Q/A with Darren Rovell: On leaving CNBC for ESPN; ‘It felt bigger’

Note: I’m going to be out for a couple of weeks. However, I’m leaving behind some gifts for the holidays: The best of my Q/As. I’ll feature a new one each day through Jan. 2. Please check in. Happy Holidays to all.


Posted on Aug. 20

As any good business reporter knows, the element of risk is a theme in many stories.

So now the tables turn on Darren Rovell. Risk now is a part of his story in his recent jump from CNBC to ESPN.

Rovell had the sports business gig all to himself at CNBC. He also had his own sports business show on the NBC Sports Network.

Rovell, 34, landed many high-profile interviews and developed a huge following on Twitter (now in the 240,000 range). He carved out a nice niche at CNBC.

Rovell, though, decided to return to ESPN (he worked there from 2000-06). Obviously, he won’t be the only sports person at the network. While he will have more platforms for his stories, he also will face exponentially more internal competition. It will be more difficult for him to stick out at ESPN.

Money definitely was a factor in Rovell’s decision (ESPN book author James Miller reports he doubled his salary). Interestingly, for someone who talks at length about the cash athletes earn, Rovell declined to go into detail about his financial decision. I guess it is more interesting to talk about other people’s money.

Rovell stressed this decision is about more than just money. A big part, he said, is the ABC component, in which he will do business stories for various shows (Good Morning America, Nightline, ABC Evening News) on the network.

Ultimately, Rovell said of the move, “I just felt this was bigger.”

Here’s my Q/A with Rovell.

Why make the move from CNBC to ESPN?

I was happy with my gig at CNBC. I loved doing my NBC Sports Network show. It was a dream come true. I love working with my team there.

At the end of the day, I felt like being at ESPN was the right move. The ABC part was the deal-sealer.

How much did money have to do with the move?

CNBC did want me back. I was hoping for more interest from NBC Sports to get paid like a host. It didn’t happen.

I won’t do something solely for money. I’m so passionate about my career. Money alone could never get me to go to a place that I didn’t think was the best for me.

I talked to CNN. I talked to other people. I asked, ‘Do I break out? Do I move away from this niche?’ I decided the answer is no. ESPN and ABC can give me the best of both worlds.

Talk about your niche. Why is sports business so interesting to the masses?

I think a flashpoint came when sports became more corporate. Business became more out there, and people wanted to talk about it. Sports fans want to be armed at the water cooler. When you drop a piece of information, it allows you to beat your friend.

There are so many fascinating things about sports business. It touches people more than most people think.

Your career took off when you left ESPN and started at CNBC in ’06. Why?

CNBC gave me a great TV platform, for sure. The difference for me at the time was CNBC was a smaller place to be, but I could be the bigger fish. At ESPN, I was the geek who covered sports business. At CNBC, I was the cool guy who covered sports business.

CNBC wanted me to help turn up the volume. Traders watch with the volume off. CNBC said, ‘Hey, let’s show sports, but you rationalize it as business because it really is business.’

At CNBC and NBC Sports Network, you got so many big interviews with athletes like Tiger Woods and sports executives. PGA Tour Commissioner Tim Finchem appeared so many times, he was practically your sidekick. Will you get that same kind of treatment/access at ESPN?

We didn’t have a hard time getting people to come on CNBC. Our pitch to athletes and agents was, ‘Come on CNBC if you want to reach the wealthiest people in the world.’

Now at ESPN, Tom Rinaldi will have that interview with Tiger. How do I get Tiger Woods for business purposes? Does (agent) Mark Steinberg say, ‘He already did Tom Rinaldi?’

Admittedly, it’s going to be a challenge to get the big stars. But that’s the challenge of working in a bigger system compared to being a one-man machine. It’s a challenge I’m willing to accept. I still think I can get the big interview.

You’ve become Mr. Twitter. What has that meant to your “brand”?

It’s become a tremendous distribution platform. If all I did was just about sports business, I’d have about 10,000 followers. People like to have something different in their feed. When something happens in sports or otherwise, I’m thinking, ‘How can I inject the business aspect into it?’

When I was at ESPN (the first time), they had so many writers, I used to think, ‘If I write a great story, will it get on the front page (of ESPN.com)?’ Now because of Twitter, placement is not as much of a concern. It’s harder for something to get lost. Going to the Web site isn’t the only place to find the story. If I write a good story, somebody will link to it again and again and again.

It hasn’t all been smooth sailing. You’ve gotten into some notorious feuds on Twitter. Other people also have taken shots at you as your profile has increased. How do you feel about that?

Twitter allows people to reach out to you. Negative stuff is going to happen. Anything is fine. Anyone who is in the public eye has to deal with some negativity. It comes with the territory.

So where will people see you at ESPN/ABC?

I’m going to be the sports business reporter covering the beat. I’ll be working out of the ABC office in New York, but I’ll be in Bristol quite frequently. ESPN is going to be my main responsibility. I’ll write for ESPN.com, be on radio, SportsCenter. I do intend to be on ABC quite often.

I love to put the pedal to the metal. I go 24 hours a day. The only way to not get burned out is to change things up. The ABC outlet allows me to stay fresh, to stay hungry.



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