Carillo's curious ESPN departure
Mary Carillo's departure signals possible problems with ESPN's tennis coverage
The world's best tennis players are in Australia this week. The sport's best analyst is not. Mary Carillo quietly left ESPN last year during the middle of the U.S. Open, leaving the network with one year remaining on her contract.
If you've read this column, you've read about Carillo. Last year SI.com named her the best game analyst of the 2000s for excelling in a sport that far too often soft-pedals commentary because of the many conflicts of interests and relationships. As my colleague Jon Wertheim once wrote about the analyst: "Her bold, 'I don't care who might be chapped by what I'm about to say approach' separated her from too many of her colleagues."
Deluged with e-mails on the subject of Carillo's departure, Wertheim dropped an interesting line in a column two weeks ago, saying there was a "philosophical difference" between Carillo and ESPN, and that she left the network on her own accord.
It doesn't take a leap to surmise that the philosophical difference rested in Carillo believing the tone and tenor of ESPN's coverage was closer to cheerleading than reporting. Sources told SI.com that Carillo was distressed by a culture that frowned on critical analysis of the top players on tour, particularly American stars. When last year's men's final switched from CBS to ESPN2, Carillo did not follow. It was a surreal end for a broadcaster who elevated ESPN's tennis coverage to new heights.
Reached at her home last week in Florida, Carillo declined to comment on why she left ESPN. She remains with CBS and NBC on tennis, and works as a correspondent on HBO's Real Sports. Author James Miller, whose book on the history of ESPN comes out next April, echoed what many tennis fans are likely feeling this week: "ESPN begins Australian Open coverage tomorrow without Mary Carillo," Miller tweeted. "Her choice, but departure could have been prevented. She will be missed."
SI.com spoke with ESPN executive vice president Norby Williamson last Friday to ask him about Carillo's departure. "Mary, for years, helped build ESPN's tennis coverage and she was a valuable asset which made us very strong," Williamson said. "People come and go and you can ask me that same question about different sports at different times. Bill Parcells was here with the NFL. He leaves and you try to supplement the coverage.
"The one thing about Mary is we had discussions with her agent, Sandy Montag. He called me at some point during the mid-year [of 2010] and said with sort of the grind she had -- she was working for HBO, NBC, CBS, and ESPN -- that she wanted to experiment and do some different things beyond just tennis. The load of the ESPN tennis was not allowing her to do that, and that's when the first discussions came out. She had one year left on her deal then. Given everything she had done for ESPN and the high level she had given us, if that was what she wanted to do, of course we would accommodate her. But it's very hard to replace a Mary Carillo."
Williamson said he did not have direct conversations with Carillo on tennis philosophy. Those conversations would have occurred with ESPN's event production people in charge of tennis, such as Jamie Reynolds, an ESPN vice president who oversees tennis. Asked directly if ESPN shared the same philosophy as Carillo when it came to covering tennis, Williamson said, "I think we did. ... We sort of want people that are working for us to challenge us because we are going to sit here and tell you that we are not right all the time. We may underplay some stories. We may overplay some stories. We need that give-and-take from the experts we employ that are serving the tennis fan as best as possible."
No sport does conflicts quite like tennis, dating to former agent Donald Dell, who provided commentary of matches involving players he represented and tournaments his firm owned and managed. That's morphed today into ESPN's Mary Joe Fernandez interviewing a player (Roger Federer) represented by her IMG agent husband. The affable Fernandez also draws a salary from being Fed Cup captain, where the Williams sisters' commitment is often the key to winning or losing. Patrick McEnroe, who this column enjoys as a broadcaster, makes a six-figure salary from the USTA, which puts him in a tricky situation when questions come up yearly about the U.S. Open scheduling and the stadium's need for a roof.
The sport's television entities have long fostered a climate where players are subjected to questions about as soft as a Francesca Schiavone drop shot. It's hard to believe such flagrant conflicts would be permitted in other sports. As one longtime U.S. tennis wag joked to me while watching the coverage, "We now go to Mrs. Boras for a report on Alex Rodriguez."
Carillo was the opposite of that culture, and more akin to those on the print side who often play the heavy for fans of the sport. "You always want people who played the game," Williamson countered. "You always want people who have relationships with people in the game. At the same point, you don't want to fool anybody. You want to tell people, 'Yeah, there are some relationships here but that does not pollute someone's objectivity, their ability to analyze or give you strategy or their take on a potential news story.'"
Tennis stars can be fickle when it comes to press access and there's naturally a delicate dance covering them. Last year Serena Williams posed for the cover of ESPN's Body Issue and has been a featured presenter at the ESPYs. Uncompromising journalism about Serena is particularly important because she is a polarizing figure in the sport.
"I will tell you when Serena had her issue at the Open [Williams was penalized a point on match point against Kim Clijsters in 2009 after cursing and shaking her racket in the direction of an official who called a foot fault.] I don't think any media entity covered it more, played the clips, and had diverse views on it, from Skip Bayless on First Take to Patrick McEnroe to Mary Carillo," Williamson said.
"We like to have relationships with those we are covering and we try to separate church and state," he continued. "There are issues with other athletes that we ask to pose for magazines and things like that. But if you look at the breadth and scope of our coverage with the Williams sisters, and especially the issue that Serena had and the number of times we covered that incident, and the follow up, I would stack up our coverage related to Serena Williams with anyone in the media."