Tag Archives: ESPN

Jimmy Pitaro: Worldwide Sports Leader Leads From Westport

On March 11, Jimmy Pitaro worked at his home office in Westport. He’d just finished a senior staff meeting, examining different scenarios for his company in the onrushing COVID crisis.

That night, the National Basketball Association announced the suspension of its season.

The decision jolted Pitaro. The company he chairs is ESPN.

The next morning — as sports leagues around the world followed the NBA’s lead — Pitaro and his programming team began planning for every possible scenario.  Their goal: keep the global sports network in business, when the business of sports had suddenly changed around the globe.

Jimmy Pitaro, at ESPN headquarters. (Photo/Joe Faraoni)

Pitaro gives his team plenty of credit. They obtained rights to WWE wrestling, and partnered with Korean baseball. They accelerated development of “The Last Dance,” a 10-part docuseries about Michael Jordan and the 1997-98 Chicago Bulls.

Behind the scenes, ESPN scrambled to set up in-home production systems for more than 550 on-air men and women.

The moves kept programming going 24/7, in more than 200 countries. That kept anxious advertisers at bay.

When live events slowly started again, ESPN found ways to cover them remotely. Gone were gigantic production trucks; in their place were producers, play-by-play announcers and analysts covered competitions from studios and homes.

Some of those changes may continue, post-pandemic. So will demand for sports documentaries. ESPN’s features on martial artist Bruce Lee, bike racer Lance Armstrong and baseball sluggers Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire found ready audiences.

The number of outside filmmakers pitching ideas now is “off the charts,” Pitaro says.

ESPN is looking for those that are “big, bold and needle-moving. We’re asking: How can we capture the zeitgeist? Where can we make an impact?”

The network is as much about story-telling and investigative reporting as it is about showing games and matches. Pitaro says he surrounds himself with “great people,” then trusts them to deliver.

Among them: fellow Westporter and ESPN producer Andy Tennant. The other day, over breakfast at The Granola Bar, they discussed shows like “E60,” the newsmagazine that Pitaro says combines “substance, heart and humor.”

Pitaro became chair of ESPN in 2018, after 8 years at its parent, the Walt Disney Company. From his first days at “The Mouse,” Pitaro and Disney chair Bob Iger talked about sports, and Pitaro’s opportunities there.

His athletic background is strong. A Scarsdale native who played football at Cornell University, Pitaro grew up in a house where “ESPN SportsCenter was the soundtrack of my life.” New York Yankees, Giants, Knicks and Rangers games were always on. His sister, Lara Pitaro Wisch, is now general counsel for Major League Baseball.

Jimmy Pitaro, mid-pandemic. (Photo/Phil Ellsworth)

Pitaro’s wife, meanwhile, is actress Jean Louisa Kelly (“Uncle Buck,” “Mr. Holland’s Opus,” “Top Gun: Maverick”). When Pitaro joined ESPN he commuted to headquarters in Bristol, Connecticut from Los Angeles.

That was unsustainable. In mid-2018 the couple, and their 2 children, moved to Westport.

“It’s perfect,” Pitaro says. “My wife needs to be near Manhattan. It’s right between New York and Bristol. We love the water. We had friends here — including the woman who introduced me to my wife 27 years ago. We fell in love with the town.”

Their son Sean, a rising Staples High School senior, is a boxer who trains at Rich Dean’s Post Road studio. Daughter Josy, a rising sophomore, is active in Staples Players, and studies acting, voice and dance with Cynthia Gibb’s Triple Threat Academy. She also enjoys tennis, with Beth Norton at the Westport Tennis Club.

“We love it here. We couldn’t be happier,” Pitaro says.

Countless sports fans across the planet say the same thing about ESPN’s pandemic pivot. At a time of crisis, the company scored.

Remembering Joe Valerio

Joe Valerio — noted producer of ESPN’s long-running Sunday morning “Sports Reporters” series, and a longtime Westporter — died Sunday, of pancreatic cancer. He was 71.

Valerio began in the programming department in ESPN’s first days. But he was best known for overseeing “The Sports Reporters.” The show aired weekly, from 1988 through 2017.

ESPN reporter — and fellow Westporter — Jeremy Schaap paid tribute to Valerio:

According to ESPN, “Valerio was known for his passion, sharp wit, and smarts. A groundbreaking program featuring newspaper columnists debating issues in sports, The Sports Reporters helped usher in a new genre of sports studio programming, while bolstering the profile of some of the most renowned sports personalities in the industry.”

(In 2017, Schaap reflected on “Sports Reporters”‘ impact. His comments include thoughts about Valerio. Click here to read. Click here for more on Valerio, from ESPN; click here for other tributes. Hat tip: David Tetenbaum)

Joe Valerio

 

2 For 40 Under 40

There are 169 towns and cities in Connecticut. But 2 Westporters — one current, one former — have made Connecticut Magazine’ s “40 Under 40” list. The feature celebrates 40 Nutmeggers doing interesting and/or important work, all before their 40th birthday.

Andy Friedland now lives in New Haven, but he grew up here. Here’s the magazine’s shout-out to the 2008 Staples High School graduate:

With a sharp rise in hate crimes statewide nationally and internationally in the past 3 years, Friedland’s job as associate director of the Anti-Defamation League’s Connecticut office keeps him busy.

A former team leader with AmeriCorps, he is a primary responder to combat anti-Semitism, other bias incidents and all forms of bigotry. He works with schools, law enforcement and “whoever comes into the picture” to educate people about anti-Semitism and its local origins.

Friedland has led educational programs on topics such as the Holocaust and genocide and the separation of church and state. He has lobbied for and testified for the ADL’s initiative Backspace Hate for legislation to address online harassment, including cyberstalking.

Connecticut has good laws, Friedland says, but adds that it’s important to “keep laws up to date and take on the issues that are really important and dangerous.”

Andy Friedland (Photo by Harold Shapiro for Connecticut Magazine)

Dan Orlovsky grew up in Shelton, but lives here now. His writeup says:

Orlovsky has been famous in Connecticut since he was a teenager. In 2000, the senior quarterback led Shelton High School to an undefeated season and the Class LL state championship before being named state player of the year.

Despite receiving interest from traditional college football powerhouses, Orlovsky stayed in state and attended UConn. He rewrote the school’s record book — still holding every major passing mark in Huskies history to this day — and also led UConn to the program’s first bowl game, a 39-10 win over Toledo in the Motor City Bowl in 2004. Orlovsky was named MVP of the game.

The Detroit Lions selected Orlovsky in the fifth round of the 2005 NFL Draft. Serving mostly as a backup QB in his 12 years in the league, Orlovsky was uniquely preparing himself for his second career as an ESPN football analyst.

Orlovsky was already considered a rising media star when he joined the network in 2018. Now he provides color commentary in the broadcast booth (he recently called the Camping World Bowl on TV and the Rose Bowl for radio) and intelligent and insightful analysis on studio shows including Get Up!, NFL Live and SportsCenter.

Dan Orlovsky (Photo by Melissa Rawlins/ESPN for Connecticut Magazine)

Congratulations, Andy and Dan. And to all you other Westporters under 40: Get to work!

(For the full “40 Under 40” story, click here. Hat tip: Amy Schafrann)

Chris McKendry: “Best Job At ESPN”

Chris McKendry may have “the best job at ESPN.”

And — according to Sporting News — it may be the start of “a different relationship in the future between on-air talent and TV networks” everywhere.

McKendry — a Westport resident — spent 20 years anchoring “SportsCenter.”

Now she’s a fulltime tennis sportscaster. As Grand Slam host, she travels the world covering the US Open, Wimbledon and Australian Open.

But that leaves plenty of time to raise her 2 sons.

Or — if she wants — to work for another network. (Just not on tennis.)

This summer, the former Drexel University tennis player hosted over 150 hours of US Open Coverage. The 16-hour days — for 2 long weeks — were grueling. But it was worth it. Ratings were up 8% over last year.

Sporting News’ interview with McKendry covered a range of topics. To read the full transcript, click here.

(Hat tip: Jeff Mitchell)

Chris McKendry (Photo courtesy of Sporting News)

“The Sports Reporters” Ends; Westport’s ESPN Link Stays Strong

This  morning marked the final broadcast of “The Sports Reporters.” ESPN ended the provocative roundtable discussion show after 29 years.

Joe Valerio

Westport has many connections to the Bristol-based broadcast. For the past 27 years the producer was Joe Valerio, a longtime resident whose son Brian graduated from Staples in 2003.

Former Westporter Dick Schaap was the 2nd host. On September 16, 2001 the show expanded to an hour, to explore (from a sports perspective) the terrorist attacks of 5 days earlier.

Schaap delayed hip replacement surgery in order to host that show. It was his last, as he died from complications 3 months later.

Another former Westporter — New York Times and Sports Illustrated writer  Selena Roberts — was a regular panelist.

Jeremy Schaap

“The Sports Reporters” will be replaced by a morning edition of “E:60,” ESPN’s news magazine. Co-hosts are Bob Ley — and Jeremy Schaap.

The 1988 Staples High School graduate has returned to his hometown.

The other day, Schaap wrote about growing up with “The Sports Reporters.” He began with a tribute to Valerio:

When I think of The Sports Reporters, and I do, often, I think of the big brown paper bags filled with dozens and dozens of H & H Bagels that producer Joe Valerio brought to the set every Sunday morning—when the show was still in New York and before H & H went out of business. (By the way, how exactly does the best bagel bakery in New York go out of business, ever? A pox on Atkins.)

I think of those early mornings, still kind-of-warm bagels — the obvious but still true New York analog of the Proustian Madeleine — and, as they were being consumed, the pre-taping banter among the panelists. In the tradition of producers of talk shows everywhere, Valerio, who’s been producing the show since 1989, would tell everybody to save their best material for the set, not to leave it in the makeup room, but there was never more than semi-compliance.

Click here to read the rest of Schaap’s thoughts on “The Sports Reporters,” as he brings the Westport/ESPN Sunday morning connection full circle. And click here, to see some of the top reporters in the sports world give the show — and Joe Valerio — some love.

(Hat tip: Tom Haberstroh)

Jeremy Schaap Scores Big

Lost in the uproar over FIFA’s bribery/racketeering/wire fraud/money laundering scandal is the fact that not only did Qatar probably earn its 2022 World Cup site selection the old-fashioned way — they bought it — but that they are now using slave labor to build its stadiums.

Up to 1,200 migrant workers may have already lost their lives in construction accidents. (Qatar claims the number is 0.)

Jeremy Schaap

Jeremy Schaap

Westporter Jeremy Schaap reported on the nation’s despicable work conditions for ESPN. Now, his “E:60” story has won a Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award, given for investigative journalism on social justice issues. It’s the 1st RFK Award ever for the sports network.

Schaap — a 1988 Staples grad who has returned to Westport to live — traveled to Qatar to investigate working and living conditions, and to Nepal, where coffins from Qatar arrive almost daily.

The 47th Annual RFK Awards for Journalism were presented at the Newseum in Washington, DC last month. For Schaap, speaking with Kennedy’s widow Ethel was both professionally rewarding and personally gratifying: His father, noted journalist Dick Schaap, wrote a biography of Robert Kennedy, published just months before the senator was assassinated in 1968.

Jessica Gelman, Tom Haberstroh Star In Special “Super Bowl”

When Jessica Gelman starred on the Staples High School basketball court in the early 1990s, Tom Haberstroh was just entering elementary school.

As he grew up — and became a Wrecker hoops player himself — their paths crossed occasionally. Tom says, “She was the first athlete to teach me that girls could kick guys’ butts.”

Jessica Gelman, at work. (Photo/Sports Business Journal)

Jessica Gelman, at work. (Photo/Sports Business Journal)

Jessica went on to star at Harvard, play professionally in Europe and enter the New England Basketball Hall of Fame. After earning an MBA at Harvard, she’s now a high-powered vice president with the Kraft Sports Group, handling marketing strategy for the New England Patriots and Revolution. Last year, Sports Business Journal named her to their “Forty Under 40” team.

Tom’s path took him to Wake Forest. He’s been an ESPN NBA analyst since 2010.

Jessica Gelman fights for a rebound, as a Staples junior.

Jessica Gelman fights for a rebound, as a Staples junior in 1992.

Both Jessica and Tom are numbers guys people. She took high-level math classes at Staples, learned to use data as a pyschology major in Harvard, and became an early leader in the field of sports analytics. (Her database of 3.4 million names makes Kraft the envy of the sports world.)

A decade ago, she taught a course on sports analytics at MIT Sloan School of Management with Daryl Morey. When he got a new job — general manager of the Houston Rockets — they turned the class into a conference.

The initial event, in 2006, drew 150 people. (“Half of them were my friends,” Jessica jokes.) Nine years later, she’s still the chair.

This year’s conference — tomorrow and Saturday (February 27-28) — will draw over 3,000 industry leaders. Michael (“Moneyball”) Lewis, statistician Nate Silver, US Soccer president Sunil Gulati, and league commissioners Adam Silver and Rob Manfred are among the presenters.

So is Tom Haberstroh.

Tom Haberstroh, as a Staples senior in 2004.

Tom Haberstroh, as a Staples senior in 2004.

Like Jessica, he’s a sports industry leader in the field of analytics. He parlayed his background — which included Jen Giudice’s AP Statistics course at Staples, and the strong influence of math teacher Rich Rollins — into a highly respected specialty.

(In a small-world coincidence, Jessica’s former colleague Daryl Morey used an ESPN statistical segment of Tom’s to promote Dwight Howard for the NBA All-Star game.)

A few years ago, Tom introduced himself to Jessica at the Sports Analytics Conference. They kept in touch. This year, Jessica asked Tom to moderate a panel on the growth of sports science and data collection.

The 2 former Staples basketball players are huge fans of each other.

“Jess just won the Super Bowl with the Patriots,” Tom says. “Now she’s running a Super Bowl conference of her own.”

Tom Haberstroh

Tom Haberstroh

“Tom’s stuff is great!” Jessica replies.

Both look forward to this weekend’s conference. Tom jokingly calls it “the Super Bowl for sports nerds.”

Don’t be fooled. If the conference adds a 2-v-2 basketball game to the agenda, Jessica Gelman and Tom Haberstroh will kick everyone’s butts.

 

David Lloyd’s Subtle Shout-Out To Westport Little League

As host of ESPN’s 1-3 p.m. weekday Sportscenter, David Lloyd can’t play favorites.

But that didn’t stop the Staples grad from adding this little bit of support on his Twitter profile to the Westport Little League team that vies for the New England championship starting Friday:

David Lloyd

And where does the tournament take place?

Bristol, Connecticut — ESPN’s back yard.

David is on vacation this week. No word on whether he took the time off to cheer on his favorite hometown team.

Debra Haffner To ESPN: That’s A Foul!

When Jason Collins came out as the 1st gay male athlete currently active in a major American team sport, ESPN’s Chris Broussard called homosexuality “an open rebellion to God.”

Some Americans said “amen!” Many more said “aaaargh!”

Rev. Debra Haffner

Rev. Debra Haffner

Debra Haffner swung into action.

Rev. Haffner — president of Religious Institute, the Westport-based national multifaith organization advocating for sexual health, education and justice in faith communities and society — organized an online petition.

It read:

Stop Trying to Score Points By Misrepresenting My Religion!

If ESPN addresses religious issues, it must include leaders from the many religious traditions that affirm sexual and gender diversity as a blessing, or they must cease from commenting on such issues entirely. We strongly support open dialogue, but true dialogue cannot be one sided.

ESPN

Haffner and her organization then had “dialogue” — phone conversations and emails — with Monica Diaz. ESPN’s vice president for diversity, inclusion and wellness cited her network’s long history of commitment to women, people of color and the LGBT community.

Okay, said Religious Institute. But if the on-air comment had been racist rather than anti-gay, it would have been dealt with immediately — and in far stronger terms than ESPN’s president’s initial tepid apology.

Haffner says she and her staff will work with ESPN to ensure a broad spectrum of religious views when reporting future stories.

If, that is, ESPN feels the need to include religion at all.

DJ Sixsmith Hangs With Bob Ley

“06880” is a big fan of DJ Sixsmith.  The Staples senior is a mega-talented radio and TV sportscaster.  He’s got a good shot at becoming the next Bob Ley.

The real Bob Ley knows it too.  The other day the ESPN star wandered down from Bristol, and over to the Staples Media Lab.  He and DJ chatted about their careers.  (Bob’s is longer — he joined ESPN on its 3rd day of existence in 1979, more than a dozen years before DJ was born.)

They also talked about the March 22 fundraiser Bob is hosting at Fairfield University.

Bob Ley (left) and DJ Sixsmith.

The event — which also includes Bob’s colleagues Josh Elliott, Chris McKendry and Justin Kutcher — offers an outside-the-lines, behind-the-scenes look at ESPN, like how the shows get on the air, and all the fun stuff left in the newsroom that viewers never see.

It’s a benefit for FSW, the 161-year-old Bridgeport-based social services agency (formerly Family Services Woodfield).  Bob is a board member, and DJ helped promote the event (including a silent auction) on the air.

On Tuesday, Bob Ley will tell tales about his work — everything from announcing World Cup soccer and NCAA Final Fours, to covering an earthquake during the 1989 World Series and assessing the impact of the 9/11 terror attack on sports.

DJ Sixsmith does not have that resume — yet.  He’s called some pretty exciting basketball and football games, but the Staples Wreckers are not the Green Bay Packers.

Then again, when Bob Ley was 17, Howard Cosell didn’t wander into his high school station to say hi.

(Tickets for “Outside the Lines & Behind the Scenes at ESPN” are $20 general admission; $50 for a meet-and-greet and auction.  Click here to order, or for more information.)