Talking with ESPN's most powerful producer; Raúl Ibañez joins FOX
When I suggest via email to Erik Rydholm that many people within his industry would consider him the most powerful producer at ESPN—making him by proxy one of the most powerful people in sports television—he wants no part of it.
“It's flattering, but I'm overrated,” said Rydholm. “I'm in zero meetings about the future of anything at ESPN, which makes sense since I'm not even an employee. I have my own tiny company [Rydholm Projects] of 17 people and while I might be the most powerful person in it, I'm not the most important.”
If the name is not familiar to you, his work is.
Rydholm is the executive producer of Highly Questionable, Around The Horn and Pardon The Interruption, a trio of shows his company produces in partnership with ESPN. Those shows currently form the back-to-back-to-back afternoon bloc (4:30 p.m.–6 p.m. ET) on ESPN after Highly Questionable moved from ESPN2 to ESPN on March 23. For a snapshot of the ratings: Last Thursday PTI averaged 931,000 viewers; Around The Horn averaged 622,000 viewers; and Highly Questionable drew 556,000. Those are profitable figures for a cable sports network, and Rydholm’s shows build on each other to funnel into what ESPN management considers its most important property in SportsCenter.
“We've done good work from 5-6 p.m. ET for years, so hey, why not give the extra half-hour a shot?”said Rydholm on the subject of why ESPN moved HQ into a more prominent programming role. “HQ at 4:30 p.m. is a test during the NFL off-season, and one I appreciate. More people will get to sample it. I believe success is built through word-of-mouth, so if we want to stay there, we'll have to earn it. We've had some nice momentum on ESPN2—ratings have grown, Justin Bolman's production team is in a groove, we've got a new South Beach set, [co-hosts] Bomani [Jones] and Dan [Le Batard] are saying really smart things, and Papi [Gonzolo Le Batard] has become beloved by saying things that would probably get someone more credible thrown off the network.”
Rydholm said he is highly involved in the day-to-day operations and content of PTI and HQ but is largely hands-off with Around The Horn.
“[Around The Horn producer] Aaron Solomon and [host] Tony Reali were running ATH before I was asked to oversee it and still are,” he said. “The show has a great production staff and pool of panelists who are among the most thoughtful people in sports. I just try to stay out of everyone's way. It's been a success for nearly 13 years and it deserves a lot more critical respect than it receives. (Ahem.)”
That “ahem” would be for yours truly. Rydholm and I have debated (for no points) about ATH over the years. He thinks I’ve too often looked at the show through the prism of what it once was as opposed to what he thinks it is today. I’ve been consistent for years on how much I like the ego-free Reali, and last September I examined my re-thinking on the show. In short, Around The Horn remains a mixed bag for me: The show has become eminently more accessible and watchable since the days of featuring some unctuous characters, and I might have been too harsh when I wrote three years ago that the show "should be shown in North Korean prison camps." Given the premise of the show is sports writers hot-taking it up for points and ego-stroking, it’s not a show I’ll ever love unconditionally. How much ego does one need to be a panelist on Around The Horn?
“Your pejorative is showing, Richard!” Rydholm said, laughing. “Much like you, these are folks who make their livings sharing their unique voices and views. They happen to do it in a forum that reaches a lotta people every day. They're good people without a raging ego among 'em—I haven't had to pick up the phone to talk out an issue with a panelist in years.
“We ask our customers to invest their time with us so we owe it to them to deliver a clear and consistent return on that investment. We hope we do it through equal parts entertainment and enlightenment. I prefer thoughts to opinions. They wear better over time and are much easier to defend.”
I enjoy the back and forth and there is no arguing this: The mini-empire Rydholm has built is remarkable, and his shows have given sports writers a platform to substantially increase their reach and wallet. In another life, Rydholm was a founding partner (with equity) of The Motley Fool.
“To me, the most brilliant thing is [Rydholm's] ability to build frameworks that allow the on-screen talent to be themselves—totally and comfortably,” said Jones, a co-host on HQ and a host on ESPN Radio. “It's so much easier to do television when you don't have to worry about anything but what you have to say. He makes television that highlights our personalities, which means we don't have to worry about how we sound. He'll take care of that. As a result, all we have to do is have a great time and be factually accurate. Man, that makes life a whole lot easier.”
In conversations with Bill Simmons over the years, Simmons has mentioned often how much he admires Rydholm, citing his professional generosity with colleagues. Former ESPN and NBC producer Jamie Horowitz, who created First Take and SportsNation, considers Rydholm his broadcast mentor. ESPN.com writer Jason Whitlock recently said that he has leaned on Rydholm for management advice regarding ESPN’s upcoming “Undefeated” site.
“He's perpetually and effortlessly positive,” Jones said of Rydholm. “There has never been an episode of Highly Questionable where he didn't look absolutely thrilled to be there. There are no bad days at work for Rydholm which means there aren't bad days at work for us. He's also absolutely trustworthy, which means that we can trust him to make us look as good as we possibly can, but still human. He captures when we look bad, too, but in a way we all know will help the show and, ultimately, help us. I trust his judgment so much more than mine, honestly, when it comes to how I come across on television.”
How does Rydholm view his management style, particularly for working with people with large egos (which he does)? “Here's my only real management philosophy: I turn the org chart upside-down—it's the responsibility of the boss to set and maintain the foundation from which everyone else in the company builds,” he said.
One of the more interesting questions heading forward for Rydholm (and ESPN overall) is whether there's a succession plan for the wildly successful PTI franchise. Tony Kornheiser turns 67 in July. Michael Wilbon is 56. We’ve seen announcers go into their 70s on remote broadcasts, so age is certainly relative for each individual. Rydholm said he has not thought about a post-Kornheiser/Wilbon PTI (I would bet some in ESPN management have) and added he initially did the show because he wanted to work with those two men specifically. As PTI approaches show No. 3,000, I asked Rydholm about the realistic timeframe for that duo.
“If you ask Kornheiser, he'll say ‘One More Week!’ but he thought the whole show wouldn't last three months (we're now in year 14),” Rydholm said. “Age can be a misleading measure. Energy and curiosity are vastly more important. The moment those qualities diminish, things erode. Mike and Tony haven't slowed. In addition to doing PTI, Wilbon travels to games, writes for ESPN Chicago, hosts online chats, does regular spots on a bunch of radio shows and still manages to watch more sports on TV than anyone I know. And Tony inhales news of every kind from everywhere in order to prep for PTI and craft his daily radio show. I'm younger and they both work much harder than I do.
“I wrote in my original show pitch that I thought we could have a 20-year run, based on the precedents of similar shows like Siskel & Ebert, The Sports Reporters and Crossfire. Of course, the media landscape is changing quickly with other screens and services absorbing people's attention. I expect that to accelerate. I think the sports television business is five years from some radical disruption. But current vital signs indicate the show is in great health.”
Rydholm’s father, Ralph, worked as a creative director in advertising in Chicago, staying in that business for 40 years. In a Chicago Tribune piece he wrote about Ralph in 2001, Rydholm said his father measured himself professionally by his clients, billings and creative contribution to the team.
Ralph Rydholm passed away last May; Eric said this commercial, for which Ralph came up with the concept, wrote the music and picked the shots, is his favorite among his father’s work. I asked Rydholm how he measures himself professionally.
“Professionally, I just strive to create something different, better and special,” Rydholm said. "‘Different’ is the easiest. No two people are exactly the same so I just try to trust in the odd way I see the world. I define ‘better’ as exceeding expectations in satisfaction, profits, ratings, subscribers, etc. ‘Special’ is the hardest. In the case of TV, I believe it's defined by the strength of the relationship between the people on the screen and those at home. That chemistry and connection is everything.
“Warren Buffett once said, ‘Success is getting what you want. Happiness is wanting what you get.’ Every day, ESPN gives us 90 minutes of time and says ‘Go. Play. We believe in you.’ It's a great gig. I want what I've got.”
The Noise Report
1. Luck, the 21st-century philosopher Oprah Winfrey once said, is a matter of preparation meeting opportunity, and Turner Sports broadcaster Brian Anderson took full advantage of this intersection Saturday night in Cleveland. Because regular announcer Marv Albert was out with a cold, Anderson filled in to call Kentucky’s heart-pounding 68-66 win over Notre Dame to advance to the Final Four. Fans of the Milwaukee Brewers know the quality of Anderson’s work (he is the TV voice of the team), but it’s great to see the talented Anderson getting primetime opportunities during the tournament. I emailed him on Sunday morning about his Kentucky assignment.
SI.com: How did you find out you were doing the game?
Anderson: I got a call from Tara August [the vice president of talent for Turner Sports] Friday at 9 a.m. PST. I was on the treadmill enjoying a day off at my spring training rental home in Phoenix. Saying “yes” was the easiest part of the day. Pulling off the logistics in a small window of time (four hours) was the challenge. The following had to happen in order to make it official:
A. The Brewers/Fox Sports Wisconsin had to agree to allow me to miss an MLB spring training telecast Saturday.
B. Craig Coshun, my replacement, had to agree to leave on a moment's notice Friday, fly from Milwaukee to Phoenix and call the Brewers game Saturday afternoon.
C. Fox Sports Wisconsin then had to agree to allow Craig to miss the Bucks NBA telecast Saturday and find a replacement to host Bucks Live.
D. Turner Sports then had to make realistic, same-day travel arrangements for me to Cleveland, and Craig to Phoenix. By noon PST (just three hours after the initial phone call) all parties agreed and all boxes had been checked. My flight departed Phoenix at 3 p.m. and I arrived in Cleveland at 10:30 p.m. EST.
SI.com: What did you do to prepare for the broadcast?
Anderson: The first thing was to retrieve all of my basketball materials, which I left at my home in Wisconsin. My wife, Michele, did a scan and email of my stuff, including my Notre Dame prep from the first weekend of games in Pittsburgh. Marv Albert helped me with Kentucky by texting details from his prep. Turner Sports's research/production team emailed all materials (game notes, box scores, clips, graphics packet, etc.) from the Cleveland site. I used the 3 1/2 hour flight to Cleveland to crash-course on Kentucky and hand write my “board.” Upon arrival, producer Scott Cockerill had arranged for my credential, media guides, DVD's of Sweet 16 games and even a coat and tie (I had neither with me in Phoenix) to be waiting in my room.
On Saturday morning I met with Scott to go over the format and graphics/video packages, then I watched both DVD's from the Sweet 16 matchups. Besides the text dialogue with Marv, I also contacted Gary Cohen (who was working for Westwood One radio in Cleveland) and had a phone conversation with Lewis Johnson, our reporter. All offered great, broadcaster-friendly nuggets. I'm thankful to them. At the arena before the game, [on-air colleagues] Chris Webber and Len Elmore took some extra time to pour through the matchups and storylines with me and share their thoughts on the game ahead. And off we went.
SI.com: How would you evaluate the experience?
Anderson: It was a fun adventure for me. The Brewers were very gracious to allow me to break away last minute and the precision execution and communication of Turner Sports was fascinating. Marv felt terrible about the entire ordeal. No announcer wants to miss a game of that magnitude and we all understand the stress and logistical challenges of finding a replacement. Yet, he made a point to help me prep on short notice and sent encouraging texts throughout the day. That was very cool for me to engage with him in that way. It's a shame a great game like that didn't have the “Marv-elous” touch; he is the greatest basketball announcer of all time. My goal was to do right by Marv, be a good teammate to the crew and honor Turner's trust in me to cover that event. I'm relieved it went well. It was one of the most enjoyable experiences of my career.
1b. Through Saturday night the NCAA tournament had averaged 9.9 million total viewers across CBS and Turner’s channels, up two percent from last year and the highest average viewership since 1993. The tournament has averaged a 6.3 rating, up three percent over last year’s 6.1.
1c. The Elite Eight game between Kentucky and Notre Dame on TBS drew 14.7 million total viewers, the most-viewed college basketball game ever on cable television and the most-watched program in the history of TBS.
1d. Here are the top 10 highest-rated markets for the tournament through Sunday morning:
6. Columbus, Ohio
8. Kansas City
1e. Deb Gelman does not think of herself as a sports television pioneer but that is exactly what she is. She is working her 23rd NCAA tournament as a CBS Sports staffer, and her second as one of the lead producers (along with Tim Weinkauf) for the CBS/Turner NCAA tournament studio show. That makes Gelman the first woman to lead produce an NCAA tournament studio show, another step in a professional journey that started at CBS three decades ago with an internship in the research department. She was later hired as a full-time researcher and worked her way up to broadcast associate, then associate director. During her career Gelman has worked on the NCAA tournament, Olympic Games, U.S. Opens, boxing, horse racing and nearly every CBS Sports property outside of golf. For the past 15 years she’s primarily been in the studio working as a features producer, which includes regular assignments for the NFL Today. Last year she was charged with executive producing CBS Sports Network's NFL pregame show, That Other Pregame Show. How rare is it to see a female sports producer at the level?
“I see Deb as a good producer, not a female producer,” said Suzanne Smith, a colleague of Gelman’s and the only woman currently directing NFL games for a network. “With her experience and ability to work with talent and draw out their personalities, she's the perfect fit for CBS/Turner during the tournament. You're right, you don't see female producers at this level but you don't see many producers at Deb Gelman's level, that's why she's there.”
“If I consider it [running the NCAA studio show] a pioneering role, than I admit that it was lacking before and it’s hard for me to say it was lacking just because there was not a female producer,” Gelman said. “There had been the same studio producer doing the NFL Today and NCAA tournament for the past 20 years (Eric Mann) and that is who I learned under. I learned his dedication, work ethic and his taking ownership and pride of a show. You don’t think of yourself as a pioneer; you just think of yourself as trying to get the job done. While the numbers [of women in sports production] may have been small, I don’t think it was a reflection on a lack of women as much as it was qualified people who wanted to work in sports television. Growing up I just knew I wanted to work for CBS because that I was the channel I watched and I wanted to work in television and I loved sports. You just put your head down and keep going.”
Gelman has been charged with producing the night part of the tournament, so she takes the helm from Weinkauf after the early games and her shift concludes with the final postgame. She said she the one thing she wanted to amplify under her stewardship was to let analysts Charles Barkley, Clark Kellogg and Kenny Smith be looser.
“I think you have to know what is going on and not have your own agenda as a producer,” she said. “The first night of the tournament, I had six things I wanted to get done but that first Thursday had such huge upsets that my opening was not what it was supposed to be. You have to be flexible and react to what is happening. You also have to love the sport you are doing because that comes across. The passion the guys have on the screen is the same I have off the screen.”
Gelman said she does not often hear from young women looking to get into the production side of the business. “I’m not sure that they know I exist,” Gelman said. “I’m not sure anyone can name 10 network sports producers.”
Her own career started because she was persistent. A group of CBS Sports staffers, including Jim Nantz, were at Penn State University doing a meet-and-greet with the school’s communications department prior to CBS airing a Penn State football game. After the CBS staffers spoke, Gelman asked some of the guests how she could intern with the sports division. They told her to talk to Sharon Chang, then a talent coordinator for CBS Sports and now an IMG agent. Gelman sent in her resume and then called Chang every Monday for weeks. “I think they eventually gave me the internship because they wanted me to stop calling,” Gelman said.
I asked Gelman what assignment she hopes to get before the conclusion of her career. She said she’d like to produce an NFL game.
“That’s something I have not done,” Gelman said. “I could not step in and do it right now. I would need a little bit of warm-up in the sport but that’s the one thing I would like to do.”
1f. Everyone is wishing the best of health for Turner Sports reporter Craig Sager. Here's an update from his son, Craig Jr.
2. Raúl Ibañez auditioned as a baseball analyst for FOX Sports on Jan. 22. He killed it. “After about five minutes, everyone involved looked at each other and said, We’ve got really got something here,” said FOX Sports executive producer John Entz. “He made an immediate impact on both the guys on camera and the producers behind the scenes.”
So much so that the network has hired Ibañez, who played 19 MLB seasons for five teams, as a studio analyst for its pregame and postgame coverage. Ibañez will also contribute to FOX Sports Live, America’s Pregame and MLB Whiparound. “Raul is a guy who has great credibility, is really smart and is well respected by those in and out of the game of baseball,” said Entz. “As an analyst, we think he has an incredibly high ceiling.”
Fox has also assigned Joe Davis and Aaron Goldsmith for play-by-play work this season as FOX will air a minimum of 65 MLB games between FOX and FOX Sports 1. Davis called select FS1 telecasts in 2014, and Goldsmith has been part of the Mariners’ radio broadcasts the past two seasons. Look for Davis to call 12-14 games and Goldsmith to do around six. The network’s lead broadcast team of Joe Buck and analysts Harold Reynolds and Tom Verducci will return for its second season.
3. FOX NFL broadcaster Troy Aikman is one of the most well-known people in Dallas given his sports legacy as well as his civic involvement. He’s also someone, in my experience, who is accountable no matter the topic you ask him. Aikman doesn’t duck questions, even if he disagrees with the premise. I spoke to him last week on the topic of Chris Borland, but as part of that conversation, we discussed the Cowboys’ signing of Greg Hardy. Aikman has been part of Dallas mayor Mike Rawlings' campaign against domestic abuse and filmed this PSA on it. Here was his take on Hardy, which I thought was interesting:
“My position on that is there is no place for that in society,” Aikman said. “Our mayor was ahead of the curve. We were doing this years before the NFL got behind it. So for that I am very proud and stand behind what the campaign is. But having said that, I don’t deny giving someone an opportunity to make a living. The people in Dallas have reacted very strongly to the signing [of Hardy] and I guess very negatively overall. I think that in itself is a positive sign. If this signing had happened five years ago, I don’t know that it would have created much of a ripple. The fact there is such strong reaction to this to me means that people are becoming more aware of the issue, that it is a real problem—and that it has to be addressed.
“It is a football-first decision. The reason he got signed is that he is a pass-rusher and he does it very well. If he was a one-sack guy, he would not be signed with the Cowboys. That is first and foremost. I think it is a little disappointing that the Cowboys have not acknowledged that. That is the obvious thing. What I have heard over the last couple of days, I heard a lot of talk about programs and resources and things that are in place to help him and I would like to know exactly what his week will be like. So these things I hear the Cowboys say about these programs and resources they have that will allow him to be a better person off the field, well, what exactly is he going to be doing with his time? That is the question I have. I think people want to hear from Greg Hardy. When DeMarco Murray was signed by the Eagles, he had a press conference and Chip Kelly was also there to talk to the press. Greg Hardy was a significant signing in Dallas yet it took almost a week for the owner and head coach to speak on the signing.”
3a. Aikman is often interviewed by NFL media on concussion issues but I had not seen him speak on the retirement of Chris Borland. So last week we talked for The MMQB about how he viewed the 24-year-old leaving the game, as well as his own evolved views on concussions and whether he’d let a son (he has two daughters) play football.
3b. The NFL will air the Oct. 25 game between the Bills and Jaguars next season via webcast only. My piece on the groundbreaking broadcast.
4. Sports pieces of note:
• This Alexander Wolff story on Spurs guard Patty Mills is one of Sports Illustrated’s best in 2015.
• Buffalo News art critic Colin Dabkowski attended the Sabres-Coyotes game last week and offered this critique.
• CBSSports.com’s Denny Burkholder had a longform on the life and death of Andre The Giant.
• This Tim Graham piece on the ethics of sports tanking is excellent.
• The Washington Post’s Kent Babb on a Lost Boy of Sudan turned U.S. chess master.
• SB Nation’s Justin Pahl on hoops in Valparaiso, Ind.
• Talented and Tormented: The New Yorker profiles the world's great snooker player.
Non-sports pieces of note:
• Beautiful writing on migration by Gary Younge.
• Via Gabrielle Glaser: American Doctors Are Killing Themselves and No One Is Talking About It.
• Interesting NYT opinion piece on the Reconstruction period in the U.S. and how it's still relevant 150 years later.
• John F. Burns, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist from the New York Times, ended his 40-year run as a full-time foreign correspondent. This portrait of a cellist playing on Sarajevo’s main pedestrian concourse while artillery shells exploded nearby is considered a classic of modern journalism.
• Roger Ebert wrote in 1979 about watching Rocky II with Muhammad Ali. Think you will enjoy this.
5a. The Connecticut’s women's basketball team has a Twitter ban during the regular season. Seems to be working.
5b. Barcelona’s win over Real Madrid last week drew an average of 1.353 million total viewers on beIN Sports en Espanol and 767,000 total viewers on beIN Sports English. Those are sensational numbers, and include a 16 percent increase in viewership from the previous broadcast of El Clasico (Sept 25, 2014) for beIN Sports English.
5c. There’s always value in reading about yourself when it’s done by someone intelligent, even if you disagree with what the person writes or question his/her motivation for writing it. If you can learn something about yourself that helps you improve professionally or personally heading forward, this is a good thing.
Because I had many people who took the time to look at my work when I was in my early 20s, people like SI’s Tom Verducci and many staffers at the Buffalo News, I’ve tried my best to pay that back as I’ve gotten older, including during my teaching and my journalism fellowship at Michigan. Someone at the start of what I think will be a successful career is a 24-year-old ESPN producer named Josh Parcell, who recently moved to ESPN from FOX Sports 1. We’ve interacted offline (he emailed me to look at his stuff) and online, and I’ve given him some guff (mostly good-natured) for working for FS1’s Clay Travis, who people know I have issues with professionally. That’s the background for a Twitter interaction I had with Josh last week and it clearly inspired the piece he wrote here.
In a million years I would have never thought he would have taken what I tweeted as anything other than a massive tongue-in-cheek-line-said-with-Yao Ming-sized irony about being careful not to lose his looks. His response that followed (“I'm a 7 at best”) seemed to indicate he saw it the same. We’ve never met in person so I have no idea what he looks like outside of his Twitter avatar. I didn’t even think twice about what I tweeted.
The next day I was stunned when I read his piece given our previous interactions on email and Twitter. I appreciate very much the nice things he said about my work, and in re-reading some of my tweets to him, quite frankly, some come off too condescending and asshat-ery. That wasn’t close to my intention—I’m generally laughing as I type during any Twitter back and forth—but tone is often lost on Twitter and we have to own what we tweet, which is why I posted his piece here. If I’m being honest, I was probably too harsh on him at times given his association and buddydom with Travis. I wish him success heading forward.
What’s important and what really matters is that I don’t want there ever to be any distraction about a subject that I’ve written a ton on and care deeply about given how many women friends I have working in sports media. I know what they’ve dealt with regarding issues of gender, race and appearance, and the daily hell they face on social media. My record, point of view and consistency on that topic is more than clear.
One small positive to come out of this: Clay Travis and I interacted over the weekend and we agreed we should have a cooling off with shots at each other on social media. It was turning into unhealthy performance art, fueled by ego, testosterone (hold your jokes) and iced coffee (on my part). I appreciated that dialogue.
5e. Interesting piece by Deadspin’s Dave McKenna suggesting how far Redskins execs will go to get a tough reporter off the beat.
5f. ESPN Radio announced changes to its weekday evening lineup, including new shows hosted by Freddie Coleman, Bomani Jones and Jorge Sedano.