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Inside the Plans for the 25th Anniversary ESPY Awards

”We’re now celebrating a lot of athletes who have only grown up in a world where the ESPYs have existed,“ Connor Schell, Executive Vice President, Content, tells TheWrap

The 25th ESPY Awards, occurring Wednesday, is expected to be a big show, thanks to a truly historic year of sporting achievements. (Having two-time Super Bowl champion Peyton Manning, who’s repeatedly proven his comedy skills hosting “Saturday Night Live” doesn’t hurt.)

“This past year in sports particularly, there have been a lot of moments to celebrate,” Connor Schell, ESPN’s Executive Vice President, Content, told TheWrap on the eve of the ESPYs.

“The Chicago Cubs breaking the 108-year curse, the New England Patriots winning the best Super Bowl possibly ever, the Golden State Warriors and Steph Curry putting on the amazing NBA Finals, and then we had the Olympics with so many great athletes including Michael Phelps. It is going to be a pretty great amazing show.”

You can expect all of those sports stars and more to be at the Microsoft Theater in Los Angeles when the show airs live on ABC at 8 p.m. ET Wednesday.

Also in attendance will be former first lady Michelle Obama, who will be presenting the Arthur Ashe Courage Award to Special Olympics Founder Eunice Kennedy Shriver.

Over the years, the ESPYs has grown into one of the most important dates on the sports calendar since Jimmy Valvano took to the stage in 1993.

See TheWrap’s full interview with Schell below and tune in for highlights after the show.

What moments or awards are you most looking forward to this year?
I am incredibly excited that Peyton is hosting because I think what the show has been about over the past 25 years is more and more meaningful to the athletes who the show is for. To have an athlete of Peyton Manning’s caliber — one of the most celebrated football stars on the field, who is also smart, has a great sense of humor and also a long history with the show — is so cool.

I also think it is so cool that as a former athlete he is hosting the 25th show. He attended the first one as a college athlete, and has come throughout the course of his career. He’s been celebrated and made fun of — and now it’s his turn to do the same.

In addition, there is so much meaning in the show with the story-telling — the Jimmy V ESPY Award for Perseverance, the Arthur Ashe Courage Award, the Pat Tillman Award for Service. I hope they are all spectacular. And we have some great surprises in there too.

Last year we saw Carmelo Anthony, Chris Paul, Dwyane Wade and LeBron James address the Black Lives Matter movement and police shootings. Will we see a political stance again this year?
I don’t think it will get too political, I think the show is more trying to celebrate the year in sports — those who have created the best moments, the ones that give you goosebumps. It’s a show about sports for sports stars and sports fans.

It’s really about great storytelling. There is not anything like that stance in the show this year, and last year, that came about really quickly.

What is your favorite part of working on the ESPYs?
I am really proud of the commitment of the Jimmy V Foundation. Wednesday is ESPY Day on ESPN, that encourages donations to the V Foundation to raise money for cancer research. That is particularly meaningfully this year as it is 25 years since Jimmy gave that speech. Every time it is on no matter how many times you’ve seen it, you stop what you’re doing and watch.

We’ve seen some memorable speeches by Arthur Ashe recipients over the years such as Caitlyn Jenner and Michael Sam. Why was this the right year to honor the late Eunice Kennedy Shriver for her work with the Special Olympics?
Part of it comes from ESPN’s commitment to the Special Olympics, which is in its 50th year. It has grown from something Eunice conceived in her backyard to this incredible global movement and sporting event that changed peoples’ lives and feeds to the power of sports and positivity.

What are your favorite moments from the ESPYs over the past 25 years?
I always look back to Jimmy V’s speech from the first show because the V Foundation is founded out of that and it represents the incredible spirit of the whole event. It was incredible on its own, but the idea that it led to 25 years of commitment to cancer research is unbelievably powerful.

Every year, there are so many moments that even if I know they are coming, they weave together that full range of celebration of the ESPYs. Stuart Scott’s speech and Craig Sager’s speech … you’re talking about powerful moments that can affect change and are lasting. Then when you mix in the celebration of the sports, you get a great balance. The transitions from emotion to humor are not easy, I give credit to our producers — they do a really incredible job of executing them flawlessly.

Are there any hosts who have really stood out to you?
Drake, Seth Meyers, John Cena last year  — there have been so many.

Every year there are viral moments that really touch people’s hearts — how much of that is planned in advance and how much is organic?
We try to celebrate, entertain, and then there are surprises — some of them we know going in and some of them just happen. You can’t manufacture moments, we try to accomplish what we can before the show … and then unexpected things happen.

It is the one event on the calendar where we bring athletes who have all accomplished different feats in sports — NBA, NFL, college, Olympics, horse racing, extreme sports — they are all represented.

How do you continue to get the top talent to attend each and every year?
On some level, with the show now being 25 years old, we’re now celebrating a lot of athletes who have only grown up in a world where the ESPYs have existed. It was their dream growing up to win an ESPY and give a speech, and that’s now attainable.

We built up equity when they were kids, and now hopefully, are fulfilling their dreams. On top of that, it is a great show with the top musicians.

The 25th ESPYS will be hosted by five-time NFL MVP and two-time Super Bowl champion Peyton Manning, and will air live on ABC on Wednesday, July 12, at 8pm ET from the Microsoft Theater in Los Angeles.

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