ESPN exec Dave Roberts pushes for more diversity

Dave Roberts

Courtesy of ESPN

Dave Roberts is a product of habit.

The ESPN executive, for example, who has become a behind-the-scenes influence on the network, prefers to attend business meetings on “Four Seasons.”

In 2015, sports media personality and ESPN regular Bomani Jones attended the network’s ESPY Awards in Los Angeles and planned to meet Roberts. According to Jones, Roberts initially agreed to meet him at his hotel. Instead, Roberts got in a cab, called him, and according to Jones said, “Man, let’s go see the Four Seasons!”

“Dave loves Four Seasons because it works and it’s proven,” Jones said.

Speaking of the story, Roberts told CNBC, “I like certain routines.”

Another routine: He starts running on the treadmill every morning around 4:30 AM. It’s an important habit, but not just for him. That’s where he thinks about what sports fans will be watching all day on ESPN, the Disney-owned sports network.

“Editing optics,” Roberts said. “The time on that treadmill got me thinking.”

Roberts, who has risen steadily through the ranks of ESPN for nearly 20 years, is the network’s head of studio programming. He’ll have a big say in how the NBA Finals, which begins Thursday night, will be broadcast on sister network ABC, but led by ESPN’s talent behind and in front of the camera. This is Roberts’ first season overseeing NBA programming.

The showdown in the final should draw a huge audience. Jayson Tatum’s Boston Celtics, one of the NBA’s classics, are taking on Stephen Curry’s Golden State Warriors, who are looking to rebuild a 2010s dynasty.

Roberts said ESPN has a “comprehensive plan” for the NBA Finals. It includes Snapchat, which Roberts says 1.4 million people watch ESPN content on a day, and deploys the network’s “different talent pool” including Stephen A. Smith.

There’s nothing unusual about Roberts’ description, which fits his customary label. But in the long run, he faces bigger challenges. Roberts hopes to use ESPN as a model to increase diversity and change the landscape of industry hiring practices. ESPN has faced criticism for its handling of diversity issues and racial controversies, prompting Jimmy Pitaro, the network’s president, to defend the company’s track record.

For his part, Roberts thinks building out a diversity effort could be one way to achieve Pitaro’s goal of increasing its online audience and revenue.

“If you don’t have quality diversity in every area of ​​your organization, you can’t serve any market,” Roberts said.

Who is Dave Roberts?

Roberts oversees studio programming, including “SportsCenter,” “Get Up,” “First Take,” “Around the Horn,” and “Pardon the Interruption,” as well as NBA programming. He reports directly to Pitaro.

Regular fans don’t know Roberts, and he likes that. He even declined to provide his age in an interview with CNBC a few days before the finals.

But he knew its importance.

“Everyone in the industry knows who he is,” said longtime sports reporter and Fox Sports radio host Rob Parker. “A man with insight and power. A man who gets it.”

Roberts grew up in Detroit. At the age of 11, he began to want to be a TV reporter. According to his ESPN profile, he graduated from Wayne State University with a degree in mass communication before starting his career at a local Detroit TV station in 1978.

Golden State Warriors’ No. 95 Juan Toscano-Anderson makes a layup during a game against the Boston Celtics on March 16, 2022 at the Chase Center in San Francisco, California.

Jed Jacobson | National Basketball Association | Getty Images

In 1982, Roberts said, he took the advice and switched to television management. There, Roberts believes, he can make an impact. “Once I take this step in my career,” Roberts said, “I’m in a position where I can really impact what’s most important to me.”

Roberts joined ESPN in 2004 as coordinating producer and was promoted to oversee ESPN’s broadcast division in 2018.

Now, he has a bigger role in ESPN’s management, and his job is to increase revenue and attract younger audiences. During Roberts’ first season as coach, viewers watched 20 billion minutes of NBA programming, ESPN said. That’s up from the NBA’s 17 billion minutes in the 2020-21 regular season.

Roberts is also responsible for growing ESPN+, which has more than 21 million subscribers as of February 2022. ESPN is betting that exclusive content, including a “reimagined” trivia show “SportsNation” and a new NBA-focused streaming show, will help attract subscribers.

“In this industry,” Roberts said, “it’s about viewership and revenue.” He added that Pitaro has “made it clear to all of us that expanding and growing our audience” is a priority.

Growth through diversity

Roberts believes that increasing diversity is a key part of his job.

He said he would like to see more people of color in key roles — more producers, more executives. The product “disposes of itself,” he said.

“The era of excuses for why you can’t diversify your workforce and put African-Americans and other people of color in decision-making roles must end,” Roberts said. “No more excuses.”

His concerns about diversity and fair treatment in the workplace came from discrimination he said he experienced in 1978. At the time, he was working at Detroit National Bank to pay for college.

Roberts filed a class-action lawsuit alleging racial discrimination in the bank’s hiring and promotion practices. He said he noticed the inequity after seeing the bank’s mostly black employees work on floors occupied by minimum-wage positions.

The lawsuit grew to more than 40 people and was finally settled in February 1982 for $250,000. But it still inspired Roberts’ desire to “open doors” and achieve “true diversity.”

ESPN’s approach to diversity is “more than lip service,” Roberts said. He also praised Pitaro for regularly discussing diversity at conferences and asking about “the makeup of the show’s crew.”

Roberts pointed to the diversity of shows like “First Take” and “NBA Countdown.” There has also been an increase in female viewership, he said.

The era of excuses for why you can’t diversify your workforce and put African Americans and other people of color in decision-making roles must end.

Dave Roberts

ESPN executive

The changes are obvious, Jones said.

“When you put something under his remit, it can become more diverse,” Jones said — but “not at the expense of the bottom line.”

Roberts has also had to deal with his ESPN controversy. He decided in August to part ways with white former ESPN host Rachel Nichols after her controversial comments about then-ESPN host Maria Taylor, who was black.

Roberts also had a major say in replacing anchor Sage Steele with Elle Duncan on ESPN’s evening “Sports Central” edition in December 2020. The network said the shift was due to “opening new opportunities”. Before that, Roberts liked to cancel “SC6,” also known as “The Six,” a revamped version of “SportsCenter,” which featured former ESPN hosts Michael Smith and Jemel Hill. (Taylor and Smith are now on NBC Sports.)

The decision came with its own controversy. In 2018, Roberts was accused of saying “SC6” was “too dark,” which the network denied. In an interview with CNBC, Roberts did not elaborate on why he favored overhauling the shows, but called the moves “difficult decisions.”

He added that people need to “understand that once you take on those responsibilities, you have to deliver results. That includes me.”

Jones, who also canceled the ESPN show, offered his thoughts on Roberts’ management approach.

“If he agrees with what you’re doing, he’s going to push and support it,” Jones said. But if it doesn’t work out, Jones added, “there’s a good chance he’ll find something else.”

There may be more changes under Roberts’ watch. While ESPN won’t try to emulate Turner Sports’ more freewheeling NBA programming, ESPN’s NBA programming won’t be complacent, Roberts said.

“Every day,” Roberts said, “you have to find more ways to be creative and innovative.” He added, “You have to be nimble and ready to make course corrections when necessary.”

After all, maybe he’s not that habitual creature.

“It doesn’t mean you’re habitual in everything you do or think,” Roberts said. “If that was the case, I’d still try to be a journalist somewhere.”

Disclosure: CNBC’s parent company, NBCUniversal, owns NBC Sports.


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