Legends Behind the Lens: John A. Walsh
ESPN's storytelling soul brought editorial credibility to the "Worldwide Leader"
The story of American sports television is engrained in the history of this nation, rising on the achievements of countless incredible men and women who never once appeared on our screens. During this pause in live sports, SVG is proud to present a celebration of this great industry. Legends Behind the Lens is a look at how we got here seen through the people who willed it to be. Each weekday, we will share with you the story of a person whose impact on the sports-television industry is indelible.
Legends Behind the Lens is presented in association with the Sports Broadcasting Hall of Fame and the SVG Sports Broadcasting Fund. In these trying times — with so many video-production professionals out of work — we hope that you will consider (if you are able) donating to the Sports Broadcasting Fund. Do so by visiting sportsbroadcastfund.org.
Growing up, John A. Walsh rarely, if ever, saw his father clap or cheer for teams he rooted for. But that quiet façade covered a love of sport that included playing on his funeral home’s baseball team against Negro League teams and trips to Philadelphia from Scranton to enjoy sports as a fan. He also made sure John experienced top sports events like the World Series and, in 1956, Don Larson’s perfect game.
“My father loved the World Series, and we went to a World Series game in ’54, ’55, ’56, ’57, ’58, and ’60,” says Walsh. “He would buy standing-room tickets and give a great tip to the usher, who would find me a seat.”
Scranton was a Yankees town, but Walsh fell in love with the Philadelphia Phillies, listening to all 154 games on the radio and cultivating a memory of each game that included the home runs hit, the winning pitcher, the date, and losing pitchers.
In the sports-TV industry, Walsh is best-known for his pivotal role in shaping the editorial direction of ESPN franchises like SportsCenter, ESPN2, ESPN Radio, Page Two, and ESPN The Magazine. And then there was the long-form journalism on shows like Outside the Lines, SportsCentury, and 30 for 30.
“After 22 years in print,” he says, “I found a place for 27 years that was open to something new, that had a creative environment [where it] was easier to get a yes than a no and it was up to us to find the things that would stand out.”
Walsh’s love of journalism began with reading the local sports pages and befriending the local sports columnists at the Scranton Tribune when he was in college. One of their hangouts, and John’s, was Saul’s Sandwich Shop across the street from the Tribune.
“[At the University of Scranton,] I joined the newspaper, and I still don’t know why,” he observes. “By senior year, I was editor, and I also joined the radio station. And, because I wasn’t eligible to be drafted, I decided to go to graduate school.”
He attended the University of Missouri, and his early professional career saw him grow beyond sports to the culture, sports, and op-ed pages. He also edited Jimmy Breslin’s columns and made it to Rolling Stone, where he had the opportunity to work with Hunter S. Thompson, David Felton, and Jann Wenner.
“Since the invention of the printing press, it is all about presentation and aggregation,” he says. “It’s about the primacy of storytelling.”
Before joining ESPN, Walsh worked for 32 media companies over 22 years, including Newsday, Rolling Stone, the Washington Post, Newsweek, and then Inside Sports, for which he was editor for 33 issues. He got his first taste of electronic media in 1976, serving as news editor for a documentary crew called TVTV that was working on Super Bowl X between the Pittsburgh Steelers and Dallas Cowboys.
“As they write the history of ESPN, what won’t be forgotten will be how Walsh’s legacy and presence continue to drive this company going forward.” – Norby Williamson, EVP, Event and Studio Production & Executive Editor, ESPN
In 1987, he was hired by ESPN’s Steve Bornstein as a consultant to analyze SportsCenter operations. On Jan. 10, 1988, that consultancy became a 27-year career at the network, and he would help transform not only the company but very nature of televised sports news.
“John’s mark has been felt now for decades in sports television and will continue to be for decades to come,” says former ESPN President George Bodenheimer. “John is unique in his dedication to his work, and his always insightful thinking and his contributions to ESPN cannot be overstated. He, alongside Steve Anderson, forged the ‘modern’ SportsCenter, which is the backbone of ESPN.”
When Walsh joined ESPN, CNN Sports Tonight with Fred Hickman and Nick Charles was out-rating SportsCenter. He had a lot of respect for what the eight-year-old network and SportsCenter had accomplished. The challenge was figuring out how to top Sports Tonight in the ratings.
A strong background in print publishing gave Walsh a fresh perspective on how to package SportsCenter in a new way. But he also knew he had to learn as much as he could about the production team behind the show. He interviewed members of the team for upwards of two hours each to understand their commitment to sports, the editorial process, and more.
“I also had to convince them that I cared and wanted to learn more about TV,” he recalls. “I wanted a standard of three S’s for the show: smart, smile, and always a surprise,” he says. “We tried to apply those standards to all shows.”
One thing he wanted to change was how highlight shows went about their business of reporting the day’s sports news. He couldn’t stand the way sports news shows would start with a game like Celtics vs. Lakers and then show highlights for all other NBA games before changing to another sport.
“We changed the first segment to be like the front page of a sports section and make it a video version with the top stories,” says Walsh. “Maybe two of them were games or all were games, but you wanted to get the viewer’s attention with a couple of highlights and then tell them they would get the other highlights later in the show.”
And then there was the talent. Walsh credits much of the successful turnaround at SportsCenter to the combination of Chris Berman (Walsh’s fellow Sports Broadcasting Hall of Fame inductee) and Bob Ley.
“Bob knew what he was doing and was serious and insightful while Chris knew how to have fun,” he says. “The idea was that there wasn’t enough ‘sports-smart’ programming. So the idea was to make SportsCenter the landing place for any fan at the end of the day, a must-view and must-see. But we need to have entertaining people hosting it, and we had to throw pages of stats at viewers to show we really love sports and are passionate.”
Walsh and Anderson soon found themselves surrounded by singular talents like Robin Roberts, Andrea Kramer, Jimmy Roberts, Stuart Scott, Mike Tirico, Rich Eisen, and “some nutcase” from Los Angeles named Keith Olberman. Toss in Dan Patrick, Gary Miller, and Charley Steiner (who formed a lethal trio with Ley and Roberts), and the personality of SportsCenter came through: smart, funny, insightful, and diverse.
“We encouraged creativity in storytelling in the highlights and to avoid being chronological,” says Walsh. “The goal was to highlight the story as if you are there. And the final score was the denouement.”
But Walsh and Anderson were not finished with transforming sports news.
“You want great storytellers and good reporters, because you can teach people TV,” says Walsh. People like Peter Gammons, Chris Mortensen, and Tom Rinaldi are expert reporters who helped put ESPN at the center of any serious sports fan’s life.
Among the highlights are Walsh’s partnership with Anderson on SportsCenter for the first four years, the crazy opening night of the first ESPYs, and then developing Page 2 with columnists Ralph Wiley, David Halberstam, Bill Simmons, and Hunter S. Thompson.
After four years at SportsCenter, Walsh found himself inventing new things for ESPN, such as ESPN2, ESPN The Magazine, and Outside the Lines and SportsCentury.
“I had the honor and pleasure of working for Steve Bornstein, George Bodenheimer, Jim Allegro, Howard Katz, and Mark Shapiro,” says Walsh.
Over his career, he took advantage of ESPN’s resources, transforming the way stories are told.
“The greatest quality of ESPN for my 27 years was collaboration,” he says. “Everyone was always itching to make whatever the product was better day in and day out.”
Former ESPN president John Skipper said that Walsh has influenced him and hundreds of others.
“John is among the most influential people in the history of ESPN,” he says. “He brought a newspaperman’s sensibilities to television and helped revolutionize SportsCenter by championing smart content that educated fans. He was instrumental in launching many of our businesses and shows that feature journalism and storytelling in their foundation. Even more important, John has been a mentor and confidant to hundreds, myself included. I have always considered John one of my most trusted advisors and closest friends.”
The video in this profile was originally produced in 2017. For more on the life and career of this industry legend, visit their profile at the Sports Broadcasting Hall of Fame.