NEW YORK — For a year, Pablo Torre and Bomani Jones found themselves in a state of limbo. Their upcoming show on ESPN, High Noon, had been announced, but it took so long for it to hit the airwaves that it became something of a running joke. As they and others waited on the construction of ESPN’s small but hyper-efficient studio space in New York’s Seaport District to be completed, the idea of what the show would be, in its initial form, came together.
“It was mostly for me trying to convince people that it was not a ponzi scheme,” Torre recalls.
Torre and Jones both insist there was no plotting or master plan to get a show together — Jones swears “it’s not quite that tidy” — but executive producer Erik Rydholm mentioned the other as someone they would want to work with on a show, which helped put the wheels in motion. Rydholm, who has given life to the three shows that follow High Noon in its current 4 p.m. ET time slot, saw the opportunity to highlight two of ESPN’s rising stars in an environment that let them discuss sports in a manner that is unique to them.
“I don’t think there are any smarter, more thoughtful people around sports than Bomani and Pablo, and having two people with that much intelligence and perspective is so incredibly rare and such a wonderful opportunity,” Rydholm says. “It’s a level of informed perspective that isn’t simply from people that cover sports, but also comes from somebody who was a trained economist in Bomani and who was a psychology major on Pablo’s side. So they’re looking at sports from all manner of different angles, and that is what was intriguing to me.”
Rydholm recalled an episode of Pardon the Interruption in which the pair served as guest hosts. He was blown away by, quite literally, how much the two had to say.
“Their word count, just in the sheer amount of information and analysis they were putting into segments, was like double what we were used to,” Rydholm says. “They just had so much to say, and it felt like they needed an outlet to say it.”
The result was an hour-long live show in which Torre and Jones, both with longform backgrounds in print and radio, would have lengthy segments to dive deeper into topics in a conversational manner. Much like with the delay in the show’s launch, though, factors beyond Jones and Torre caused another sizable change to occur, and ESPN announced two months after the show hit air that it would move from noon to 4 p.m. and be condensed into a half hour, opening the new Rydholm block with Highly Questionable, Around the Horn, and PTI.
It was a major change, but more than a year later, Jones and Torre look at the new format as overwhelmingly positive. Jones points out that they’ve been able to “whittle away some of the fat” to create a tighter show without losing the feel of an open conversation. While they’ve been able to trim back on topics to focus on the things they’re most interested in, the content of the show hasn’t changed much. The hosts still bounce between topics that range from serious discussions on situations like the NBA and China to laughing at the latest video of Russia’s slap-fighting champion. It’s a balance that lets them show off all sides of their personalities.
There are a number of factors that can make a sports TV show successful or not, but one that everyone in the industry will point to as a common thread is authenticity. Whether it’s in content or chemistry, authenticity is the thing that is the hardest to fake. An audience will question something that looks forced, and it can be awfully difficult to change a show’s reputation once that’s how it is perceived.
Neither of those are an issue for High Noon, because despite both hosts being in their 30s, they’re unapologetically and perpetually themselves.
“I got one setting,” Jones says with a laugh. “Like, that’s how it goes. It’s not even so much take it or leave it, it’s just this is the only way I know how to do it.”
Their chemistry has been built over years sharing the airwaves, starting with Around the Horn and Outside the Lines. These shows gave both a chance to work on condensing big thoughts into a tight window, a helpful skill in their transition to a half-hour show.
“The big thing you get out of it is you realize, what do you have to say here?” Jones says. “What is the thing you have to get out of here? And with Around the Horn, it becomes interesting, because dependent upon where you are in the rotation of where you are on a particular topic, all that stuff you thought you were going to talk about may be gone, which means you have to figure out pretty quick how to pivot into something else that is useful to talk about.”
“Yeah, word economy was the big lesson for me coming out of magazines,” Torre responds. “Around the Horn forces you to fit around a literal and figurative box on that, but the other thing that was super helpful with was, shit man, getting the respect of people I respect. They throw you out there and you’re sitting alongside Hall of Famers — Bob Ryan, Jackie MacMullen, you go on down the list of great journalists. So for me, just proving that I could hang with them and them accepting me into their fraternity was an enormously uplifting thing.”
Their friendship further developed in Miami, where both worked alongside Dan Le Batard. Jones was a permanent co-host of Highly Questionable, while Torre became the ultimate utility man, popping up on just about every show on ESPN as both guest and host while being a regular guest on Le Batard’s radio show.
For Jones, Le Batard’s biggest influence was in his abilities as an interviewer and, as he put it, “softening” him and helping him “be a little nicer to these people here.” For Torre, Le Batard’s influenced his entire career trajectory.
“Dan Le Batard convinced me to stop writing full-time, he convinced me to worship at the craven altar of television, and that is not a thing that I necessarily expected to dive fully into, but Dan was a mentor to me in that regard,” Torre says. “In terms of his sensibility, I think you sort of hit it for me, the high brow-low brow stuff, that you can do both and your credibility doesn’t have to be compromised if you can deliver on one and the other. Now, there is a balance, and Bomani is right that Dan has a long history of proving that he can do it, but for me, that was fairly inspirational, that you can have a show that dives deeply into sports and also allows you to retain a sense of humor that you might have authentically.”
Despite that, many point to High Noon as the “high brow” show on ESPN’s afternoon lineup. It’s hosted by a Harvard grad and a trained economist who are two of ESPN’s prominent “smart guys.” While this is something they don’t shy away from, that’s far from the main goal of the show.
“Something I’ve always admired in Bomani is he can find humor in things that are serious,” Torre says. “One of the things I found most mind-blowing was him laughing at the Donald Sterling saga. This was back before this show existed, but it’s that kind of spirit where, not only can we provide a certain high brow sensibility on stuff that’s more cosmopolitan, but it’s also like, the security and confidence from that to find places to laugh.”
“The other part of this is I have no interest in producing high brow content,” Jones answers. “Like, this is the thing. The topics go wherever they have to be, but the brow level for me is pretty consistent. Like, I don’t do particularly low brow, either. That’s the part for me. I am here to find the reality in the absurd and the absurdity in reality. That is kind of the space that I want to go in on those things.”
Their ability to speak intelligently on certain topics is something that makes the pair stand out in the sports talk television space. Jones is quick to point out that they aren’t alone at ESPN in that regard, noting that First Take regularly takes on the same topics in much longer segments, even if many don’t like to give them credit for doing so.
Still, on a shorter format show, that ability to condense their thoughts on serious and, at times, delicate matters into a conversational format is unique.
“It’s a comparative advantage sort of thing,” Jones says. “Everybody’s got something that whatever their show happens to be they can do, maybe not be better, but in a different way. And that’s something we’re going to have. … Five minutes is short to talk about everything that goes on on a topic like [the NBA and China]. If we are able to effectively do that, then that is definitely something that is a separator for us and I think the rest of the people that do this kind of work.”
“And it’s natural,” Torre adds. “Bomani talked about having one setting, like, I myself have more in that metaphor, but not in terms of how I approach shit like this. No, I am not modulating — I mean, I will use the word modulate organically. I’m not trying to be like, ‘Oh here’s the smart topic, it’s time,’ no, I think staying true to ourselves will lead us to be that comparative advantage.”
It’s also where Jones notes the biggest advantage of the shift from live TV to taped helps, because while they shoot live to tape and try not to do second takes, if something comes out sounding wrong on a serious matter, they can “shut it down” and try it again. That’s a nice safety net on a show that relies solely on its conversational nature to be effective and connect with the audience.
The entire presentation of High Noon is to bring focus to that discussion. The two face each other, not a main camera, but the efforts to reinforce the conversational element goes far beyond that. The topic is pictured in the background on a gigantic screen behind the desk, rather than thrown up on a graphic. Even when they play video, the two are placed in a split screen on either side so you see their reactions.
The goal for Rydholm was to make sure that everything they did kept the focus on them and show how it’s not just two people talking at each other.
“I wanted the show to look different than anything else to grab your attention, but also I wanted the show to be listening,” Rydholm says. “Not just talking, but listening. On most of the shows that we do, the camera goes to the person who’s talking. With this, I just felt it was incredibly important because with both of these guys are not just teachers, but they’re students. I wanted to show them absorbing each other’s points.”
For all their similarities and chemistry, the two have drastically different personalities and approaches to what they do. Torre is always prepared and constantly engaged. During breaks, he runs through the next segment’s topics, practicing the exact delivery and inflection points he wants to hit when they’re taping. Jones, meanwhile, pulls out his phone, pecking away at the screen, and will read his topics in a low , monotonous that will become suddenly lively once they’re rolling again.
It’s a fascinating dichotomy, but also illustrative of the authenticity they bring. Torre is naturally an over-prepared individual, with habits he’s had to break for the show to have better flow. He once had a yellow legal pad with thoughts and notes on all of the topics that would sit on the desk beside him, but has gotten rid of that, citing the importance of that listening aspect Rydholm wants viewers to see on the show.
“Being present and listening actively, those are the things that I find are really useful, and that’s something I always try to remind myself,” Torre says. “We are at our best when we are spontaneous. We’re not preparing — I mean, there are no notes at the desk. I used to bring them in. I used to be from the Tony Kornheiser school of, like, I have a legal pad and I have many thoughts.
“But now, Bomani and I have realized that our best chemistry is when we’re playing off of each other, spontaneously, and sometimes, often times, I have no idea what he’s going to say, and likewise,” Torre continues. “It’s a testament to us and knowing each other that we’re getting ever more comfortable with that unknown, because that is rooted in that trust and that safety net of, ‘Oh, we’re going to find a place premised on mutual interest.’”
Torre is learning to have the self-confidence that is ever apparent in Jones, not just in the content of what he says, but in knowing the audience wants to hear his perspective. For years, Torre said yes to every opportunity to prove, as he puts it, “this random dude who might be a Chinese guy with a Mexican name — as I’ve been accused of being many times — this is a dude who might be worth listening to.” Now he has a permanent home where people can find him, rather than him finding people. He has the perfect foil in Jones to push him further and create a truly unique conversation that can’t be found on other shows.
There’s a smoothness and ease to everything Bomani does, as he shifts gears seamlessly from thumbing through his phone in a break to an engaging on-air conversation. Given his history of doing crossword puzzles on air during his radio show, I was curious what he was doing on his phone in these breaks. Crosswords? Reading? Texting?
“Nah, it’s nothing that serious, I’m doing Sporcle quizzes,” he says with a smile.
The two have different perspectives and approaches, but when it comes to making the show, they both have just that one setting. They always strive to be who they are and talk about sports in a way few do, with an ability to condense and distill well-reasoned thoughts into five-minute segments about topics only limited by their interests. Unafraid of approaching any topic with the exact level of nuance it deserves, it’s a breath of fresh air in that everything, at all times, is on the table. Well, except for Torre’s yellow notepad.