This May (’15), I’ll have been out of college for 12 years. I worked for ESPN for six of those years. To date, it’s the longest-tenured place I’ve ever worked. I haven’t worked there since February 2011, but I still get tons of questions all the time about working there, how to work there, and other associated topics of the like. I was walking to my car last night and thought to myself, “Damn, someday I should write a blog post about that.” Well, here goes.
How do you get a job there?
Obviously there are about 10,000 ways in the door at any large organization; if you’re entering ESPN on the production side, which can often lead to other jobs in other divisions ultimately, probably the easiest way is the PA Trainee Program. There’s a bit of context about it on their Careers page, and a little more in this article. I’m sure the program has changed/evolved over time, but the basic deal is this: you chase someone (it was Fred Brown / Al Jaffe) for interviews, and ideally you get one. You come in and talk about sports with someone, typically Brown. The questions are fairly generic, although you do need to know about sports. A lot will revolve around “How are the Orioles going to do this year?” or “What do you think of the Clippers?” You need to toss out player names and contextual knowledge of the team, their rivals, the state of the landscape in their division, etc. I had a friend who did his interview and got asked to name 5-10 Heisman Trophy winners. It can run the gamut.
If you get into the program, you work for six months at a pretty low rate of pay (although it is central CT, so it’s not that expensive). There’s a ton of churn — 4-6 new people start every Monday. You have a couple of core responsibilities:
- Produce highlights (you log games, work with a Highlight Supervisor on the key moments, work with an editor to splice it together, and write a shot-sheet for the anchor)
- Prompt (i.e. operate the teleprompter and print anchor scripts) for shows like SportsCenter
- Work on SportsCenter and other shows doing VOs (the video you see as anchors talk about issues) and other stuff like “bumps” (content in/out of commercials)
- Send story ideas to senior leadership
- A few other things here and there that I’m missing
Your Days Off
They won’t be Saturday/Sunday, because that’s when sports happens primarily. When I was in the trainee program, my off-days were Tuesday/Wednesday. The best off-days I ever had working in Bristol (production HQ) were Sunday/Monday. I had a more normal schedule when I worked for ESPN The Magazine and ESPN.com in New York, although that was a different ballgame (more on that in a second).
Anyone who reads this and had context/interaction with me at ESPN in Bristol knows my deal with story ideas. For those that don’t, let me try to explain as simply as possible.
Like I said above, your trainee period is six months. That’s 24 weeks, give or take. At the end of the 24 weeks, the senior leadership (Coordinating Producers, or CPs) of the production side meet (they meet weekly anyway) and evaluate your candidacy as a full-time employee. About 70 percent of people, maybe 80, make it through to full-time. It’s a slight pay raise and health insurance, etc. Plus, you can tell all your bro friends that you work full-time for ESPN. It’s vain-glorious at first.
When these senior types meet, two of the big things they evaluate are “shot sheet errors” (which means you wrote something that an anchor would potentially say and it was wrong, hence the anchor would look dumb on air) and “story ideas.” This latter category is what you’d expect. You come up with an idea for a story that could air on ESPN. It can be simple — like a stats graphic — or more complex — like a ‘CB-at-Clemson-is-the-product-of-a-broken-home.’ The world is your oyster.
They tell you when you start that you should send one of these a week, so anything around 24-30 story ideas at your evaluation meeting is good.
When I was in my evaluation period, I actually sent 130. I think it’s still a record.
Here’s why: no, it’s not because I’m an asshole. Although, admittedly, at the time I was somewhat of an asshole. It’s because it wasn’t really that hard for me, and the point of a job should be to provide value where you can.
Look above where I talked about prompting a show, right? Those are 8-9 hour shifts with a dinner break, but the show won’t air until 11pm. So you get in at 4pm/5pm and you attend the show meeting, which takes 30 minutes. Ostensibly, you have very little to do between 6pm and 11pm (or 10:30pm, when you need to start printing scripts for the anchors). I could Google different things and write 2-3 stories in any of those shifts, then send them out. I played to my strengths, sure, but that’s part of it.
I did alright with highlights — I am not the most visual or video-centric person, but I was able to do the highlights for 2005 ALCS Game 3 (a semi-big honor), Seahawks vs. Giants 2005, and one part of Texas vs. USC national championship (the Vince Young game).
I got promoted from “PA Trainee” to “PA 1” at six months (yay) and then from “PA 1” to “AP 1” at 11 months. Normally that PA 1 — > AP 1 jump takes about 30 months. That was a little dicey, and everyone assumed (probably rightfully so) that it came from the story ideas.
For the most part, the people are great. When you meet randos and tell them you worked for ESPN, everyone asks about the anchors, so here goes on that one:
- Scott Van Pelt: One of the nicest, most genuine guys I’ve ever met
- Chris Berman: Super funny, informed dude about sports and general culture (esp. football, of course)
- Steve Levy: OK guy, but can be an asshole here and there
- Stuart Scott: Really nice dude, but can yip at you here and there
- Tom Jackson: Worked on Sunday Countdown doing prompter for the entire 2005 season, and I don’t think he ever once got my name right. Nice dude tho.
- John Anderson: Can be arrogant as hell, but very knowledgeable.
I only worked in Bristol ’05 to ’07, so I missed a lot of anchors you might be currently familiar with.
The producers and senior people are great for the most part, and smart. There is definitely a culture there where people have been around forever, and so they lack context on how other places are run / could be run. Seth Markman is a super smart, well-versed in football, funny dude. He basically runs ESPN’s NFL coverage. He’s also been there forever. There are pros and cons around that model, to be sure.
I worked with Rob King a little bit — he’s a huge big-wig on the digital / overall content side now, I think — and one of the big things I respected about him when I worked there is that he had come from somewhere else (at the time, newspapers).
I had a couple of different experiences in this regard. When I lived and worked in Bristol, I didn’t have a ton of friends. I would say it was a combo of a few factors:
- You have different off-nights than your peers.
- I was probably an asshole.
- I got promoted faster than others, which caused some resentment here and there.
- When I got promoted, I had totally different shifts than my age/start date peers, so I almost never saw them.
- It’s hard to really develop a life when you’re always walking at 3am from work (but many people do it).
I worked with ESPN in NYC from ’07 to ’11. My job changed a few times, but basically I was a content writer/editor/producer for ESPN The Magazine and ESPN.com. I had weekends off. I had better friends at this job, and I had a period where we’d all go to happy hour on Friday around 6pm and basically stay out until 11pm (this was fun as hell but also damaging to my liver and head the next morning), but I never really shook the sense that they were “work people.”
One thing that’s hard with ESPN is the focus on sports. People get in there predominantly because they love it, you know? That only makes sense. But when you want to talk about movies, or politics, or other things — it can be hard. I worked there for Obama ’08. People mentioned it, but people were more concerned with the NFL, the World Series, etc. I just kind of wanted more than that. I’m not sure I really found more in future jobs, but that could be my personal limitations or the limitations of roles that were available to me. Not sure.
Male vs. Female
I’m male, but I imagine it might be hard for a female to work there. I’ve heard it said like 87-13. I don’t think it’s that high a male-female split percentage-wise, but it’s over 50-50, and you have a lot of alpha types in there — and of course, most of the color guys are former athletes. I can’t imagine it’s the greatest place for a female but again, I won’t go deeply into that — I’m not a female so I wouldn’t know 100 percent.
You see this basically anywhere you work — and I’ve learned that in spades since then — but I used to get super pissed about how middle management was always running from meeting to meeting and seemed incapable of responding to / handling even basic things. Now I realize that’s basically normative.
I had a manager there who used to come off vacation and say he couldn’t be bothered for ‘2-3 days’ because of the amount of e-mail volume. I once offered to help him out. He had 315 e-mails from when he was gone. I would say only about two were relevant; they were all offers, status updates (“Running late!” e-mails from a week ago), or some other drivel — or threads that had been resolved. I got 313 e-mails cleared in about six minutes and he stared at me, mouth agape. I basically removed his only way to dump out on the next couple of days and he was half-pissed, half-incredulous. I don’t know if that story really means anything, but I always find it funny.
Two or three of the worst managers I ever had were ESPN people, but some of the better ones — Dan Kaufman, Chad Millman, Robbyn Footlick — were there too. Comme ci, comme ca.
I Wasn’t The Best Employee
Take all this with a grain of salt because, promotion aside, I wasn’t the best employee while I was there. I was depressed about things in my own life, angry about them too, and too often I let that carry over to work. I’m a good worker and a smart kid, but I almost always felt under-utilized while I was there. A skeptic could come back and say, “Well, you should have asked for more to do!” I did. I really did. It just never seemed to work out.
Why Did I Leave?
Two reasons: (1) what I said above. (2) Eventually they wanted to move my entire team in NYC back to CT. I had just moved in with my girlfriend — now we’re married — and I couldn’t really go. I got another job and dumped out. The other job wasn’t necessarily better and I missed ESPN and some of my friends at times, but over time I just started grinding on the next job and thinking about next steps beyond that. I feel like that is often how it goes, but again, I could be naive.
TL:DR: Great place to work, good people, some assholes, some brats, I was an asshole, I wrote a lot of story ideas, I learned some things about myself.