90s. And we had conversations that felt so relevant to today about the famous line, "hey, Republicans buy shoes too" with Jesse Washington from The Undefeated, about Jalen Rose and facing Jordan in that season, what it was like to play him that season. It was just no lack of great ideas from just the other programming that ESPN is producing, or the great stories that are truly timeless in sports.

Nick Quah 24:41

What a great stretch of content, The Last Dance, just a great stretch for the content economy.

Pablo Torre 24:46

It really was, I mean, just in terms of--

Eve Troeh 24:47

And right on time. [Laughter]

Pablo Torre 24:48

If only podcasts could use memes. That's my only regret there. There's so many good memes.

Nick Quah 24:55

Oh, that's a good take right there.

Pablo Torre 24:58

Note to self: figure out how to make podcast memes, audio only memes. [Laughter]

Eve Troeh 25:04

So I would say, we can't pivot the podcast to be all evergreen narrative-driven features, obviously. But we can find great stories to tell even when there aren't live games being played on the field or on the court. And even, yes, to combat the fatigue of the latest updates on testing, or the pandemic, or fans or no fans. We strive for a diverse mix in every way on any given week between news and narrative, between guests who are telling us a story with a beginning, middle, and end, to guests who are giving us just the sharpest insights and behind the scenes reporting that they have to offer from their latest conversations. So, I think that mix will continue, truly and honestly, regardless of what's in store for the future of live sports in these coming months.

Nick Quah 25:55

Okay, my last question: who is your dream guest, dead or alive?

Eve Troeh 25:59

Ooh!

Pablo Torre 26:00

Ooh!

Eve Troeh 26:00

Wait a minute, that introduces--

Nick Quah 26:02

I can open up--

Eve Troeh 26:03

--a whole different category. [Laughter]

Pablo Torre 26:05

Let's go, let's go. Copernicus. [Laughter]

Nick Quah 26:09

What does he think about the Knicks?

Pablo Torre 26:11

I want Copernicus versus Kyrie Irving in a flat earth first-take style debate, that is my dream episode.

Eve Troeh 26:17

Honest to goodness, I would love to talk to Coco Gauff. I think that would be a fantastic interview for us. And I think she's so dynamic and fascinating, and so young, and has so much ahead of her, and has already accomplished so much. Would love to get Coco Gauff on the podcast.

Nick Quah 26:35

Is tennis coming back? Has that been greenlit yet?

Eve Troeh 26:38

Some tennis is coming back, yes. The Williams sisters will be on a court sometime soon.

Nick Quah 26:44

Amazing. Pablo, dead or alive?

Pablo Torre 26:47

This is like a nerve--Wow. Wow, wow. Dead or alive?

Nick Quah 26:51

[Laughter]

Pablo Torre 26:51

I mean the answer--okay, here it is, I mean, I want Muhammad Ali. I want to do--I want to be Howard Cosell to a revived, phantasmagorial Muhammad Ali. Yeah, I want that dynamic. I mean, what those interviews, man, Cosell and Ali, go into YouTube. Look at that, something along that line of conversation is the most gold standard for interviews, in my opinion.

Nick Quah 27:20

Eve, Pablo, thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me. I really appreciate it.

Eve Troeh 27:24

Thanks so much, Nick.

Pablo Torre 27:25

Nick, thank you for furthering the Asian agenda.

Nick Quah 27:27

Absolutely. We will survive. [Laughter] Pablo Torre, host of ESPN Daily, and Eve Troeh, the show's senior editorial producer. If you're watching Korean baseball, or not, I want to hear from you. Or tell me about a podcast you want to learn more about. Tweet me at @nwquah. Servant of Pod is written and hosted by me, Nick Quah. You can check out more episodes at laist.com/servantofpod. The show is produced by Jessica Alpert, and John Perotti and Rococo Punch. Web design by Andy Cheatwood and the digital and marketing teams at Southern California Public Radio. Logo and branding by Leo G. Finally, thanks to the team at LAist Studios, including Kristen Hayford, Taylor Coffman, Kristen Muller and Leo G. Servant of Pod is a production of LAist Studios.

This program is made possible in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, a private corporation funded by the American people.