“Stop hitting yourself… Stop hitting yourself…”
That’s the sound of ESPN bullying itself into irrelevance as we’ve now learned that the self-described “worldwide leader in sports” has killed the best thing to come out of its Bristol, Connecticut headquarters in recent years: the TrueHoop network of podcasts.
The news that the podcasts will shut down comes along with the massive layoffs announced earlier this week.
Along with the initial cuts of about 100 staffers, ESPN also quietly let go of one of its most impactful team members, Henry Abbott, the guy behind ESPN’s TrueHoop brand of basketball stories, videos, and podcasts. His ouster, ostensibly, spelled the end of the podcasts.
And as sad as many are that Abbott is gone, there’s a lot more angst about the death of TrueHoop’s network of podcast shows, easily ESPN’s “coolest” collection of characters and content that was digitally native, millennial-focused, and ESPN’s best example of its ability to connect pop culture and sports.
As a listener, I was there at the beginning of TrueHoop’s rise, having just returned from several years of living abroad and looking for some under the radar real talk to reconnect me to the American pulse. I watched as the guys — a rotating line-up of ESPN NBA reporters Ethan Sherwood Strauss, Tom Haberstroh, Amin Elhassan — diverged from Abbott’s official TrueHoop video entries and Skype sessions on the ESPN site and went underground, first on Spreecast, then on Blab (both live streaming sites, now defunct), and occasionally on Periscope, to add video to the audio sessions, which were long, unstructured, and incredibly personal.
It was great. Like eavesdropping on a group of your friends after a game of pickup basketball at the park. Along with dissecting basketball statistics and resurfacing little known NBA insider lore, they talked about the finer points of East Coast rap vs. the rest of the country, the deep state politics of sneaker-head trends, how to properly troll your enemies on Twitter, the art of tracking Instagram memes, and even talked about who got offed on the latest episode of your favorite prestige cable TV series.
With seemingly little interference from the top brass at ESPN, over the course of several years, the TrueHoop podcasts went from unnoticed experiment to becoming ESPN’s most social media-centric voice, drawing in more front-facing ESPN personalities like Brian Windhorst, Kevin Arnovitz, and Rachel Nichols, the television host of ESPN’s popular NBA show The Jump.
TrueHoop did something very rare: it replicated in a podcast the openness and inclusivity that existed almost exclusively on social media.
Later, the shows moved away from video and focused on the audio podcasts. They expanded to several shows per week, each with its own theme: Black Opinions Matter Monday, the Asian culture-focused Fresh off the Bench, Warriors Wednesday, and the Friday Mailbag, a podcast that pulled listeners from social media and made them a part of the show.
As the TrueHoop podcast brand grew, more of ESPN’s more vibrant voices joined the mix, along with something very different: podcast co-hosts who had no official relationship with ESPN (shouts to Big Wos, an early member of the TrueHoop family). A mix of fans of TrueHoop turned co-hosts, friends of NBA players, and even journalists from competing sports brands, TrueHoop had done something very rare: TrueHoop did something very rare: it replicated in a podcast the openness and inclusivity that existed almost exclusively on social media.
Along those lines, it was also one of the most diverse parts of ESPN, giving greater voice to women who are sports nerds (shouts to Kaileigh Brandt) as well as various people of color (Asian, black, Hispanic, and international). TrueHoop also served as the primary platform for one ESPN’s rising stars in Elhassan.
Of course, TrueHoop was working far too well, so ESPN decided, for reasons that haven’t been publicly shared, to end it all. I can only guess, because they talked about it on the podcast so often, after years of building equity with fans, the podcasts had only managed to garner a few advertising deals. Whether that was a result of TrueHoop’s unique, unofficial-by-design structure, or ESPN somehow dropping the advertising ball in general I couldn’t say, but the popularity of the podcasts didn’t seem to be accompanied by an advertiser presence.
Which is why it was such a surprise a few weeks ago when ESPN gave the green light to the TrueHoop-related “Sidecast,” a video broadcast on the ESPN app that played alongside a live NBA game. It was one of the most innovative things I’ve ever seen ESPN do — using its official digital tools to bring its passionate social media and podcast family to a wider audience by tying it to a major NBA event.
Apparently, that one-off experiment wasn’t enough to save TrueHoop.
On Thursday, the same day the layoffs had been announced, Jade Hoye, the lead producer of the TrueHoop podcasts, used Twitter to let everyone know that TrueHoop was done.
Somehow, if feels like we’ve been here before — with the death of Grantland. Back in 2015, just months after firing its founder, Bill Simmons (now of The Ringer), ESPN announced that it was shuttering Grantland. Although Grantland never seemed to reach its traffic or advertising potential, it was undeniably the best pop culture gateway-drug to sports ESPN had ever produced. Given that history, it seemed almost inevitable that TrueHoop would end under similarly murky circumstances.
But the difference with TrueHoop was, despite its outlaw-ish aesthetic within ESPN, it was primarily created and staffed by employees who were deeply tied to the larger ESPN brand, and no major Simmons-esque character emerged from TrueHoop’s fold to give ESPN president John Skipper any backtalk about what the network should or shouldn’t be doing for TrueHoop. At least on the surface, TrueHoop appeared to be a labor of love, separate from the staff’s normal duties at ESPN.
In the wave of layoffs of veteran reporters and on-air personalities, ESPN also laid off Strauss, one of the pillars of TrueHoop.
His loud “Radio Ethan” alter-ego, a fictional blowhard terrestrial radio sports host who offers nothing but the most bombastic and controversial hot takes in search of ratings, was a popular staple of TrueHoop. It was a great inside joke about sports radio, but one that was apparently lost on ESPN, which has held onto some of the kinds of voices Strauss regularly mocked.
So far, Simmons’ second act with The Ringer is still struggling to match the pop-culture-meets-sports resonance it had with Grantland.
As for TrueHoop, a quick search for the name on social media and on sites like Reddit will tell you that this is a brand with many loyal fans.
They’re sad to see it go.