Provided by ESPN
Dave Roberts is a creature of habit.
The ESPN executive, who has become an influential behind-the-scenes force at the network, prefers to take business meetings to the Four Seasons, for example.
In 2015, sports media personality and regular ESPN panelist Bomani Jones was in Los Angeles to attend the network’s ESPY Awards ceremony and planned to meet Roberts. According to Jones, Roberts first agreed to meet him at his hotel. Instead, Roberts pulled up in a cab, called him over, and said, according to Jones, “Dude, let’s go to the Four Seasons!”
“Dave loves the Four Seasons because it works, and it’s proven,” Jones said.
Telling the story, Roberts told CNBC, “I like certain routines.”
Another routine: He starts each day on a treadmill around 4:30 a.m. It’s an important habit, but not just for him. It’s where he envisions what sports fans will watch throughout the day on Disney-owned sports network ESPN.
“The editorial lens,” Roberts said. “Time spent on this treadmill gives me food for thought.”
Roberts, who rose through the ranks of ESPN for nearly two decades, is the network’s head of studio programming. He will have a say in how the NBA Finals, which begin Thursday night, will be shown on sister network ABC but led by ESPN talent both behind and in front of the camera. This was Roberts’ first season overseeing NBA programming.
The final should attract a large audience. The Boston Celtics led by Jayson Tatum, one of the classic NBA franchises, take on Stephen Curry’s Golden State Warriors, who are looking to reestablish their 2010s dynasty.
Roberts said ESPN has a “complete plan” for the NBA Finals. That includes Snapchat, where Roberts said 1.4 million people watch ESPN content daily, and the deployment of the network’s “various talent pools,” including Stephen A. Smith.
Roberts’ description sounded like nothing out of the ordinary, fitting his creature of habit label. But in the long run, he has a bigger challenge. Roberts wants to use ESPN as a model to improve diversity and change the landscape of industry hiring practices. ESPN has faced criticism for its handling of diversity issues and racial controversies, prompting network president Jimmy Pitaro to to defend the company’s balance sheet.
Roberts, for his part, said he thinks building on diversity efforts could be a way to achieve Pitaro’s goal of growing the network’s viewership — and revenue.
“You can’t serve any market if you don’t have quality diversity in all areas of an organization,” Roberts said.
Roberts is responsible for studio shows including “SportsCenter”, “Get Up”, “First Take”, “Around the Horn”, and “Pardon the Interruption”. as well as NBA programming. He reports directly to Pitaro.
The average fan doesn’t know Roberts, and he likes it. He even refused to give his age during an interview with CNBC a few days before the start of the final.
But he knows where it counts.
“People in the business know who he is,” said longtime sportswriter and Fox Sports radio host Rob Parker. “A guy with insight and power. A guy who understands.”
Roberts grew up in Detroit. At 11, he started wanting to be a television journalist. According his ESPN profilehe graduated from Wayne State University with a degree in mass communication before starting his career at a local Detroit television station in 1978.
Juan Toscano-Anderson #95 of the Golden State Warriors drives to the basket during the game against the Boston Celtics on MARCH 16, 2022 at Chase Center in San Francisco, California.
Jed Jacobson | National Basketball Association | Getty Images
In 1982, Roberts said, he took advice and moved into television management. There, Roberts thought he might have influence. “Once I took that step in my career,” Roberts said, “I was in a position where I can really impact what really matters to me.”
Roberts joined ESPN in 2004 as coordinating producer and rose through the ranks to oversee ESPN’s radio division in 2018.
Now a bigger figure in ESPN’s management, his job is to increase revenue and attract younger audiences. ESPN claims viewers watched 20 billion minutes of its NBA programming in the first season under Roberts. That’s up from 17 billion minutes in the NBA’s 2020-21 regular season.
Roberts is also responsible for developing ESPN+, which had more than 21 million subscribers as of February 2022. ESPN is betting on exclusive content, including a “reimagined” version of the “SportsNation” trivia show and a new NBA-focused streaming will help attract subscribers.
“In this business,” Roberts said, “it’s about ratings and revenue.” He added that Pitaro has told us “very clearly that audience expansion and growth” is a top priority.
Roberts believes increasing diversity is a crucial part of her work.
He said he wants to see more people of color in big roles — more producers, more executives. The product, he said, “will take care of itself.”
“The time for excuses about why you can’t diversify your workforce and put African Americans and other people of color in decision-making roles has to end,” Roberts said. “There can be no more excuses.”
His concern about diversity and fair treatment in the workplace stems from the discrimination he said he faced in 1978. At the time, he was working at the National Bank of Detroit to pay for his education.
Roberts filed a class action lawsuit alleging racial discrimination in the bank’s hiring and promotion practices. He said he noticed the inequality after seeing most of the bank’s black employees work on floors occupied by the lowest-paying positions.
The lawsuit grew to over 40 people and was finally settled in February 1982 for $250,000. But it still fuels Roberts’ desire to “open doors” and achieve “true diversity.”
ESPN is responding to diversity concerns with “much more than lip service,” Roberts said. He also praised Pitaro for frequently discussing diversity at meetings and asking about “the makeup of people working on shows.”
Roberts pointed to the diversity of shows such as “First Take” and “NBA Countdown.” Female viewership has also increased, he said.
Jones said the changes are noticeable.
“When you put something under his responsibility, chances are it will become a lot more diverse,” Jones said — but “not at the expense of the bottom line.”
Roberts has also had to deal with his share of controversy at ESPN. He was instrumental in the decision to part ways with former ESPN host Rachel Nichols, who is white, in August after she made controversial comments about ESPN host Maria Taylor, who is black.
In December 2020, Roberts also had a major voice when he replaced anchor Sage Steele with Elle Duncan on ESPN’s “SportsCenter” evening edition. The network said the change was due to “offer new opportunities.” Prior to that, Roberts preferred to cancel “SC6,” also known as “The Six,” a revamped version of “SportsCenter” that featured former ESPN hosts Michael Smith and Jemele Hill. (Taylor and Smith are now with NBC Sports.)
And this decision comes with its own controversy. In 2018, Roberts was accused of saying “SC6″ was “too black”, which the network denied. In the interview with CNBC, Roberts didn’t go into detail about why he was in favor of revamping those shows, but called the decisions “tough decisions.”
He added that people need to “understand that once you have those responsibilities, you have to deliver the results. That includes me.”
Jones, who had also canceled an ESPN program, offered his take on Roberts’ management approach.
“If he’s okay with what you’re doing, he’s going to push him and support him,” Jones said. But if the results don’t follow, Jones added, “chances are he’ll find something else.”
There could also be more changes along the way under Roberts’ watch. While ESPN isn’t trying to emulate Turner Sports’ freer NBA programming, Roberts said, ESPN’s NBA programming wouldn’t be complacent either.
“Every day,” Roberts said, “you have to look for new ways to be creative and innovative.” He added: “You constantly have to be nimble and ready to make course corrections if necessary.”
Maybe he’s not such a creature of habit after all.
“It doesn’t mean you’re a creature of habit in everything you do or think,” Roberts said. “If that were the case, I would still try to be a journalist somewhere.”
Disclosure: CNBC’s parent company, NBCUniversal, owns NBC Sports.