By Alex Hutton
LOS ANGELES — Super Bowl LVI will be the seventh Super Bowl broadcast directed by Drew Esocoff and the fifth he has directed for NBC. He has directed primetime football for 22 seasons, including 16 with “Sunday Night Football” at NBC. Esocoff talked to Medill Reports’ Alex Hutton about his career path and how he directs live sporting events such as the Super Bowl.
Alex Hutton: How did you become interested in directing?
Drew Esocoff: I started as just a regular production assistant. And literally, it was within a week that I decided that the directing path was more conducive to my skill set than anything else in the production genre. So it didn’t take very long for me to realize that, and I had very supportive bosses at ESPN, who gave me (the) opportunity at a very young and — to be quite honest — very inexperienced stage. But they were willing to deal with whatever the growing pains were. And I owe a lot of that to my early bosses at ESPN, back in the early and mid-’80s.
A.H.: What were the chances you got? What are some of the specific things you remember?
D.E.: The bottom of every hour and the top of every hour would have a three-minute sports update. And it was done out of our master control room. So normally, the director who was prepping to do the next “SportsCenter” that was going to come on the air would have that responsibility as well. But when I expressed interest in doing that, I showed the willingness to want to do that. And my bosses didn’t think there was a lot of downside risk. So they gave me (an) opportunity. So one thing would lead to another, and then you’d get an opportunity to do a couple segments of “SportsCenter” with the assigned director standing behind you to make sure you didn’t mess it up. And then before you know it, you’re off and running, and you’re getting assignments, and you’re getting promoted. And then I expressed an interest in switching from studio-based opportunity to more remote-based opportunity. And then before you know it you’re off getting assigned to do a boxing show, and you build up from there — a baseball game, a college basketball game. And once you show that you have the goods to do it, the opportunity was there.
A.H.: In your career, you’ve gotten to work with some really famous names in sports media like Al Michaels, John Madden and Cris Collinsworth. What is it like to work with people like that?
D.E.: It’s amazing. Growing up as a teenager in the New York metropolitan area, everybody wanted to be Marv Albert. Well, it didn’t work out that way. And I gave on-air stuff a little bit of a try in local radio and cable television. But when I went to ESPN, I really felt like I liked production more. That being said, if you could switch places with anybody, Al Michaels would be a great person to switch places with. So getting to work with Al, Cris, Michele (Tafoya), John Madden — may he rest in peace — Brent Musburger, you know, all these people that you grew up watching year after year after year, to me is one of the highlights and most fun things that I do. Because a lot of what we do, the on-air product is what everybody sees. The off-air camaraderie is what very few people see. And to me, that’s just as important.
A.H.: Is there a moment in your career that you look back on as the most memorable?
D.E.: I think there’s probably three. The first would be the first Super Bowl (I) did at NBC, which was Arizona-Pittsburgh. So you have James Harrison’s 100-yard return to end the first half. Then you have Ben Roethlisberger hitting Santonio Holmes in the corner of the end zone to win the Super Bowl. Unbelievable game. As it turned out, it was John’s last game. So that also made it somewhat memorable, albeit in hindsight, because we didn’t know he was going to step away. No. 2 would be the week at the Water Cube in Beijing in 2008 when Michael Phelps won his eight gold medals. That is definitely in the upper echelon of moments in my career. And No. 3 would be when American Pharoah won the Triple Crown a few years back at Belmont to break the long streak of no Triple Crown winners.
A.H.: How does directing the Super Bowl compare to directing a regular-season NFL game?
D.E.: The biggest difference is we do a half-hour pregame show with the team walk-outs, the national anthems, the Walter Payton Man of the Year, “America the Beautiful.” So there’s a pregame. In my opinion, once the game starts, if you have set your show up correctly, it should not vary too differently. You have added equipment. But a lot of that equipment is added for the sole purpose of having a defining view on a play that may or may not ever happen. Do you have the back end line or the goal line covered? Do you have the sidelines covered? We do add some isolation cameras that will give you a more intimate look (at) what you may normally see on a Sunday. But in my opinion, if you’ve set it up properly, it shouldn’t differ too much, except you have an audience that is tenfold what you would normally get.
A.H.: How does it compare to another major sporting event that you’ve directed like the NBA Finals or the Triple Crown?
D.E.: Football is the most popular sport in America. You know, the NBA Finals is great, but it’s best-of-seven. This is best-of-one. The Triple Crown is tremendous, but it’s somewhat of a limited audience. There’s a lot of horse racing fans, and maybe that brings in the casual viewer, but Super Bowl Sunday is an iconic day in American lore. And I know that because when I’m not doing it, I’m at the same kind of events that anybody else would be at. And you just see that you have the person that is watching one football game a year. And you have to educate them like the person who was watching one game a year, so you’re sort of starting from scratch. But there’s a lot more pageantry. It’s the most popular sporting event in the country. There’s no question about it.
A.H.: How much of a concern is it to you when it comes to which teams are playing?
D.E.: None. I mean, I know my Jets aren’t in it, so after that, it doesn’t make a difference. Obviously, there’s some teams that will rate higher than others. But yeah, it doesn’t make any difference to me who’s in the game.
A.H.: Does it matter to you how close the game is?
D.E.: That makes all the difference in the world. So here (are) the four Super Bowls that we’ve had at NBC. I already mentioned the Arizona-Pittsburgh one — right down to the wire. Then we have Eli Manning hitting Mario Manningham on the sideline to keep the drive alive. Giants go on to win the game. We have Malcolm Butler intercepting the pass to secure a Patriots win over Seattle. And then in Minnesota four years ago, we have (the) Philly Special (trick play). So we’ve had four unbelievable games at NBC. And I hope the streak continues on Sunday.
A.H.: Is it important to you for there to be those spectacular plays like the Santonio Holmes catch and the Malcolm Butler interception? Are plays like that better for you? Is it just more difficult? Does it make no difference when you’re in the heat of the moment directing?
D.E.: It’s more fun when you have plays like that because you have to realize there’s two sides to every story. So for every Malcolm Butler that intercepted the ball, there’s a quarterback that threw it. For every Santonio Holmes catch, there’s a defensive back that got beat. So covering both sides to the story is a director’s job. And those kinds of moments really make that stuff fun.
A.H.: Is there anything or do you think there will be anything that’s unique about preparing for and directing this Super Bowl in particular?
D.E.: I really don’t. I don’t think it’ll be that much different. The most challenging thing is doing the Super Bowl for a team that we didn’t have during the regular season. I think this is the first time that’s ever happened to me. We didn’t have the Bengals at all during the year. So the preparation for the team is starting from scratch. But once you have that part of it down it’s pretty much off and running. And it’s very similar to any other Super Bowl we’ve done.
A.H.: Do you treat that as if you’re covering the team on Sunday night for the first time?
D.E.: Absolutely. Michele Tafoya or Kathryn Tappen, instead of talking to three or four players during the week, maybe they’re talking to seven or eight just to try to uncover some great personality stories and things like that. But like I said before, my philosophy in getting off to a good start and having a good show is to try to keep it as close to normal as you can. Once you add so much stuff and you’re too far away from your normal routine, that’s when you tend to struggle and get off to slow starts.
Alex Hutton is a sports media graduate student at Medill. You can follow him on Twitter at @AlexHutton35.