ESPN finally ready to unleash The Undefeated

It’s never a good sign for a news organization when the number of articles written about it far exceeds those written by it. But that’s been the case for The Undefeated during its tumultuous 33-month history. But Tuesday might mark a turning point in that narrative, as ESPN’s long-awaited sports and culture site for African-Americans -- helmed by former Washington Post managing editor Kevin Merida -- is finally expected to go live.

The Undefeated’s history has been well-chronicled in sports media, so I won’t relive it in great detail here. The short version: In August 2013, sports writer Jason Whitlock announced he would be launching an African-American-focused site with ESPN. By mid-2014, when only one additional hire had been made, the site became the subject of increasing scrutiny. In November 2014, three hires were finally made, but there was little progress toward a launch outside of the decision to call the site The Undefeated. In April 2015, Deadspin’s Greg Howard published a blistering critique of Whitlock’s management of the site. Two months later, ESPN officially removed Whitlock from his leadership role on the project.

By the time Whitlock departed the project -- and, soon after, left ESPN altogether -- many inside and outside the company wondered whether The Undefeated would ever launch. Those concerns were exacerbated in October when ESPN shuttered Grantland, another of its affinity sites.

For the seven Undefeated staffers who remained at ESPN after Whitlock’s departure -- Danielle Cadet, Jesse Washington, Mike Wise, Justin Tinsley, Ryan Cortes, Jerry Bembry and Brando Simeo Starkey -- it was a lonely existence. Later dubbed “The Magnificent Seven,” they’d been consistently assured by John Skipper, ESPN president, and Marie Donoghue, executive vice president of global strategy and original content, that the project was safe. Yet the clock kept ticking with no clear plan in sight. The project had seen so many phases that, when any of those seven were asked to chronicle where they’d worked previously, they’d jokingly reply, “Before I was at The Undefeated … I was at The Undefeated.”

“The early members of the staff have had their share of tribulation and, yes, I was worried about their morale and whether we could hang on to these talented people,” Skipper said. “I think their sticking it out is a tribute to their strong commitment, and I am grateful for that."

“It was difficult because I knew they wanted to do it, but we wanted to work, and it was tough for us to work,” said Washington, who had come to The Undefeated after covering race at The Associated Press for six years. “We didn’t want to sit around with our feet up and collect a paycheck.”

Said Wise, who had been a sports columnist for The Washington Post: “Even though [senior management was] saying all the right things, I’d be less than truthful if I said we were sure it’d happen. The cool thing about the site was it was going to have strategic advocacy, and I’ve always been attracted to that. But all of that was in the back of my head and made me think, ‘Do people want this to happen?’ Especially after Grantland went down.”

Did Skipper ever consider shuttering The Undefeated?

“No,” he said. “I believed strongly in the idea and knew we just had to find the right leader.”

Unknown to most, though, right about the time Grantland closed, Skipper and Donoghue were finding that leader. ESPN’s wooing of Merida had been reported by Deadspin’s Howard, so when Cadet was invited by Merida to a group dinner at the National Association of Black Journalists convention this past August in Minneapolis, she went in with a multifaceted plan.

“If I’m being completely honest, I went to that dinner with the intent to either convince him to come to The Undefeated or to hire me at the Post,” said Cadet, a senior editor for The Undefeated who had previously worked for the Huffington Post’s BlackVoices site. “Either we were going to convince people to keep it going or get the hell out. ... I had to work really hard to portray my faith in the project, which was a difficult thing to do at the time.”

Soon after, Cadet met Merida for coffee, and recalled, “I left Minneapolis having no idea [whether he would take the job]. He called and emailed afterward, asking great questions. Every time I got an email from him, I stopped what I was doing.”

“What I remember is how impressive she was, and I thought to myself, ‘If I don’t end up going to The Undefeated, I am going to hire her at The Washington Post,’” Merida said. “She was clearly someone destined for leadership -- smart and savvy and likable. She was enormously helpful to me as I was trying to figure out my decision. And she is a force at The Undefeated now, with a brilliant future ahead of her.”

The pursuit of Merida took time, which was no surprise considering the journey The Undefeated had taken at ESPN. Said Merida, “I had questions I wanted to have answered about what happened beforehand. I wanted to see how [Skipper] saw the site and assess the commitment.”

Merida got those assurances from Skipper, and he felt that ESPN firmly believed in the project despite the rocky path, saying “I’m not one of those that’s afraid of negative publicity. It’s not that Deadspin articles were going to scare me off.”

While “The Magnificent Seven” were aware Merida was considering the job, they tried to temper their excitement.

“I felt like it would be a tough sell,” Washington said. “To be completely honest about it, I thought it was a Hail Mary. … But then again, I watched the pass that Doug Flutie threw to win that game against Miami, so Hail Marys do happen.”

After a three-month courtship, Merida accepted the job in late October. When Donoghue informed The Magnificent Seven, “it was a mix between shock and relief,” Cadet said.

“I felt a huge commitment to those seven,” Donoghue said. “I thought Jason [Whitlock] did a great job finding and hiring them. That’s one of the reasons it took so long. I knew we had to get the right person. It was more important to get the right person than to rush.”

When asked what the plan would have been had Merida declined the offer, Skipper said, “I was pretty determined, so I am not going to admit to there being the possibility of a different outcome.”

From a strategic standpoint, launching a site geared toward African-Americans is a no-brainer for ESPN. According to the network’s research and analytics department, 29 million African-Americans visit ESPN every week and spend an average of 9 minutes, 23 seconds on the network’s various platforms -- 80 percent more than the average ESPN consumer. According to Nielsen, ESPN ranks behind only Black Entertainment Television in cable network viewership among African-Americans between ages 18 and 49. According to comScore, among digital’s top 100 entities, ESPN ranks ninth in African-American composition.

As part of Merida’s hiring, ESPN agreed to move The Undefeated’s home base from Los Angeles to Washington D.C. After what the original staff had been through, this was no issue, with Cadet saying, “Actually, one of the most encouraging things was being asked to move from L.A. to D.C.”

Merida, who coined the term “The Magnificent Seven” for the remaining staffers, said his first challenge was morale -- or the lack thereof. “I felt for them; they had been through a lot,” he said. “I wanted to make their investment, from an emotional standpoint, worthwhile.”

Once of Merida’s first moves was hiring Raina Kelley, a talented editor for ESPN The Magazine, to serve as managing editor. She also knew emotional support was the immediate need, saying, “Right before the hiring of Kevin and myself, I was told the morale had -- and this is my description -- flatlined. There was no morale left to measure.”

Merida and Kelley soon initiated the best morale tactic in any modern newsroom: hiring like crazy. In just a few months, The Undefeated brought in a wealth of talent, much of it from Merida’s former employer: writers Michael Fletcher, Soraya Nadia McDonald, Clinton Yates and Lonnae O’Neal all came from The Washington Post. The site also hired former Vibe editor-in-chief Danyel Smith, and recruited writer Kelley Carter from BuzzFeed, columnist Jason Reid from ESPN.com, deputy digital innovation editor LaToya Peterson from Fusion, NBA writer Marc Spears from Yahoo and many others. The site now has a staff close to 40.

“We could have hired seven Undefeateds,” Kelley said. “There is an excess of young journalistic talent out there.”

As the site’s staff grew, it was time to decide -- yet again -- what exactly The Undefeated ought to be. The discussion began with a fill-in-the-blanks exercise that started, “The Undefeated is ...” Washington’s response was to ask if “is” was even the appropriate verb.

“I led us down a 30-minute discussion on whether it was the right verb,” Washington said. “Finally, I said, ‘You know what, it is the best word. This is a waste of time.’”

But, to Kelley, it was not a waste; it was a sign that that everyone was focused on determining the site’s mission. “I’m glad it was a useful dead end,” Washington said.

After a few days of discussion and debate, the mission statement was completed: The Undefeated is the premier platform for exploring the intersections of race, sports and culture. We enlighten and entertain with innovative storytelling, original reporting and provocative commentary. Not Conventional. Never Boring.

From an editorial standpoint, The Undefeated plans to rethink storytelling in unique ways, as evidenced by the site’s pre-launch music video called “We Are the Undefeated” by New Orleans-based artist Dee-1.

“It’s only been the past 125 years that African-Americans have had any regular access to the printing press,” Kelley said. “All real forms of expression African-Americans excelled at when we didn’t have access to the printing press, we want to bring back into the fold. We don’t want to limit to the written word because [African-Americans] have not wanted to limit ourselves to the written word.

“One of the fears is that people are going to think that everything is going to be a screed against institutionalized white power, like "Letter From Birmingham Jail," or somber and guilt-inducing. If we need to do that, we can do that. But we didn’t want to place limitations on ourselves. We wanted to get this blank slate. We want to be able to push boundaries with spoken word, music, whatever. ... We want to match subject matter to the form we think fits it best.”

The key question for The Undefeated is whether the form in which it has to fit into the larger ESPN business and culture is able to withstand the challenges that will surely come its way.

When ESPN pulled the plug on Grantland in October, one of the reasons it cited was a desire to move away from culture coverage. Yet that’s a core part of The Undefeated, and remains an occasional subject for FiveThirtyEight, as well. And if there is one theme that I most see in my PublicEditor@ESPN.com mail, it’s the desire of many sports fans to have ESPN stay focused on what happens between the lines -- though Merida says that sports will be at the site’s core.

“We want to be the premier destination for exploring the intersection of race, sports and culture,” he said. “We exist because the race part is in there, but sports will be the center of it.”

Perhaps most important is the open question of whether the sensibilities of ESPN and The Undefeated are able to coexist. Race is one of society’s most explosive topics -- maybe the most explosive -- and often paves an easy path to controversy. With a mission statement that ends with “Not Conventional. Never Boring” and a staff as talented as the one Merida and Kelley have assembled, there’s little doubt the site will be provocative. In fact, considering the talent involved, it would be a failure if The Undefeated weren’t provocative. Therein lies the rub.

Robert Lipsyte, then ESPN’s ombudsman, captured both the opportunity and the challenge when discussing an earlier phase of the project in a 2014 column:

“If the new moon rises and fulfills the expectations of ESPN president John Skipper, its most prominent champion, it will have the potential of becoming the media empire’s signal social achievement. The rewards for success are enormous, for ESPN, Whitlock, the staff and the audience. It is also the riskiest of the affinity sites. Race is America’s greatest historical problem and its deepest divide. Sports, paradoxically, is the area of greatest visible progress in racial equality as well as greatest hypocrisy. To open a meaningful, ongoing discussion while giving opportunities to a new generation of journalists of color would be an incalculable contribution, well beyond sports.”

From an external perspective, Howard, who wrote voluminously about The Undefeated at Deadspin, is cautiously optimistic.

“I can honestly say I don’t trust ESPN’s sensibilities,” he said. “They are grotesquely compromised. But because of the failures they’ve had so far, and because this is such a different product than they’ve put out before, they may leave Kevin alone.”

Howard may well be right -- I think he is -- but there’s a difference between having autonomy on a day-to-day basis and being left alone when controversies arise. And if those controversies involve one of the many leagues and conferences with which ESPN has a financial arrangement, ESPN could find itself in a tricky spot.

Of course, those are all philosophical questions. If all goes as planned, The Undefeated will end the longest exhibition season in media history when it debuts Tuesday. The launch will be prominent on all of ESPN’s apps and sites, and The Undefeated’s permanent home page promotion on ESPN.com will likely be similar to what FiveThirtyEight has today.

But The Undefeated has designs on far more than sites and apps. The staff members will do outreach on the campuses of historically black colleges. They also plan to have screenings of ESPN’s upcoming documentary series, “O.J.: Made In America” at this year’s NABJ conference. They’ve already screened and hosted a panel on the film at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.

As for the content on the site, here’s a short description that came from ESPN’s press release:

Specific features planned for The Undefeated include a daily blog titled All Day overseen by Clinton Yates, previously at the Post with Merida; tales of heroism and inspiration called The Uplift; a series of short films developed in partnership with noted filmmaker Spike Lee called Spike Lee Little Joints; and a fact-checking of various boasts made in the sports world entitled Show Me The Receipts. A series of long-form features will begin in part with a piece on Browns QB Robert Griffin III

The site also intends to have regular contributions from and interactions with other ESPN staffers, including Michael Wilbon, Michael Smith and Jemele Hill. Politics will also be a prominent topic, and The Undefeated intends to cover the two national political conventions this summer.

Although the delayed launch has been a punch line for the past few years, what would have been worse, some staffers say, is having launched during the project’s earlier, troubled phase. The slate is clean. That doesn’t mean the buildup has not come without substantial pressure.

“There is the challenge of being saddled with the [history],” Merida said. “People in the outside world are saying, ‘When are we finally going to see something?’ They don’t understand what we’ve done in four months -- most startups are not doing that. We’re really starting from scratch with new sensibilities and a new infrastructure.”

According to Donoghue, the time between Merida’s hire and The Undefeated’s launch is approximately the same as that between Nate Silver’s hire and the launch of FiveThirtyEight.

“[Not having launched] made it easier for us to come in and say, ‘We’re not doing the past.’” Kelley said. “We want to turn the page and start The Undefeated all over. There was no emotional energy expended on the past.”

As the longest-serving member of “The Magnificent Seven,” Cadet is excited but not nervous about the launch, saying, “I wholeheartedly believe we’re not only ready, we’re going to knock it out of the park. I’m more worried [what we’ll publish] May 23, June 1, Nov. 23.”

And even though The Magnificent Seven have been joined by more than 30 more people, the label has stuck.

“Better to be called The Magnificent Seven than the Island of Misfit Toys,” Wise said. “I don’t think anyone else at ESPN thought we were that, but sometimes we did.”

Even Howard, an outspoken critic of Whitlock and of ESPN, sees reasons for encouragement. “The fact is that women and minorities don’t always get a second chance,” he said. “The Undefeated got a second chance. That’s amazing, man. Let’s see what it can be.”

Thirty-three months after the project was announced, we’re finally about to do just that.