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Drake Is ESPN’s X-Factor

The New Canaan, Conn., recreation department was run, years ago, by a man who doubled as a statistician for NBC’s Major League Baseball Game of the Week.

When the guy invited 15-year-old Jed Drake—whom he knew from the community— to Shea Stadium to see the broadcast’s mobile production unit, Drake, who now oversees all of ESPN’s remote productions, was officially hooked.

“I saw this wall of television monitors and the vibe and the energy and I thought, ‘This is what I want to do,’” he says.

The Boston University graduate steered his path straight toward that goal, interning at WCVB Boston in the late 1970s before an on-air stint as a sports anchor at WPTZ Plattsburgh, N.Y. For two years, starting in 1979, Drake also fit in production work for Game of the Week when games were played in the Northeast. He would often drive down to Boston for a telecast, sleep in a parking lot outside Fenway Park, and then drive back to upstate New York. So, when Drake’s father told him about a new sports cable network starting in his home state of Connecticut, Drake jumped at the chance.

“I was doing anything I could to: a) get out of Plattsburgh; b) get into sports production; and c) get the heck off-camera,” says Drake, who realized after his short run at WPTZ that he would much rather be behind the camera.

Drake joined ESPN as a producer/director in the fall of 1980. It was the beginning of a long and successful partnership: Drake has since overseen the production of nearly every sport the network has televised. He’s also been responsible for some of the breakthrough ideas that have enhanced the way sports fans watch their favorite events..

For most of this year, Drake’s other production responsibilities have been put on hold as he has focused on overseeing the network’s World Cup coverage from South Africa. “It’s been a completely different experience from what I normally do,” he points out. The production has been a huge undertaking. Drake, who’s been working on the World Cup for three years, has been to South Africa six times and is managing a staff of 300. The network is using the 12,700-square-foot International Broadcast Center in Johannesburg as its technical hub from which it will air more than 200 hours of coverage and show some games in 3D for the new ESPN 3D network.

“I really think that when our coverage unfolds for our audience, they will be impressed,” Drake says. “And I think they’ll really enjoy it.”

In recent years, Drake—who at one point produced coverage for 27 consecutive X Games—has led the efforts for a number of Emmy-winning innovations in sports broadcasting. He championed the “1st and 10” marker on NFL telecasts and the “K Zone” for baseball telecasts. “Really? You want to show the strike zone?” he says, mimicking the questioning tone of some broadcasters. But Drake, ever confi dent, told ESPN President George Bodenheimer, “It’s going to work, it’s going to win us an Emmy [Editor’s note: It did], we’re going to keep it exclusive and we’re going to be able to monetize it because we’re going to find a sponsor.”

‘A delicate balance’

"It's a fascinating exercise to watch how he can deconstruct a decision from an editorial standpoint, a business standpoint and a production standpoint and find clarity in the right course of action," says Drake's longtime colleague Jamie Reynolds, VP of event production at ESPN. "It truly is a delicate balance, if not an art form, to do that."

Reynolds has enjoyed watching Drake get back into event production with the World Cup. "It's a chance for him to clear his mind of everything he's doing and get back into the trench," Reynolds says.

Drake spends his free time with his wife, Suzy-a professional sailor-and their three children. Most of the family will be heading to South Africa in June to spend time with Drake while he works.

"At every turn, I've listened to people's ideas with an open mind and then ultimately made a decision," Drake says, looking back over his 30 years at ESPN. "But the decisions I've made have been influenced by this tremendous staff."

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