SBJ/March 12-18, 2012/Forty Under 40

Forty Under 40


Photo by: COURTESY OF ESPN
Now that ESPN’s documentary series “30 for 30” has been around for a few years and its reputation as a critical and financial success has been cemented, it’s easy to forget how many detractors it had in 2008, when Connor Schell first broached the idea to have ESPN produce the films. At the time, HBO Sports was basically the only network that produced documentaries, and the idea that ESPN would be able to compete was virtually unthinkable.

“I got a lot of weird looks,” Schell said. “The notion that I’ve tried to help tackle is that the sports audience has a short attention span, needs action and will never watch a documentary.”

Bill Simmons, who conceived the “30 for 30” idea in 2007 to coincide with ESPN’s 30th anniversary, remembers dealing with the skeptics in the early days.

“He’s one of the smartest people I’ve ever met,” Simmons said. “We put ‘30 for 30’ together for a solid year as everyone else in the company tried to come up with ways not to do it. Connor is great at coming up with reasons why to do things. He’s always thinking ‘Why not?’ instead of ‘Why?’ That’s a great and underrated quality.”

Schell never really questioned that the series would be successful. But any doubts were erased as soon as he sat down with a rough cut of the first planned documentary: Barry Levinson’s ode to the Baltimore Colts marching band, “The Band That Wouldn’t Die.” Schell was blown away by the opening scene, and knew immediately that the series would work.

“For me, that was the moment when I thought that the hard work had paid off and that success was possible,” Schell said.
Simmons credited Schell’s drive and vision for making the series work.

“He’s the single biggest reason why ESPN Films turned into a legitimate creative entity and took that sports doc territory away from HBO,” Simmons said. “They had a monopoly on it as recently as 2008. No more.”


Age: 34
Title: Vice president and executive producer, ESPN Films and ESPN Classic
COMPANY: ESPN
Education: B.A., Harvard University, 1999; MBA, Columbia University, 2004
Family: Wife, Melissa Crandall; children Lucy (4) and Clara (2), and a boy on the way
Career: Various jobs prior to business school … now, nearly eight years at ESPN
First job: WHY.com, a failed Internet startup during the dot-com boom
Last vacation: California, Disneyland
what's on your ipod? Bill Simmons’ podcast, Zac Brown Band, episodes of Dora and Diego
guilty pleasure: Reality TV
best stress release: Pick-up basketball
pet peeve: Too many meetings
fantasy job: NFL commissioner
what keeps you awake at night? My children
business advice: John Wooden: “Don’t mistake activity for achievement.”

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