Although now an Emmy- and Peabody-winner, sports television producer Michael Hughes, BSBA ’01, got his start on a much smaller stage.
While a student at Washington University, he hosted and filmed bits for What’s Up, WashU?, a low-budget show for on-campus station WUTV. Initially recruited by a fellow member of the football team because he was “loud and obnoxious” — endearing traits, he was assured — he later became the show’s driving comedic force, and produced its skits.
“We had the Rams cheerleaders on the show, and did things like have a priest and a rabbi discuss religion,” he remembers. “I liked being on camera, but I loved the production aspect, putting together videos. I would cut highlights together from football games just to practice.”
He majored in marketing, but decided the buttoned-up corporate world wasn’t for him. Not long after graduating in 2001, Hughes landed a production job with ESPN. Moving out to Bristol, Conn., for the position, he prepared clips for SportsCenter, operated a teleprompter, and eventually worked for the station’s Sunday NFL Countdown.
At first it was his dream job, but eventually he began to feel limited. “I realized that while ESPN was good at what it does, it wasn’t a creative outlet for me,” he says.
And so when a friend told him of an opportunity to work on Fox Sports’ The Best Damn Sports Show Period, he moved out to Los Angeles and was hired as a feature producer in 2004.
The program’s atmosphere brought out the best in Hughes. “I realized I could push the limits; it was a freeing experience,” he says. His work quickly won the attention of higher-ups at Fox Sports, and they hired him to produce segments for the most important sporting events of the year, including the World Series and the BCS National Championship game. Hughes even cut the opening segment to the 2008 Super Bowl, which was narrated by Russell Crowe. The segment took home an Emmy, one of four Hughes has won in his career.
“It was everything I ever wanted,” he notes. Nonetheless, the very night of the Super Bowl broadcast he began contemplating his next move. Though millions of people were seeing his work, it was fleeting, and he wanted to create dramatic works of art that would last. So he founded sports television production outfit DLP Entertainment that year, with an eye toward telling the stories behind the games.
“What I’m interested in is human drama,” he says. “I’m not a stats guy, I’ve never played fantasy football, and I don’t know who the Cubs’ shortstop is.”
The company’s initials stand for Dumb Luck Productions, and today DLP has become synonymous with high-end storytelling and production. Based in Venice, Calif., Hughes and his team at DLP have produced series and specials for a variety of networks, including ESPN, FOX, NFL Network, A&E, VH1, SPEED, FUEL, Syfy and the National Geographic Channel.
They have also worked with branded entertainment partners like Under Armour, Schick and Gatorade.
To date, DLP’s most critically acclaimed project has been Pony Excess, which ran as part of ESPN’s 30 for 30 series in 2010, in conjunction with the network’s anniversary. The work focuses on the scandal-plagued Southern Methodist University football program, which received the NCAA “death penalty” for paying student-athletes under the table in the ’70s and ’80s.
Pony Excess became the highest-rated program of its kind in ESPN’s history and later went on to win a Peabody.
The project represented exactly the kind of storytelling Hughes had always wanted to do, and he says he’ll continue searching for endeavors that challenge and stimulate him.
“I consider myself to be very lucky,” he says. “I fell in love with what I do from the very beginning. My career has afforded me the chance to experience amazing events, meet fascinating people, tell inspiring stories, and take tremendous risks. I believe that as long as that fire burns and that passion is there, you’ll find a way to be successful.”
Ben Westhoff, AB ’99, is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles.