ESPN Head of Event & Studio Production David Roberts answered questions on Monday to discuss ESPN’s reimagined NBA game and studio coverage plans for the 2023-24 season. For more on ESPN’s coverage of the 2023-24 NBA season, visit ESPN Press Room.
ROBERTS: Right to the headlines of the press release that went out this morning and the overall comprehensive plan we had for the NBA, again, the headlines are Doris Burke and Doc Rivers joining Mike Breen and Lisa Salters as our No. 1 NBA team, which will include, of course, the big events on ABC right through the NBA Finals.
The second headline, if you will, is Malika Andrews will become the host of all of our Countdown editions, both on ESPN and ABC.
The third headline: Bob Myers will join our Countdown team; four-time NBA champion, the architect of a dynasty with the Golden State Warriors. In addition to joining the ABC editions of Countdown, Bob will also be on the call for some games as an analyst.
Another significant headline, I believe, is the creation of a clear No. 2 play-by-play team for our event: Ryan Ruocco, JJ Redick and Richard Jefferson. They established, doing the few games they worked together last year, that they have an excellent chemistry, and we look forward to seeing them in action on a regular basis during this upcoming season.
The next headline: Hubie Brown. Hubie Brown is going to be back for his 20th season with ESPN and his 50th year covering the NBA. Hubie is excited and so are we. We look forward to his contribution and continuity in what we’re going to do this upcoming season.
There’s plenty to talk about and work with, but I’m really proud of where we are and where we’re heading in the upcoming season.
Q. Dave, just going through the team and everything, pretty much some milestones with Doris [Burke] added to the main team and Malika [Andrews} just with studio, but with Doris and Doc [Rivers}, what makes you confident that they’ll exceed in the top team with Mike [Breen]?
ROBERTS: Well, first of all, Mike has worked with Doris over the past decade or more, and Doris has proven herself as one of the top analysts covering the NBA for quite some time. I’m looking forward to seeing her and the chemistry she already has with Doc Rivers. They’re close friends and they have a mutual respect for one another, both professionally and personally, and those are key ingredients to just having the kind of chemistry you have to have on any team.
With Doc Rivers, you have someone who’s fresh off the bench. Doc has done this job before, but more importantly, he has the type of insight that’s necessary as we talk about the relevancy and currency of the NBA going into the next season and beyond.
Q. How difficult has it been moving the pieces around with Jeff [Van Gundy] and Mark [Jackson]’s contracts being laid off and everything? Just how much trying to juggle the pieces around?
ROBERTS: Well, you know, it’s been a difficult time, which has been reported. We have nothing but the utmost respect and appreciation for the contributions of both Jeff and Mark.
When you make difficult decisions, they’re difficult on several fronts. What I see is, okay, we have to make sure that we continue to present the top-notch quality product that’s been the case with our NBA coverage throughout the term of our contracts with the NBA, and we feel very confident that in Doc Rivers, Doris Burke with Mike Breen, we will continue to carry that tradition.
Q. I know that in talking to people about these decisions, you’ve been a longtime advocate for Doris, been a longtime advocate actually for a lot of women who have moved up when it comes to high-profile on-air positions at ESPN, but these decisions obviously don’t get made in a vacuum, and I’m wondering — understanding that you’ve got to be proprietary to some of this information, how much more involved in these significant kind of decisions are you when you are changing your lead broadcast team and when you’re changing up the lead studio team?
ROBERTS: Well, it’s truly a team effort. It’s a team effort when you make difficult decisions, and it’s a team effort when you make decisions that essentially start a new chapter in what we’re doing.
You’re absolutely right when you say that the decisions are not made in a vacuum, but it’s my responsibility to be able to present a plan and honestly sell a plan based on what’s in the best interest of the business and also serving our NBA fans.
Q. For these kind of decisions, is it accurate to say that Jimmy Pitaro and Burke Magnus had to sign off on it?
ROBERTS: Absolutely. That’s the role they have, and my role is to be able to sit down with both Burke and Jimmy and say, “Here’s what I believe is best.” At the end of the day, the plan was accepted, and so it’ll be a plan that we move forward with.
I appreciate the confidence that they have in the decision-making process to bring Doc and Doris along with Mike Breen, and so now we just have to deliver the results. That’s the nature of the business no matter whether it’s linear television, digital, or print.
Q. One on Hubie. I know that you guys have operated over the last couple years with Hubie sort of on like a one-year basis. He’ll tell you how he feels, you guys tell him how you feel. I think obviously those of us who are fond of Hubie and have loved him over the years, it’s great to see that he’s back. Has he given you any indication how he approaches this, and is it accurate to say that he also approaches this sort of on a year-by-year basis at this point?
ROBERTS: Yes. Hubie and I had great conversations over the last several weeks. He feels good. He knows more about basketball than I’ll ever know, and we’re all very fortunate that Hubie will be back to not only educate the fans but also to educate all of us who work on this franchise.
Q. I was just wondering, in regards to Jeff and Mark, what did you see there that you thought wasn’t working, or what needed to change, and what will we see different there, and what was the decision in terms of changing this up?
ROBERTS: Well, you know, I’m not going to get into the budgetary evaluation process that led to any of the talent impacted by the recent layoffs. What I will say is that what I see in the team of Doris Burke and Doc Rivers is a chemistry that will be based on professional and mutual respect, and as I mentioned at the start, those are key ingredients to a successful broadcast team.
Doris Burke, people will say, well, this is a trailblazing move. You’re absolutely right. But the only way that any trailblazer is successful, whether it’s an African-American or a woman or anyone, is based on the results and their performance, and Doris Burke’s performance and results are unprecedented and unmatched in this industry.
Q. Your conversations with Doc, what was that — he’s just coming off coaching, future Hall-of-Fame coach. Was this a difficult move for him, going back into TV?
ROBERTS: No because he’s been successful at it before. Doc Rivers has spent time getting scouting reports on every team that we’re going to be covering in the NBA, so that fresh insight will also be a valuable asset as we move forward in the execution of our number one games on ESPN and ABC.
Q. A lot of ways you could have gone with the No. 2 team as a company. You could have retained Mark Jackson, paired him with Mark Jones, obviously, they’ve worked a lot together, or you could have gone in the direction which you did. What ultimately led you to replace Mark Jones with Ryan on your second team, and what was it about the chemistry that we saw last year with J.J. and Richard in the booth that made you intrigued about that combination?
ROBERTS: Well, Ryan Ruocco, he worked for me at ESPN Radio in New York, I believe, in 2009. Ryan Ruocco has unlimited potential, and Ryan Ruocco is already an excellent play-by-play announcer.
The few games that Ruocco, Redick and Jefferson worked together, I saw a fun team, an energetic team, and a team, again, with chemistry. You can’t fake chemistry, and at the end of the day when you find chemistry that actually matches with the quality of the product, meaning the NBA games, then it’s an opportunity that I would not pass up.
I’m looking forward to seeing that team come together and perform because that’s a quality team.
Q. In framing the change in the lead team moving forward, do you think it was fair to say that it was mostly financially driven, or was it a combination of financially driven but also wanting to try something different with the lead team, even while acknowledging the good work that Jeff and Mark did?
ROBERTS: Well, the two are separate. Again, the financial ramifications of what led to talent impacted by the recent cuts or layoffs, that’s separate from the decision-making process on what team would exist or be put together following those decisions that were made.
The primary focus of putting together the next No. 1 team with Burke and Doc and Mike Breen is based on the quality of the talent, the chemistry of the team and the knowledge of the sport, and so all those ingredients met the expectations for all of us here at ESPN.
Q. With the move, when you let go of Jeff and Mark and then bring in Doc and I think Doris got a contract extension, how does that work — I just don’t understand the financial aspects of that in terms of how that works. In theory, I think the cuts were to cut budget and to cut salary but then you’re adding salary in the same regards. How does that work from an executive level?
ROBERTS: Well, the totality of the layoffs or talent impacted covered more than just the NBA. So at the end of the day, it’s a matter of what’s the dollar amount, which we’re not going to get into on this call, but at the end of the day, the expectations or required dollars impacted or personnel impacted were met, and it doesn’t mean that we’re not going to operate the business to the max to put the best quality product on the air, and at the end of the day, that’s exactly what happened.
While we had talent impacted by these cuts, our mission was to make sure that, again, the quality was not going to be impacted. What you see in this release is representative of that fact.
Q. In terms of the NBA, how often do you hear from them in terms of what they think about broadcasts and how you guys go about your business?
ROBERTS: We have an excellent partnership with the NBA, and as a matter of fact, I had a great meeting with them over the weekend at the Hall of Fame.
I have an ongoing dialogue with the representatives of the league. Like any partnership, you hear feedback. You get ideas. You come together collectively to see how you can make the best possible product.
The product is based on a wonderful partnership, in addition to just an outstanding product in the NBA.
Q. With the Ruocco-Redick-Jefferson team, what’s the goal for them? How do you see it going forward in terms of — I don’t think generally you guys have named a No. 2 team in the past, and now to have one, what is the reasoning behind that, and what’s your hope for that trio?
ROBERTS: Well, the one thing you have to do in this business is always have succession planning, and in that team, you have the potential making of a succession plan. Might be 10 years away, but at the end of the day, the NBA, based on the product, whether it’s the in-season tournament, games on Saturday night on ABC or whatever, the play-in, the extended Playoffs, I think it’s important that there is a clear established No. 2 team, and I feel real good about where we are.
In addition to that team, the fact that Bob Myers is going to be calling games adds further depth of knowledge to what we’re going to be doing in the NBA this season.
Q. I want to congratulate you on making history here with Doris. As far as we can tell she’s the first one to call a major men’s championship. As you said, that’s really trailblazing. I want to get your thoughts on what’s ahead. You’re making these very important moves as ESPN is about to start negotiations to keep its NBA media package. What are your thoughts or feelings going into that negotiation? How do you think you guys are looking?
ROBERTS: Well, my job is what we actually put on the air, and the negotiations are left at the level of Burke and Jimmy and above.
But at the end of the day, we have a great partnership. We have a great product. I also believe that we have a comprehensive plan that will further put us in a strong position as these rights negotiations continue and looking forward to hopefully completing those rights negotiations in our favor down the road in the near future.
But I’m not involved in the negotiations other than the fact that I’m rooting for us to get the best possible scenario that we can possibly get.
Q. Just wanted to get to the studio question. There will be six different lead studio hosts in just eight years. There’s not a lot of precedent for that kind of turnover on a major sports studio package. Ernie Johnson has been at TNT for 30 years, and even on NBC they’ve only had three over their 12. What can we anticipate as far as Malika going forward long-term? Will we see this be a long-term arrangement?
ROBERTS: Well, we certainly have a whole lot of confidence in Malika Andrews. She has become essentially the face of our studio program — programs, not just program, because she’s going to also continue to be the primary host of NBA Today. But when you look at Malika, you have an excellent journalist, an excellent reporter, someone who has grown in the role when it comes to ESPN’s philosophy versus any of the others that you named.
We did eight hours of free agency programming over a two-day period, and that’s the difference. The difference is we’re not just into what a pregame show is going to be and what our postgame show is going to be. You have a comprehensive series of debate shows and other studio shows that talent such as Malika and Stephen A. Smith and Michael Wilbon all contribute to.
As far as Malika, I believe she just turned 28. I’m not sure, totally sure about that, but she has one hell of a bright future. I have nothing but the utmost confidence in her abilities, and she’s already proven that she’s a hard worker. She works smart. She has the talent to just continue to grow in the role.
Probably long after I retire, I suspect Malika Andrews will be the face of NBA programming here at ESPN and on ABC.
Q. You mentioned all the roles that she’ll have. She’ll be doing the Daily Show, all the Countdown shows. Nobody has done that as far as I can tell since you started doing the Daily Show, to do both the Daily Show and all of the Countdowns. Is there any concern about just stretching her too thin?
ROBERTS: You know, the good thing is part of our plan is we have a primary backup for her on NBA Today as we get into the grind of the NBA season with multiple Countdowns in a week. So you have Chiney Ogwumike, who is going to be the primary backup on NBA Today.
The beauty of working here at ESPN is I strongly believe that we have a deep bench of talent, and again, there are multiple shows that we work on all day long, so that’s why I never get into, well, we’re never going to be in a situation where we have one team that’s going to be on eight weeks out of the season or 18 weeks out of the season for pre and postgame shows. That’s just not how it operates here.
We just have multiple hours of programming, and that’s the differentiation between us and anybody else.
Q. On Bob Myers, a lot of these people who have entered media as a coach or a former GM, they wind up pulling up on honesty because it could be like a revolving door where they want to get back in the league. With Myers, as someone tasked with planning his commentary, how do you get him to be honest about players, coaches, front offices, even owners without kind of jeopardizing relationships with people he might work with in the future if he goes back into management?
ROBERTS: I believe Bob Myers is a very unique talent. As an executive, his track record speaks for itself.
We’re not in the business of playing “gotcha” television, so what I look for in someone like a Bob Myers is, A, his insight, his track record, and the fact that he is one of the most highly respected executives in any sports league.
So, the fact that he’s going to be on Countdown, providing analysis, and on the games doing analysis with whomever he’s going to be paired with, whether it’s Mark Jones or Pasch, we’re going to be in a very strong position with him in that role.
He’s going to be his authentic self, and that’s all I will expect. That’s all he expects.
I don’t think we have to worry about that.
Q. With a brand-new team, you’re looking at cohesiveness, chemistry, that back and forth. What’s so special about this? And to piggy-back off the former question, I see a lot of execs, players, et cetera, and I know that’s the theme of TV. What about your other roster, your other Black reporters, not just ex-players but journalists, guys like Marc Spears, and how do you plan on incorporating those journalists into this new studio program?
ROBERTS: Marc is a regular contributor on NBA Today, and he and I had a great conversation over the weekend where he was inducted at the Hall of Fame, too. His role is only going to elevate because Marc is one of the smartest and most well-connected reporters covering the NBA.
His role has already elevated and will continue to do so.
In terms of other — the other question about how it’s going to work, it’s going to work because you have smart people on the air, no matter the platform, and you also have exceptional chemistry and the potential of what makes a great team.
You put those ingredients along with the quality of the NBA product, meaning you have stars in the present and stars in the future to talk about, and you have the upcoming in-season tournament, an outstanding schedule that we look forward to announcing for Christmas Day, right through the NBA Finals, we’re in a real strong position. So, look forward to the upcoming season.
Q. I have two follow-ups based on a couple things. First off, on the role the NBA plays when you’re making big decisions like this, I’m curious what their biggest input or most common message was throughout this process as you’re talking with them about some of these ramifications?
ROBERTS: Well, I need to emphasize that they were not involved in the decision-making process. I know that some folks gave that opinion on the air, at least I read it somewhere. That wasn’t the case.
But again, their feedback and their input is part of a partnership, and so we respect that. But certainly, the decisions made come from within, and like any good partnership, they’re aware of what’s going on, and they offer their input, and that input is respected.
That’s how that works.
Q. On Countdown, I’m curious, as you bring it together, especially now that you have the group in place, what is the message to them, the priority you see of how you want this year’s Countdown to come across or what you want fans to get out of it this season?
ROBERTS: Well, for the ABC editions of Countdown, you have just premier journalists on ABC’s Countdown. You add Bob Myers to that mix along with [Adrian] Wojnarowski, who’s going to break stories, the biggest stories in the NBA, and you have a Hall-of-Fame journalist in Michael Wilbon, and you have Stephen A. Smith, and you have Malika Andrews, you can’t top that type of reporting, who also bring to the table a high degree of fun and entertainment. I like our chances for elevating the franchise on ABC.
Then on the ESPN editions of Countdown, you have Big Perk, you have Richard Jefferson, you have Chiney Ogwumike, and Malika is hosting that along with Woj.
So that’s the team that we had last year. They’re going to be doing the Wednesdays and Fridays editions on ESPN.
You have two distinctive teams, and one of the goals is to make sure that we differentiate ABC and ESPN, and we believe we will accomplish that, especially with the addition of Bob Myers.
Q. When you look at TNT, the broadcast team has been together for a while and the studio crew, and the NBA graphics and the whole look of the broadcast kind of changed last year. Now one year later the broadcast team is changing and studio crew is changing. How important is it to establish brand affinity with the customers and the consumers on this property?
ROBERTS: It’s real important, and unfortunately, the ESPN brand is among the top if not the top brand in sports among any business, but when you look at, again, the difference between us and Turner, who by the way, I have nothing but the utmost respect for what they do, Barkley, Shaq, Kenny Smith and of course Ernie, we both serve the NBA in very distinctive ways.
We’re not Turner. I don’t want to be Turner because I know we’re not Turner. It’s not our brand and it’s not our mission because we have a different menu of programming and content across all kinds of platforms here at ESPN.
Again, we’re in a great position with the depth of our talent. We believe that the chemistry will continue to improve just based on the moves that we’ve made. So, we’re going to be ready for the season.
Again, part of what we are about is not only the excellent reporting that we have, but we’re looking at every — we’re already looking at everything from the fact that it’s going to be LeBron’s 20th All-Star Game if he gets to that point, which I assume without injury he will; the in-season tournament, you can’t meet the enthusiasm or match the enthusiasm that’s going to come behind what we do for the in-season tournament; right up to the 20th anniversary of Summer League next year.
We’re already focused on all of the big events that surround the NBA. Excellent question.
Q. Stephen A. Smith launched an alternate broadcast last season and he’s doing a lot of different roles. Whether it’s Stephen A. or any other talent, what are the future of the alternate broadcasts with the ESPN property?
ROBERTS: The alternate broadcast will be back. That’s part of what we will have. How we’re going to execute it is still being discussed and reviewed. But there will be an alternate cast, and no one is more conscious of his workload than Stephen A.
Stephen A., the fact that he’s going to be on the ABC editions and not the ESPN editions is just, again, part of differentiating but also recognizing the fact that Stephen A. has a two-hour weekday show, First Take that he has to do, just like Michael Wilbon has PTI weekdays at 5:30 eastern on ESPN.
Those are the types of realities that we manage here at ESPN, and it’s a good problem to have, quite frankly.
Q. With Bob and honestly the insight that he has is incredible. You can’t build a dynasty like he had without that, so that’s an obvious. But on TV, it’s projecting; how do you project in front of the camera, project broadcast-wise? What makes you believe that he is someone that can project in a way that people will be able to fully take in that insight and knowledge because a lot of it is how you deliver in terms of things like that?
ROBERTS: Well, if you had the opportunity to look at how Bob — Bob has his own podcast. He’s interviewed in his podcast everyone from Barack Obama to you-name-it.
I look at the fact that he’s just a tremendously insightful and smart human being who’s curious about more than just sports, for example. So, the fact that he’s someone smart, that means a lot to me, because I’m into having smart folks on the air who are well-prepared and who will bring a point of differentiation, and Bob Myers, I think you’re going to find that he’s a natural. He’s really just good at what he works on, whether it’s an executive; in his previous career he was an agent.
I’ve gotten to know Bob over the past season, as a matter of fact, because he and I have been talking for some time, but I think he will be a difference maker in many ways, and I’m not just saying he’s going to — people are going to come in and he’s going to move the ratings up 20 percent, but he’s a difference maker in terms of just his insight and his ability to relate to not only the people he’s going to be on the air with but to the audience.
Q. I’m sure there are people out there like, “Yo, I can be that person, too.” How many inquiries do you get from others who either are coaching or are playing that feel like they can be in those roles, and how do you weigh those in terms of what you want but knowing there’s others that want to be involved, as well?
ROBERTS: I get a few inquiries from folks playing, currently playing as a matter of fact, and I meet with quite a few people.
But at the end of the day, if I don’t get a sense that someone has any depth of knowledge and are not much more than an empty suit, then I’m pretty good at figuring out who actually has some insight.
I don’t bat 1.000, but I’ve been in the business long enough to know who has substance and who’s nothing more than an empty suit.
Those are the criteria that I look at. Start with smart people, people who are truly team players, and folks who actually know what their mission and their role is. That’s what I look for.