ESPN has been firing people left and right, and we’ve even thrown in a few suggestions of our own, but it wouldn’t be fair to pretend that ESPN is all bad. They may represent many of the most repugnant parts of sports media, but they usually represent a lot of the best too, because…well…they basically are sports media, at least on television. (Which number on the dial is FS1 again?) Here are the criteria: full-time employees of ESPN proper only. No part-timers like Bob Ryan or outside producers like PTI’s Erik Rydholm or writers at affiliate sites like ESPNDallas.com. And while we know about plenty of great producers and editors in Bristol, we chose from among people you’ve actually heard of. Here we go:
We couldn’t find a spot in the Top 15 for these folks, but their talent shines so bright, they ought to get a mention.
She walks the line between sophomoric humor and weighty topics better than most and can deftly handle either.
The pro’s pro. There isn’t anything he doesn’t know about baseball, plus he’s a nice guy. Also an avocado lover.
If his role was bigger at ESPN – and it should be – he would be higher on this list. He should be hosting the morning variety show about to go to Mike Greenberg.
Jeff Van Gundy
The best color man in basketball, Van Gundy consistently comes up with interesting on-air tidbits.
He’s been pigeonholed into the “Outside the Lines” corner for years now, but don’t get it confused: the man is the best at what he does.
Just Missed The Top 10
In some order or other, these five fill out the 11-15 spots on our list.
Scott Van Pelt
Every night SVP performs act known as the (live) midnight SportsCenter. That he manages to do so while being original, entertaining, funny, and humane is a credit to him (and the team behind him).
How good do you think you have to be to become a female color analyst in a network/league/world filled with men? Pretty goddamn good is the answer. If preparation is a virtue, she should be in line to be sainted.
It isn’t easy to be really good at breaking stories and being a talking head. Windhorst is excellent at both, and every word he says or writes (including his book w/ Dave McMenamin) is both informative and entertaining.
Jemele Hill and Michael Smith
Hosting your own nightly show that doubles as the first serious update to SportsCenter in…well…ever is about as easy as walking between two skyscrapers on a wire. We’re quite aware that half of all people with an active Twitter account seem to hate these two, but from where we sit, they’ve been doing a pretty damn good job (and getting better).
The boy wonder – he’s only 31 – Torre is one of those people who should annoy you because of all his early success, except for the fact that he’s so likable. Look for much more of Torre coming to ESPN soon. We aren’t complaining.
10. Jay Williams
The poster child for any athlete who has their dreams cut short by injury and pledges to “stay in sports.” Not only is Williams a skilled CBB color man and a great studio analyst, but he’s also a refreshing addition to ESPN’s NBA Draft coverage. Additionally, he is becoming a well-rounded, multi-sport opinion-giver, the kind who can go toe-to-toe with Tony Kornheiser for a week on PTI and leave everyone impressed.
So, what makes him great? Hard work, an ability to mine his own personal history for insights, and a fearlessness in expressing himself, most notably about the NCAA’s exploitation of student-athletes. Did we mention hard work? This guy is uber-prepared…
9. Todd McShay and Mel Kiper Jr.
They get so much airtime for a reason: they’re really fucking good! Kiper literally invented the position of full-time NFL Draft analyst, and by all accounts he hasn’t let up a single inch since the early ’80s. ESPN is crazy for not featuring him more as an analyst DURING the NFL season, although one would presume he’s busy watching college football. As for McShay, he’s just a nice dude (on and off the screen) who does his homework and brings the goods as a guest on dozens of radio shows (in addition to his TV hits). ESPN is smart to use him consistently as an in-season analyst during the college football season. We know the NBA Draft isn’t as big a deal, but would it kill them to increase Chad Ford’s visibility or carve out a draft-centric role for someone like Jay Williams?
8. Louis Riddick
Speaking of the draft, Riddick has killed it the last two years on the main ESPN panel with Kiper Jr. and Jon Gruden. A former player (Falcons, Browns, Raiders) and league executive (Washington and Philadelphia), Riddick has come out of nowhere over the past 3+ years to become ESPN’s most well-rounded football analyst.
Like Jay Williams, Riddick treats his job as seriously now as he did when he was a player. That preparation allows him to take strong stands on the air (as well as to keep those stands bite-sized and TV-friendly). Unprepared analysts never say anything bold, because they’re afraid of being called out. The opposite is true for Riddick. He also has a lot of old-school football guy in him, but a willingness to embraces a new-school approach to the game. A face for TV doesn’t hurt either.
7. Chris Berman
JUST KIDDING!! Peace out leather…
7. Rachel Nichols
It might be quicker to list the things Rachel Nichols can’t do than those she can. She has mercifully moved on from the (mostly useless) sideline reporter role and now hosts her own show, The Jump. It looks like ESPN has bigger plans in store for the show, but her increased role at the network shouldn’t stop there. If we were running things, she would also host NBA Countdown (the preparation for her show would overlap, limiting the workload), be an occasional guest (and co-host) on PTI, and generally be the face of all of their NBA coverage. She has the background, journalistic chops, and intelligence to pull it off, and if you’re one of those viewers who cares about looks (we prefer talent, a novel concept), she’s got those too.
6. Don Van Natta Jr.
That sound you just heard was every Boston reader slamming their computer shut (just kidding – they all stopped reading when we included Jemele Hill and Michael Smith). Van Natta was the author of a piece with Seth Wickersham about the road from Spygate to Deflategate that some Patriots fans took exception to, but he honestly doesn’t deserve to be very high on their list of most hated media members.
Van Natta’s work as an investigative reporter has always been top-notch going back to his days at the Miami Herald and New York Times, and a group of voters at a little prize we like to call The Pulitzer agree. He has three of them. In the era of the talking head, he is as real a reporter as it gets. His best work for ESPN has included pieces on Jerry Jones, Daily Fantasy Sports, and Roger Goodell.
5. Zach Lowe
If you’re wondering why he is on this list, chances are you’ve never read him. Simply put, he’s the most knowledgable writer about the current NBA in the world. His humble nature would never let him admit it, but we would be shocked if NBA executives and coaches don’t pick his brain on a weekly basis, and not just for intel on opposing teams. When TheLead blows up and we have enough lucre to purchase an NBA team, Lowe will be our first hire, as a consigliere/right-hand man to help us pick our front office and coaching staff. Seriously…
We can’t think of anyone else with such a comprehensive understanding of the league, with encyclopedic knowledge about everything from the best way to defend the secondary pick-and-roll to which court designs work best on TV to which assistant coaches are most overdue for a chance at a head job. More importantly for his current role, he gracefully imparts this knowledge through regular must-read columns at ESPN.com, his own podcast, and regular TV appearances.
4. Jay Bilas
Speaking of people more qualified for bigger jobs, Jay Bilas should be the President of the NCAA. His thoughtful takedowns of the (despicable, exploitative) organization – while simultaneously covering college basketball – have been highly influential in the debate over whether to pay college athletes. Frankly, it’s important that someone who looks and acts like Jay Bilas – white, rich, older, conservative in demeanor – has been so steadfast on this issue. Bilas gets through to lots of people whose inclination may be to tune out those who look different from themselves (like the next person on this list).
Outside of his NCAA activism, Bilas is an extremely well-prepared, intelligent, funny, self-deprecating color analyst, but before that he was a lawyer, and he calls games with a kind of fearlessness that comes with not needing the job.
3. Bomani Jones
Bomani Jones may be the smartest person at ESPN (throw in an insatiable work ethic and it isn’t really a mystery why his career is on a rocket ship trajectory). Dude has at least two graduate degrees in addition to his bachelor’s, and served as a pop culture and music critic before switching to sports. He’s a true triple threat: an excellent writer who co-hosts a daily television show and hosts his own daily radio show (as opposed to a writer who happened to be decent on TV and radio). A midday show with Pablo Torre is also rumored to be in the works.
Jones is hated by a large portion of the ESPN demographic (you can probably guess which portion) for his willingness to take on racial issues unapologetically and prolifically. Many of these criticisms are couched in a “why does he have to bring politics into sports?” angle, but you don’t hear him discussing tax policy much, even though he could as an economist. He is discussing race and culture and how they intersect with sports, and he does it in a brilliant, fearless, humorous way that often makes people (WEEI in Boston for example) deeply uncomfortable. We doubt even the harshest of his critics would ever deny his talent, though.
2. Dan Le Batard (and Stugotz)
To paraphrase Barry Bonds, “Talent: you either have it or you don’t. I do.” And so does Dan LeBatard. A columnist for many years and the voice of Miami sports (his only goal in life), LeBatard has ascended to a higher plane with his running buddy Stugotz (and Mike, Guillermo, Roy, etc.) on their long-running Miami-based radio show that has fairly recently gone national. LeBatard is 1,000% love him or hate him. People who don’t get him really don’t get him, and people who like him put him on lists like this. What they do on their show is almost too hard to describe other than by calling it genius, but if you’re still reading this list and you don’t hate it, and you haven’t listened to the show, do yourself a favor and give it a try. It’s gold Jerry, gold.
1. Tony Kornheiser + Mike Wilbon
Is there any doubt PTI is the best regular show on ESPN? And how do you think it got that way (great staff, lead by Erik Rydholm aside)? Kornheiser and Wilbon are both on the Mount Rushmore of sportswriters on TV, a phenomenon largely started by the recently departed Sports Reporters on ESPN (and The Sports Writers on TV from Chicago along with Bud Collins and Will McDonough from the Boston Globe). They both bridge that generation with the current Reali/Torre/Jones/Windhorst generation (Simmons and LeBatard fall somewhere in between), and both still have their fastballs.
Both Kornheiser and Wilbon were great reporters and great columnists (Wilbon still is when he decides to write). They still flex those muscles all day, every day. Kornheiser’s podcast is literally the best there is, Wilbon is great doing the NBA and is probably the most connected media member in the league (in a friends way, not a Woj way), and they are both better together. Their chemistry is often-copied, never duplicated.