NEW YORK — The day Bob Ley announced his retirement from ESPN last summer, the network devoted an entire episode of his show, “Outside the Lines,” to his send-off.
“Nothing would please me more than continuing to consume, tune in, to read and just to see the reaction to great stuff being done here,” Ley said before signing off.
The new “Outside the Lines” premieres Saturday, for the first time in its history without Ley. Schaap is the new host, and he takes over at a time when the sports world and those covering it are increasingly grappling with issues beyond the playing field. Colin Kaepernick’s feud with the NFL, the NBA’s rift with China, even perfunctory White House visits and presidential appearances at sporting events: In the Trump era, they’re all scrutinized as fronts in the culture war.
Meanwhile, ESPN President Jimmy Pitaro has said he doesn’t want the network to be viewed as political and that he wants a better relationship with the NFL, which has been a target of the network’s top investigative reporters and some pundits.
Those marching orders have occasionally chafed reporters and on-air personalities. Last summer, host Dan Le Batard publicly lambasted a company policy that limits political discussion on the air. In the fall, when the NBA, an ESPN broadcast partner, was covering the fallout from a general manager’s tweet about Hong Kong protests, the network forbade a prominent NBA reporter from having a China expert on his podcast.
Into this murky landscape steps a new version of OTL, which has been ESPN’s most recognizable platform for ambitious, adversarial journalism for 30 years. Its new schedule alone has some stakeholders anxious. According to a person close to Ley, he was not happy about the scheduling change. And in recent interviews, several former OTL staffers pointed out that it was bumped to Saturday and not Sunday morning, when it might get more viewers.
Schaap, though, is optimistic. Over Chinese food on the Upper West Side, he argued that ESPN’s higher-ups remain committed to the show. “I think the brand is more important than ever,” he said. “The issues are more important than ever, and I think our audience expects us to cover them because we’ve built up an expectation and an appetite for it over 30 years.”
When ESPN launched OTL as a monthly show in 1990, it signaled the flourishing network’s outsize journalistic ambitions. ESPN would invest in investigative reporters and pursue stories that made the leagues — often its business partners — uncomfortable. In the mid-1990s, the network launched an eight-month investigation into the Russian mob’s ties to the NHL, with a young Schaap doing several interviews. In recent years, ESPN the Magazine has stood out for its probing reporting into the NFL, with Ley and OTL amplifying the work.
Schaap, 50, is both a contemporary of Ley’s and his heir apparent. Schaap’s father, Dick, was a longtime sportswriter and sportscaster in New York who later hosted ESPN’s iconic “Sports Reporters” show. Jeremy Schaap remembers Reggie Jackson and Dave DeBusschere coming over for dinner when he was a kid, as guests of his dad. Dick Schaap, who died in 2001, was close with Jimmy Breslin; Jeremy Schaap said he has sought to combine Breslin’s combativeness with his father’s more genteel style.
“I think there’s a reason you see so many second- and third-generation kids in this business,” Schaap said. “What else could you want to do?”
Schaap’s 25-year ESPN career has taken him across the globe: to Iceland for a famous encounter with Bobby Fischer; to Qatar for a story about the deaths of workers building stadiums for the World Cup; to Bahrain to report on sports and the Arab Spring; and to Turkey, where he secured an interview with the Turkish government about NBA player and political dissident Enes Kanter.
“When Jeremy is on the screen, you know the story is going to be worth your time,” said Andy Tennant, the executive producer of “Outside the Lines.”
Schaap’s career is also a window into how ESPN has changed, and to the challenges he may face in his new role. The first show he hosted was “Classic Sports Reporters,” which launched on ESPN Classic 20 years ago, in the salad days of ESPN. Cable TV was invulnerable then, and ESPN had the freedom to try just about anything. On the show, Schaap talked to veteran sportswriters such as Bill Nack about historical topics such as the Black Sox scandal. “We made no effort to connect anything to current events,” Schaap said.
ESPN is a different company now. Cord-cutting has eaten away at ESPN’s cable subscribers, hurting its bottom lines. There is more competition for live sports rights, and players and teams can cultivate their own audiences online.
Asked whether today’s media ecosystem makes it harder for ESPN to value tough journalism and explore thorny political issues, Schaap said he doesn’t think about it.
“I’m not a student of the business,” he said, “and I made a conscious decision not to care as long as the checks are clearing. I tell everybody that I meet: ‘Keep your cable; don’t cut the cord. But if you do, buy the app.’ I’ve got three kids to send to college.”
He added: “We’ve always had business relationships since I’ve been here. And it’s not my pay grade to manage those relationships. I do my job; the show does its job. No one has ever told me, ‘Don’t do this’ or, ‘Don’t do that.’ In fact, it’s been the opposite.”
Going weekly will help, Schaap said, allowing room for more in-depth panel discussions and meatier features. Recent scoops by ESPN reporters — such as those on the death of Angels pitcher Tyler Skaggs, or the Sacramento Kings executive who stole millions of dollars from the team — could find new life on Saturday morning, as well as on new short OTL-branded segments on the noon “SportsCenter” broadcast.
“Some days the topic was obvious," Schaap said of the daily version. “But there are also only a certain amount of good stories in the world of sports every day, and sometimes by the time you got around to us it had been warmed over.”
Otherwise, Schaap said, his version of OTL will look much like Ley’s, given the hosts’ similar sensibilities. “Human rights, abuse of athletes — these are the stories we want to do,” Schaap said.
Ley, 64, described himself and Schaap as kindred spirits, sharing anecdotes that sound at once sweetly nostalgic and also like the last gasps of a more financially robust era of journalism. They spent a month in Paris in 2016, covering the European soccer championships, where they spent off days taking 10-mile strolls, eating two-hour lunches, reading Hemingway and drinking wine. They visited the Rodin museum and traded trivia. (Schaap can name the British monarchs going back before the Magna Carta.)
“We weren’t on a per diem," Schaap said. "We weren’t going to have ham sandwiches.”
Ley also noted that the OTL staff enjoys ribbing Schaap about his ritzy Westport, Conn., address, and about the fact that he is an investigative reporter who is squired around by a personal driver named Eddie.
They’re the trappings of a long career as a legacy journalist at a legacy outlet that, now more than ever, is delicately balancing its business interests, entertainment and journalism. But part of Schaap’s new job, he said, is to keep the confidence of ESPN executives — to make the case that he can explore hard topics without recklessly attacking business partners.
“Part of the job is representing journalists,” Schaap said. “And those are conversations I’ve had with bosses here, whoever they are.”
Ley was particularly adept at this. For Schaap, 25 years at ESPN, and the weight of his name, should help.
Twenty years ago, when Schaap conducted a tough interview with Bob Knight, after the coach was fired from Indiana University, Knight told Schaap, “You have a long way to go to be as good as your father." Norby Williamson, now the executive vice president who oversees “Outside the Lines,” was producing the segment.
“Bob’s name was on the show," Tennant said. “But Jeremy’s the closest thing to that. He’s being asked to anchor ESPN’s journalism.”