Russillo talks decision to stay at ESPN; more on Cowherd's removal
Last week Ryen Russillo confirmed on his Twitter feed that he had re-signed with ESPN, a welcome move in these parts. I’ve written often how much respect I had for the show he and Scott Van Pelt did for ESPN Radio—not only were they authentic, they didn’t toke the easy drug of lowest common denominator sports talk. Russillo also fronted college football and NBA shows on ESPN and ESPN Radio and even if you disagreed with his analysis, you come away respecting that he does the preparation. Over the weekend, I emailed him some questions, and below is our conversation verbatim:
SI.com: Why did you decide to re-sign with ESPN?
Russillo: The obvious answer is that it's ESPN. I've been here almost 10 years. I'm not sure that I've ever felt more appreciated than now. I wanted to live in L.A. and do something different. I wanted to challenge myself and get away from the east coast after a difficult two years for my family. One of my parents got sick, then they got divorced and I was dumped 30 minutes before my show, twice. These last two years have sucked and I wanted to go swimming. I'm not bull-------- you. And I miss [Fox Sports host and good friend] Charissa [Thompson]. During my time here it's been weird. I had one manager tell me to not talk on the air during the baseball show I hosted. My favorite quote was “we need Scott to talk more but don't feel like you need to talk less.” So I was ready for something different. But these guys have been incredible. They made me feel like they really wanted me.
SI.com: What was the deciding factor in the reason you are remaining at ESPN?
Russillo: I like it here. I honestly love coming to work each day.
Also, more television exposure, which has been an issue in the past. I love talking NBA and wanted a chance to do that more. I was the first person at ESPN to say that LeBron was going back to Cleveland that week. That was sourced information. I said all season Kevin Love was re-signing with Cleveland. I sit on all this info because it doesn't always work well for a radio segment. TV will help with this.
SI.com: What has management told you about your role on ESPN Radio heading forward?
Russillo: They haven't said anything except to keep doing what I'm doing. I know the numbers for Scott and I were really good the last few years. Maybe that continues, maybe it doesn't. But I feel really lucky to be trusted to keep this going.
SI.com: Is it your preference to work solo at ESPN Radio, or to work with a partner?
Russillo: A partner. Solo radio is the hardest thing to do in this business. It's harder than anchoring, play by play, writing for a deadline. It's not even close. I've done all of these things. There are times I'd rather an interview be solo or a time I have something to say where I don't want anyone else getting in. But for the most part I'm better listening to someone I respect and making it a conversation. [Colin] Cowherd doesn't get enough credit for this. We don't take calls because calls are terrible. Three hours solo is tough to pull off. In the past I think I was good solo for 1/3 shows and I wasn't doing it regularly so that made it worse. The scariest feeling ever is being on the air and realize you are boring as “F” and you wish you could change the channel on yourself. When I get older I just want to take calls for five hours and tell people how tough my job is. Calls are a crutch.
SI.com: How much television will you do as part of this new deal?
Russillo: A lot. It took a long time. [Executive vice president] John Wildhack really changed things for me here. He pushed to get me on TV two years ago and I can't tell you how thankful I am for that. I did TV for the Celtics for six years. I was doing post-game for the NBA Finals in 2008 sitting next to Tommy Heinsohn. [Comcast SportsNet New England news director] Kevin Miller in Boston took a chance on me and I'll always be grateful for that. People were like “who is this guy?” But it worked, so I always wanted that to be part of my future.
Those tuning into ESPN Radio Monday morning at 10 a.m. ET heard a very unfamiliar voice. Two, actually. The popular Los Angeles-based ESPN Radio team of Steve Mason and John Ireland were sitting in the seat normally occupied by Colin Cowherd.
As most of you know, Cowherd was jettisoned by ESPN on Friday, hours after he failed to explain the comments that he made on his previous show that denigrated the intelligence of Dominicans in baseball. Amid a torrent of criticism, Cowherd ultimately apologized, saying he realized “my choice of words was poor and not reflective of who I am.”
So there is no misunderstanding: Cowherd’s take on the acumen of Dominican baseball players—yet another example of his socio-economic mumbo-jumbo, non-firsthand reporting jackassery from a place of rich-guy-living-in-Connecticut privilege—was nonsense. Same with his nonsense on John Wall, same with his nonsense on unemployment in rural Ohio and countless other examples.
That being said, ESPN management suddenly finding religion on Cowherd’s content was a laugh riot, lacking only a donkey to pin a tail on. For starters, the network initially said the comments were “inappropriate,” a mild rebuke. That enabling fits a longterm pattern. For years ESPN wasn’t just fine with Cowherd’s socioeconomic mumbo-jumbo; it celebrated it. It created television shows for him, including a Sunday morning show, and essentially assigned a PR person to flag-wave everything he did. When I reported the piece on Cowherd leaving two weeks ago, plenty at ESPN praised Cowherd as if he were a dignitary leaving his UN post. The company also offered him a boatload of cash to stay, which is an interesting approach to someone whose content does not reflect “the values of ESPN.” As Slate’s Josh Levin wisely tweeted: “Cowherd has been saying this stuff for years, now ESPN claims moral high ground as he's leaving (and ESPN wanted to re-sign him). WEAK.”
What caused ESPN to bail on Cowherd were a number of factors, from the pressure amplified from the MLBPA to a wave of bad PR on social media to the fact that he’s heading to Fox Sports this fall. (In the Keyser Soze world of PR, it’s never a bad move to sully an employee out the door heading for a competitor.) I have no doubt many ESPN employees were ticked off with what Cowherd said, especially those working for ESPN Deportes, but when has ESPN employees being ticked off at commentary from talent mattered? Plenty of ESPN people were angry at what Stephen A. Smith said about Floyd Mayweather and domestic violence; ESPN responded by paying Smith between $2-3 million in a new deal.
Cowherd is a talented broadcaster. I’d never say otherwise. It’s incredibly hard to solo host a national show for three hours, where every word can be dissected and reposted on social media. I think he’ll find life easy at Fox Sports, which is ratings-challenged, treats major on-air talent with big kisses and needs to pump up its radio division. Fox Sports seems to be amping up its coverage of mocking college football fan bases and downgrading reporters under its new non-live event content leadership. Personality and attention-getting are in, and if so, Cowherd is truly coming home.
For my Monday column I spoke with a number of women in the sports media—including the NFL Network’s Amber Theoharis, ESPN’s Sage Steele and CNN’s Rachel Nichols—on the challenges of pregnancy and post-pregnancy issues.
Sports Business Daily writers John Ourand and Terry Lefton reported Monday that the Westminster Kennel Club is ending its 32-year relationship with USA Network. Fox Sports has picked up the rights to the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show, and will start producing the event for Fox Sports 1 in 2017. SBD said the Fox deal is for 10 years. Ourand and Lefton said the Dog Show averaged 2.6 million viewers last Feb. 17, viewer numbers that would make the dog show one of FS1’s most viewed properties.
Some Monday pieces of note:
• Men who have fled servitude on fishing boats recount beatings and worse as nets are cast for the catch that will become pet food and livestock feed.
• From the New York Times: Campus Suicide and the Pressure of Perfection.
• Sports Media Watch on ESPN subscriber losses versus its broadcast rivals.
• The Washington Post’s Marc Fisher on Maine's heroin epidemic.
NBC’s has staffed up American Pharoah’s race in the Haskell Invitational next Sunday (5 p.m. ET on NBC) with its top horse racing talent. Tom Hammond, Randy Moss, Jerry Bailey, Donna Brothers, Kenny Rice, Eddie Olczyk and race caller Larry Collmus will all be part of the telecast.
NBA Commissioner Adam Silver will be the opening featured speaker for South by Southwest Interactive’s sports track. Silver will speak on March 11 and address how the NBA has embraced change and innovation, both on and off the court.