SBJ/May 15-21, 2017/Media

‘Undefeated’ builds swagger in year one

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When ESPN launched “The Undefeated” one year ago, editor-in-chief Kevin Merida wrote an essay that defined the site’s mission. “We want ‘The Undefeated’ to feel urgent, necessary, not dutiful. Ours won’t be a site of sermons and scoldings. … Expect us to experiment aggressively with form: music, comedy, poetry, animation, gaming, film.”

In an interview this month, Merida spoke about the areas where the site has carried the voice and the swagger promised at its May 17, 2016, launch.

Editor-in-chief Kevin Merida said the site thrives on experimenting and being brave.
Photo by: ESPN IMAGES


What’s your assessment one year in?
MERIDA:
We said we wanted to experiment and innovate. We’ve done some really interesting things. We’ve done some oral histories. One thing we’ve done recently — Aaron Dodson, who went to the University of North Carolina, he took the last 13.5 seconds of last year’s North Carolina-Villanova national championship game and did an oral history. He talked to every single person there and had video with it.

What’s your personal stamp on the site? How do I know you’re leading it?
MERIDA:
The great thing about starting something from scratch is that you feel ownership. But everybody here is part of the charter membership of “The Undefeated.” There were seven people here before I got here. We call them the “Magnificent Seven” because they had to persevere and just stay through a lot of ups and downs. Maybe, me coming was just to tell them that they can do it and give them some confidence that it was going to happen, we were going to launch it, it was going to be successful.

How do you grow?
MERIDA:
We’re focused on extending our reach and finding ways to partner with other entities to find audience outside of the audiences that are already coming into ESPN. We’re doing it through rigorous study, metrics and analytics. We’ll also continue to experiment and be brave. The best thing for any media property is to be unafraid to try things. When things work, do more of it. When they don’t work, try something else.

How was “The Undefeated” affected by ESPN’s recent layoffs?
MERIDA:
Some of these people were friends of “The Undefeated.” They did work for us. Others are people whose work I admired. Reese Waters was a correspondent. He was a brilliant comedian and did a lot for “SportsCenter,” but he did a lot of creative stuff for us. When we found out that he lost his job, we did a collection of his greatest work and put it on our site as a tribute to all he had contributed to us.

One recent piece revisited the day Biggie Smalls died.
Describe an Undefeated story.
MERIDA:
There should be some identifier of our work — sometimes it might be the voice, the swagger. We had a piece on the 20th anniversary of Biggie Smalls’ death. Justin Tinsley went back and recounted that day and talked to players like Shaq and others with the Lakers who were there and supposed to be involved with the party or saw Biggie that day and just kind of reconstructed the day. That’s probably a singular Undefeated piece. I don’t think anybody would have done that. I don’t think that would have appeared on ESPN.com.

What made you proud over the past year?
MERIDA:
One of the things that we always said we wanted to be was not just a website. We wanted to be part of helping people understand athletes better, particularly black athletes and being part of the conversation that people are having about sports these days that may extend beyond the highlights. We’ve had six live events. We’ve been part of hosting and driving conversations, specifically around social activism and what athletes do with their platform. It started with the town hall in the south side of Chicago with community figures and athletes. We had the president of the United States at North Carolina A&T University. It was the first time a president had been at NC A&T, which is the largest historically black university in the country.

YEAR ONE TIMELINE

MAY 17, 2016: The site launches.

JULY 25, 2016: Michael Jordan breaks his silence on social issues in an Undefeated story that becomes one of the highest-trafficked stories on any ESPN platform.

AUG. 25, 2016: “The Undefeated Conversation: Athletes, Responsibility and Violence,” a discourse on athletes, responsibility, guns and violence in urban America, is held on Chicago’s South Side.

OCT. 11, 2016: “The Undefeated Conversation with President Obama: Sports, Race and Achievement” is held at North Carolina A&T University.

OCT. 18, 2016: The Undefeated announces funding for Morgan State University’s Center for the Study of Race in Sports and Culture to research the image of black women in sports.

NOVEMBER-DECEMBER, 2016: The Undefeated gains access to travel with America’s most famous ballerina, Misty Copeland, on a U.S. cultural envoy mission to Cuba.

DEC. 18, 2016: “The Undefeated In-Depth: Serena with Common” showcases a conversation between tennis great Serena Williams and Oscar- and Grammy Award-winning artist Common.

MARCH 8, 2017: The inaugural class of six Rhoden Fellows is announced — a two-year journalism internship program identifying and training aspiring African-American journalists from historically black colleges and universities.

APRIL 2017: The Undefeated wins the 2017 Webby Award in the Website/Sports category.


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