ESPN’s “30 for 30” Volume II kicks off October of this year with six more films. At the TCA Summer Press Tour in Los Angeles Wednesday, the network introduced two of them: “Big Shot,” about the con man John Spano’s fake attempt to buy the NY Islanders, and “This is What They Want,” a look at Jimmy Connors’ epic 1991 U.S. Open run at 39 years of age.
A common thread between the films is that “they’re really personal to those who made them,” said vp, ESPN films Connor Schell. Kevin Connolly, of HBO’s “Entourage” fame, directed “Big Shot” as a massive NY Islanders fan. It was a story that he “jumped at the opportunity to tell,” the Islanders being his hometown team and hockey his favorite sport. Similarly, “This is What They Want” co-directors Brian Koppelman and David Levien grew up by Flushing Meadows and watched matches whenever they could.
Though approaching the creative process from the position of a fan, ultimately Connolly’s goal was to create a balanced story and actually give Spano a fair shake— despite the fact that the businessman’s $165 million bid for the hockey team was a complete sham. Along the way he learned that Spano’s actions were driven by the desire to be famous more than anything. “He wanted to be a star, more so than be rich,” said Connolly, a societal characteristic “that speaks to what’s going on today.”
Meanwhile, Jimmy Connors “was a guy who you either loved or you loved to hate,” said Levien, and that was fascinating to the film’s creators. At 39 years old, the guy was out there “battling 20-year-olds,” he said. Yet their focus was chiefly on the emotional story: specifically, Connors ability to turn himself into “this warrior, again and again,” said Koppelman, and how that aspect of his personality affected his opponents.
Is ESPN beefing up its “30 for 30” slate specifically to compete with Fox Sports? “We’re focused on telling really good stories,” was Schell’s retort. “That’s the mission at hand… We think it fits well with our core programming.” When it comes to potential sports doc competitors Fox and HBO, “As a fan, I hope they get into this genre,” he said, as any success will ultimately raise the tide.
The network also brought out Keith Olbermann to discuss his upcoming show ‘Olbermann’ on ESPN2 which, from a content perspective, will not focus specifically on politics, said the former MSNBC and Current TV anchor. However, there isn’t a clause in his contract that necessarily prohibits it—contrary to what an article in the New York Times erroneously reported. “I’m not intending to talk about politics, certainly not in a partisan sense… for a simple reason… it’s a sports show,” he said.
Quite frankly, “it’s been wonderful not talking politics,” he told critics. He did it for 10 years, and “if there’s anything that you’d like to do after that experience, it’s a sportscast.” It was a lot of work, he added, “and it took a lot out of me.” Nor was it often much fun.
The return to ESPN has been in the works for a year or more, Olbermann said. And despite the “screaming matches” that had occurred in the past, his subsequent experience at other networks “made ESPN look like, in retrospect, a ‘let’s applaud Keith session for 5 years,’” he said. Addressing the show’s format, Olbermann said it will have some highlights, some interviewees, and also a “worst person in the sports world” segment.
Of course, despite the network’s best efforts to keep the panel sports related, Olbermann was asked about Anthony Weiner’s contentious mayoral bid, to which—to the delight of critics—he replied the following: “I think that he stole a great fake hotel sign in name that I would have liked to use.” ‘Carlos Danger’ “is a tribute to something about him.”