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Q&A: Famed broadcasters Steiner, Ley discuss the evolution of the sports and sports media industries

221116 Steiner and Ley 1.jpg
Joe Deacon
Sports broadcasters Bob Ley and Charley Steiner were in Peoria on Tuesday as the featured speakers for the sixth annual Steiner Symposium at Bradley Universty.

Charley Steiner and Bob Ley have close to 100 years of combined experience working in sports broadcasting.

The two former ESPN colleagues were in Peoria on Tuesday as the featured speakers for the sixth annual Steiner Symposium at Bradley University.

The event hosted by the eponymous Charley Steiner School of Sports Communication featured discussions on a wide range of sports-related topics, such as inclusion and diversity, and the mental health of athletes.

In Part One of a lengthy conversation with WCBU reporter Joe Deacon, Steiner and Ley discuss how the sports landscape and sports media industry have evolved over the past half century.

This transcript has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Joe Deacon: Charley, I'll start with you. How have you seen the sports industry and the sports media landscape evolve since you started in the business?

Ley: How long have we got?!

Steiner: Where shall we begin? As we talk now, the symposium is going on. And when I welcomed everybody this morning … I arrived in 1967, and in those days, we were still 10-12 years away from cable television. When I was a freshman, cable television was a theory. And as I ran down the panel topics for today, which included Title IX, gender equality, a whole notion of mental health, sports entrepreneurship — those topics were unimaginable, even to talk about in 1967.

So merely everything has changed, and I reminded the students this morning that this is the 50th anniversary of Title IX. Fifty years from now, we will look at the topics of this morning, and they will be so antiquated. I don't know what the next 50 years are going to look like, but if the previous 50 years are any indication, we're going to places that unimaginably we will be going — and I tell the folks all the time, something that John Madden used to tell his Oakland Raiders before they went out on the field: 'Don't worry about the horse being blind, just load up the wagon.' And, the wagon is getting loaded, the horses are blind, and we're going somewhere — but we'll go there together, and that's the best part about the symposium, this evolutionary process of what it is we have done and what we're going to do.

Similarly, Bob, what do you see as the most significant changes or developments in sports and sports broadcasting over the past 30 or 40 years?

Ley: Oh, my Lord. I think just the number of platforms where you can reach people, entertain people, offer opportunity for people to exhibit their work. Yes, the internet, but within that panoply of platforms on the internet, the opportunity … I speak to students at our Center for Sports Media at Seton Hall, and I tell them that 'You have the ability to get your work showcased.' For example, if you're looking to advance your career as an undergraduate, you can become your own business; you can create your own identity, your own voice.

I think that is significant for people looking to work in the industry, and at the same time you look at all the leagues who now — of course, it's de rigueur to have your own network, and from there you just wonder, for example: when the NFL is going to take all the gambling about the NFL in house?

All of which is under the tent of how much money has been now created and flows through the world of sports. So, I think that the love affair in American culture with competition, with the stories and the figures that we like in sports, has never been stronger. And it's a growth opportunity, especially for the students and Charley's symposium — which I, by the way, call 'Steiner-palooza,' because it just goes on year after year and is a marvelous opportunity — and so to bring to these students (and) showcase, 'This is all there for you.'

We didn't have these opportunities. You have these avenues and you can go as far as your talent and abilities and desire will go, because the technology's there; use it and use it wisely.

Steiner: We didn't have the opportunity because it hadn't been invented. So again, this evolutionary process, it's remarkable. I tell the story all the time here, when I arrived, WRBU (Bradley campus radio) was in the student center, across the hall from The Scout, the newspaper, and WRBU consisted of basically a broom closet with a glass that divided two rooms, one with the microphone and one with the turntables, and that was it, and somewhere down the hall was a UPI teletype machine — that was it. Now looking at WCBU public radio — ours was a little carrier current — again, how this has grown, mushroomed has been fascinating.

Again, one other topic we're having today: sports entrepreneurship. Who could have possibly imagined that 30, 40, 50 years ago? But last night at one of our functions, we spent some time with a young fellow who is doing just that, creating basically his own mini sports network, and it's working and I couldn't be prouder of him.

You kind of alluded to one of my future questions, but I'll ask it now. When you are here on campus, could you have ever even dreamed of the career path that you would wind up taking?

Steiner: Well, I knew what I wanted to be when I was 5, 6, 7 years old: I wanted to be the announcer for the Dodgers; the Brooklyn Dodgers, but they moved. So, I always knew I wanted to be in broadcasting. When I got here, my realistic hope was maybe I can make a living doing this. Did I have any idea that the path that I would end up taking would take me to this point? No! Did I ever think, 'Oh, I'll have a school named after me?' Oh, of course that's why I came to Bradley in ’67. No, so — this has been a wonderfully serendipitous, Gumpian, Zelig-like journey, and here we are today.

Bob, you kind of touched on that already, but what kind of message would you give to students that are pursuing a career in sports journalism?

Ley: Well, the most important thing is knowing how to write; it all starts with that. You can talk about the technology and the various platforms, and the abilities to sell yourself and to have your own website and what-not and develop your own voice. But until you know how to write, write correctly, express yourself — if for no other reason than to sell an idea to someone, whether it's an entree to someone you want to cover (or) if you're working in an institution, to sell a story to your boss. Learn how to write, learn how to communicate, and then building on accuracy and fairness, then develop your own voice.

I think one of the opportunities, or almost dangers of where we are right now in the media landscape for people that want to come in, if you desire to be an internet influencer, OK. But you're not going to follow the same kind of career path that Charley's talking about with the students here or we talk about at Seton Hall. Get the basics down, then develop your voice.

Stephen A. Smith, for example — a good friend of mine, who we all know and we all have an idea of what Stephen A. sounds like, looks like and is; and one of the great guys (who) would do anything for you. But before Stephen A. Smith was 'Stephen A. Smith' as we know him, Stephen was a beat writer at small newspapers, coming out of college in North Carolina. He covered the Sixers, then had a column of the (Philadelphia) Enquirer. You talk to him and he had the hell edited out of him to make him a better writer and communicator, and from then started doing a little bit of electronic media. It all was built on the basics.

So even someone as gifted and as well known as Stephen, learned how to write, learned how to communicate. And then when you are feeling you have your own voice, move out into the marketplace and say the things you want to say. But it's based on fairness, and accuracy.

Steiner: Whatever Bob and I have done in our careers, it's all predicated on our ability to write. And then, it begins in the head, it flows through your heart and comes out of your fingertips. That was the only reason I was hired at ESPN in 1988, because I had no television experience at all. But I was a radio guy and I could write a bit. And Bob, obviously, could write a bit and theoretically, then we were able to transfer those thoughts and emotions out of our heads onto the — it used to be typing paper.

Ley: Five-ply carbon paper, from a typewriter no less. What are those?

Steiner: Yeah, and then we used to put all that stuff together on the teleprompter, then some of those fellows who ran the teleprompter weren't very good. But we got through it anyway.

Ley: We could tell some of those stories, if you'd like.

Steiner: But writing. Writing is the key, I think.

As it was mentioned earlier, one of the symposium topics today, the first one, was touching on the 50th anniversary of Title IX. This is for either or both of you, but maybe Bob take it first. Do you think women's sports gets an appropriate amount of attention in media, and if not what can be done to change that?

Ley: Oh, boy. The answer is probably not.

Steiner: That was exactly what I was going to say.

Ley: Probably not, but there's so much media now that if you have — not to slough off the issue — but women's sports, you have the ability as an activist in this area now to take this in your hand and do something about it through producing and distributing events and what-not. You're still up against the marketplace.

The panel at Charley’s symposium today was talking about the idea of putting the men's and women's Final Four in the same city at the same week. We have a particular affinity for the women's tournament; I lived in Connecticut for 40 years, and of course, there’s the great (UConn) program there. So I may have an atypical view of women's sports. But you know, there should be something separate and different and unique about the women's tournament that should stand on its own. You get to the marketplace though, how do you dictate that sponsor interest be the same? You need stars, you need promotion, you need storytelling to create that sort of interest.

It's gotten better, but the answer is it needs to — I've got two daughters and four granddaughters, and you know, I'm not a raving feminist but I think I've got some — my eyes are open on this topic. You can't dictate to the marketplace, but you can put things in place that will move towards that goal. So the answer to your question, probably not.

But you know what? NIL (name, image and likeness compensation) is going to make a difference, and as we heard today at the panel — and I'd seen that number — 6 of the top 10 NIL teams and/or athletes (in) that new system that allows athletes to capitalize on are women, which then immediately gets flipped to 'Well, is that because the women are attractive by some standards and what-not?' So it's a hall of mirrors, but there is an ability now through NIL and all these platforms to do something about it. Don't go railing at 'the man,' ironically, to change it. Change it yourself. You have a voice in it.

Steiner: Going back to your initial question about how the landscape has changed so dramatically, I said this morning when I welcomed everybody in that this is the 50th anniversary of Title IX. When I got here there was no 'title,' much less Title IX. So watching our — I hate to use the word, but — watching our society evolve and how we interact, and you've got the marketplace (and) the right thing to do, the financially right thing to do sometimes are not one and the same. So I'm with Bob: yeah, probably.

You guys also mentioned gambling earlier –

Ley: I'm shocked that there's gambling!

We're seeing now obviously more betting lines discussed during broadcasts. Do you see this as a positive or a negative development for sports broadcasting?

Ley: Hell, it’s negative, but there's nothing you can do about it. It's one of the great hypocrisies on every level in sports. Start with Pete Rose. Let's put aside his personal conduct, which is abhorrent, and just concentrate on the fact that he was banned for gambling on baseball — lying about it, but what-not. And of course he's written his appeal to (MLB commissioner) Rob Manfred. But he's now banned from the game that everywhere you go is plastered with gambling ads in baseball parks.

Start with the fact that the NFL — up until about three years ago, until the Supreme Court decision—– treated gambling like a mortal sin, like a fatal disease, like something to be kept at bay like leprosy. Now they've embraced it, and like I said earlier, I don't know why they haven't taken it all in-house. It's not good, but it is what it is, and so it's out in front on the table.

I'd never placed a sports bet in my life outside of Las Vegas, and now I've got a Caesars’ (Palace) app on my phone — one of our homes is in New York, so it's geo-blocked. I put $100 down this year (and) I'll tell you how corrosive it is. I had like a $20 parlay going on the Mets this year, my boys, and one of it had to do with run totals. One half of the parlay had come — I'm talking about winning 50 bucks here — and for the other part to come in, we needed another run to be scored the game. The Mets were leading by three runs in the top of the ninth inning and in comes (closer Edwin) Diaz, and I felt good because he gave up a solo home run. That's wrong. That's wrong, and I said, 'Boy, this is, this is,' — now it gave me a window onto the lure, onto the action, onto that boiling in the blood. So it's here and (there’s) nothing you can do about it, and yet it's still state by state. California just voted it down — what the heck, Charley, was your home state thinking about?

Steiner: What I was. I voted against it.

Ley: I can see you voting against it, but I think popularly I couldn't understand — it wasn't even close, right?

Steiner: No, they got like 42%; it was a shellacking.

I hate it. I absolutely hate it. I don't recall ever making a bet — oh, I did make a bet in 1960 when I was 11 years old and I thought the Yankees were going to beat the Pirates in the World Series. I was having a piano lesson on the seventh game of the World Series, and I was playing 'On Top of Old Smokey' because my piano teacher would not give me the day off for the seventh game.

(NOTE: Pittsburgh’s Bill Mazeroski hit a home run in the bottom of the ninth inning to give the Pirates the World Series championship).

I'm practicing 'On Top of Old Smokey,' and the kid who lived down the street from me who was rooting for the Pirates: “Mazeroski just hit a home run!” — this was years before it was called a 'walk-off' — and I lost a dollar, and it was also my last piano lesson because I unleashed both curse words that I was aware of at my piano teacher and that was the first and last bet of my life.

Charley, and Bob kind of touched on it a little bit, with the rise of the internet and social media and the leagues having their own networks and things getting so spread out, it seems like the sports fan audience is less reliant on a show like SportsCenter than they were maybe in the ’80s and ’90s when you guys hosted. How do you think that's impacted sports programming in general?

Steiner: Well, back in the halcyon days when we were doing it, there was no (smart) phone. So they would turn on Bob and Robin (Roberts) and me at 6 o'clock, and Keith (Olbermann) and Dan (Patrick) at 11 o'clock to find out what happened during the day. We were the sports news of record, and for lack of a better term, appointment television for sports fans.

As the years went on and the evolution of the Internet, social media, the phone SportsCenter has never been able to — and I'm not sure they can — figure out how to program the immediacy of a phone. Suddenly, you have a notification; now you know who has won, or now you know who has been traded, or who has been hurt. We used to, theoretically, break that news to the viewers around the country. By the time they get on the air now, it's already old news.

Ley: That's just raises the coin, though, of writing. So if you're doing SportsCenter now, and it's delivered, yes, on cable if you haven't cut the cord, or direct to consumer streaming or whatever, why would you watch? Well, there are a lot of good reasons. People our age will say to us — and I'm sure you get this, Charley — ahh, it's not the show it used to be. Well, it can't be the show it used to be. It can't be the network or the company it used to be; it has had to evolve.

But if you're appearing on SportsCenter now, here's the opportunity to make your writing based on factual accuracy and well-grounded opinions. Make it matter, that's what you can offer. You're not offering the highlights; the highlights are on your phone, the news is on your phone, that trade notification is on your phone. But thoughtful dialogue, good interviewing and great observations, that back can be unique and that's what you can offer.

But it is an evolving marketplace, and it's something — I mean, I tell you, now I've been away from the company for four years, and I still continue to tip my hat and marvel at the way it adapts, continues to adapt, and it has to. This whole conversation is about the changes, and they have done a good job but it is a continuing challenge. But I'll tell you this, there isn't a company in the world in communications that wouldn't want ESPN’s challenges because of the challenges of being a leader and continuing on top.

Steiner: When we were doing SportsCenter, it was a daily news show. I guess looking at SportsCenter now, if I had any vote in any of it — and Lord knows I don't; I'm 20 years removed — I would make it a daily magazine show, so expand the stories based on the written skills of the various anchors because, again, the scores are pretty well known by the time they turn it on; the injuries, whatever, the news of the day is already known. So that's where writing in the unique skills of the presenters is so important.

Ley: So much of what SportsCenter does, especially during the football season — because the NFL is the lava that flows through the sports culture and the American culture; you're not going to stop it, and ESPN invests heavily, and rightfully so, because it's the one thing that can bring (an) audience together. But SportsCenter especially on Mondays with Monday Night Football essentially is an 11-hour pregame show, and from a business sense, it's absolutely the correct decision because you have an investment and a lot of money in that broadcast coming up tonight and all the shoulder and ancillary programming has to be around that and supporting that. And when the games are good — and up until this last weekend, nobody was really having good games, but we've (had) some entertaining ones.

You know, it comes down to — I would always ask people (when) I would speak with students or groups, 'Why do we open the doors in the morning at ESPN? Is it to put our kids through college? Is it to put groceries on the table?' No. It's to build value for the shareholders of the Walt Disney Corporation, and the minute you realize that everything was flow from that, and that's the nature of American capitalism. Last I checked, it’s a capitalist economy and we're there to create value, and in so doing produce good programming.

Steiner: On the day it was announced that Cap Cities was selling ESPN to Disney (NOTE: In July 1995, the Walt Disney Co. announced plans to acquire Capital Cities/ABC in a $19 billion merger), Bob and I were sitting next to one another — when they were rebuilding the newsroom and we had those cubicles — and Mike Eisner, Michael Eisner, who was then president of Disney, he said — and I'll never forget this — he said, 'The crown jewel in this merger acquisition was ESPN.' Bob and I are sitting as close as we are now to one another … when was that, 19–

Ley: 1995, he was on Good Morning America when he said that. It’s like, because you hear you're being sold, it’s like, oh, geez. We were in the process of moving, and I was like, 'Oh, I just bought a new house, what the heck is going on?'

Steiner: And we're sitting next to one another in cubicles, and I look at Bob and he looks at me, and I said, we’re in Bristol, Connecticut, in a concrete bunker sitting in cubicles next to one another and we're now the crown jewel in this purchase. I'll never forget, it was staggering and just a big picture about the enormous growth of ESPN in a short period of time. We were the last ones to realize that it was becoming as big as it was because we were sequestered in a small town in central Connecticut doing TV every day.

Ley: See, that was I think the heart of our success, because there was so much work to do. You didn't preen or go — there was really not a lot of places to go out at night and be recognized or see the fruits of the celebrity or the success. We kept our head down and did the business, and the culture — which essentially really has never changed — the culture that has organically grown over 40-plus years, which is we were the 'please and thank you' network.

I remember when we had to explain who we were when we would call out for credentials. We got bigger than that, we got more successful than that, but essentially everybody — when people would come in and say, 'Well, I want to do this, I want to do that, where am I going to be assigned?' I said, 'Relax. There's so much damn work here, you will have plenty of time to be on the air and get better and be featured,' and that's true. So that work ethic, that culture that still exists. I think George Bodenheimer, our former president, beloved during his leadership term and a good friend, coined the phrase it's 'the secret sauce.' The secret sauce of ESPN success is the culture.

Steiner: Yeah.

Watch for Part 2 of this extended conversation coming Thursday at WCBU.org.

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Contact Joe at jdeacon@ilstu.edu.