BRISTOL — Once you get past Gov. Dannel P. Malloy and other politicians talking about jobs, and you’ve heard ESPN President John Skipper talk about how the network’s new Digital Center 2 brings amazing technology and people together, listen to Hannah Storm describe what the production palace will mean for viewers.
The longtime anchor and celebrity face of ESPN grows animated, striding out toward the main SportsCenter desk — where a huge video display built right into the floor shines light upward, toward a camera on a circular ceiling track.
Malloy and Skipper, center, cut a fiberoptic cable at ESPN’s Digital Center 2.
Cloe Poisson/The Hartford Courant
Sure, it will be more fun and more efficient for ESPN’s personalities to broadcast from the $175 million building, with 6 million feet of fiberoptic cable, 25,000 square feet of studio space and a huge glass wall that looks out onto a glass “cube” with graphic artists sending images onto the screens.
But, I ask Storm, will the viewers see much of a change?
“It’s vastly different,” Storm said, “It will be a significant change, unlike anything on sports TV.”
Digital Center 2 opened Monday with a ceremonial fiberoptic cable cutting and a brief, live “sports report” from the anchor desk by Malloy and Skipper. “Welcome to SportsCenter from Olliewood,” Skipper announced from the set, repeating the play on UConn Coach Kevin Ollie’s name that ESPN used in the Final Four.
In a cut-rate bargain for Connecticut taxpayers, ESPN is expected to collect $10 million in tax credits. That’s instead of the $20-plus million package of grants, tax abatements and a large loan, much of it forgivable, that was announced on this spot nearly three years ago when Malloy made ESPN one of the state’s “First Five” companies with major development incentive money.
The employee level, more than 4,000, up from 3,872 three years ago, has risen less than some anticipated — in part due to a layoff of about 125 people locally last year. But that’s not why the terms changed. Lawyers on both sides simply came up with a different package from the one Malloy announced in 2011, several sources said.
The place goes live for real sometime in late June, producing ESPN’s flagship show a staggering 18 hours a day, with 42 anchors, and the NFL shows. Overseeing the operation is Rob King, the senior vice president for SportsCenter and News, formerly chief of the vast online network — and like Storm, he’s focused on what the building will look like in the 96 million homes that pay upwards of $6 a month for the ESPN.
Lobby of the new Digital center 2 at ESPN
Dan Haar/The Hartford Courant
“We always felt that the smaller set kept us sitting behind the desk,” King said. “The point really is to give people more of a sense of who we are.”
Highlights of the studio include two giant vertical video screens, dynamic backdrops for studio anchors, reporters and guests. Those are two of several stations where on-air talent can move around. But, King said, the idea isn’t more complexity, it’s more boldness.
“We want to make sure that we’re not letting the screen dissolve into a lot of little type,” King said. “What happens on these screens is complementary to what the anchors are doing.”
It’s twice as big as the old Digital Center building, which will remain in use for several shows. And the look ties together with the ESPN app and web site.
“I’m told it’s future-proofed,” Skipper crows, as the building has room for technology not yet invented.
A control room inside Digital Center 2.
Dan Haar/The Hartford Courant
What about ESPN’s business? It’s a $12 billion-a-year juggernaut that grew massively with cable TV contracts and mass viewership built around ESPN’s multi-faceted role as chronicler, original content producer and live sports programmer. I asked Skipper, can that keep growing as profitably as it has?
“It’s certainly more difficult to future-proof a business than a building,” Skipper said. But he added, “We are confident in our ability to grow.”
The challenges are tough. We saw on Friday how World Wrestling Entertainment, another Connecticut sports operation, could suffer on Wall Street with a 43 percent, one-day collapse after investors perceived a new contract and online strategy to be less than ideal. And with Comcast, which already owns Stamford-based NBC Sports, hoping to add to its nationwide cable franchise with the acquisition of Time Warner Cable, ESPN’s bargaining position might not remain as strong as it’s been.
A camera with John Skipper’s introduction on the scroll; at right is a huge vertical video backdrop.
Dan Haar/The Hartford Courant
Skipper’s confidence derives from the network’s long-term cable TV contracts, its broadcasting rights for the NFL and other leagues, its remarkable cross-platform coordination and what he called a great “head start” as the dominant sports media outlet.
Malloy, for his part, holds a more short-term and less dominant position as he seeks re-election against Republicans who blast his economic development strategy as jobs-for-money.
ESPN, NBC Sports, WWE, Cigna, United Technologies and many other big employers have expanded in Connecticut after inking multi-million-dollar deals, taking advantage of the state’s lucrative film and digital production tax credits, or both.
The overall jobs picture is improving and is certainly stronger than when Malloy took office at the start of 2011, but the progress remains mixed, with unemployment dropping below 7 percent while job-creation stays slow.
Malloy, claiming ESPN as an outright victory as he spoke with reporters inside the new studio, blamed much of the stagnant growth on Republicans, who held the governor’s seat from 1995 until 2011. “We became the seventh-oldest state in the nation. I didn’t do that, they did that,” Malloy said. “We’ve turned that around.”
Each deal is different but with ESPN adding studio space in Los Angeles and launching its SEC Network in Charlotte, its expansion here was not a given and the $10 million in tax credits is a rounding error compared with what the company brings.
Just after ESPN anchor Sara Walsh talked about how happy she’ll be to work in Digital Center 2 under a new contract, Malloy took the podium and said to Skipper, “If my contract doesn’t get renewed, maybe I can swing a job here.”