ESPN marks an anniversary with film slate
Kirk Fraser was 9 years old - and living in the shadow of the University of Maryland - when the school’s basketball star, Celtics-bound Len Bias died of a cocaine overdose in 1986. Fraser remembers the media frenzy, the emotions, the way the event seemed a cautionary tale: “It prevented me from going down that path.’’
After he became a filmmaker, Fraser, now 33, set out to work on a documentary about Bias’s death, and the effect it had on Boston, the University of Maryland, the criminal justice system, and Bias’s friends - including Brian Tribble, who was indicted and acquitted for possession of cocaine, and talks candidly in the film about the night Bias died.
Fraser was publicizing the project at the Sundance Film Festival last year when he met a group of ESPN executives, who were putting together plans for a documentary film series to celebrate the network’s 30th year. Now “Without Bias’’ is scheduled to air on ESPN on Nov. 3, part of the “30 for 30’’ series, a sort of slow-motion film festival comprising 30 documentaries that tell sports stories from the past 30 years.
The series debuts Tuesday night with “Kings Ransom,’’ Peter Berg’s film about the Los Angeles Kings’ acquisition of hockey legend Wayne Gretzky. More films will roll out throughout the year, loosely linked to sports seasons and featuring a range of prominent filmmakers, including John Singleton, Spike Jonze, and Ron Shelton. Ice Cube directed a film about the Los Angeles Raiders’ effect on hip-hop culture. Barbara Kopple made a film about the Steinbrenners, the owners of the New York Yankees. Dan Klores, who directed last year’s ESPN documentary “Black Magic,’’ directed a look at Reggie Miller’s contentious relationship with the New York Knicks.
“These are not 30 biggest things that happened during the period,’’ executive producer Connor Schell told reporters in a conference call this week. “They’re 30 stories. That’s really what the measuring stick was.’’
Hence, some major sports events - notably, the 2004 World Series curse-defying victory by the Red Sox - won’t be told in film here, says ESPN senior vice president Keith Clinkscales, another executive producer of the series. Some of the stories sprang from longstanding projects, Clinkscales said in a phone call this week. Director Albert Maysles had collected footage from the Muhammad Ali and Larry Holmes training camps in advance of the boxers’ famed 1980 match. His film “Muhammad and Larry,’’ which airs Oct. 27, explores the meaning of Ali’s loss and checks in with the present-day Holmes, who never achieved the glory he felt he deserved.
Other filmmakers, like Fraser, explored their personal passions. In the conference call, Baltimore native Barry Levinson said he remembers reeling from news that the Baltimore Colts had left town for Indianapolis in 1984, pulling out in moving vans in the middle of a snowy night. His film “The Band That Wouldn’t Die,’’ which airs Oct. 13, tells the story of the Colts’ marching band, which played for years after the football team was gone.
From a budget standpoint, the series was “a significant commitment,’’ said Clinkscales, who wouldn’t share exact numbers. “We wanted to make sure that we dealt with the filmmakers in a manner that allowed them to deliver quality to the screen and allowed them to do what they needed to do to tell the story.’’
Clinkscales said that ESPN wanted to establish a reputation as a home for documentaries, partly at the urging of ESPN columnist Bill Simmons, who often writes about the link between sports and film, and also executive-produced the “30 for 30’’ series.
“To make sure that we are constantly striving and finding new ways to tell sports stories is what drives us along,’’ Clinkscales said.
Joanna Weiss can be reached at email@example.com.
Harvey Schiller gets my vote, that's for sure. But, oh yeah, we don't vote for this. Too bad. Dennis Swanson is a good thought as well. Hell, it's too bad that Ebersol wouldn't take the cut in pay and serve his country the way his former VP of Communications did for the Secretary of Education way back when. Read on with a credit to Joe Fav who passed this item along in his twitter account:
Critics Assail U.S.O.C. After Chicago’s Loss
This article was reported by Katie Thomas, Richard Sandomir and Juliet Macur, and written by Ms. Thomas.
For weeks, the United States Olympic Committee and the national sports governing bodies it oversees had settled into an uncomfortable truce. Despite a year of upheaval and conflict, the parties had agreed to set aside their differences in solidarity for Chicago’s bid to win the 2016 Summer Games.
The truce ended as quickly as Chicago was dispatched from the race won by Rio de Janeiro. In surprisingly frank terms, a number of influential people in American Olympic sports questioned the performance of the U.S.O.C.’s new management team and said its two top executives were ill-equipped to navigate the insular world of international sports.
Chicago’s last-place finish in the I.O.C. voting on Friday in Copenhagen was the latest blow in a year marked by the departure of major sponsors, layoffs at U.S.O.C. headquarters, controversy over the salary of the acting chief executive, and the failed plan for an Olympic television network.
“Before we think about putting forth another Olympic city for a Games possibility, we’ve got to deal with some outstanding issues that are not going to go away,” said Mike Plant, who serves on the U.S.O.C.’s 10-member board and traveled to Copenhagen as part of the Chicago delegation. “I think that certainly there will be some dialogue that’s going to take place in the next couple of weeks — or certainly in short order.”
Asked what should happen next to return the U.S.O.C. to prominence in international circles, James Ravannack, the president of USA Wrestling, said: “Resignations. It’s an absolute embarrassment. I don’t know what else to tell you. Where is the leadership?”
Patrick G. Ryan, the bid leader for Chicago, said his staff’s relationship with the U.S.O.C. could not have been better. He said regional bloc voting, not the U.S.O.C., caused the bid’s downfall.
“I think people look for an excuse when something happens,” he said. “They look to finger-point, and now the finger-pointing is at the U.S.O.C. It’s a simple thing to do the day after.”
Since the end of the Beijing Olympics, most of the top positions at the U.S.O.C. have changed hands. Last October, Larry Probst, the chairman of the video-game publisher Electronic Arts, replaced Peter Ueberroth as the committee’s chairman. In March, Probst and the board removed the chief executive, Jim Scherr, and appointed a board member, Stephanie A. Streeter. The executives in charge of sport performance, marketing and human resources were also replaced.
The turnover angered many leaders of the national governing bodies of Olympic sports, who chafed at the corporate backgrounds of Probst and Streeter and their lack of Olympic experience. The relationship further soured when it was revealed that the board had approved an annual salary of $560,000 for Streeter — a 30 percent increase over Scherr’s — months after 54 employees were laid off.
Probst has said the board will begin a search this month to replace Streeter, whose term as acting chief executive runs through next year’s Paralympics. She has not said whether she will apply for the permanent position.
Probst and Streeter, who were in Copenhagen, were contacted through their representatives, but did not return calls.
Skip Gilbert, the chairman of the Association of Chief Executives for Sport, which includes 45 Olympic sport bodies in the United States, said his members had been waiting for the vote on Chicago before voicing concern over the U.S.O.C.’s management.
“Now’s the time that we’re going to build some consensus as to what do we think is the next move in order to right the ship,” Gilbert said. One item high on the agenda, he said, is whether to recommend a change in leadership.
Several leaders in Olympic sports praised the Chicago bid as the best that an American city had put forward in decades. But Chicago’s elimination in the first round exposed the U.S.O.C.’s lack of influence. Steve Penny, the president of USA Gymnastics, likened the Games to a crown jewel.
“You’ve got to know that the people you’re going to be giving your crown jewels to are the most trustworthy partners that you could ever ask for,” he said. “And unfortunately, when you don’t have stability in your leadership, how can you build trust?”
Some wondered whether Probst and Streeter hurt Chicago’s chances when they failed to show up to a meeting of I.O.C. members in Lausanne, Switzerland, where host cities were invited to make presentations.
“You look back at it and think that it might have been a better decision for them to go,” said James Easton, an I.O.C. member who is on the U.S.O.C. board.
Members of the U.S.O.C.’s international relations division have flown more than a million miles on outreach missions on behalf of the Chicago bid, a U.S.O.C. spokeswoman said.
Denis Oswald, a Swiss I.O.C. member and frequent U.S.O.C. critic, said he and his colleagues took note of the tumult in American Olympic circles. “We had been dealing with some people, and suddenly we heard one has disappeared and one was nearly fired, and you had to start with totally new people,” Oswald said.
Dick Ebersol, chairman of NBC Universal Sports, which invested billions of dollars for the North American media rights to the Games, said that other unresolved problems probably played a role in Chicago’s loss. Many I.O.C. members feel the United States receives an inordinate share of revenue. The United States receives 20 percent of global sponsorship money and 12.75 percent of the TV money, an arrangement that will be renegotiated in 2013.
“Any U.S. bid city will be in a difficult place until the U.S.O.C. works out a new relationship with the I.O.C. in terms of the revenue cut the U.S. gets,” he said.
Others questioned the U.S.O.C.’s timing with its announcement in July that it intended to create an Olympic television network. The I.O.C. quickly repudiated the move. Probst and Streeter later delayed plans for the network.
“It was really bad timing to bring it up,” said Bill Martin, the University of Michigan athletic director and former acting president of the U.S.O.C. “No question about it. You just don’t do it prior to a vote of this nature.”
Suggesting possible chief executives for the organization, Ebersol did not name Streeter. He recommended Dennis Swanson, the president of station operations at Fox Television Stations, and Harvey Schiller, a former U.S.O.C. chief executive now with the International Baseball Federation.
“Someone has to reach out to a major figure familiar to the Olympic world, so you go in with strength,” Ebersol said.
Anita DeFrantz, a member of the I.O.C. who also serves on the U.S.O.C. board, said it would be foolish to make leadership decisions based on the whims of her international colleagues.
“What the people within the I.O.C. were calling for was people that they knew,” she said. “It didn’t matter what their backgrounds were.”
Some American leaders were more measured in their assessment of the performance of Streeter and Probst. Easton, an American I.O.C. member, said he hopes Streeter stays.
“I hope people give her some time to know the system,” he said of Streeter, the former chief executive of the Banta Corporation, a printing and supply company. “She’s a very intelligent and talented woman who is very accomplished in business.”
Doug Logan, the chief executive of USA Track and Field, said it was disrespectful to suggest resignations. Still, he acknowledged that the U.S.O.C. was going through a difficult period. The U.S.O.C. has lost several major sponsors because of the recession, although it has attracted new ones.
Without Chicago as a host city, signing sponsors will be more difficult, Logan said.
DeFrantz said criticism of the U.S.O.C. missed the larger point: that Rio de Janeiro was destined to win. “It was all about going to a different part of the world,” she said. “Had Chicago won, everyone would be celebrating the wisdom of what we had done.”