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From the Field to the Broadcast Booth: Jessica Mendoza’s Story

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This interview is presented to you by the University of Nebraska — Lincoln Master of Arts in Business with a Specialization in Intercollegiate Athletics Administration

By: Meaghan McCloskey, @Meaghan_Mc3

Jessica Mendoza, ESPN Analyst and two-time Softball Olympian. Photo courtesy of ESPN Media Zone. 

ESPN Analyst Jessica Mendoza has always liked a challenge. That’s part of why she loves baseball so much.

“In baseball, a guy hits .300 and is still considered really good, even though he’s failing a lot. What other sport has that much failure and you’re still considered good? I love that it challenges you, physically and mentally, no matter how good you are.”

Mendoza also credits her dad, who was a head baseball coach, for giving her the knowledge and understanding of baseball that she has. She was always in his back pocket, wanting to do everything he did. Even though she was involved in a variety of sports as a kid, she had an upper hand in softball because of her baseball background.

“Once the trail is blazed, it’s up to me (and other women in sports) to keep doing a good job for the next generation.”

“There are so many mechanics in baseball and softball. I was able to set myself apart with my knowledge and understanding because of my dad.”

Mendoza’s talent on the field helped lead her to Stanford, where she played for four years before joining the United States Women’s National Softball Team. She chose Stanford because, like softball, it wasn’t necessarily an ‘easy road.’

“I loved that you had to get in as a student. You’re recruited by some great schools, but I loved knowing I would graduate with a degree that represented what I did, compared to what I played. My degree was in American Studies, which had classes from all different schools, such as music, history, English and math. It gave you a lot of options so you could float around because of the variety. It was kind of all over the place, like me.”

After graduating, Mendoza had the chance to represent the United States in the 2004 and 2008 Olympics. She said her passion for the sport multiplied by millions when she had ‘USA’ across her chest and heard the National Anthem while wearing it. It also made her realize how many opportunities women in America have in sports.

“You’re interacting with athletes from all over the world and the opportunities women and girls have in America, like youth sports and Title IX, don’t exist in other countries.”

“People take the National Anthem for granted, but you really realize what the song and flag mean when you’re there. I’m never taking the National Anthem for granted again,” Mendoza said.

In 2007, while playing on the national team, Mendoza was approached by ESPN about auditioning for one of their softball analyst positions.

“College softball had really grown and ESPN was looking for more analysts. I was being interviewed a lot while playing and they asked me to audition. I almost said no because of my lack of broadcasting experience, but decided ‘why not?’, auditioned, and loved it. I ended up having five years where I was broadcasting and playing.”

When asked if there was anything she did in college to prepare for broadcasting, Mendoza said she had no interest in it while in college. She wanted to move to D.C. and work in politics and education reform. Now, she says broadcasting is a dream job in so many senses.

“I get to be on field with the players, right now, at one of the most amazing times of the year- postseason baseball. It doesn’t always feel like a job and is something I would do without pay.”

In her current role at ESPN, she earned the honor of being the first female in a broadcast booth for a Sunday Night Baseball telecast. With this came a fair share of pressure and naysayers, which after years of preparation, was nothing Mendoza couldn’t handle.

“I put pressure on myself more than I felt pressure from others. I wanted it to be more of a baseball game than about gender. I didn’t want to be brought in unless it would be continual and because I was the best person for the job, not because of the headlines it would make.”

“I’m a social person and enjoy communicating with people. In college, the hardest part was the social aspect because meeting and interacting with others was just as important to me as workouts and academics.”

“The negativity about being in the booth was something I had to learn how to handle. When I first saw and heard the complaints and criticism about me not belonging in the booth because I’m a girl, I laughed. I grew up around baseball teams and in California, nobody talked like that. I guess you could say I’m blessed with a background not based on gender. I’ve had to modify my relationship with social media because sometimes the things people said would be really hurtful.”

“It took some adjusting for me, but I realized it’s okay to be me and live in the moment. I don’t think about where I could or should be.”

Mendoza is also aware of the responsibility she has to keep doors like this open for a multitude of other women saying, “Once the trail is blazed, it’s up to me (and other women in sports) to keep doing a good job for the next generation.”

While she is a trailblazer, Mendoza credited the likes of Billie Jean King and Donna de Varona for helping give her this kind of opportunity, saying how they were there for Title IX and together established the Women’s Sports Foundation, which Mendoza is also involved with.

“I love being able to educate people on a variety of different stages, whether it’s getting active or staying involved in sports. Youth sports can be expensive, so [WSF] has funding that goes towards helping athletes (and their families) pay for equipment and travel. We’ve also done a lot of work in D.C. to get legislation changed and improved upon to be able to provide opportunities for women and girls.”

When asked about her goals, Mendoza said she wants to make a change in the world by telling stories and creating more education and knowledge in disparities in countries. One example she used was Venezuelan baseball players.

“I want to educate people on the politics of the countries these players are from and bring awareness to situations in their home countries. I want people to think broader than just sports because [these players] aren’t ‘just’ Latin players.”

Mendoza said the hardest part of her job has been adjusting her family life. The mom of two boys, three and seven, she said her husband is tremendous.

“Right now, I’m missing Halloween because of the postseason. Halloween is a pretty big holiday for kids that age, and it sucks having to miss it.”

When asked about how she handles the “work-life balance”, Mendoza’s response was one that everyone should take stock in.

“I want to throw out the term ‘balance’ for working moms. The word ‘balance’ is over our heads because we’re trying to be there for our kids and work, thinking ‘everything will be in balance,’ but it’s never going to be. It doesn’t have to be perfect. It’s okay to be in one place and focus only on that. It took some adjusting for me, but I realized it’s okay to be me and live in the moment. I don’t think about where I could or should be.”

Finally, Mendoza shared some advice she has for women (or anyone) who want to get into sports or sports broadcasting. She said to, “think broad” and emphasized thinking of long-term possibilities and not just, “here and now.”

“Find four or five things you want to do within television, whether it’s in front of the camera or behind the scenes. A lot of women do what they see, like the more traditional roles of anchoring or sideline reporting. There are some really cool positions out there, like producing, so find out what those are, because they can lead to other positions.”

You can follow Jessica on Twitter, Instagram or her Facebook Fan Page.

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Turning ESPN Around

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Apr 26, 2019; Los Angeles, CA, USA; ESPN broadcasters Mark Jackson (left) and Jeff Van Gundy (center) and Mike Breen during game six of the first round of the 2019 NBA Playoffs between the Golden State Warriors and the LA Clippers at Staples Center. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

*This piece first appeared in the Front Office Sports Newsletter. Subscribe today and get the news before anyone else.

In just over a year since joining ESPN as the company’s president, it looks as if Jimmy Pitaro has been able to turn things around.

After a period of turbulence that included layoffs, a strained relationship with the NFL, and a falling linear subscriber base, things at the WWL seem to be looking up.

What has worked?

  • ESPN+: The OTT streaming service now has a reported 2 million subscribers after a year of being live.
  • New Digital Offerings: ESPN has expanded its presence on platforms like Snapchat, YouTube and Twitter.
  • Leveraging ABC: To further its reach, ESPN has found success putting marquee events and games (NBA games, NFL Draft, college football games) on the free to air TV channel.

More sports, fewer politics…

While some championed ESPN’s coverage of events where politics and sports seemingly intertwined, Pitaro believes he has brung clarity to the company when it comes to what fans of ESPN truly want.

“Without question, our data tells us our fans do not want us to cover politics. My job is to provide clarity. I really believe that some of our talent was confused on what was expected of them. If you fast-forward to today, I don’t believe they are confused.” – Jimmy Pitaro to Stephen Battaglio of the LA Times.

What they are saying…

“We’ve done some brand research that suggests ESPN’s brand is stronger than it was a few years ago.” – Bob Iger to Disney investors

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Rachel Nichols and ‘The Jump’ Lead the Way in Daily NBA Coverage

With the NBA playoffs reaching their peak, Rachel Nichols and “The Jump” are ramping up coverage, bringing the latest news to the growing NBA community.

Bailey Knecht

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Photo Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

One afternoon, in the middle of his appearance as a panelist on ESPN’s “The Jump,” Scottie Pippen received a text from Michael Jordan letting Pippen know MJ was watching the show. Another time, Bill Russell tweeted at host Rachel Nichols about that day’s episode.

“It’s the ultimate compliment because growing up, we idolized these players,” says Danny Corrales, ‘The Jump’ producer. “To know current and former players are looking at our show as a credible source of NBA news and information is really flattering.”

In its three and a half years on the air, “The Jump” has made a name for itself as the go-to show for daily basketball news, even for the sport’s biggest stars.

“The show is on at practice facilities, training facilities and hotels, so we’ll get texts and hear from players, GMs and front office people, talking about rumors we address on the show,” Nichols says.

It’s not just Hall of Famers and NBA team personnel that tune in. “The Jump” averages around 300,000 viewers per day and is regularly one of the most-watched ESPN shows on-demand.

The common thread between those who watch? A deep love for the NBA and all of its drama, on and off the court.

“That’s what we’re striving for, that everyone from NBA fans to players to team owners can come hang out with us,” Nichols says. “It’s a centralized hub or hangout.”

READ MORE: ESPN Brings AR to Life for NBA Playoffs

With the playoffs in full swing, the Emmy-nominated crew is now out of the studio and on the road, providing on-site coverage for the remainder of the season.

“To me, being where the game is has always been an important part of my coverage,” Nichols says. “I feel like I need to be here, going to practice and talking to guys, going to games, going into the locker room and talking about what’s going on…It brings an immediacy, a currency, and that helps viewers be there with us.”

A prime-time version of the show has also been added for the NBA Finals, airing on ESPN from 8 to 8:30 p.m. ET ahead of weekday Finals games.

“Every time we hit the road, we try to replicate our daily show as best as we can, and it’s not easy being on the road because there’s a comfort level you gain in the studio,” Corrales says. “Our goal for this year is to continue to do the show the way we do the normal show, with the same topics, same guests and same passionate energy.”

When she created “The Jump,” Nichols pushed for it to feel like a casual basketball discussion with friends. The show features media members and former players conversing around a table, and the studio is set up more like a living room than a traditional anchor desk.

“That’s what I’m doing on my weekend afternoon—sitting around, talking about basketball with friends, and that transferred into everything about the show,” Nichols says. “It’s not a big, huge set, and there are no big monitors, because I don’t have big monitors in my living room, so why would we have that here?”

Rather than showing highlights or going in-depth on Xs and Os, Nichols and her panelists dive into the quirky, peripheral side of the sport.

“We’re having an educated basketball conversation and telling you things you don’t know, so if you’re a diehard, you’re still learning, but we hope it’s accessible for other people, too,” Nichols says.

It’s not all about the fun, lighthearted side of the NBA, though. An experienced journalist, Nichols does not shy away from heavy topics in her introductory monologues and interviews, such as the Dallas Mavericks’ sexual misconduct investigation in 2018.

“In a way, I’ve been prepping my whole career,” says Nichols, who has covered major controversies involving sports figures like Roger Goodell and Floyd Mayweather. “I’ve done investigative pieces, and I’ve covered serious league issues for months at a time. I feel good that if something serious comes up, I can steer the conversation.”

READ MORE: Ernie Johnson Talks March Madness, Sports Media and More

Nichols and her crew have made an effort to balance those serious topics with the NBA’s goofier stories, though. For example, they recently discussed a Milwaukee-based radio station that refuses to play Drake songs during the Bucks’ playoff series against the Toronto Raptors.

“We’re giving good weight to both [serious and fun] topics, and we’re staying true to the character of the show and who I am, too,” Nichols said.

The NBA is rarely bereft of topics to discuss, so Nichols leans on fans and NBA Twitter to find fresh content and drive the conversation. She says social media has “helped with that communal feel, like we’re all in this together.”

With the Finals around the corner, that community will embrace the drama, with Nichols and her crew leading the discussion every step of the way.

“The NBA is a celebrity league, and the players are superstars,” Nichols says. “People feel like they know these guys, so the whole thing feels like a high school cafeteria, where we know what table everybody is sitting at. We also have a table in the cafeteria, and now we have a yearbook.”

When she first pitched “The Jump,” Nichols took a risk, hoping to find an audience for a daily afternoon basketball show. Now, just a few years later, “The Jump” has become the preferred NBA show for basketball junkies—regular fans to NBA legends alike.

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ESPN Brings AR to Life for NBA Playoffs

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May 20, 2019; Portland, OR, USA; Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry (30) passes the ball past Portland Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard (0) and forward Meyers Leonard (11) during the second half in game four of the Western conference finals of the 2019 NBA Playoffs at Moda Center. The Warriors won 119-117 in overtime. Mandatory Credit: Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports

*This piece first appeared in the Front Office Sports Newsletter. Subscribe today and get the news before anyone else.

During this year’s Western Conference Finals, you may have seen graphics that made you feel like you were playing an NBA 2K game instead of watching the Warriors sweep the Trail Blazers. 

Why? Because ESPN and Second Spectrum teamed up to deliver real-time AR graphics to provide viewers with advanced stats and engagement opportunities. 

What do you need to know?

‘ESPN Mode’, as it is called, is part of the network’s push to provide more differentiated viewing opportunities for fans through its digital offerings.

Outside of AR, ESPN has been offering a feed from a robotic camera above the rim, as well as one for pre-game layup lines, and during warmups for both teams.

They also rolled out a new NBA Twitter and YouTube pre-game show, Hoop Streams, as well as At The Mic, a show that covers post-game press conferences.

Why does Second Spectrum sound familiar? 

That’s because they are the company behind Clippers CourtVision, the technology that allows fans of the team to choose different streams that show different AR graphics during the broadcast of a game, similar to what ESPN was providing its fans. 

With CourtVision, fans get to choose from three streams, whereas with ESPN, the best of each different mode was combined into one. 

What did fans have to say?

The reaction to the graphics was mixed. Below is a look at what a few Twitter users had to say about them. 

– “Bruh. Wtf are these ridiculous graphics ESPN is forcing on us?!? Stop it.” – @vasu

– “I’m all sorts of excited for this.” – @iDontHoldHouses

–  “I like the idea here. A little too much going on IMO, but interested to see if this (hopefully in moderation) becomes more common.” – @declancmurray

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