Tonight’s ESPY Awards show on ABC will look to ride the momentum of the return of live sports after an unprecedented shutdown in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The event, hosted by actor Anthony Mackie (The Falcon and the Winter Soldier), will honor major sports achievements and salute the leading performers and performances.
Last year’s June ESPYs event was held without a live audience and, with the lack of live sports events due to the pandemic, focused mostly on humanitarian issues.
I recently spoke to ESPN Content SVP and Editor-At-Large Rob King about this year’s ESPYs presentation and how ESPN has had to navigate around the pandemic to produce its annual sports awards show. An edited version of the interview appears below.
Picture This: How has ESPN adjusted to producing the ESPY Awards during an unprecedented time in sports due to the pandemic?
Rob King: So we went from being in a theater of 5,000 people two years ago to having to do it all virtually last year. That was a struggle on a number of fronts: in some ways you had a bit of a captive audience in terms of athletes and performers who joined the show, but it was also trying to do a virtual show in the middle of a pretty dramatic shift in human history between the pandemic, a reckoning around race, and the early stages of an election cycle. Meanwhile, we didn't have live sports to watch or enjoy, so it felt wrong to hand out awards for best college basketball team when we didn't have an NCAA tournament or to offer a whole host of superlative awards for seasons that were stopped. So we had to shift course last year and really make it be about a celebration of heroism and courage at a time when everyone needed it. Now you flash forward to this year, and we’ve had sports return in a way that we have all needed. You've seen incredible performances around the world and fans have worked their way back into stadiums, so we have an opportunity to return to some of that celebratory feel around the performance of athletes.
Picture This: How will this year’s ESPYs look and feel different from last year?
RK: First let me say that we are not quite out of pandemic, so we've worked tirelessly to think of ways to start our way back to what we believe will be a full theater show next year by creating this safe environment where people can celebrate together. Logistically it meant that you’ll have 500 people instead of 5,000; it'll mean that we'll have folks socially distant, but with the ability to be with one another.
Picture This: Last year the ESPYs moved to Saturday night from Wednesday. Is Saturday an optimal night for the event in terms of reaching viewers?
RK: We’ll see. The Wednesday slot after the [Major League Baseball] All-Star game was chosen strategically because there isn’t anything else going on so you can be the only show in town. We just feel like we’re well situated this year based on the general excitement about the return of sports.
Picture This: What does host Anthony Mackie bring to the ESPYs?
RK: First of all, he is a genuine sports fan, and there have been so many moments of just pure joy working on this show because he really gets why a night like this matters. Secondly, working with Anthony Mackie has made me a lot cooler with my teenage kids -- I’m not saying that’s the only thing that matters, but it matters (laughing).
Picture This: Are you confident that this year’s ESPYs will resonate with viewers?
RK: I think so. I think producers of the show have done a fantastic job of making sure that some of those athletes that we just love, want to spend time with and celebrate will be present. We're going to have a bunch of moments that will be immediately viral and draw a lot of attention. It’s also a really big night in terms of sports across ESPN and ABC with the Wimbledon finals and UFC 264 with Conor McGregor, so I think our time on ABC from eight o’clock until 11 fits nicely into what's really going to be a pretty big day for sports fans.
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