“This is a crazy story, so follow me,” says ESPN coordinating producer Seth Markman, who is explaining the behind-the-scenes drama of how Michael Sam’s reaction to being drafted by the St. Louis Rams ended up on ESPN.
Or nearly didn’t.
“In our production truck outside of Radio City, we had a camera on Michael all day Saturday from noon to after 6:30 p.m.,” Markman explains. “I watched him on his couch. I watched him walk around. I watched all the people who were with him all day.
“So it’s now a little past 6:30 p.m. and all of a sudden I look up and the feed from where Michael is disappears. Gone. Totally black. And there are only a few picks left in the draft. We’re in the truck in New York basically freaking out. It turns out Bristol [ESPN’s headquarters] had thunderstorms that had come through and knocked our feed out. So I immediately call [executive producer of the ESPYs] Maura Mandt, who is onsite with Michael. I tell her, ‘Maura, we lost the feed! We lost the feed!’ ”
Mandt was the key to ESPN’s access. She had spent Friday and Saturday with Sam and his camp. She and a cameraman were in the den of the LaJolla, Calif., house, belonging to the parents of Sam’s agents, where the Sam party was watching the draft.
“At that point I am standing next to our cameraman saying, ‘Seth can’t see you. Is it you, or is it the satellite truck?’ ” Mandt says. “The cameraman confirms he is rolling. So I ran out to our [production] truck and found out it was on Bristol’s end. Okay, fine. So as we recorded the moment of Michael getting the phone call from the Rams, which Seth was not seeing, we had to prepare to feed that back to Bristol before the next moment happened. And that next moment was seeing Michael’s name called at the draft.”
ESPN had waited all day for the possibility of Sam being drafted. The network had something no other media outlet had—a camera on Sam and his friends and family. Markman said there had been a lot of behind-the-scenes negotiations for that access. Mandt had embedded with the Sam camp on Friday and Saturday as part of the feature leading up to the Arthur Ashe Award, which Sam will receive at the ESPYs on July 16.
“He was comfortable with that group,” Markman says. “Maura helped ease their camp’s mind that they could trust me, because they didn’t know me at all. If he was not drafted, we were not going to be able to show anything. That to me was a fair agreement and not unique.”
So the moment finally comes in the seventh round, and Markman is freaking out inside an ESPN production truck outside of Radio City Music Hall because he has no idea how Sam reacted.
“We don’t have the feed as Michael is getting drafted,” Markman says. “I’m communicating with Bristol and also on the phone with Maura in California. She says she is going to feed the footage to Bristol and it is a great, emotional moment. I trust Maura and I think she would have told me if there was something I had to be careful with. We didn’t have time to have a discussion about it. So that’s why it took a few minutes for us to get it on the air after he was drafted. At one point we put up a still photo of Michael on the phone with the Rams. As it turned out, that still shot was pretty poignant.
Back to Mandt, who had to upload the footage to Bristol so it could eventually be sent to New York for the producers of ESPN’s draft show. “Seth and I were in contact all day, and I told him as the moment was happening that it was very emotional and there were great reacts from Michael,” says Mandt, who runs her own production company, Maggievision Productions. “I didn’t provide a shot sheet as there wasn’t time. But I told Seth that what I was seeing was real, raw emotion and a powerful reaction from a young man who had just realized his life dream.”