By Lee Alan Hill
Special to TelevisionWeek
Begun in 1993, the ESPY Awards are ESPN’s annual salute to sports figures, teams and heroes. The ESPY ceremony has become a popular event among the network’s audience, which chooses the winners in almost every category via Web site voting.
Presented this past July from the Kodak Theatre in Hollywood for the third time, after stints in Las Vegas and New York, the ESPYs honor athletes from the wide expanse of ESPN sports-from established National Football League stars to up-and-coming alternative sports icons-all with a flavor that ESPN might well call its own.
“We’re not HBO, so it doesn’t get too raw,” said Ron Semaio, senior VP, ESPN original entertainment. “But it is a little less predictable than most award shows and a more relaxed atmosphere. I suppose people get exuberant and say things they might not say at the Oscars.
“Mostly,” it’s a special that shows the blending of sports and entertainment,” Mr. Semaio said. “We have movie stars giving the awards, so you might have LeBron James standing next to Samuel L. Jackson.”
ESPY stands for “Excellence in Sports Performance Yearly,” a name coined by one of the show’s first producers, Edd Griles, who saw the ceremony as a natural offshoot of ESPN. He found a way to add the final “Y” because of his preference for ending words with that letter.
In the chronicles of the ESPYs there have been some outlandish moments, such as the always-lively sportscaster Dick Vitale’s impersonation of Elvis Presley and moments incredibly heartfelt.
Leading the latter category is the oft-replayed segment from the first ESPYs, when former college basketball coach and ESPN commentator Jim Valvano accepted the Arthur Ashe Courage Award. Mr. Valvano was dying of cancer, a fact widely reported.
At one point in his acceptance speech, an off-screen red light flashed, signaling for him to wrap up. His response: “And the screen up there says `30 seconds.’ Like I care about that screen right now. I got tumors all over my body … like I care about 30 seconds.”
This year’s winner of the Arthur Ashe Courage Award was Liberian-born George Weah, Africa’s all-time-great soccer star, who has toiled sometimes with frustration but always with determination to aid his war-torn country.
Other past winners include football stars Pat and Kevin Tillman in 2003 (before Pat Tillman was killed in Afghanistan), Billie Jean King (1999) and Muhammad Ali (1997). In 2002, courage encompassing more than what can be seen on the playing fields, the award was given posthumously to the Flight 93 passengers of 9/11.
Mr. Semaio said this year’s ESPYs were “the most viewed ever,” which he attributed partly to the fact that fans now choose the winners. Formerly, other athletes and sports journalists did the honors.
“They feel they have something invested in the show,” he said, pointing out that 10.5 million fans went to ESPN.com and voted this year for nominees chosen by the network.
Some of the greatest athletes from the past dozen years have been multiple winners, including Barry Bonds as best Major League Baseball player, Joe Torre as best coach/manager, Pete Sampras as best men’s tennis player and Tiger Woods as best men’s golfer.
Through the ESPYs’ history, there have been changes in the categories. Recently, the blending of sports and entertainment has been more visible. For the past three years there has been a category, best sports movie. “Miracle,” the story of coach Herb Brooks of the 1980 gold-medal-winning U.S. Olympic hockey team, is being honored for 2004.