Unless you are an American with predilection for Canadian sports television, you likely had little knowledge of the popularity of sportscasters Jay Onrait and Dan O’Toole prior to the duo landing at Fox Sports 1 in 2013.
It was only until I spent a week in Toronto late last year for a guest-hosting radio gig at Sportsnet that I got a true sense of just how big O’Toole and Onrait were in Canada during their run co-hosting TSN’s SportsCentre from 2003 to 2013. The duo’s show aired nightly at 1 a.m. ET, with reruns all morning on TSN. If you were a sports fan in Canada, there was a very high chance you came into contact with Onrait and O’Toole at some point during your day. Those in the SportsNet newsroom spoke of them in the same manner American sports fans in the 1990s spoke of ESPN’s SportsCenter, something fresh and engaging, and most of all, of a unique world they created for viewers.
“Jay and Dan were rock stars,” said ESPN’s Adnan Virk, a Canadian who worked at The Score in Toronto during the early 2000s. “They were [Keith] Olbermann and [Dan] Patrick. They were huge stars. When they came here I was like, ‘They will be revolutionizing things.’ I don’t know what has happened at Fox or what the direction is, but it has to be frustrating.”
Onrait and O’Toole have been impacted by FS1’s philosophical and management changes as much as any front-facing talents at the network. Onrait and O’Toole signed up to work on a hybrid/sports talk highlight show called Fox Sports Live, with their partnership (in theory) being the centerpiece on what FS1 was pitching as a true SportsCenter competitor. In reality, that show was a mess from the start. It tried to give viewers so many different things without ultimately having any identity. The ratings tanked. Nearly three years later, Onrait and O’Toole are hosting a low-rated, late-night interview/comedy show that fits their irreverent sensibilities and is very funny (and that’s despite what seems like a mandate to interview subjects who fall in some manner under the Fox Sports rights holder family.) But with little marketing for the show and FS1 continuing to struggle with viewership for non-event programming, Onrait and O’Toole might as well be on Oceanic Flight 815.
And therein lies a big issue: The strength of Onrait and O’Toole as sports broadcasters is fundamentally different than the direction president of Fox Sports National Networks Jamie Horowitz is currently piloting FS1 in. They do nuance and irony; they don’t do shock and roar. Where does that leave the two Canadians heading forward?
Well, they are not talking.
Onrait and O’Toole politely (the Canadian way) declined comment for this piece. So did Tim Moriarty, who produced Onrait and O’Toole in Canada and came to FS1 with them. Onrait did tell The Ringer’s Bryan Curtis for a podcast on the life and death of the TV sports highlight that he liked the content he and his partner were currently doing. O’Toole made news recently in a very different way. Assuming his tweets weren’t a wrestling work, he took exception on Twitter to comments his FS1 colleague Katie Nolan made to The Sporting News about her desire to move her show from one night a week to five nights a week, and Nolan saying her ideal time for her show being 11 p.m. or 11:30 ET, which is when the Canadians often air. You can definitely understand O’Toole wanting to protect his turf but it struck me (and Mike McCarthy, The Sporting News writer who wrote the piece) that Nolan was simply answering a hypothetical and not trying to blow out O’Toole and Onrait. If anything, we all should be ticked at management for not finding better time slots for them.
Now here’s the interesting part: I believe the person at the top of the Fox Sports hierarchy wants the Canadians to succeed. Two weeks ago I had a 25-minute one-on-one with Eric Shanks, the president, COO and executive producer of FOX Sports. (Props to Fox Sports PR for consistently not chaperoning executives when they do interviews with journalists.) Sure, he’s the person who has bankrolled Horowitz’s new direction, but he also has a personal investment in Onrait and O’Toole, who are likely signed for one more year. Shanks plucked them from Canada and believed they could be a game-changing entity. I told Shanks that I believed Onrait and O’Toole were unique talents and that it was frustrating as a viewer that they seem to be lost in his ecosystem at the moment.
“I feel the same way you do,” Shanks said. “I am personally invested having recruited them from a cushy job that they never had to leave. We are going to work really, really hard to find what is right for them knowing the reason that they are so special is because of how they delivered the news of the day and the highlights of the day. We have to figure out—and we will work really hard at it—to make sure that we use their personalities to find a successful way to deliver what they are.”
As a rule I’m skeptical of sports television executives, but my read was that Shanks was serious. What’s interesting is that ESPN’s current SportsCenter ethos of having distinct personalities and shows for different time slots would seemingly fit Onrait and O’Toole perfectly. They have a ready-made chemistry, distinct deliveries, and have proved they can write with humor for television. If things did not work out at FS1, I would take a run at the duo if I were ESPN management and I say that as not having talked to any ESPN executive about that scenario.
I don’t know what the American TV future holds for Onrait and O’Toole, especially at a place that has spent millions investing in provocateurs, but they’ve stayed true to their on-air sensibilities. I admire them for that.
THE NOISE REPORT
(SI.com examines some of the week’s biggest stories)
1. When ESPN is at its best—when it marshals its immense resources to educate, entertain, report and make sports viewers smarter—it is an unmatched sports media organization. Such was the case during the early morning hours on Saturday when preparation and happenstance converged for the network’s covering of the death of Muhammad Ali. On Saturday night, I wrote a column about how ESPN covered the death of Ali—the network was commercial-free coverage from 12:28 a.m. until 4:14 a.m. ET—along with a conversation with Robert Lipsyte on what went into producing the Ali obit for the New York Times.
1a. Head to the bottom of this piece for the best pieces on Ali’s life and death.
1b. Vin Scully announces Ali’s death during the Dodgers-Braves game.
1c. Awful Announcing’s Jessie Karangu examined how the sports and news channels covered Ali’s death, with clips from each network. Karangu noted perceptively that NBCSN opted to do little on Ali’s death while the NFL Network showed creativity and editorial chops by doing three hours of coverage.
1d. HBO Boxing’s tribute to Ali.
1e. The New York Times’ Richard Sandomir on the relationship between Ali and Howard Cosell.
2. Prior to Saturday night’s main event at UFC 199 at The Forum in Inglewood, Calif., the respected MMA journalist Ariel Helwani tweeted that his credential had been pulled by the UFC and that he had been escorted out of the arena by Zuffa staff.
I was escorted out of the building by Zuffa staff before the main event. Credential taken away, too. Didn't see Bisping realize his dream.— Ariel Helwani (@arielhelwani) June 5, 2016
Helwani added that UFC officials also removed credentials from his longtime colleagues, E. Casey Leydon and Esther Lin. This continues a trend of Helwani being targeted by the UFC for doing journalism.
As I wrote in March, Helwani, generally considered the sport’s most connected media insider, was inexplicably removed by Fox Sports from its UFC on FOX coverage, as well as the event coverage on FS1. That was a very curious development given how much Fox Sports has invested in UFC content and that just two weeks earlier, the network referred to Helwani as “the best UFC insider in the biz” on Fox Sports Live with Jay and Dan. Fox Sports courageously declined to comment at that time.
Imagine if ESPN parted ways with Adam Schefter without an explanation. Or Yahoo Sports did the same with Adrian Wojnarowski. As I wrote then: If Helwani was dropped by Fox for not being enough of a PR man for a Fox Sports partner, Fox should simply come out and say it. UFC playing games with reporters didn’t surprise me. Fox Sports caving did.
Cut to last night: Why did UFC remove Helwani from its arena? I emailed the reporter on Sunday. Here is what he said:
“We were escorted out of the arena before yesterday’s main event. In short, I was told I was banned for life from covering UFC events in person because I reported the news that Brock Lesnar was close to signing a deal to fight at UFC 200. Our credentials were physically taken away. That’s the general story. They said I should have had the 'professional courtesy' to clear the news with them before reporting the news. I had confirmed it with multiple sources and it ended up being right. They confirmed it on the broadcast around 3 hours after I reported it. This has never happened to any of us. Never even hinted at. I went back to my room. Esther and Casey are the very best at what they do. I would argue the best in all of sports. I’ve been working with them since 2009 and I wish this didn’t happen to them as well.”
A UFC spokesperson told Los Angeles Times reporter Lance Pugmire that “it’s not wholly accurate,” to assume Helwani was booted from The Forum for breaking Brock Lesnar news.
“I’m not saying you don’t have a job to report, but in this case [with Helwani], the professional standards are to reach out [to the UFC] for comment on a story you’re about to report, even if you get a no-comment,” UFC spokesperson Dave Sholler told Pugmire.
Helwani said he would address what happened in depth on his The MMA Hour podcast.
For those interested in how the UFC deals with the media, here is a roundtable I did in February with seven MMA reporters including Helwani.
2a. Barstool Sports did something very smart two weeks ago that caught my eye. The website has one of the most popular sports podcasts—Pardon My Take—and with an eye toward making that podcast an interactive experience for listeners, four staffers (PFT Commenter, Dan Katz, who goes by Big Cat, John Feitelberg and Hank Lockwood) traveled in an RV from Boston to the Midwest under the plucky branding of “Grit Week.” The idea came after Mark Titus (an Indiana native and former Grantland staffer) suggested that the Pardon My Take podcast attend the Indianapolis 500 to get the true “gritty” Midwest experience.
“We’d been talking about doing some interactive experiences on the show like joining a cult for a week or flying in and out of airports in one day just so that we could review them,” said PFT Commenter, the satirical 30-something sportswriter who was granted anonymity for the piece. “But once we started thinking about the Indy 500 it seemed like a road trip across the northwest was a no-brainer. The word 'grit' has been tossed around a lot in academia recently, and this seemed like the perfect opportunity to observe grit in the Rust Belt in its natural habitat instead of reading about it in a newspaper.
“The majority of podcasts have the same approach where the show is recorded from someone’s house or studio week-in and week-out, and we wanted to do something out of the box,” PFT continued. “Grit Week was intended to break up the week-to-week similarity in shows and make it interactive for our audience. It's like a spring break for people who work too hard to take a spring break.”
This was no easy undertaking in terms of travel and logistics but Barstool is very popular among 20- and 30-somethings and has a large athlete following. That’s one the reasons The Chernin Group recently took a majority stake in the site. Whether you like them or not—and they have trashed me on a number of occasions—isn’t the point of this item. What they did here was next level connecting with listeners—and lessons every sports podcast can learn from.
The travelogue began in Buffalo on May 22, where the Barstool group shared Buffalo wings with Bills’ players Richie Incognito and Eric Wood, as well as recorded a podcast. The group stayed in an RV park outside Buffalo that night and the following morning, they traveled to Ralph Wilson Stadium to watch the Bills go through OTAs and interview Buffalo assistant head coach Rob Ryan. Next came a three-hour drive to Cleveland to meet up with fans of the podcast at a local bar called The Clevelander. The next morning, the group drove to Youngstown, Ohio for interviews with current Youngstown State University president and former Ohio State football coach Jim Tressel and Youngstown State football coach Bo Pelini. Then came an hour drive to Pittsburgh to meet and eat with Steelers guard David DeCastro, followed by a Pirates game with podcast listeners.
The next morning, the staffers drove four hours to Cincinnati for a dinner and interviews with Bengals linemen Clint Boling and Eric Winston. On May 26, the group had Skyline Chili in Cincinnati for breakfast, then drove two hours to Indianapolis, where they did a radio spot on Dan Dakich’s show as well as participate in a “milk mile” challenge in downtown Indy, where each Barstool staffer chugged a half gallon of milk in honor of the Indy 500 and sprinted 400 yards in a relay race. On the morning of May 27, the group drove to the Brickyard to tailgate prior to the 500 race. All the while, they kept recording podcasts. By the time Lockwood and Feitelberg drove the RV back to Boston, the two Barstool staffers had traveled approximately 2,200 miles for Grit Week.
“If it had turned into a total disaster we could have always just said it was satire,” said PFT Commentator. “That tends to work whenever someone is trying to make excuses for terrible content.”
3. Episode No. 60 of the Sports Illustrated Media Podcast features two guests: ESPN NBA writer Dave McMenamin, who covers the Cavaliers for ESPN, and Bay Area News sports columnist Marcus Thompson, who has covered the Warriors since 2004.
On this episode, McMenamin discusses why he gave up the Lakers beat to move to Cleveland to cover the Cavs, the media access afforded by the Cavs, his relationship with LeBron James, how James feels when others at ESPN attack him, what the Cavs coaching change from David Blatt to Ty Lue meant for the media, competing against national NBA writers including his colleagues, the difference between the Cavs fan base and the Lakers fan base and much more.
Thompson discusses the evolution of media coverage for the Warriors during his tenure, why many consider Golden State the most media-friendly team in the league, how the Warriors PR department works with reporters, his relationship with Steph Curry, how accessible Curry is to the media, why Draymond Green is the best quote on the Warriors, how Steve Kerr is different than any other coach he’s covered, traveling throughout Oakland with Harrison Barnes on a story and much more.
A reminder: you can subscribe to the podcast on iTunes, Google Play and Stitcher, and you can view all of SI’s podcasts here. If you have any feedback, questions or suggestions, please comment here or tweet at me.
3a. Episode No. 59 of the Sports Illustrated Media Podcast features two guests: Fox Sports soccer host Fernando Fiore and Golf Channel host Ryan Burr.
On this episode, Fiore discusses his move from Univision to Fox Sports, how he approaches an English-speaking audience versus a Spanish-speaking audience, whether or not his style changes from Spanish-language broadcasting to English-speaking broadcasting, his role for the Copa America Centenario, his relationship with Alexi Lalas, how he came to the U.S. at 19 from Argentina to attend college in New Jersey, how during the height of Argentina’s Dirty War he was grabbed on the street by the military junta, his attending 500 music concerts during his lifetime, the greatest World Cup he’s ever seen and much more.
Burr discusses the challenges of hosting golf, his co-writing of a novel, The Fix, whose subject is a college quarterback who gets involved in gambling, why he will always be fond of ESPN NFL host Chris Berman, what working at ESPN was like from 2005 to 2012, whether charges that ESPN is left-leaning are accurate in his opinion, his role covering golf for the Rio Olympics, why ego is often the biggest detriment for sports broadcasters leaving big networks and much more.
4. Non sports pieces of note:
•One of the most powerful letters you will ever read.
•If you have (or hope to have children), read this piece by Joe Posnanski of NBC Sports. It’s truly beautiful.
•Three days, 64 people shot, six of them dead. The New York Times examines a violent weekend in Chicago.
•How a Chinese billionaire’s dream of making an underwater fantasy blockbuster turned into a legendary movie fiasco.
•Washington Post writer Jessica Contrera on what it’s like to be 13 today.
•Via Politico Magazine: How Hillary loses.
•The secret life of Kim Jong Un’s aunt, who has lived in the U.S. since 1998, from the Washington Post.
•Via CBC: ‘The green of the mountain that surrounded the city was gone:’ A survivor describes bombing of Nagasaki.
•The National Review on a day for remembering not to forget.
•Jeremy P. Gordon of NYT Magazine correctly asks, “Is everything wrestling?”
•Jon Ralston, on loving his transgender child.
•From CJR: The fabulist who changed journalism.
•From Buzzfeed’s Daniel Ralston: The True Story Of The Fake Zombies, The Strangest Con In Rock History.
•ESPN social media producer Jason Romano on struggling with infertility.
•From NYT, How ‘Everything’ Became the Highest Form of Praise.”
•Via The Marshall Project: A radical new interrogation technique is transforming the art of detective work.
•From Patrick Radden Keefe of The New Yorker: An enigmatic IT guy who stole a trove of data and exposed widespread criminality at HSBC.
•Via 1843 Magazine: Data suggest that couples who have sons are more likely to stay together than those that don’t.
•BBC News on Ayatollah Khomeini’s secret talks with two US presidents before the revolution.
Sports pieces of note:
•From Dirk Chatelain of the Omaha World Herald: How a brilliant high school senior used soccer and music to beat a perplexing disability.
•An excellent interview of ESPN’s Doris Burke by New York Magazine’s Rembert Browne.
•The boxer who was accused of murder twice, by Daniel Wilco of The Cauldron.
•SI’s Tom Verducci profiled Blue Jays outfielder Jose Bautista.
•This is smart sports writing. Rather than drop an easy and unoriginal take blasting Kevin Durant, Thompson reported out how Andre Iguodala was able to shut down Durant late in Game Six of the Western Conference finals.
•From John Branch of the New York Times: An ex-NHL enforcer is now a threat to himself.
•The Guardian’s Les Carpenter on American soccer’s diversity problem.
•NYT’s Karen Crouse on Thunder forward Steven Adams and his unlikely path to the NBA.
•SI’s Drew Lawrence on the last days of Tony Gwynn.
•Bryan Curtis of The Ringer profiled Fox announcer Joe Buck.
•“I received my first ‘Dear Bitch’ letter when I was a 24-year-old sportswriter.”
5. Game 1 of the NBA Finals drew 19,197,000 viewers, the largest Game 1 audience ever on ABC for the NBA Finals, and up from the 17.78 who watched last year’s opening game. ESPN said the viewership number was the biggest audience for an NBA Finals Game 1 on any network since 1998.
5a. TNT drew 15.9 million viewers for its Game 7 coverage of the Warriors-Thunder, cable television’s most-viewed NBA telecast of all time and TNT’s most-watched program in the 28-year history of the network.The Warriors-Thunder series in total averaged 9.9 million total viewers, the most-viewed Western Conference finals series ever on cable television. It was up 47% in total viewers over 2014, the last time the network aired the Western Conference finals. Overall, TNT’s coverage of the 2016 NBA playoffs averaged 4.7 million total viewers for its 42-game schedule, up 16% over 2015.
5b. Turner said the Inside the NBA episode that followed the final game of the Western Conference finals drew its highest-ever viewership with 6.882 million viewers. Inside the NBA averaged 4.6 million viewers for the Western Conference finals, beating all late night talk shows and non-NBA live sports programming throughout the series.
5c. Per Austin Karp of Sports Business Daily: The 78 NBA playoff games through the conference finals on ABC, ESPN, ESPN2, TNT and NBA TV had averaged 4.19 million viewers, up from 4.06 million viewers for 75 games through the same period last season, but down from 4.29 million viewers for 84 games headed into the 2014 final.
5d. Buzzfeed’s Lindsey Adler reported that ESPN has re-signed its lead NBA play-by-play commentator Mike Breen to a long-term deal.
5e. Per Anthony Crupi: The first two games of the Stanley Cup Final averaged 3.3 million viewers, down from the 6.05 million last year. The series has been a disaster for ratings in the U.S. and Canada.
5f. Here is what Fox and ESPN have planned for the Copa America and Euro Championships this month.
5g. Fox’s opening match of the 2016 Copa America Centenario between Colombia and the U.S. averaged 1.536 million viewers on FS1, the second most-watched soccer match (behind a 2015 U.S.-Mexico match) in that network’s three-year history.
5h. Bob Ley and Jorge Ramos will serve as the lead anchors for ESPN’s month-long English and Spanish-language studio presentation of the UEFA European Football Championship. The rest of ESPN’s studio talent is here.
5i. The Champions League Final was the most-watched event on ESPN Deportes ever, averaging of 1.3 million Hispanic viewers, according to ESPN.
5j. Loved this photo prior to the Champions League Final.
5k. ESPN’s Matt Barrie did a nice job interviewing David Letterman at the Indy 500.
5l. How the Inside The NBA’s “Gone Fishin” segment gets put together.
5m. Last Sunday the Pac-12 Networks broadcasted its 3,000th event, a baseball game between USC and Arizona State. According to the network, as of last Sunday, the network has televised 1517 women’s sporting events and 1477 men’s events since its August 2012 inception.
5n. Octagon has added former ESPNer Tim Scanlan as a vice president of sports broadcast. Prior to joining Octagon, Scanlan served as ESPN’s vice president for talent planning and development and was responsible for recruitment and contract negotiations for the commentators on ESPN pro sports content including NFL, NBA, MLB, MLS and international soccer. As content executive for soccer, he was one of the most well-liked production people at the company.
5o. The writer Lana Berry interviewed more than 100 sports media and sports industry people, from Hannah Storm to Joe Posnanski, about how they broke into the industry and their current work day. Cool idea.
5p. North Carolina’s 14–13 overtime victory over No. 1 Maryland in the 2016 NCAA men’s lacrosse championships averaged 476,000 television viewers on ESPN2, a 43% increase from the 2015 men’s lacrosse season finale on ESPN2 featuring Maryland vs. Denver.
5q. Boxing writer Michael Woods has a new podcast (Talk Box with Michael Woods), with actress and boxing fan Rosie Perez as his first guest.
5r. The Hall of Fame baseball writer Bob Elliott (Toronto Sun) retired after 40 years in journalism.
5s. Brian Monzo, who produces the popular Mike Francesa sports-talk show out of New York City, has partnered with Chris McMonigle for a behind the scenes podcast of the show as well as their radio station, WFAN and some funny stories. The show comes out every Wednesday and is available on Play.It and iTunes.
5t. The Ringer, the sports, pop culture, tech site founded by Bill Simmons, debuted on Wednesday.