Frank Caliendo: Move to ESPN opens new horizons; his dead-on video on Jon Gruden

In an interview with AD Week, Frank Caliendo discusses how his move to ESPN allows him to expand his arsenal to include ESPN’s personalities. That includes this dead-on spoof of Jon Gruden.

From the interview:

Your new gig gives you an opportunity to bring more “voices” to the show. Who are you working on now?
Doing impressions of ESPN people was not an option before, so right there you have a whole bunch of huge personalities I haven’t had a chance to try on. So, I have Chris Berman down and I’ve been working on my [Ron] Jaworski, my Herm Edwards. One I’ve been having a lot of fun with is Jon Gruden.

It’s kind of weird to ask you to do an impression for a print Q&A, but…
[In Gruden’s voice] Yeah, well, you know the thing about Gruden is, he’s so positive, man. No matter what’s happening, he puts it in a positive light. [In his own voice] And the way he puts that inflection in his voice, that’s the key to getting his voice down.


Your thoughts: Why people aren’t watching World Series

Yesterday, I gave my views on what contributed to the record low ratings for this year’s World Series. And the declining popularity isn’t just limited to this year.

I asked for your thoughts and got some interesting responses. You have the floor:

Too many games

They need to end the baseball season sooner. Baseball is a spring/summer sport; don’t allow it to run over into fall. The baseball season is way too long. How to fix baseball? Have a 120-game season and end it in late July or early August. This will allow people not to be complacent and keep baseball from competing with the big boys (NFL and college football).–Ronnie

Ugh, I hate to admit it, because I love baseball as both a former player and a fan. But they need to reduce the amount of games played. This is an always-on world we live in and the huge amounts of content available online has had significant implications for the modern day consumers attention span.–Mark

There’s so many baseball games on during the reg. season that postseason baseball just seems like another game to the average fan. I’ll watch, but I’m guessing many fans tune out once their team is out.–Twins91

My response: Yes, the reason season could use a trim, but it isn’t going to happen.  Too much revenue from those meaningless games.


Less regular season, more postseason

Baseball needs to take a page from NBA: Lengthen your postseason. The NBA soars in April, May, June.  For two months, they are front and center with playoffs. In baseball, it’s (three weeks) and postseason is over.

I’m 36, and I could care less about the baseball regular season. I honestly didn’t watch three innings of baseball all year. Absolutely dreadful; no urgency whatsoever. They need urgency in baseball!!!  Almost every year I do tune into baseball postseason.

Forget 162 games; that is baseball’s biggest problem. Take month or more off the regular season; add a month or more to post season.  That would get me to tune in. I am not for watching meaninless baseball games. Can’t do it.–Brad

My response: I also have kicked around this notion. The purists will say the worst thing that could happen to baseball would be for it to become like the NBA and NHL with too many teams getting in. But wouldn’t an extended playoff format increase the number of meaningful games?

Just a thought. I’m not wed to the idea. Also, like I just said; baseball isn’t going to reduce the 162-game regular season.


Too many Latin players

I have talked about this with my friends for several years. A lot of what people watch has to do with the ability to relate and identify with the athletes. In my opinion, the Latin demographic is becoming more and more dominant in baseball. The best players in our supposed “American pasttime” seem to be from Latin America. Therefore, it is hard for American youth, and Americans in general, to idolize, follow and care about athletes they perceive to have nothing in common with. I think this is a major factor in the declining interest from American viewers.–Mark

My response: Latin players have been around for a long time. The Pittsburgh Pirates won the World Series in 1960 with a guy named Roberto Clemente. People definitely identified with the Latin players on the Red Sox: Manny Ramirez, Pedro Martinez and David Ortiz. I think the bigger issue is that there isn’t a large enough pool of players that people identify with these days, American or otherwise.


Yankee-Red Sox factor

When you shove only RedSox/Yankees down national throat. Giants and Tigers not national teams. Only Boston-New York are.–Dave via Twitter

An inordinate % of MLB regular season national TV coverage (Fox, ESPN, and TBS) on a small # of teams–Classic Sports Media via Twitter

I still think the main reason is intrigue of teams. People will watch the games with Yankees, Red sox, Dodgers. Yankees-Phillies in 2009 had great ratings.–Jake via Twitter

My response: Indeed, I overdose on seeing Yankees-Red Sox all the time. At least it feels that way. Baseball needs to do a better job of enhancing the identity of other teams, especially a team that has won two titles in the last three years.


Late start times

I was 15 in 1991, and I missed the ending of Game 7 of probably one of the best World Series ever because I had to go to school the next day. Start the games at 7:00pm! (ET)–Lou

I will say the late starts kill it for all sports. My son is 10. He rarely gets to see the end of a sporting event because they don’t start until after 7:30 central. He ends up watching it on SportsCenter or Youtube the next morning. Maybe I should raise my kids on the West Coast or Hawaii–Ralph

My 12-year-old son would rather watch a FC Barcelona or Manchester United Soccer game with me.  Plus they actually play when he is awake!  He can name the starting line-ups for Man U and FC Barcelona, just like I could name the baseball starting line-ups when I was a kid.  With the high cost of tickets and the pace of the game (slow and boring) MLB is totally missing the young demographic–Benjamin

I think the low baseball ratings have to do with length of games; 3+ hrs & late endings of game. Games need 2 end by 10p EST–Andy via Twitter

My Response: I’ve made my points on this issue. MLB might have lost a generation of World Series fans because of the late start times. At least start the weekend games earlier.


Enough with the ratings

Don’t get stories about ratings – should I stop watching because ratings down? Same issue w move box office numbers.–Greg via Twitter

My Response: I hear ya, Greg. But this is what I do here. Enjoy your games and your movies.




New 30 for 30: Ghosts of Ole Miss about much more than football

The latest 30 for 30 is yet another documentary you should be sure to watch with your kids. The film chronicles the 1962 Ole Miss football team’s undefeated season against the backdrop of the integration of the university.

It is told through the perspective of ESPN’s Wright Thompson, whose family in Mississippi once awoke to see a cross burning on their front lawn.

From ESPN.

ESPN Films’ 30 for 30, presented by Buick Verano, will premiere Ghosts of Ole Miss on ESPN/ESPNHD on Tuesday, October 30, at 8 p.m. ET. The film, directed by Peabody Award-winning filmmaker Fritz Mitchell, is told through the perspective of writer and Mississippi native Wright Thompson.

In the fall of 1962, on the eve of James Meredith becoming the first African American student to attend the University of Mississippi, the campus erupted into a night of rioting between those opposed to the integration and those trying to enforce it. President Kennedy sent the US Army to Oxford to put an end to the violence and enforce Meredith’s rights as an American citizen, but the riot resulted in two deaths and many injuries.

Against this backdrop, the Ole Miss football team was in the early stages of what would prove to be an unprecedented season in school history. Ghosts of Ole Miss explores the intersection of the Rebel football team with this seminal event in the civil rights movement, including tumultuous events that not only continue to shape the state half a century later, but also led to Thompson’s discovery of a personal family connection to the story.

“Ghosts of Ole Miss will shed light on a significant time in our country’s civil rights history while weaving in a sports story not familiar to most,” said Connor Schell ESPN Films vice president and executive producer. “Fifty years later, the topic resonates with all Americans and we are proud to showcase such an important story as part of the 30 for 30 series.”

Ghosts of Ole Miss features personal interviews with James Meredith, former players on the 1962 football team and students who witnessed the riot.

“This story is very personal to me, and I appreciate the care Fritz Mitchell and his team put into getting it right,” said Wright Thompson. “I hope the powerful and important message of the film connects with both people who lived through the civil rights era and those for whom it is something that exists in history books.”

All-time low rating: Why World Series continues to decline; trails NBA Finals, NCAA tourney, BCS

It doesn’t add up.

Bud Selig will tell anyone who listens that Major League Baseball is more popular than ever. The game continues to set attendance records.

However, if that’s the case, why are TV ratings sinking at the same pace as Detroit’s bats during the World Series?

The latest Giants World Series victory averaged an all-time low of 12.7 million viewers per game. The numbers are striking.

From Sports Media Watch:

The World Series has now set or tied a record-low rating eight times since the 1994-95 players’ strike (1998, 2000, 2002, 2005, 2006, 2008, 2010 and 2012). In addition, this is the seventh time in the past eight election years (midterm or presidential) that the World Series has set a record-low.

The 2012 World Series was the third in five years to average a previously unheard-of single-digit rating. Over the past five seasons, 20 of 27 World Series telecasts have drawn a single-digit rating — compared to four such games previously.

Forget about losing to football. From Sports Media Watch:

Compared to other sports, the World Series trailed the five-game Bowl Championship Series on ESPN (8.4, 14.1M), the three-game NCAA Tournament Final Four (10.1, 17.1M*) and the five-game Heat/Thunder NBA Finals on ABC (10.1, 16.9M).

This marks the fourth time in five years that the NBA Finals has averaged a higher rating and more viewers than the World Series, and the fifth time in seven years the NBA has averaged better numbers among adults 18-49. Prior to 2008, the NBA Finals had only topped the World Series three times, all in years when Michael Jordan‘s Bulls won the championship (1993, 1996 and 1998).

Once upon a time, the 1977 World Series averaged 44 million viewers per game. Now that’s not a fair comparison in the modern era of TV ratings, but even by recent measures, the World Series has declined. There wasn’t one series in the ’90s that averaged less than 20 million viewers per game. As late as 2004, the series pulled in 25 million viewers per game.

So what gives Mr. Commissioner? Popularity should be measured by attendance and ratings. If I’m MLB and its TV partners, there has to be concern why fans aren’t watching the biggest games on their big screens.

As it relates to the World Series, here are some of my theories:

Sweep madness: Baseball has run into an extraordinary string of bad luck. The Giants sweep was the fourth in a World Series since 2004. Only two series in the last nine have gone beyond five games and only one to the full seven.

Nothing kills ratings more than a sweep. People start to check out after 2-0. Even worse, there’s no carryover effect from one year to the next. With the exception of St. Louis-Texas in 2011, the World Series hasn’t delivered much in the way of lasting memories–except for fans of the winning team.

Football: Back in 1977, football was limited to the colleges on Saturday afternoon and the pros on Sunday afternoon and Monday night. And baseball usually scheduled on an off-day to avoid a conflict with Monday Night Football.

Now the World Series bumps up against football on virtually every night. Saturday’s Game 3 faced a stiff test in Notre Dame-Oklahoma, and Game 4 went up against Peyton Manning and Drew Brees on Sunday Night Football. Baseball definitely took a hit.

I remember when the NFL didn’t schedule a Sunday night game to avoid a conflict with the World Series. Not anymore. Football rules.

Local: I wonder if baseball has become more provincial. If the home team isn’t involved, perhaps we don’t care anymore. I definitely didn’t hear much talk about the World Series on my two local sports talk radio stations in Chicago. Can you say, Da Bears!

Star power: Or lack thereof. Stars draw viewers, and this year’s World Series didn’t have them. Sure, Buster Posey and Miguel Cabrera are terrific players, but they don’t move the meter like a Derek Jeter or ARod, or dare I say it, Barry Bonds. Now the Giants winning two of three series with Bonds in the lineuep? I guarantee that would have generated some ratings.

Kids out: As I wrote Saturday, lamenting how kids get shut out because of the late start of games, I wonder if we’ve lost a generation of baseball fans–at least as far as the World Series is concerned. All I can say is that when I came home Saturday night, my sports-obsessed teenage boys were flipping between ND-Oklahoma and Michigan-Nebraska games. When I asked them what was going on in Game 3, they had no idea.

They didn’t grow up with the World Series. They never got to see the end of games when they were younger. As a result, the World Series isn’t important to them.

MLB should reach out to my boys. They could provide some good feedback on the all-important youth demo.

And finally: At least the short series prevented a Game 7 on Nov. 1. There’s something not right about baseball in November.

Anything else?: I’m open to suggestions.










Q/A with Jay Mariotti: On two years out of spotlight; his side of what happened on that night and aftermath; and his next step

The email in my inbox had a familiar name: Jay Mariotti.

Earlier that day a couple weeks ago, I had written a post about Mariotti. I wondered why he had taken two years off and if anybody would hire him again?

The email read: “You’re welcome to ask me questions. Don’t have to guess when I can give you context.”

Mariotti has a point. If I am going to comment and speculate about him, I should allow him to give his side. That’s the way I operate.

I followed up, asking if he was up for doing a Q/A. Prior to sending out questions, I did read his book on Amazon, The System: A Manual on Surviving Liars, Loons, Law, Life. Much of the book is Mariotti’s account of a domestic violence incident with a woman he was dating in 2010. He gives a condensed version in this Q/A.

Mariotti has been mostly on the sidelines ever since. However, he says he is ready to jump back in, and that there are opportunities out there for him. And if you think Mariotti has mellowed, well, guess again.

So here is “context” from Mariotti.

Why have you been off for two years? Obviously, you know the speculation out there. People don’t believe it is by choice.

Mariotti: “People” need to stop guessing when they really have no clue about me and what’s happening in my life. How irresponsible is that? They don’t realize what a great life I have here in Los Angeles. As I write this, I’m sitting under a blue sky by the pool in Santa Monica, with the ocean a few yards away. I read, write, ride my bike and work out here every day. Not really missing two bogus Sun-Times deadlines in Green Bay, eating bratwurst at halftime and getting back to Chicago at 4 a.m. That was a kamikaze mission for a failing newspaper — this is the good life.

When I’ve written more than 6,000 columns, done 1,800 TV shows on ESPN and 1,000 radio shows, covered 14 Olympics and 24 Super Bowls and dozens of golf majors and seen the world — and made a very comfortable living doing so — what possibly is wrong with voluntarily taking some time off in a beautiful place? I’m fortunate to not have to work, and I’ve taken advantage and cleared my head with two wonderful years away from the media business. I’ve had a rewarding and successful career, and not unlike some people in sports and Hollywood, I’m chilling until the opportunities are just right. I poured about 50 years of hard work into two decades. I’m preparing wisely for my next two decades in media.

Taking this break HAS been my choice, and whatever the speculation is, I can’t say I care when my two daughters are healthy and well and I don’t have to work for a corrupt Chicago newspaper as I did for 17 years. I’ve never been in better physical shape, and I’ll be back in sports media when the timing is right.

And just because I haven’t worked in sports media doesn’t mean I haven’t worked. I’m thick into a documentary project, for instance, and being in L.A. has opened new avenues to creativity. I’ve spoken to virtually all the big players in national sports media, including some the last few weeks. Right now, I’m mulling over three possibilities — all terrific jobs. If they happen, great. If not, Mumford & Sons are coming to the Hollywood Bowl next week. I would pay to see Alvin and the Chipmunks at the Hollywood Bowl — not exactly Tinley Park, you know?

Why did you decide to do the ChicagoSide columns? What was the reaction?

Jon Eig, the editor, is a best-selling author who wants to do a smart, responsible sports site. I like smart, responsible sports sites because there are too many bad, amateur-hour sites that are sludging up the business like rat feces. Jon asked me to do pieces when the urge strikes. He said the reaction has been great and the site traffic off the charts. I suggested a piece on the White Sox when they were in first place so I could show people I’m not the anti-Christ of the South Side.

What happened? The Sox choked out here in Anaheim and faded away. I had to write it. Can’t win with that franchise.

Jon then suggested a piece on why I still love sportswriting. It attracted national attention, and I did an hour on Sirius/XM Radio about it. No doubt I still resonate, and I very much appreciate all the nice words from folks.

Do you want to work again? And in what capacity?

Again, I have been “working” — I’m doing documentary work, wrote a detailed book about my career and court case and have a standing offer to do another book. When I regularly return to the sports media, I assume it will be in a mutimedia capacity — TV, radio, writing. And maybe for more than one employer — I’ve always worked for two or three at a time.

Have there been any previous offers? If so, why did you turn them down?

Yes. I’ve turned down some sports media things. One would have required a cross-country move to do a daily afternoon-drive radio show. Another involved a book that didn’t interest me. Someone wanted me to invest in a restaurant — thought about it, said no. I’d actually like to be a roadie for the Black Keys, but they haven’t asked. I have an agent out here at Octagon, a Chicago native. He talks to people all the time about me.

How have/will your legal issues impact your ability to get hired? For lack of a better word, are you “tainted”?

That’s a fine word. And the answer is no, I’m not tainted. Anyone who knows the real story, as I’ve written in meticulous detail in my Amazon/Kindle book, knows I was victimized by a system that enabled a troubled and vindictive woman to lie about me, abuse me and stalk me in the neighborhood in which I live. I’m pleased that top executives at some major media companies have taken time to read the book — one said it was commendable that I spent many months trying to help the woman, who was broke and had personal problems after being fired from her advertising job and going through a divorce.

Ever see “Fatal Attraction,” the movie? I often felt like Michael Douglas. But that doesn’t matter in post-O.J. Simpson L.A., where even a battered man doesn’t stand a chance when a couple is arguing on a street and a third-party witness calls 911. Prosecutors saw an opportunity for a quick series of headlines in the L.A. Times. They never wanted to hear my side of the story; they just funneled me through a preliminary hearing and left it up to me to take it to a trial, not caring about the invaluable witnesses we brought to the courtroom and my $250,000 in legal expenses, plenty of which made its way to a financially ailing city via outrageous court costs. I could have taken the case to trial, but what a circus that would have been. How do I know a jury wouldn’t profile me unfairly, as an opinionated ESPN commentator of Italian heritage, and assume guilt regardless of the truth? I chose to take a no-contest plea bargain for one low-level misdemeanor, which allowed this person to stalk me in attempts to entrap me and cause me more trouble.

It appeared I was headed back to work for AOL, where I was the lead sports columnist. It was the best job in the business, with unlimited travel and terrific camaraderie among the staffers, unlike the Sun-Times insane asylum. But the company suddenly cut me a large financial settlement while not telling me or anyone else that it was dumping the sports site while doing a lucrative deal with Arianna Huffington. I was not “fired” because of this court case. That hasn’t stopped sleazy bloggers from writing otherwise. Wish these guys would take some journalism classes and stop being reckless gossips.

Since then, the woman and her attorneys have demanded money. I have refused to pay a cent. If my fellow journalists do their due diligence instead of just assuming I’m guilty — or, worse, WANTING to assume I’m guilty — then they’ll see what this was: a desperate money grab. I was put through a hellish ordeal despite never going to jail or pleading guilty. I was exploited as a public figure, lied about by bloggers who don’t corroborate their wild guesses — one said I was going to jail for 12 years — and harassed by lawyers who wanted to make a quick buck in a settlement. I’m proud to say I didn’t budge, but that decision still hurt me because the woman then told more lies to police and prosecutors, who were all ears. All of these details are in my book. Thank God it’s over, and shame on the legal system for allowing the chaos to interrupt my life.

Everyone makes mistakes — and mine was getting involved with a person who clearly was using me. It’s no coincidence that since I wrote the book, everyone has gone away — lawyers, prosecutors, the person herself — while the presiding judge says he is strongly considering an expungement of the entire case so that it’s completely wiped off my otherwise clean record. In more than two decades of marriage, we never had such problems in a loving, peaceful household in suburban Chicago. The LAPD is reckless. The system out here is a money-gouging, plea-bargain machine. And it didn’t help that the Times — owned by the Chicago Tribune, my rival for 17 years — was basically re-running the district attorney’s press releases.

I don’t hit women — never have, never will. As the father of two daughters, I abhor domestic abuse. In truth, I was the one abused in the relationship; one night, she punched me 22 times in the chest, right against the stent inserted during my 2007 heart attack. I’ve discussed all of this on two Fox Sports podcasts and in a Sirius/XM interview. I’ve written a book about it. Now it’s time for everyone to move on and realize that men, too, can be victims of domestic abuse. Sometimes life can be so messed up, you have no choice but to smile, be happy that you and your loved ones are well and just enjoy another beautiful day in paradise.

I read your book and your version of what went down. However, the vast majority of people won’t read your book. All they know is that you were involved in a domestic violence incident. Is there any way for you to undo that perception about you?

The book manuscript was sent to a couple of thousand people — family members, friends and media. While it’s available on Amazon, I didn’t feel it was appropriate to aggressively market it. It’s a for-the-record narrative that corrects the preposterous lies and reckless investigative work. Once I return to the media, I assume more people will read it. I just want it out there to counter all the lies that were reported.

Perception? Only two people know what actually happened. One is a successful sports media personality with two successful, well-adjusted daughters; the other was broke, jobless, abusive and emotionally unbalanced. Shame on anyone else who pretends to know more than they do, which is nothing.

And who says no one is reading the book? The numbers were excellent initially, but when you change the pricing and update content on Amazon, the sales numbers start over. I wasn’t consciously monitoring sales, but one day, an alert popped up and said I’d cracked the top 30 among media authors, ahead of Dan Rather and Chuck Klosterman. My mother must have bought extra copies that day.

You wrote columns about athletes involved in domestic violence issues. Has your perspective changed? I’m coming at it from the angle of the rush to judgement and people not knowing both sides of the story, as you feel was the case in what happened to you.

Uh, remember Tiger Woods and the SUV? I wrote that night that we shouldn’t rush to judgment. Turns out I was too soft initially on his marital infidelities, which shows it’s wrong to categorize me as an impulsive hatchet man. I’ve criticized athletes for many transgressions, and most deserved it. But I sure will think twice — or maybe three or four times — before assuming guilt in the future.

Yes, after my first brush with the law in 50 years of life, I now have a keener understanding of how the truth can be manipulated for financial motives. I’ve met a few bad people in my life, many in the media or wanting a piece of my wealth as a media person. Away from the public eye, it has been nice to meet terrific people.

Could you write a column about domestic violence given what happened to you?

No one is better qualified. I know what it’s like to be physically abused. Remember Chuck Finley, the former major-league pitcher? People in sports laughed when he was abused by Tawny Kitaen, the actress. Well, guess what? It’s 2012. Men are abused, too, by women who know they can manipulate the system. Know how many times I wanted to call the police or a hotel front desk? I couldn’t because I worried about the fallout, even if the headline might say, “ESPN analyst accuses woman of domestic abuse.” Even that would have been frowned upon in Bristol. Such is the pressure.

How do you feel about ESPN?

I’ve been to Bristol twice this year. Starting with John Skipper, they’ve been very supportive. The network has a zero-tolerance behavorial policy because of its powerful brand name and recent issues with personnel, and I made the mistake of not getting out of a toxic relationship when I knew a person could hurt me professionally. I always had been extra-careful about my associations in the public eye, but I had a blind spot in this case. ESPN had every right to be disappointed in me, but our chats have been very positive.

I am concerned about the network and its ability, with so many business deals in place with sports leagues, to let its commentators have editorial freedom. That might be a bigger issue in my situation than you think. People such as Bud Selig and Jerry Reinsdorf weren’t happy I was on a five-day-a-week TV show on the flagship, and if ESPN really did reject Stan Van Gundy because David Stern didn’t want him on the air, I’m frightened for the network’s future. Somehow, I lasted eight years there.

For now, I’d like Adam Schefter and Kirk Herbstreit to stop posing in front of those little football helmets in their home-office studios. They look like little kids. What will we see next, their Hot Wheels collections?

Much has happened in the last two years in our industry. What stands out for you?

A softening of commentary. Rather than writing the tough piece for the readers, too many writers are writing marshmallowy crap for each other. And those with the guts to speak their minds with conviction — Skip Bayless and Stephen A. Smith — are maligned for it. Please. When did the business become so mushy? Are people that scared for their jobs? On the sleazy side of the spectrum are these numbnuts who put $12,000 in a paper bag for alleged pictures of Brett Favre’s penis. I hope that blogger’s parents are proud of him, but I doubt it.

More distressing is the lack of investigative sports journalism. Other than the new USA Today initiative, documentaries and profiles on HBO, the New York Times and a few people at Yahoo, who is busting big stories?

You wonder why I’ve taken my time returning. It’s not as if sports media is a sacred cause. There are some good, genuine, honest people in the business. But there are more sellouts, creeps, liars, cowards and lazy asses.

Do you think you still have your fastball? After being out for two years, do you think you’ll be able to summon the same fire/passion for a topic.

Theo Epstein is a fraud.

Curt Schilling should be in jail.

Too many people are piling on Lance Armstrong and forgetting the great work he has done in the cancer fight, which still outweighs his shame as a juicer.

The Bulls are doing Derrick Rose an injustice by not surrounding him with better talent. Why do the Lakers have four major stars and the Bulls one? When did Chicago stop acting like a major market?

Without Michael Jordan, whom he inherited, Jerry Reinsdorf would be 1-for-62 as a sports owner. That percentage would make him a bum if he owned teams in his native New York.

Until the Bears beat a real good team, slow down on the Super Bowl jabber. I still don’t trust Cutler and Lovie in the biggest moments.

The Sun-Times will die in 2013. The Tribune will die in 2015.

Fastball up near 100.

Will you be working in 2013?

Yep, assuming I’m alive.






How TV gets made: A look at massive enterprise that is Monday Night Football

You likely will sit in your easy chair tonight (do people still have easy chairs?) and flip on the Arizona-San Francisco game. You will listen to Mike Tirico and Jon Gruden, see all the replays and camera angles.

You will take it all for granted, and that’s just as well. How much thought do you give to how your car is made or what goes into your hot dog (you really don’t want to know)?

However, I got a chance to receive a behind-the-scenes look at ESPN’s Monday Night Football operation at Soldier Field last week. Make that, a huge operation. It gave me a new appreciation for what goes into the national telecast of a sporting event.

Occupying a large section in the bowels of the stadium, the Monday Night crew consists of credentialed production force of 250-300 people, 11 large 80,000-pound trucks, 35 cameras, and 25,000-35,000 feet of cable.

“Unless you see it up close, you can’t get a feel for the size of it,” said Steve Carter, who is ESPN senior operations director. “People take a look at all these cables, and say, ‘My goodness, this is big.'”

Speaking of the cables, I was sitting in the instant replay truck, looking at a massive board of connections. It literally was a wall of wires, seemingly randomly plugged in. I wondered if I pulled out one of them, would it take down the whole show?

I decided, not a good idea. I didn’t want to cause any headaches for Carter.

Carter is in his 13th year of making sure everything works when they flip the switch. He has a wonderful description for his job.

“I tell people, ‘Have you ever seen the parade for the circus?'” he said. “You see all the tigers, elephants and horses. And then there’s the guy with the shovel who gets to clean everything up. I’m the guy with the shovel.”

Carter, though, doesn’t appear to ruffle easily. He seemed pretty calm for a guy who endured a day of travel nightmares that left him with about an hour to spend at Soldier Field.

Perhaps Carter knows that it all works.

“It’s a controlled chaos,” Carter said. “There are a lot of pieces, but it all comes together. We’ve got such a good group of people. The great thing about this crew is that enough isn’t good enough. They always want to make it right.”

The biggest obstacle, Carter said, is the weather. The crew never had a bigger challenge than in 2010 when Metrodome roof collapse forced the Bears-Minnesota game to be played outdoors at the University of Minnesota’s college stadium.

“That was tough,” Carter said. “We always find ourselves having to adapt to the environment. Some challenges are more difficult than others, but we manage to get the job done.”

Here is one fact that got me: Carter said the entire operation will be torn down and on the road within three hours after the game. I don’t believe him. I can’t pack an overnight bag for a weekend trip in less than 30 minutes.

“Want to stick around and see?” Carter said.

I declined. I’m confident in the wee hours of the ESPN’s drivers had their trucks pulling onto Lake Shore Drive. All told, they’ll log more than 32,000 miles for the season.

They left Chicago and headed for Phoenix, and like Jackson Browne sang about the roadies, ready to do it all over again. After what I witnessed, I’ll be thinking of Carter and his crew Monday.

But you won’t, and that’s just as well.





It’s official: Premier League to NBC Sports Group

A little late breaking news on a Sunday night. From NBC.

NBCUniversal, via the NBC Sports Group, has acquired the exclusive U.S. media rights to the Premier League through a multi-year agreement that begins with the 2013-14 season, both parties announced today. Per the agreement, NBCUniversal becomes the exclusive English- and Spanish-language media rights holder to all 380 Premier League matches across all platforms and devices in the United States.

“The Barclays Premier League is the preeminent soccer league in the world, and is on the cusp of exponential popularity growth here in the U.S.,” said Mark Lazarus, Chairman, NBC Sports Group. “NBCU will provide the broadest programming and promotional commitment that the league has ever experienced here in the United States. The Premier League provides NBCU with best-in-class content for 10 months of the year across our far-reaching broadcast, cable and digital platforms. This is a perfect match.”

“The NBC Sports Group has an excellent track record in sports broadcasting and will showcase the Barclays Premier League to fans across the USA through its extensive network of channels and high quality production,” said Premier League Chief Executive, Richard Scudamore. “We are extremely pleased that NBC has chosen to invest in the Premier League and look forward to working with them for many years to come.”

Each of the 20 Premier League teams plays 38 matches over a 41-week period from August to May. Although specific programming details will be announced at a later date, NBC, NBC Sports Network, and will all be utilized to present live Premier League coverage, as well as Telemundo and mun2 for Spanish-language coverage. Additional NBCUniversal platforms and networks will occasionally be scheduled to air Premier League matches, while NBC Sports Live Extra will provide the live streaming platform across web, tablet and mobile devices.

The NBC Sports Group will also produce comprehensive shoulder programming around its live-event coverage of the Premier League, including pre- and post-match shows, as well as highlight and weekly wrap-up programs. It is also developing a package to make sure the most avid fans have access to every Premier League match.

Sunday books: Q/A with author of Montana/Young book; Collision of two Hall of Famers

Forgive me, but living in Chicago, it’s hard to get used to the notion of a franchise having back-to-back Hall of Fame quarterbacks. Sid Luckman, who retired in 1950, still holds many of the passing records for the Bears.

The San Francisco 49ers, meanwhile, were blessed to have Joe Montana and Steve Young run the show for two decades. Both wound up in Canton.

However, it hardly was a smooth transition. In a fascinating new book, Best of Rivals, Adam Lazarus examines the uneasy relationship between Montana and Young when their Hall of Fame careers intersected in San Francisco.

Here’s my Q/A with Lazarus.

How did you get the idea for the book?

One of the real sparks for this book was the idea that a quarterback controversy is so sexy and so interesting. It seems like everyone in the media wants one to happen or wants to make one happen. Just look at what the Mark Sanchez-Tim Tebow story has done this year. So I wanted to tap into that powerful and emotional element of the NFL and immediately the Young-Montana story popped up.

But from a personal standpoint–even though I wasn’t a 49ers fan and lived in the Midwest–I grew up watching Young and Montana. They were two of the biggest names in that era and I remember how riveting it was when Joe was in Kansas City and Steve was in San Francisco. It was such a classic story of redemption for Montana and validation for Young that I wanted to bring that part of the story alive too. Just because the 49ers traded away Joe doesn’t mean the “rivalry” between the two ended.

What kind of access did you get from Montana and Young? What was their reaction when you told them the subject of the book?

I was very fortunate to interview both of them and they were really great to talk to, but I don’t think either one was too eager to discuss the specifics of their relationship with one another. They both were delicate and I think “politically correct” with their answers. The book isn’t really about Joe and Steve’s personal like or dislike for one another (although it’s certainly addressed) so that allowed me to talk with them about other parts of their careers and their lives and how those previous experiences shaped the quarterback controversy later on. But it’s a touchy subject for both men because I think they both have hard feelings from that time period: I think Joe didn’t like being pushed out of town and regretted that he couldn’t finish his career in San Francisco while Steve didn’t like sitting on the bench during his prime then being constantly measured against Joe’s towering achievements.

How different/similar are the two men?

As much as anything, this book highlights the differences between the two. Most people know that they played the game much differently: and not just that Joe was a righty and Steve a lefty. Joe did all he could to hang in the pocket and distribute the ball. Steve was often eager to tuck the ball and run. But the off-the-field element helped make this book more than just a “football story.” Joe came from a blue collar Catholic background; Steve a white collar Mormon background. Joe was an only child whose parents did all they could to make their son enjoy his childhood; Steve was part of a big family and all the kids worked multiple jobs growing up.

So it’s no wonder that Joe owned several houses and more than half a dozen sports cars during his career, while Steve (who had already made millions) lived in a rented a room in a teammate’s house and drove a 20-year-old car with two-hundred thousand miles. And their personalities were completely different as well. Joe was renowned for being so calm and carefree and just a laid-back teammate.

Chiefs teammate Neil Smith told me that Montana was “the coolest white guy that God ever made.” Steve was much more high strung and antsy, on and off the field. Brent Jones chalked that up to a real sense of urgency to make good on all that was expected of him. But what I liked most about the story was–and this is something Jerry Rice told me–that the two shared one trait that is so critical to playing quarterback. Joe and Steve commanded so much respect in the huddle and just had that “it” quality when it came to leadership.

What struck me about Montana was the physical beating he took and all the off-season surgeries. Do people underestimate his toughness?

What Montana was able to achieve during his career was almost mind boggling. Not only was he small for a quarterback (he played at about 190 pounds) but he wasn’t built solid. Several people used the word “fragile” when they described him and he didn’t do very much weight training. Yet he survived in the NFL for 15 seasons. Sure he missed games and missed practically two full seasons but he had this uncanny ability to recover and endure. And some of the hits he took were absolutely heinous, like the famous one Leonard Marshall delivered in the 1990 NFC Championship Game. He had two injuries (spine in 1986 and elbow in 1991-92) that many doctors and team officials considered career-ending yet he still returned to win Super Bowls, MVPs, and playoff games.

It is a bit ironic because what really ignites the quarterback controversy (i.e. the 49ers trading for Steve Young in 1987) is the front office underestimating Joe’s toughness. He had two brutal injuries the previous season and the front office didn’t know how much longer he would last. As it turned out, he lasted eight more seasons.

Would Young have achieved similar HOF success in a different system other than Walsh/49ers?

Young very well may have been the most physically talented quarterback in NFL history: he ran as fast and tough as a running back and, based on what he was able to do in college, was a very successful passer. So I think–Walsh and the West Coast system or not–he would have eventually put it all together to be a very good quarterback. That’s something Mike Holmgren once said, that Steve liked to figure things out for himself.

But watching Montana and studying that offense for all those years I think helped him take that step from very good to Hall of Fame. Those years he sat behind Montana he saw–in games, in practice, in the film room, in game planning meetings–how arguably the best offense of all time was constructed and executed. So his talents combined with that first-hand experience led to a special marriage.

Is your next book going to be on the Favre-to-Rodgers transition in Green Bay? Looks like back-to-back HOF QBs for the Packers.

Many people compare the Montana-Young story to Favre-Rodgers and there definitely are some parallels, but in some ways, I think it’s apples-to-oranges. Montana was only 30 when the 49ers made the trade for Young and Young had already been a pro for four seasons (two in the USFL, two in the NFL). So the on-paper gap between them wasn’t quite as wide as it was for Favre and Rodgers.

Favre was 35 when they drafted Rodgers, who had never played an NFL game. Furthermore, when Rodgers and Favre were on the same roster there was never really a “competition” between the two. Recall that in 1988, Bill Walsh publicly announced that the quarterback job was up for grabs between Joe and Steve. In Green Bay, Favre never missed a game so Rodgers didn’t have a chance to showcase his skills. Then he retired (sort of) and left (sort of) and Rodgers inherited the job outright.

In San Francisco, Montana missed significant time over the years due to injury and Young stepped in and played very well at times so he did showcase his skills. That gave the rivalry and the debate over the two more legitimacy. And since Young and Montana were together on the same roster for six seasons, while Rodgers and Favre were only together for three it’s not quite the same.

Anything else?

What makes this story special is that we’ll never see the likes of it again. Sure there may be another case of two Hall of Fame quarterbacks being on the same roster, like Rodgers and Favre. But because of the salary cap and free agency teams aren’t able to stockpile talent for long periods of time anymore. And considering how much money starting quarterbacks demand teams can’t afford to concentrate their funds on a position where their is no sharing of playing time like at running back or defensive end. And–unless you’re winning Super Bowls at tremendous pace like the 49ers dynasty did– organizations won’t tolerate the circus and distraction associated with a quarterback controversy.

Teams want one, unquestioned, unchallenged leader at quarterback. If Eli Manning or Matthew Stafford or Matt Ryan somehow became embedded in a quarterback controversy next year with a hot-shot young quarterback, it wouldn’t last nearly as long as Montana-Young and therefore it wouldn’t be nearly as epic.



Kids lose: Late World Series starts shut out next generation of fans

What do you notice about this video of Joe Garagiola doing an open for the 1973 World Series?

It is a beautiful sunny day in Oakland.

Yes, back then the weekend World Series games still aired during the day. And kids were able to watch.

Not so in 2012–at least for kids in the East and Central time zones. Tonight’s first pitch for Game 3 airs at 8:07 ET and Sunday’s is at 8:15 ET. Both of those games will end after 11 ET, well past junior’s bedtime, especially on a school night.

While I would love to see a return to tradition with some daytime World Series games, I know that’s not going to happen. However, I don’t understand why MLB doesn’t move up the start times for the games during the weekend. I’d go late afternoon on Saturday (5-5:30 p.m.) and no later than 6:30-7 p.m. ET on Sunday, depending on Fox’s NFL commitment.

Give the kids a chance to experience the end of a couple World Series games, when the lasting memories occur. If an earlier start costs a tick or two off the overall rating, so what?

This is about growing the next generation of baseball fans. The late starts aren’t bringing them in. MLB will eventually pay the price down the line.





Saturday flashback: Harry Caray on call as Tigers rally to beat Gibson in Game 7

This might be the ultimate game in Detroit history. In Game 7 in the 1968 World Series, the Tigers finally hit the unhittable Bob Gibson in the seventh inning. The rally was aided by Gold Glover Curt Flood misjudging Jim Northrup’s fly to center.

Detroit, behind the portly Mickey Lolich, went on to win the series with a 4-1 victory. Harry Caray, at his peak in 1968, is on the call.