Michelle Beadle just spent a good chunk of time verbally sparring with professional wrestler Ronda Rousey. She’s got another battle looming on Monday morning.
Beadle, the veteran ESPN sportscaster, will team up with popular ESPN radio host Mike Greenberg and former pro-basketball player Jalen Rose to help the Walt Disney-backed sports network open a new front: “Get Up,” a morning show that aims to deliver sports with a little something extra. Or maybe not. But probably.
Can we get back to you in a few weeks?
“Failure is not an option,” says Rose, holding forth in a brand-new studio ESPN designed in Manhattan’s South Street Seaport. “Yes it is,” cracks Beadle, responding to her co-host. “But it’s sort of out of our control.” The set is festooned with neon signs, giant wall screens and a spiral staircase. Viewers will be able to see the sun rise over the water behind the hosts and the network has put filters over the windows to keep out glare when necessary.
No sun screen, however, will keep this trio from being scrutinized in days to come. The three hosts spent several days at both ESPN’s Bristol, Conn., headquarters and in New York in rehearsals (one included the back-and-forth with Rousey), and are part of one of ESPN’s biggest programming swings in years. Beset on all sides by rivals with “hot-talk” studio shows and radio hosts who can say almost anything they like about sports and its links to life and culture, the “Worldwide Leader in Sports” has been casting about for ways to give fans the news, stats and highlights they crave, but with a little more personality. A little swagger. But not too much.
“Part of the charge is to try and deliver something fresh for ESPN, and we have that on our minds,” says Bill Wolff, the show’s executive producer. “But we also can’t get untethered from the basic mission, which is to serve sports fans.”
ESPN has for several years tried to make a bigger play for the morning audience. In 2015, ESPN and its Disney sibling, ABC announced that Greenberg and his longtime radio partner, Mike Golic, would move their program to New York and share resources with ABC’s “Good Morning America.” The two networks planned to sell joint ad packages involving both programs. ESPN executives changed their minds a few months later. Costs were suspected to be at issue.
They don’t seem to be any longer. “Get Up” is broadcast from a large facility that is expected to house other network programming as well – including “NBA Countdown,” in which Beadle and Rose will continue to participate, adding some late nights to their early mornings. Construction is well underway, for instance, on a studio for podcasts. The roof offers panoramic views of the city and New York’s East River and is slated to serve as a place for concerts and events orchestrated by a different company. “Get Up” will likely broadcast on occasion from the top of the building. Cameras are already mounted outside to bring Manhattan views to the audience. And the show’s New York presence is likely to bring a wider array of guests and visitors than a program based in Bristol.
“Any time you can be away from the mothership, you feel like you have more freedom,” says Beadle. “It’s sort of the parents-aren’t-in-town feel. Let’s try to loosen up and have a little more fun. That’s what you will have here.”
ESPN joins a crowded A.M. market. “Get Up” isn’t trying to compete with “Morning Joe” or “Good Morning America,” but it may do so anyway. And besides, there are other sports options in the morning, including Fox Sports 1’s “First Things First.” NBCSN simulcasts a broadcast of Dan Patrick’s radio show. CBS Sports Network offers a similar airing of Boomer Esiason and Gregg Giannotti’s WFAN morning-drive program.
Greenberg, Beadle and Rose “have the potential to do and say really compelling things that will drive the internet and in turn drive viewership,” says Brian Donlon, a TV producer who executive produced “Cold Pizza,” a morning show for ESPN 2, last decade. Even so, he urges patience. “Morning viewers are brand loyal and that’s why it takes forever to get people to change their habit,” he notes. “You really have to prepare to stay in the trenches and slug it out.”
The show debuts as ESPN continues to wrestle with the voice and tone of some of its studio programs and its flagship “SportsCenter.” The network has a success on its hands with Scott Van Pelt’s late-night “SC” broadcast, which mixes humor and the host’s eye-view with the requisite sports results. But executives found viewers less enamored of the commentary-driven “SC6” anchored by Michael Smith and Jemele Hill. Both anchors have moved on to other duties within the company.
The team knows what viewers want, says Greenberg. “If I put on ESPN, it is because I have a right to expect I’m going to get the very best sports coverage that you can get, and I don’t think we want to stray too far from that. It doesn’t mean the day after the Oscars we aren’t going to talk about who should have won. It doesn’t mean on any day – I saw Paul McCartney at the Garden last fall and I talked about seeing the concert. We will do that. And it doesn’t mean if a really cool movie star is going to be in town – we’ll do a little bit of that,” he says. “But if I put on ESPN, I want sports and I think that’s what we’re going to give them.”
The balance, however, can be difficult to maintain. “Cold Pizza” covered things like the Golden Globes and the Republican and Democratic National Conventions. Bob Seger and John McCain appeared as guests. “Kobe wins an Oscar – how do you not go crazy on that story if you’re doing that show?” asks Donlon, referring to Kobe Bryant’s recent win of an award for Best Animated Short Film. “People think we went too far on some things,” he recalls, including a regular segment examining the intersection of sports and Hollywood. “But people like that stuff. I understand their reticence, but no one else is going to be doing that and it’s a really good opportunity.”
Rose seems eager to take on whatever topic seems meaningful at the time. He is the founder of a charter school, and while the subject did not come up in test shows, he’s willing to bring it up if education policy enters into the discussion.
“Get Up” is likely to evolve quickly as hosts and producers find their groove, says Greenberg. “We will launch on April 2nd and if you watch the show on May 2nd, we will look totally different,” he says. “I believe we will be a good show when we launch Monday, and I believe strongly we will be better a month later and better still a year later.”
Will “Get Up” stick to sports or take more than an occasional swing at bigger, even controversial topics? “The balance is the trick,” says Beadle. “We don’t force topics, but we are not muzzled either.”