The interview transcription below is made up of excerpts from Clarity Stripe’s Q&A conversation with ESPN’s Bob Ley, for the full interview, watch the video above.
Ben Harris: Do you believe the continuation of professional, and eventually collegiate, sports through the pandemic has been a successful one?
Bob Ley: Everyone has a different metric for success. Everything is measured against one thing in this country… money. The games will get played, the games will get televised, but baseball last year had this bastardized season which exposed the bigger problem coming down-the-line for baseball which is the re-inflammation of all of their labor problems. The NBA played successfully in the bubble while managing the social justice movement and having that dialogue with the players. So on balance, yes, but I mean if you ask (the public), it’s probably been one of the more ‘perceived-to-be’ successful aspects of society functioning (during the pandemic), far better than public education. But there have been enough other questions raised about it that I think are going to linger and are going to demand answers going forward.
BH: Obviously, you were a local boy so that played into it but what specifically about the offerings and programs at Seton Hall, when you were making your decision, kind of drew you in?
BL: It’s a really easy answer: 89.5 FM… Seton Hall recruited me at 89.5 megahertz. Orientation was in August, maybe 3 to 4 weeks before classes began, and so I showed up at the radio station on the 1st day and walked into the control room in the Walsh, this is the old SOU which has no relation to the starship enterprise that is there now, and Frank Scaffidi, who is now the chief engineer who succeeded the late, beloved Tom Parnham. Frank was I think a sophomore at the time was on the board, I introduced myself as an incoming freshman and within 20 minutes he had me sitting at the board, hitting carts, running breaks and I was running (the radio station). And so I wasn’t even in the class yet and that was setting the tone for the next four years. Which basically that was my home away from home that radio station, making friendships that endure to this day 50 years later… SOU was the hub of my social existence at Seton Hall.
BH: You’ve had the opportunity as of late, much to the pleasure of myself and other sports media students here at the Hall, to be involved with SHU sports showcase discussions and calling the St. John’s game with WSOU last year among other opportunities. What has it meant to you to be able to tap into your Pirates roots in this fashion?
BL: It’s been extremely meaningful. You’re able to help at what I call the retail level. You’re able to talk 1-on-1, to answer questions, speaking in some of Professor Schecter’s classes, or on some of the panels that we’ve been able to put together like our 3-part panel that we did for the sports media speaker series during Black History Month. Or our show presentation with Bob Costas back in November 2019. To be able to put that out there for students to take advantage of, to ask questions, to be exposed, to maybe be inspired, and to see it in their face. To see the excitement and enthusiasm, that means a great deal because we all need something that will boot us up to that next level of interest, of enthusiasm and ambition. I like to think that I’m not done learning about my so-called current profession, and so the day that you think you’ve learned it all — danger, danger, Will Robinson.
BH: Was there anything about the sports media industry that you wish you knew when you entered it? Like anything that took you by surprise in a good or bad way?
BL: I think the one thing that I learned early on was working overnights at WR Radio with John A. Gambling, was that working with a 21-year-old kid here’s this Hall of Fame radio broadcaster who treated me like an Equal. He was a regular guy… If you deal with people the way you want to be dealt with, for the most part, that’s a formula for success. As for the overall business of sports… The smart people who can see the next trends, those are the ones who will know where we’re going and how the next change will happen because if anyone tells you they knew five years ago today that this is where we would be today in 2021, then show me their lotto ticket for tomorrow.
BH: Especially with how fast technology for broadcast and internet journalism it’s created a landscape that is completely unpredictable. Having to overcome things you can’t expect is an unfortunate situation that everyone is in.
BL: It’s that, but it’s exploiting the new technologies as best you can.
BH: In your career, you helped bring some of the most important stories in sports to the public eye via OTL. What current figures within sports media and journalism do you think are doing some of the best and most important work out there?
BL: Well still, “E60” and the “OTL” folks at ESPN continue to do distinguished and important work… Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru had a story back in December about how the NBA officials in China had complaints about abuse among students and players in this training facility were well know. The greater point was that the NBA was on notice… The Athletic is a go-to outlet for smart writing… I’ve missed reading good stuff and The Athletic is a good place for that. The Undefeated at ESPN always has compelling stuff… just things that provoke thought. I’ve often flocked to The Sunday Long Read which is run by my friend Don van Natta… I highly recommend it because it’s a living laboratory of the best ongoing journalism that’s going on right now.
BH: ESPN has endured a lot of changes, whether it be staff-wise, content-wise, or general direction-wise as of late. That being said, do you think the company is still miles ahead of the competition and being innovative enough to stay that way, or is the gap closing between them and other sports media giants?
BL: Oh all the people chasing ESPN would want you to believe that they are about to tackle them out of bounds at the seven. Full disclosure, I worked there for almost 40 years but I think I’m smart enough and honest enough to factor out the emotion of it and become objective. I’d much rather be ESPN in the current media environment with its reputation, with its leadership, with its brand and branding, with its contracts for content than any other provider. They’ve had to reinvent themselves… You have to accept the fact that you have to adapt to the marketplace… it gets back to seeing over the horizon and seeing what the iceberg is and not stopping for ice cubes.
BH: What newer ideas and practice(s) within sports media in the 21st century do you think have left the biggest impact and what modern developments at ESPN did you take the most notice of?
BL: The ability of athletes to bypass the media. We witness The Players’ Tribune, which may make more money for Derek Jeter than his share of the Marlins… I talked about the lack of trust in the media and the ability for athletes to market themselves, to sell themselves, to tell their own story without having to submit themselves to the media — that’s important. You see that in joint enterprises that networks engage in with athletes. LeBron through SpringHill Entertainment, he and Maverick Carter. Content providers; my good friend and former colleague, Jemele Hill. So there is so much content that athletes and leagues can put out their own way… So now it comes to the discerning consumer at home to watch everything critically… say where’s this from, what’s their dog in this fight, are they reputable, and do some fact-checking.
BH: You need to be able to understand not only the content that you’re being shown, but why that content is being portrayed in certain ways. I think it’s important to be able to digest that.
BL: Exactly. Especially now that so much media, quote-unquote objective media, accepts the injection of opinion into the narrative and a point-of-view… These days, fact and opinion get intermingled and now your job as the consumer is to take the spaghetti threads apart and say ‘Ok, now that’s fact and that’s analysis.
BH: Do you think the sports news cycle is too fast to truly have as introspective of journalism done on certain topics as possible in the past.
BL: The whole news cycle is lightning fast. Cancel culture can get someone off the street in 24-48 hours if they want to. The whole volatility of the news cycle, especially if it disturbs a preconceived narrative or if it’s close to a third rail topic, it flames the situation. It’s not just sports but the answer’s yes, and that’s why you need to have those outlets, those platforms, and those entities that have a reputation that takes a deep breath and don’t just traffic to the latest gossip. It can be done, hopefully, there’s still a place in the marketplace for stuff like that.
BH: What was the most interesting or memorable experience you had outside of the broadcast booth while covering international soccer, whether it be on the World Cup stage or another?
BL: One of the most surreal moments of my life was thanks to what we did in South Africa in 2010, which I believe was epic. We put more resources, talent, and desire to achieve understanding into that than anything else I’ve been associated with. I was on a plane down to Cape Town from Johannesburg to interview Archbishop Desmond Tutu… he receives us on the day South Africa were playing their last group game, they were playing France with a chance to advance… we’re all in this office, couldn’t have been more than 15×10 feet, and he leans in and says “I have a question to ask you” and I say “Yes?” and he says “Before we begin, would you mind if I offered a brief non-denominational prayer.” Here’s a Nobel Peace Prize winner, so who am I to say no to this?! So everyone just bowed their heads, and it was incredibly moving. White South Africans, Black South Africans, our crew, this was being sent back live to Johannesburg and also taped, and it was just an amazing moment. But it was a fascinating conversation at a time when this World Cup was taking his nation and holding it up to the world as an example of a multi-racial democracy that has its rough patches that still works and is better than what they had. That whole experience was insanely meaningful.
BH: Lastly, What’s been your favorite thing about retired life?
BL: I’ve got two granddaughters and that’s the important thing. And in a certain way, the pandemic kind of prescribes what you’re able to do. But the ability to read a lot more for pleasure, to see friends, to plan some travel now since the pandemic seems to be taking its foot off the accelerator now that my wife and I are fully vaccinated. And to spend the time working with Professor Schecter at the Hall and working on some initiatives there, those are the important things. I miss the people I used to work with, I don’t miss getting up at 5 a.m. for the daily OTL show, but you remember the people and I’m proud of what we were able to do. If we can offer anything from our experiences to help those who want to do what we’re doing at the retail level, I think that’s very important. I think it’s most effective, rather than just yelling it from a mountain, having interpersonal contact.