Once the international bidding process was secured four years ago to have the Special Olympic World Games 2015 in Los Angeles, finding any way to get ESPN involved was a priority for event president and CEO Pat McClenahan.
The ugency in finding the right partner at the right time was due in large part to the fact that McClenahan, a long-time Emmy Award-winning TV sports producer and executive in L.A. at Prime Ticket, Fox Sports and KCAL/KCBS, had a vision and track record for how the power of television could convey the group’s mission to a worldwide audience.
ESPN stepped up. And now it’s happening.
Saturday’s Opening Ceremonies at the Coliseum is just the first example — it aired live on ESPN, the first for the Special Olympics in its 14th World Games. Then having ESPN commit a half-hour weekday news/feature show, as well as extended weekend programming for ABC, ramps it up even more. More documentaries, web stories and video, social media promotion and a global network made this all more impressive.
As it turned out, McClenahan didn’t have to do a lot of arm-twisting with executives at parent company Disney. It already has a corporate program in place that encourages employee participation in programs of inclusion, such as Special Olympics events across the country.
ESPN’s inclusion here became a simple decision, as it turned out. It was just as a matter of how specialized it could carry this from just a string of vignettes about Special Olympic athletes to where it’s also giving credence to it as an athletic endeavor.
“This is an unprecedented TV deal that was all about finding a broadcast partner who understood the goal — get the stories of these athletes in front as many eyeballs as possible — and once people see the courage and determination and joy, they’re all inspired,” said McClenahan.
“ESPN and Disney has been in synch with this mission for a long time. There will be nothing exploitive in how they handle this. They will do it with the same respect and authenticity as our athletes have. And since they’re the best at storytelling, on this global stage in a city full of movie stars, it’s going to be pretty cool.”
McClenahan, whose 27-year-old daughter Kelly has spent her life in a wheelchair with Cerebral Palsy while participating in the annual Southern California Special Olympics Games, has lived this event.
He also brought others on board with much of the same life experiences.
Longtime L.A. TV sports colleague Jeff Proctor, the organization’s senior vice president of broadcasting and the main liaison with ESPN, has been involved for years producing Southern California Special Olympics programming. He has a nephew with Down Syndrome.
Aside from ESPN president John Skipper, McClenahan’s two main message carriers have turned out to be important ESPN power brokers — Russell Wolff, the executive vice president and managing director of ESPN International, and Christine Driessen, the sports network’s executive VP and chief financial officer.
Wolff has an 11-year-old son with Cerebral Palsy who has participated in the sled hockey and adaptive skiing with disabled athletes. Driessen also has a niece who is intellectually challenged.
“From the angle I’m coming at this, from acceptance and inclusion, that’s what ESPN has always believed in telling stories about athletes with any kind of differences — physical, intellectual, someone who struggled with poverty or family — and how they achieved their goals,” said Wolff. “We believe in telling their stories and for the next 10 days, that’s what we’ll be doing.”
Through Wolff’s spearheading, at least 170 countries through ESPN’s owned or syndicated partner networks will carry part of these Special Olympics World Games, as well as ESPN’s U.S.-based Deportes channels. ESPN has an arrangement to provide all the air-time promotion for the event as well as pay for production and work with corporate sponsors to engage them in the week-long activities.
In the U.S., ESPN’s resources devoted to this are top level. There’s coordinating producer Bill Bonnell, who handles the network’s BCS Championship.
Kate Jackson, head of production for the daily shows, has done more work in motorsports the last decade at ESPN and is in tune with keeping the “sports” angle to all this as viable as possible amidst the “Up Close And Personal” back stories that will be presented.
“ESPN specializes in covering sports, and this is no different,” Jackson said, who will oversee editing sessions at the ESPN compound in LA Live from material pulled in via various electronic news-gathering devices that can also be distributed on ESPN.com and “SportsCenter” updates.
“Here, someone who finishes eighth probably has just as incredible a story as someone who wins an event, but for us, the sport and the competition is the medium for telling the story. I just wish we had 24 hours and three channels to handle all these stories we want to tell.”
Included with recognized ESPN talent involved in the broadcasts from anchor/reporters Robin Roberts, Lindsay Czarniak, Kevin Negandhi and Jeremy Schaap, there is also Jason Bennett, who has Cerebral Palsy and will do some play-by-play, and Victoria Arlen, a Paralympic athlete doing reporting.
And then there’s Dustin Plunkett.
A four-time Special Olympic World Games athlete, current “global messenger” for the Games and on the World Games 2015 board of directors, Plunkett was hired at first by ESPN to be a reporter for the coverage. He’s since had his job description upgraded to analyst.
Plunkett, who joined Special Olympics Southern California in 1996, was born with an intellectual disability and a cleft palate, which led to him having trouble speaking clearly and without a stutter. He also came from an unstable home life where he was moving from different homes and family members. Plunkett also fought gum cancer that was discovered and treated during a Special Olympic health exam some 10 years ago by a volunteer dentist.
“If you look at ESPN in how we cover anything, it’s hiring former athletes or coaches — those who have a voice that’s closest to the sport they are involved with — and in this case, it’s no different,” said Jackson of using Plunkett’s expertise.
“He inherently has a ton of knowledge that we don’t have about how this all works. In the same way having a Nomar Garciaparra on our baseball broadcast, Dustin will make us better.”
If Plunkett’s involvement expands to more TV work, it would well be associated with the Special Olympics brand expected to benefit like it never has before with such energized media partners.
“ESPN has treated us as one of their partners as much as they have U.S. Open tennis or the NBA or the SEC,” said McClenahan. “We’re not just a non-profit with them. This is a big property.
“Everything we’re doing here with this TV exposure is for the Special Olympics’ legacy. You’re just seeing the beginning of it.”
ESPN/ABC SCHEDULE FOR THE SPECIAL OLYMPICS WORLD GAMES LA2015:
Daily highlight shows: Sunday-Saturday, Aug. 1 at 4 p.m., ESPN or ESPN2
Special ABC coverage: Saturday, Aug. 1, 1 p.m., Ch. 7
Best of Special Olympics and Closing Ceremonies: Friday, Aug. 7, 4 p.m., ESPN
Best of Special Olympics for “ABC Sports Saturday”: Aug. 8, 1 p.m., Channel 7
• As Golf Digest reported in 2014, part of the sales pitch to push members of the Los Angeles Country Club in approving the 2023 U.S. Open golf championship coming to their Wilshire Boulevard venue bordering Beverly Hills was a memo explaining how big an event this would be in concert with Fox Sports’ recent 12-year contract with the USGA. Fox’s network studios, of course, are just a couple miles as the crow flies, or a 25-minute drive in rush-hour traffic. When it became official Wednesday that the USGA reached an agreement with LACC, those who matter most at Fox were overjoyed. “Nothing like a home game!” wrote Bill Wanger, Fox Sports’ exec VP of programming, research and content strategy, via email. “Having the U.S. Open in our back yard about a mile from the Fox lot will allow us to utilize every single resource in our arsenal to provide the ultimate coverage of our national championship.” Fox’s current deal with the USGA began with last month’s U.S. Open at Chambers Bay in Washington.
• Colin Cowherd’s departure from ESPN Radio came a week early, and most likely a move to L.A. to work for Fox Sports later this year won’t come without some baggage. During Thursday’s show heard on KSPN-AM (710), Cowherd was debating about the difficulty in Major League Baseball to step down from an executive position and become a field manager. “It’s baseball,” he said. “The game is too complex? I’ve never bought into that … A third of the sport is from the Dominican Republic. … The Dominican Republic has not been known in my lifetime as having world-class academic abilities. A lot of those kids come from rough backgrounds and have not had opportunities academically that other kids from other countries have. Baseball is like any sport. It’s mostly instincts.” Cowherd offered an apology on Friday, saying he was “clunky” with his analogy. MLB Players Association executive director Tony Clark responded tersely that Cowherd’s comment was “ignorant ... (to denegrate) the intelligence of our Dominican members was not ’clunky’ -- it was offensive.” An ESPN statement at first said Cowherd’s comments were “inappropriate and do not reflect ESPN’s values of respect for all communities. Colin’s on-air response (Friday) addressed the importance of making sure his opinions are fact-based and responsible for all people.” But eventually, ESPN said Cowherd would be taken off the air with its own website story. On Wednesday, Cowherd thanked ESPN for keeping him on the air despite announcing his contract would not be renewed after 12 years, calling the parting “amicable.”
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