An Ode to ESPNews’ ‘The Hot List’

Repurposed from A Sports Scribe (2/10/10)

Back in 2004, ESPNews had a bit stronger of a presence than it holds now thanks to a plethora of changes throughout both ESPN and the landscape of national sports media. Now, considering this was 1) before Twitter, 2) before online viewing became standard and 3) back when a recent college grad was job hunting, ESPNews became a personal go-to when seeking immediate updates and highlights of what’s happening in sports. The latter part was important because where it seemed as if it was a redundancy of SportsCenter on the main channel, it was actually far different in having far less of the ubiquitous brand synergy and deeper analysis of games compared to the famed highlight show.

There was one daily show in particular that actually made ESPNews a worthwhile destination because while it wasn’t groundbreaking, it wasn’t as bombastic as some other fare such as Pardon the InterruptionAround the Horn or even cloned attempts at other sports channels. That show was The Hot List.

At the time it was on the air from January 2004 until September 2009, it was odd that of all of the shows on the multiple ESPN channels, few regularly featured interviews from the sports figures that give the network its purpose. I’m not talking about the heavily promoted exclusive interviews and Sunday Conversations, sideline reports, or even live look-ins during press conferences. The Hot List gave you that in a slightly less “serious” manner than the mothership counterparts such as Outside the Lines, First Take and its predecessor, Cold Pizza, and of course, SportsCenter.

After devoting segments to breaking news and injury updates that came from media personalities across the country, there would be a pretty solid interview with an athlete (any sport, essentially) where questions ranged from game-day preparation to “day in the life” curiosities that intrigue their fans. There would be the not-so-random interview of a non-sports celebrity, but normally that person was on because of an actual connection to a sport as opposed to the celebrities that come on to SportsCenter today in order to promote their new movies. And just as important for sports culture geeks as many of our dear readers, journalists and authors had opportunities to plug new books that would illuminate unheralded stories or added angles to well-worn ones. Think of these as talk radio interviews except a bit looser.

The latter was the essence of not just the show, but what ESPNews used to be. While the channel hasn’t registered to the sporting conscious in years thanks to multiple programming changes, ESPNews used to be the spot where there wasn’t as much of a scripted, polished vibe, though those people worked their butts off to provide such an appearance. Instead, ESPNews was sort of like when ESPN2 launched: slightly more free-spirit despite the same clips for hours, more jovial and less adversarial like the talk shows that currently define the main ESPN channel.

Now, in relation to the show, some athletes aren’t naturals in front of a camera, and it would show. Yet, the multiple hosts, including original point man Brian Kenny and longer-tenured host, David Lloyd, were best at working with the interviewee in those instances. Though there were several hosts in the five years of the show, they all kept a relatively consistent format of balancing necessary gravity on some subjects and with the show’s general levity.

If anything, the most famous interview of all in the show’s all-too-brief life was this exchange between Kenny and the now-retired Floyd Mayweather Jr. What made this so unique compared to interviews that would air on other ESPN shows at the time was the leeway Kenny — who was arguably the network’s strongest boxing voice before leaving for MLB Network and Showtime — was given in talking with a guy like Mayweather, who was never afraid to spar right back with anyone whom he disagreed with.

It was clear at the time of its cancellation that The Hot List (and ESPNews itself) was far from a ratings juggernaut. It was on from 3-6 p.m. EST, which was end of the workday in the east and lunchtime out west. However, as the breaking news events in the sports world became increasingly dour or maddening, the show served as an ever-so-slight break from the rage of those controversies and tragedies.

The Hot List was a bigger deal at the time because unless ESPNews was unavailable through your cable provider, the only other time to get something lighthearted from the sports world was on either a regional cable show in biography form or through well-connected blogs. These days, that very lighter side of sports is now being shown through these athletes themselves, whether through their own social media accounts, sites like The Players’ Tribune, friendly network-produced documentaries, or even the teams and leagues that employ them.

Although a large portion of television sports media is large on tone but short on substance and actually… what’s the word… fun, The Hot List sort of lives on at ESPN when you filter out the hot takes. Active athletes have debated on First Take, and retired athletes have told comical stories on Highly Questionable. Yet, what The Hot List gave viewers for five-plus years was an outlet to fully consume sports culture without taking in the bombast. Even in this current media climate, there has to be some sort of room for that somewhere, right?

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