BRISTOL, Conn. — In the lobby of ESPN headquarters, Karekin Brooks saw the promo for the Little League World Series flashing across a digital scroll.
“We made it to states one time,’’ Brooks mentioned to teammate Sam Philippi, flashing back to his own Little League days outside Atlanta. “They threw us all curveballs, and we couldn’t hang.”
These days, Brooks stays focused on another sport, as a senior running back for the Penn Quakers. He was inside ESPN’s sprawling mothership because the Ivy League now has a digital deal that puts most Ivy games on ESPN+, its digital platform. The league’s football media day was held Thursday at the network’s headquarters.
For these players, it’s one thing to be on ESPN, quite another to be at ESPN.
“Me and my brothers watched Top Ten Plays [on ESPN] every day before we went to school,’’ Brooks said.
If Stephen A. Smith topped the list of people Brooks was hoping to see, he had to settle for seeing Stephen A. talking live on dozens of screens as they moved from building to building, interview to interview. (First Take is filmed in Manhattan.)
ESPNers call hitting that gauntlet of interviews “The Car Wash,’’ and the Penn guys got a taste of it, walking in various “content creation studios’’ for interviews filmed for the Ivy League, the NCAA, and ESPN.
“What is this for?’’ Philippi asked as a microphone was being put on him for another interview. He was having fun, though.
“Like a childhood dream come true,’’ said Philippi, a fifth-year defensive back with two Ivy titles on his resume.
Since Princeton got the questions about taking the title last season, the questions for Penn didn’t have so much to do with the Quakers’ trying to improve on last year’s 3-4 Ivy record or being picked to finish fifth in the eight-team league this season.
What does the tradition of the Ivy League mean to you?
What makes Ivy League football special?
You a cheesesteak guy?
(“We get to play on a field that’s 125 years old.” … “It’s really rewarding to have a family outside my own family.” … “Every game is do-or-die, just like a playoff game, just like a championship game.” … “I’m not a cheesesteak guy.”)
The partnership makes sense for the network. As ESPN tries to catch up to cord-cutters, deals with the Ivy League and other leagues with avid alums don’t hurt the cause. The network will tell you that it streams 14,000 live events this year to 2.4 million ESPN+ subscribers, that 1,500 live Ivy League sporting events are now part of the mix. If some of the subscribers find their way to the Ivy League games, it’s a win for the league.
Since Philippi is from Southern California and Brooks from Georgia, family members’ paying about $5 a month to see their games works out fine.
“Direct to consumer is obviously a major focus for our company,’’ said Paul Melvin, senior director of communications for ESPN’s digital media.
One condition of touring the building: No tweeting out conversations from the newsroom — you never know what about-to-be-reported trade rumor you might overhear. (Answer: Uh, nothing.)
The real payoff for the two players from each school who dutifully answered all the questions was to get into a SportsCenter studio and film a mock highlight package with a real SportsCenter anchor.
In the studio, anchor Elle Duncan told the guys that baseball highlights offered the most breathing room, and that basketball highlights were the toughest to keep up with.
Jay Harris, long-time ESPN anchor, came in.
“First things first, did you get makeup?”
Duncan offered some tips on to how to have fun, make the highlight your own, throw in a reference, make a sound — it can be dumb; just add some life to it.
Easier said than done, all the Ivy Leaguers quickly found out, with the screen showing video and words rolling past on the teleprompters. Just throw some ad-libs on top?
At one point, Harris asked if there was anything else to add to a highlight. Philippi said uh, no. They both laughed as Harris pointed to the teleprompter ready with words.
Penn coach Ray Priore stood behind the cameras. He loved hearing Brooks riffing a little bit over basketball highlights.
“He’s Southern,’’ Priore said. “He’s very ‘Yes, sir. No, sir.’ This is great.”
“It was like an adrenaline rush,’’ Philippi said after the mock SportsCenter session.
Brooks had done an investment banking internship last summer, but he didn’t much like it, and already was thinking television production suits him. He was soaking the whole thing in. His family was originally from the same small Georgia town as a woman putting his microphone on in the studio. Based on common family names, they wondered if they were distantly related.
Priore grew up with Wide World of Sports and remembers ESPN’s creation. He was having a good time, too. Hey, they’re all part of the same corporate family now.
The whole group stayed on the lookout for recognizable faces, for a Scott Van Pelt or Chris Berman.