ESPN sportscaster Scott Van Pelt calls him “the Moral Compass.” Sports Broadcasting Hall of Famer and ESPN sportscaster Chris Berman dubs him ESPN’s “North Star.”
It’s one thing to be admired for the professional you become. It’s quite another to be beloved for the man you are. To many at ESPN – and the sports television industry at large — Bob Ley is both.
Winner of 11 Sports Emmys and four Edward R. Murrow Awards, Ley established himself as one of, if not the, preeminent anchors in modern sports television. One of the original employees when the network launched in 1979, Ley spent a spectacular four decades at the “Worldwide Leader in Sports.”
“Bob has been the conscience of our company from the moment it began,” says ESPN colleague Mike Greenberg. “No one ever meant more to ESPN.”
A New Jersey native and graduate of Seton Hall University, Ley got his career started at a very young age, working at a local cable system near his hometown in Northern New Jersey. He also groomed his voice as a public-address announcer for New York Cosmos soccer games at the old Giants Stadium.
In summer 1979, at age 24, Ley landed job interviews on back-to-back days: one was to become a weekend anchor and weekday reporter for New Jersey Public Television; the other was at a channel that didn’t even exist. A primo gig in his home state that would also put him on-air in New York City and Philadelphia? Or who knows what at this E-S-P-N thing? Trusting in legendary execs and Sports Broadcasting Hall of Famers Scotty Connal and Chet Simmons, who interviewed him, Ley decided to pack his car and head for Bristol, CT.
“It was an opportunity to do something fresh and new,” says Ley of the decision. “I didn’t look at it as a major gamble. It’s tough to make a bad career choice at 24. But it worked out well for me.”
Thus began an employer-employee relationship for the ages. Many stars came and went from behind the ESPN desk in the 40 years that followed, but one of the great consistencies was the measured, even, and always informed tone of Bob Ley.
Among his notable moments behind the desk, Ley hosted the first-ever NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament Selection Show in 1980; anchored hundreds of episodes of the network’s iconic studio program, SportsCenter; and helped found ESPN’s much-heralded investigative-news program, Outside the Lines.
On OTL, Ley was able to flex the journalistic muscles that defined his career. The show has been showered with numerous awards, including a Peabody for its coverage of the NFL’s concussion crisis. The show prides itself on diving into the murkiest waters of sports culture and played roles in shedding light on critical issues like the USA Gymnastics sex-abuse scandal, the steroid epidemic in Little League Baseball, and the impact of Hurricane Katrina on New Orleans.
In addition to his journalistic accomplishments, Ley also became the torchbearer for ESPN — and for much of sports media — for the sport of soccer in the U.S. He served as the primary studio host for ESPN’s telecasts of global tournaments like the 2012 and 2016 European Championships, the 2011 FIFA Women’s World Cup in Germany, and the 2010 and 2014 FIFA World Cups in South Africa and Brazil. Those international events have forever left a mark on Ley and remain some of his most treasured times in the business.
“When you work with [Sports Broadcasting Hall of Famer] Geoff Mason, especially in an overseas location, the phrase that becomes synonymous [with that] is sense of place. Bring [the location] to the people at home; it can be five seconds, or it can be 10 minutes. Remind them, they aren’t just watching a sporting event on their television; they are in this country. Those of us who worked on those Cups know this, but you become a family. Those are seminal moments in my career. I stay in touch with so many people and those friendships deepen over the years.”
Ley officially retired from ESPN in June, but his legacy is still felt within the halls of ESPN, with many at the network still beholden to the standard that he set not only for himself or his network but for all of sports television.
“He remained a journalist to the core even as our medium grew more fractured and yelling at each other became a way to attract eyeballs,” said Van Pelt upon the announcement of his retirement. “His dedication to and mastery of the craft has made him a legend in our shop, as well as the manner in which he carried himself: dignity and integrity personified.”