SBJ/May 11-17, 2015/Media

John Walsh: His own unique self

John Walsh ends a nearly 30-year career at ESPN as one of the most influential executives in the company’s history and as a key figure in sports journalism.

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John Walsh, immersed in his work at his ESPN desk in 2003
Photo by: RICH ARDEN / ESPN IMAGES
In November 1982, after three years and 33 lively and highly regarded issues, Inside Sports magazine was put to sleep.

The abrupt ending dealt a harder blow to one individual than to any other: John A. Walsh, the magazine’s founding editor and the man who had personally persuaded legendary Washington Post Chairman Katharine Graham to launch it.

Now, despite all the awards and accolades the monthly had received, financial losses had sentenced it to death.

In the unhappy aftermath, Walsh, then 37, found himself jobless and dejected, his present and future both looking grim. For the next few months, then years, he knocked around among positions that friends in media found for him, frequently changing jobs. That, however, was nothing new. In the years leading up to his stewardship of Inside Sports, Walsh had worked with more than 30 media companies — including Vanity Fair, The New York Times, The Washington Post and CBS Sports — for periods ranging from six months to five years.

He was nothing if not itinerant, a rambling kind of a guy. But now he had a wife and two little kids, a girl and a boy. Bouncing from job to job was highly impractical, and money was running out. He was on the verge of asking his in-laws for a loan when, in 1987, a 4-year-old request to consult at ESPN paid off. Walsh had met Steve Bornstein, ESPN’s second-in-command, years earlier through a mutual friend. Bornstein had originally told Walsh the timing wasn’t right because the network couldn’t afford additional resources, but now, it could. Even though there were no discussions of a full-time position, Walsh grabbed the consulting gig.

Fast-forward to today, and the once-transient Walsh has just completed a 27-year, full-time career at ESPN, easily ranking as one of the most influential executives in the company’s history and as a transformative figure in the larger world of sports journalism.

He is, in many ways, a most unusual guy. To understand just one of those ways, try this little experiment: Stand with your back against a big TV screen, take four steps forward away from the screen, then turn around and squint both eyes, hard, until the TV picture is a fuzzy mass of color with barely discernible faces, figures and objects. If anything moves, it moves in a blur.

Walsh, at World Congress of Sports in April, spent 27 years at ESPN.
Photo by: TONY FLOREZ PHOTOGRAPHY
And that is approximately what you’d see if you were John Walsh. The fact that he’s regarded as a man of vision is ironic considering his very limited eyesight. Although he works in that most visual of media, television, and ancillary forms of it, his eyesight is so impaired that he cannot get a driver’s license. For those who have worked with him, the prevailing iconic image of Walsh is of a man with his little pink nose practically touching the paper as he reads it, or pressed against a computer or TV screen if he’s trying to see one of those.

His eyesight relates to the fact that he is albino, a congenital condition characterized, as most people know, by a lack of pigment in the skin. But for Walsh, being an albino isn’t just a matter of pigment or challenged eyesight; it has informed innumerable aspects of his life. Unable to participate in sports as a child and teenager, and brutally frustrated by that fact, he became, at an early age, the world’s biggest fan. Though reading was at first difficult for him — perhaps because it was difficult — he became an incredibly voracious reader, consuming mass quantities of information and literature covering not just sports but a wide, wide range of subjects.

Such paradoxes are just part of why Walsh is nothing if not a man of contradictions. His appearance and background would suggest an unruly boomer: bearded, iconoclastic and independent. He worked for the countercultural Rolling Stone in its early days, palled around more than one town with Hunter S. Thompson, and for years was an enthusiastic participant in the notorious A to Z Bar Tour in which a few dozen friends romped around New York in a bus, attempting 26 stops at 26 bars in a single day.

JOHN WALSH ON …

The part of his career that best equipped him for working at ESPN.
“I knew I could walk back into sports as easily as I had walked out. It was part of my DNA. I had grown up with it and understood what was going on in sports; not just the playing of the games, but also the issues. I was very confident about news and sports, but I didn’t know enough about TV. Somewhere along the line, though, someone said to me that you amass material that you think is intended for your audience and then you shape that material according to the audience, so that’s the attitude I had. I knew the material; I just needed to figure out how to shape it.”

Getting staff buy-in when he was first working on “SportsCenter.”
“Ratings were one of the most important things I emphasized early on to people at ‘SportsCenter.’ I wanted to remind them that the audience was important, so every day my great assistant Grace Gallo posted the ratings for every quarter-hour. I would talk to the producers about why there was a big bump here or show them a slip and ask them, ‘What do you think happened here?’ There was a great deal of scrutiny about what the audience was telling us, and we overanalyzed that over and over and over.
“It was a fight. Steve Bornstein had a method of managing in a way that if he hired you he trusted you and let you go and do what you wanted. But if you came to him with a proposal for something, he put you to the wall and made sure you really felt passionate about it. Steve Anderson and I originally asked for 27 more head count for ‘SportsCenter’ and rightfully got laughed at. We wound up getting between 15 and 18.”

Whether it is accurate to say Bornstein gave him a lot of autonomy early on.
“When we were going to hire Keith Olbermann, it was clear that Steve was hearing that this guy might be difficult. He came down one day and said to Steve Anderson, Al Jaffe and me, ‘Let me see a tape of Olbermann.’ So we put a tape in of one of his local broadcasts, and within the first 30 seconds Olbermann did one of those things with his eyebrow related to content. As soon as he did that, Steve pushed the pause button and said, ‘Good luck,’ and left. It was one of those great moments where he basically said, ‘OK guys, I understand he’s talented but I think you have a challenge here. If you guys think you can handle him, go ahead.’”

What he wanted to accomplish at ESPN that didn’t get a chance to:
“I thought that the sports industry in general and the media failed to cover technology and fandom in a manner that reflected what ownership is attempting to do in order to appeal to the largest possible fan base. Also, we had a great emphasis at ‘SportsCenter’ on the architecture of presentation but we never matched the Kornheiser/Wilbon voice that was attractive to large audiences on a daily basis. I don’t know if that’s even possible anymore.”

How he decided it was time to go.
“I stayed beyond my time, I think. Whatever influence I’ve had on the people who have been raised at ESPN and the people who retired has passed on. It’s been overdue. When you’re approaching your 70th birthday and can say ‘I’m the oldest guy at the company,’ maybe it’s time to take a break and then try something else. And try to just relax.”

— James Andrew Miller
In his professional life, however, Walsh has shown minimal signs of rebelliousness — at least, since he joined ESPN and became there the very model of a devoted employee. Indeed, a company man with a quasi-religious devotion to the network.

To say that Walsh threw himself into his work is like saying Noah bought an umbrella. With his family still living in Washington, D.C., (where Walsh had worked), Walsh would get to Bristol on a Sunday night and stay for the week, many days arriving at work by 8 a.m. and not going home to his hotel until after the 11 o’clock show that night.

Bornstein was impressed by what he saw from Walsh the consultant, and in 1988, after six months of consultancy, Walsh became the network’s 410th employee (there are more than 7,000 today), taking over as managing editor of “SportsCenter.”

From the start, Walsh saw “SportsCenter” as not just a 30-minute daily “results” show but as the gateway to all future roads for ESPN. During his consultancy he wrote extensive memos about his plans for fixing “SC” to Bornstein and to then-president Roger Werner. Although Walsh arrived at ESPN fully schooled in journalism (holding an English degree from the University of Scranton and a master’s in journalism from the University of Missouri), Bornstein could see that if Walsh was going to create a new era for “SportsCenter,” he’d have to learn a lot more about television than he knew. So Bornstein joined Walsh at the hip with director of production Steve Anderson, the two quickly becoming best friends and staying that way through the present day, working together on new ideas and innovations to make “SportsCenter” the jewel in ESPN’s crown.

For six months in 1988, Walsh interviewed ESPN personnel, followed by a year of experimenting with the “SportsCenter” format: making changes, changing the changes, then sometimes changing them back again.

Guided partly by his own sharp instincts as a fan, Walsh realized that he had always felt cheated by the perfunctory way local TV stations reported sports on their 11 p.m. newscasts. He decided that “SportsCenter,” as ESPN’s flagship show, should represent a huge improvement. He saw the revamped show as a virtual gathering place where sports fans could “assemble” every night, not just to hang out but to learn something. He did it with better reporting, deeper coverage and a ton more highlights.

Fine-tuning “SportsCenter” to the smallest detail, Walsh reimagined every aspect of the show and imposed high standards and practices where sloppy had frequently ruled. Editorial meetings became a powerful force. He instituted the then-bold notion that the beginning of “SportsCenter” should look like the front page of a sports section, with a multitude of sports up top rather than just plodding doggedly down the line from sport to sport. Walsh and Anderson established talent and production teams that worked together to deliver consistency, and Walsh brought on more reporters to do features and news, along with expert analysts like Peter Gammons for baseball, thus bringing additional value aboard.

Walsh would study each show’s ratings quarter-hour by quarter-hour to see what bullishly spiked them up and what bearishly knocked them down. The ratings also served to further incentivize the troops: At the time, ESPN was locked in a tight battle with CNN’s “Sports Night,” anchored by Nick Charles and Fred Hickman.

Walsh and Anderson worked such long hours day after day that Bornstein once told them, “I really like the improvements that are going on here, but you guys have got to get out of the office once in a while.”

Not everyone at ESPN was convinced that Walsh’s plans for “SportsCenter” sounded like good ideas, however, and between 10 and 15 people reportedly left the company over disagreements with his vision. But Bornstein reviewed all changes and watched with satisfaction as the show evolved into a more accomplished production. Walsh created a foundation for growth at the network that would prove a game changer both content-wise and financially.

Changes bring challenges

It would be misguided to think of Walsh as just another print guy who went into TV; better to regard him as essentially his own unique self, moving through the world, typical of no one or anything.

Sports Emmys with Steve Bornstein, Steve Anderson and Bob Rauscher in 1990
Photo by: ESPN
Along with network talent chief Al Jaffe and Anderson, Walsh went looking for new talent to help revitalize not only “SportsCenter,” but also the whole network. On his first day reviewing tapes, Walsh saw a young Keith Olbermann on the monitor and was so impressed he remarked to Jaffe that this was “going to be easy.” Others quickly followed: Mike Tirico, Charley Steiner, Andrea Kremer and Jimmy Roberts, among many more. Robin Roberts came on board because Walsh recognized in her a
At a 1993 news conference for the first ESPY Awards with Robin Roberts, Steve Bornstein and Chris Berman
Photo by: STEVE SHEVETT
natural talent loaded with sports expertise, someone who could and did become the first female African-American to achieve national prominence as a sportscaster.

As “SportsCenter” became more popular — and an engine of ratings and revenue growth for the network — Walsh assumed more duties. In the early ’90s, Bornstein directed him to lead the charge to establish ESPN Radio. ESPNews and the ESPN Classic channel followed. Walsh was central to the launch of ESPN The Magazine. He became a kind of corporate Zelig, popping up in every corner of ESPN.

But his was not an easy path to travel. As minister-without-portfolio, Bornstein and successor George Bodenheimer wanted Walsh to share his expert guidance, but some managers at the network considered it interference, and employees could find “suggestions” from Walsh to be confusing or even annoying when they departed from what they knew their supervisors wanted. So crossing paths with Walsh didn’t always delight employees. Writers for ESPN The Magazine, for example, would sometimes get notes from Walsh that conflicted with those from their editor. What’s a writer to do? Those mixed messages sometimes led to confusion or even resentment.

Such friction extended to the network’s “SportsCentury” feature as well, with perhaps the most striking example of uncertainty surrounding Walsh’s role on the project occurring between Walsh and a young Mark Shapiro, who had been put in charge of the series in the late ’90s by Bornstein. Shapiro had located the “SportsCentury” offices in Westport, Conn., not just because it was halfway between New York City and Bristol, but more importantly because it would be far from Bristol’s interference. Walsh had been a vocal advocate of the massive project, and Bornstein made sure that Walsh would have a role to play — and Walsh was determined not to be shut out.

There was a subtext to many of the disagreements that would develop. For years, Shapiro had thrown many an idea Walsh’s way — including the concept for the show “Pardon The Interruption” — only to get the impression that Walsh was ignoring him. Now, with “SportsCentury,” Shapiro was looking not for Walsh’s guidance but for his acknowledgment that this was indeed Shapiro’s baby. Eventually, the two forged a good working relationship on that project, but then suddenly, logging the fastest rise in ESPN history, Shapiro was promoted by Bodenheimer to run programming and production, with Shapiro’s No. 1 priority being to stop what had become a serious decline in ratings.

Walsh’s fingerprints can be found across the ESPN empire, including the launch of ESPN The Magazine in 1998.
Photo by: RICH ARDEN / ESPN IMAGES
For 10 years, Walsh had had the final word in their relationship. Now, that was reversed, and life in Bristol became askew for Walsh. In fact, for the first time since he had arrived at ESPN, Walsh considered moving on — not out of dislike for Shapiro but because he could too easily picture himself being shut out of this new world order. Shapiro didn’t want Walsh to leave, but he wanted to give more structure to Walsh’s role, and so he had Walsh spend the next several years more focused on journalistic
Photo by: STEVE FRIEDMAN
enterprises: the creation of a network ombudsman and a first editorial board.

After initially fearing a Shapiro era, Walsh embraced his new roles and stopped thinking about leaving.

When Shapiro left ESPN to work for Washington Redskins owner Daniel Snyder in 2005, Walsh assisted John Skipper in his attempt to replace Shapiro by helping him fill more than 20 pages of a yellow legal pad with goals and tactics for the network’s future. Skipper became ESPN’s head of content in 2005, and no one in the company was regarded as closer to him than Walsh. Skipper decided to let Walsh be Walsh, and in contrast to the Shapiro years, Walsh was given a wide berth in myriad activities — growing the popular ESPYs awards program, the “30 for 30” documentary series, Grantland and Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight.

Virtually from day one, it was always “company first” with Walsh. His seriousness has been apparent in, among other things, the strict way he dealt with personnel crises — including his very close, but high-maintenance, relationships with such superstars as Olbermann, Tony Kornheiser and Bill Simmons. Walsh advocated tough punishments for each when he felt they were justified, in part because he never wanted anyone to feel he or she were bigger than the ESPN brand. It may have been emotionally difficult — or at the very least, awkward — for him, but he rarely exhibited any ambivalence about what was best for the company. Even though the punishments themselves were not Walsh’s domain, he was almost always supportive of the company’s rulings.

Relatively few of the lives touched by Walsh actually felt the lash, however, and often to the contrary. Case in point: Arriving in Columbia, Mo., to receive the Missouri Honor Medal from the University of Missouri several years ago, Walsh was met at the airport by young Wright Thompson, an eager undergraduate who had volunteered to be Walsh’s driver for the duration of his visit. Walsh’s first words to Thompson — “What are you reading?” — sparked a lasting relationship. Walsh would go on to have a major impact on Thompson’s life — “He wasn’t my mentor; he was my Yoda,” Thompson would say — to the extent that Thompson has said he treasures the random act of destiny that caused his path and Walsh’s to cross. Thompson is now arguably one of the network’s most important writers.

Today, then, most of the battles have been fought. Although Walsh appears to be moving into that sometimes-perilous Netherworld known as “retirement,” and spending a good amount of time in Florida, it’s likely to be semi-retirement for him. He’s hardly the type to lollygag beside a swimming pool. Besides, he burns horribly if exposed to sunlight.

At 70, John A. Walsh is still consulting for ESPN and ABC, and he may wind up doing some teaching at the college level. For the moment, a kind of last word on Walsh should go to Walsh himself. Typically, he balked at the idea of an entire article — this one — being devoted to him, and even after agreeing to participate he tried to wriggle out. He is far more likely to be elbowed aside by someone seeking credit that should go to him than to be the elbower himself. He keeps his elbows at his side, in fact, and has always been comfortable staying in the background, pulling strings from there.

He never shoved his way to the front row when photographs were being taken, or tried to steal credit from someone else. Truly informed people always knew he was there — not just “there,” but pivotal, essential and passionately involved.

James Andrew Miller is the co-author of “Those Guys Have All The Fun: Inside The World Of ESPN” (Little, Brown & Co., 2011). Follow him on Twitter @jimmiller.

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