FS1's Onrait, O'Toole look to charm U.S.; George Karl's media jump

Monday October 7th, 2013

Jay Onrait and Dan O'Toole feel Fox Sports Live's growth is tied to the growth of FS1 sports properties.
Fox Sports

Jay Onrait and Dan O'Toole have so far been the strongest part of Fox Sports Live, the nightly highlights and opinion show Fox Sports management hopes one day will be a legitimate alternative to ESPN's SportsCenter. That day, alas, is not today. SportsCenter's late-night airings have drawn about 9-12 times more audience than Fox Sports Live, but with Fox Sports 1 entering its eighth week on the air, it's a good time to check in with the Canadian sports broadcasters whom Fox Sports plucked from Canada's TSN SportsCentre to anchor the highlights portion of the Fox Sports Live. SI.com queried Onrait and O'Toole on a mix of serious and not-so-serious questions:

SI.com: How do you view ESPN? Are they head-to-head competition or do you view them through another prism?

Jay Onrait: What's funny for us is we went through this experience in Canada but exactly in opposite. We were working for the ESPN of Canada, and then 15 years ago a couple of new networks launched to challenge TSN. It was exactly the same thing. It's like we are going through what those networks did, and it's funny to be on the other side. This is obviously much more of a challenge, but, of course, they are our competition. It would do us no good to try to emulate anything they did. We have to do it our way and offer an alterative. We've been surprised how well it has gone over, at least in terms of the reaction on Twitter. We live in a day and age where people can tell you -- good or bad -- exactly what they think of you with one click of the button. You better have a strong sense of self to deal with it. We expected much more of a mixed reaction, but so far it has been really positive.

Dan O'Toole: I look at them as the figureheads for what they have accomplished and the foothold that they have in the American market. They deserve to be looked at that way. The legwork and all the time they have put into their product, we just want to some day get to that point, and it will take a lot of time. Just to be in the same sentence as ESPN, we are happy with that. We know we will make mistakes and that it will take a lot of hours and effort to get anywhere close to what ESPN has done. I would compare it to CNN. When breaking news hit, you turned on CNN. Then, you eventually realized there were other sources. That's what we have to establish. We need to establish ourselves as a leader in breaking news, delivering stories, delivering highlights, and establish our own brand of sports, which is very different than ESPN. The first step is getting people to find us, sample the product, and then keep coming back. But what ESPN has done and where they are, I have nothing but the utmost respect for them.

SI.com: Clearly, you two are now major stars in Los Angeles. How often are you able to go out in public without being mobbed?

O'Toole: That's why I moved to the tiny enclave of Redondo Beach. It's known as the Hollywood Rivera and I came here to get away from all the flashbulbs.

Onrait: I was in Silver Lake (Ca.) on Thursday to see if the hipsters in America were like the hipsters in Canada. Sure enough, everyone was riding the same unicycle and wearing the same cutoff jeans shorts and high tube socks. Absolutely no one recognized me. So I will try to hang with the hipsters because that is where I can walk freely.

SI.com: Has your humor translated to the States?

Onrait: Well, I will say this: We are used to being an acquired taste, a little like black coffee and Negronis. But shockingly, we are surprised that the critics have seemed to enjoy our stuff so far. A lot of the critics in Canada were old, disgruntled ex-broadcasters, and I don't think they enjoyed our shtick. So I guess I am pleasantly surprised how we have been received.

O'Toole: If we base it on our crew, the stagehands, PAs (production assistants) and our director, then yes. They are born and bred Americans and a lot of times they cannot control themselves when we are doing our show. In the past we have always gauged our humor and our jokes by our crew. At TSN if our one -- yes, one -- camera guy on the show laughed, then we thought it would go over well. If he was silent, it was a dud ... A lot of people on Twitter said they did not like us at the start but we have them as fans now. That's exactly how it began in Canada and that's how we see it now -- get one new viewer at a time.

SI.com: Who would be the more fun ESPN broadcaster to start a Twitter feud with: John Buccigross or Steve Levy?

O'Toole: Well, I've seen Bucci in a towel and nothing else. I was at an NHLPA golf tournament and I know him intimately.

Onrait: Intimately? Like, have you two made love? (laughs).

O'Toole: (long pause, likely befuddled). I'm just going to leave it at that. ... No, I think Bucci would be great [for a Twitter war] and Jay has already started the fire unknowingly by sending a nice friendly tweet to [Avalanche rookie] Nathan Mackinnon, who we got to know during our time in Canada. It turned into a little spat.

Onrait: Dan and I have known Nathan since he was 15 or 16 years old, playing in Halifax. We are kind of friends with him. So when I sent a tweet to him about his first NHL game, letting him know he could watch the highlights here, something like: 'Good luck, bud, we'll have the highlights on our show,' Bucci sort of trolled me. I was shocked. I did not expect that from Bucci. I kind of consider Bucci, not a friend but certainly an acquaintance. I have met him before and I certainly appreciate the fact he likes hockey.

O'Toole: I cannot wait for this to be the only thing printed from this interview.

SI.com: Kate Beirness and Darren Dutchyshen were recently announced as your full-time replacements on TSN SportsCentre. How crushing will it be when they top your ratings?

O'Toole: How upset will we be? We won't be crushed at all because we have the utmost respect for Dutchy and Kate. Jay and I both grew up watching Dutchy. He was the figurehead of TSN and still is -- the face of the network. Kate is a rising star at the network. We could not be happier for the two and they already have shown chemistry on the screen. So, in their second week when they usurp everything that we did, we will not be surprised at all.

Onrait: If you think we have thick Canadian accents, you have to listen to Kate. She sounds like an adorable South Park character.

SI.com: How will Fox Sports Live evolve over the next 6-12 months?

O'Toole: You have already seen it evolve. The first two months we've been on air, we have shaped the show and it is finding its own identity. We are finding things that work, finding things that don't. Where it will be in six months to a year? I have no idea. But I like where it is going. It is more streamlined, focused and the highlights are an integral part of it ... I think we have reached a point where we go deep into the highlights and then the audience wants something different, which is the panel. And our panel is finding its way.

Onrait: I am just hoping they add more on-air hours to our schedule. Instead of being on three hours a night, we will be on 24 hours a day. They will have a bedpan brought onto the set and Ryan, our PA, will have to empty it during breaks.

SI.com: You know how the NHL is treated by some sports networks in this country. You and Jay come from a network where the NHL gets NFL-like attention. How will -- and should -- Fox Sports Live play hockey?

O'Toole: Hockey viewers, I believe, are the most devoted fan base. If you are affiliated with the NHL, people want your product, they want to be associated with it, and that is what the powers that be at Fox Sports are starting to see. NHL fans want to know each and every night that they will get a glimpse of hockey -- not hoping they will see it but knowing they will see hockey highlights. This is the perfect direction to take because hockey fans are the most loyal fans on earth.

Onrait: I have to admit I was surprised at how many people tweeted at me and said they desperately wanted someone to show NHL highlights. I realize the sport is not as big baseball, football, basketball and college stuff, but the ratings for NBC Sports Network last year were pretty strong and the opening night game on that network was strong. It is a growing sport and this is an area where we can take the reins and carve out a little niche.

SI.com: Is The Best Damn Sports Show Period pronounced differently in Canada or would it be the same?

Onrait: (laughs). Yeah, it's pronounced Fox Sports Live. That's funny, Richard.

SI.com: Thank you. How will you judge success with Fox Sports Live?

O'Toole: Eyeballs -- that we have dedicated viewers. So I walk into a bar and every channel is tuned into Fox Sports 1 or you walk into a buddy's house and it is on Fox Sports Live. That is an indication of success. It's not that people kind of know it is there, but they go to it because it is there. It won't be quick and it will be a long road, but I think we are on the path. My definition of success is people not just knowing about Fox Sports Live, but also going to Fox Sports Live.

Onrait: It has to be ratings growth, and I think that comes with not just the show but also the network itself and the network acquiring properties. You see on a night when we come out of Ultimate Fighting, our numbers are better. That's how our business works and we all know that. The more properties Fox Sports 1 is able to acquire, the better everyone will be on the network. But I have to say the start we have had has been a success in its own right for me. I think the visibility we have within the industry is a great start and now it's just building on that from there. Both of us have visas until 2016, so they can't kick us out in the country until that point. As long as we can accomplish something before then, we are good. Otherwise, we will have to go Australia.

SI.com: Any last words of trash talk for SportsCenter or ESPN2's Olbermann? The floor is yours.

Onrait: Who is Olbermann?

After winning the NBA's Coach of the Year award, George Karl will work as a studio analyst for ESPN.
Garrett W. Ellwood/NBAE/Getty Images

The Noise Report

(SI.com examines some of the more notable sports media stories of the past week.)

1. ESPN ran a remarkable piece on Sunday NFL Countdown on the relationship between former Saints safety Steve Gleason (who has been diagnosed with ALS and uses eye-tracking software on his computer to communicate) and the iconic band, Pearl Jam. Gleason interviewed members of the band, and at one point during the interview, Pearl Jam lead singer Eddie Vedder teared up while talking about his relationship with his father. As ESPN's long-form producers do time after time, they let the subjects tell the story rather than interjecting the talent in the piece, so credit is due ESPN producer Mike O'Connor and reporter Chris Connelly. The piece will re-air on ESPN's E:60 Tuesday at 7 p.m. ET.

1a. Strong words by Fox NFL analyst Ronde Barber, who played 16 seasons with Tampa Bay, on the Bucs releasing Josh Freeman: "The best thing that they did was release Josh. Somehow, someway that situation had to end. It had gotten toxic from both sides. Josh was manipulating, everybody felt like coach [Greg Schiano] was manipulating, but I don't feel like Greg was that kind of guy. Greg wants what's best for this team. I think he can get the locker room back. I want to see him get the locker room back."

1b. Nice work by Fox NFL Sunday producer Joel Santos and reporter Erin Andrews with this feature on Colts coach Chuck Pagano.

1c. The NFL Today analysts Bill Cowher, Boomer Esiason and Shannon Sharpe will travel out of the studio next Sunday to call games of their former teams. Generally, this kind of assignment is a gimmick to promote talent, but I like the idea of sending studio analysts into the booth to expand their skill set. It also breaks up the routine of The NFL Today for a week, and that's a good thing given that the show still too often veers into an annoying laugh track and self-promotional vehicle for other CBS Sports shows.

1d. The Cowboys-Broncos thriller was aired to nearly the entire country (see the coverage map from 506sports.com, so it's got a shot to top the most-watched game so far of 2013: The Giants-Cowboys Sunday Night Football opener (25.4 million).

1e. Football Night In America analyst Tony Dungy on the Redskins name: "I hope [Redskins owner] Daniel Snyder does reconsider and change it. The Redskins nickname is offensive to Native Americans. In 2013, we need to get that name changed."

2. George Karl will be a unique figure on television this year: He is the rare coach-turned-broadcaster coming off a great season. Last year Karl led the Nuggets to a 57-25 record and was named the NBA's Coach of the Year, but Denver was unwilling to give him a contract extension, so Karl has ended up where so many coaches go when they need a gig: Television.

Last week ESPN announced it had hired Karl as a studio analyst. He will contribute to a number of shows, including NBA Coast 2 Coast, NBA Tonight, SportsCenter and various ESPN Radio shows. "This gives me an opportunity to stay in the game and an opportunity to be a part of serious discussions whatever storyline comes up this year," said Karl, who also worked for ESPN during the 2003-04 season. "It gives me an opportunity to look at the game a different way. When you are a coach, you are possessed by the game that you are playing tomorrow. You are possessed by your loss yesterday and the two tough games ahead. Now I can look at the game as a coach but more of a perspective of what if's and should have's without the stress of win-lose."

Karl said he maintained relationships with ESPN employees during his time in the NBA and when ESPN did games in Denver, Karl enjoyed spending time with on-air and production staffers. After Karl parted ways with the Nuggets, ESPN senior vice president and executive producer Mark Gross reached out to the 62-year old. Karl traveled to Bristol from Denver last August for a one-day rehearsal and both sides came away impressed.

"The thing in Denver blew up late in June and I did not have a lot of opportunities," Karl said. "I look at Jeff Van Gundy. He was one of 30 coaches, which we think is influential, but he has become more influential than the coaches in the league by what he does on TV and the way he represents not only his opinion but also coaching. I want to be an ambassador for coaches because I think there's a little bit of a crisis with the hirings and firings of coaches. There are 13 new coaches and nine guys who have never coached an NBA game before. I don't care who you are. That is too much. That is crazy."

On the issue of how he'll deal with commentary about the Nuggets, Karl said, "I had eight-and-a-half fantastic seasons in Denver and when it went down I didn't understand it. Today, I don't understand it. I'm not bitter about it. Eight-and-a-half years is a long time. The team itself is a championship-caliber team if they push the buttons the right way and make some good decisions. We thought we were one player away from being a championship team last year. They have made some decisions. We will see it works. I still say they should be a 50-win basketball team."

Karl has a multi-year deal with ESPN but likely has an out clause if he wants to return to coaching. Given his resume, the likelihood of a team reaching out to him this year at some point is strong.

"I will be patient with those decisions," Karl said. "Right now, I am happy hanging out with my family, relaxing and trying to figure out what is in the future. I don't think you will see me wild and crazy either way, but if someone calls and I think it is the right fit for me, I would be open to it. But I have to be very patient and diligent about it, and it has to be the right fit."

2a. Karl, who has overcome bouts with prostate and throat cancer, said his health is good. He gets a cancer checkup every August and everything came back clean this year. "I'm feeling good and ready to go," Karl said "I'm excited about the NBA season, just from a different seat."

3. Gary Sheffield was terrific on TBS's MLB pregame show Saturday afternoon, providing sharp commentary and insight into the game. Asked about hitting at Fenway, Sheffield said, "Nothing against the Boston Red Sox hitters, but if you can't hit in Boston, you just can't hit." Sheffield will be back in the studio Monday at 2:30 p.m. ET.

3a. MLB Network is bringing in current major leaguers to work as analysts for its MLB Tonight show. The group includes Adam Jones (Oct. 7), Mark Teixeira (Oct. 8 and 9), Mark DeRosa (Oct. 10 and 11) and Raul Ibanez (Oct. 15 and 16).

3b. Michael Kay, the longtime Yankees television announcer, is calling the ALDS between the A's and Tigers for ESPN Radio. Kay returns to calling games for ESPN Radio after working the 2008 NL Playoffs.

3c. TBS's coverage of the 2013 MLB postseason had averaged 3,556,000 total viewers through nine games (through Sunday), up six percent compared with an average of 3,349,000 total viewers to date in 2012. The MLB Division Series has averaged 3,208,000 total viewers on TBS, up from 3.0 million total viewers.

3d. TBS's coverage of the 2013 MLB Wild Card -- Cincinnati at Pittsburgh and Tampa Bay at Cleveland -- averaged 4.7 million total viewers, an increase of two percent from 2012 Wild Card games.

3e. ESPN's coverage of the 2013 Major League Baseball season -- 79 games across ESPN and ESPN2 -- averaged 1,101,000 viewers in 2013, up from 1,018,000 in 2012.

3f. Check out this promo from the MLB Network to open Game 3 of the Athletics at Tigers. It's narrated by actor Ray Liotta and was shot at the "Field of Dreams" movie site in Dyersville, Iowa. Props to producer and director Chris Pfieffer.

4. NBC Sports will air 34.5 hours of live coverage of the 2014 U.S. Olympic Trials across NBC, NBCSN and NBC Sports Live Extra leading up to the 2014 Olympic Winter Games in Sochi. The six sports featured include curling, hockey, Nordic combined, ski jumping, speed skating and short track. Trials coverage begins on Nov. 15 at 3:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN with curling from Fargo, N.D. They will conclude Jan. 5 at 4 p.m. ET on NBC with short track from the Utah Olympic Oval in Kearns, Utah.

All events will also be live streamed across NBC Sports Live Extra.

4a. NBCSN will air two women's hockey games between Team USA and Team Canada prior to the Sochi Games. The first game will air Dec. 20 at 8 p.m. ET from Grand Forks, N.D. The two teams will then meet again on Dec. 28 at 4 p.m. ET at the Xcel Energy Center in Saint Paul, Minn.

5. Former Nets coach Avery Johnson has been hired by ESPN as an NBA studio analyst. He will appear on NBA Coast 2 Coast and NBA Tonight, SportsCenter and additional ESPN news shows. Johnson debuts on Oct. 21.

5b. NBA Digital has brought on The Starters (formerly The Basketball Jones) to produce a daily TV show (airing on NBA TV), a podcast and a blog. The Starters group includes co-hosts J.E. Skeets and Tas Melas, contributors Trey Kerby and Leigh Ellis and producers Matt Osten and Jason Doyle.

6. NBCSN's airing of the NHL's season debut (Blackhawks-Capitals) was watched by an average of 935,000 viewers, the most-watched season opener on cable on record and the second-most watched regular-season game ever on NBCSN. (Last year's inaugural Wednesday Night Rivalry game between the Bruins and Rangers drew 956,000 viewers on the network.)

6a. Really liked this promo for Big Ten college hockey.

7. This week's notable sports pieces:

• Great piece by ESPN's Tim Keown on the relationship between the city of Oakland and its pro sports teams.

• Legendary photojournalist Bill Eppridge, who spent most of his career working for Life magazine and Sports Illustrated, died on Oct. 3, 2013. He was 75. Here's a gallery of his sports work.

• A brilliant profile by Texas Monthly executive editor Mimi Swartz on former Texas women's track and field coach Bev Kearney and her fight with her former university.

• Bleacher Report's Ethan Skolnick examined how LeBron James uses social media.

Plenty of non-sports pieces of note, too:

• The Detroit News examined how abandonment, racial tensions and financial missteps bankrupted the city of Detroit.

• Caitlin Seida wrote an honest piece for Salon.com on what it's like to have embarrassing pictures of yourself go viral.

• An excellent profile of actor Daniel Radcliffe, who is attempting to make Harry Potter disappear.

• Why is writing about sex so difficult? Some answers here.

The New York Times examined the art of the Twitter bio.

8. I'll be one of the moderators for an online chat on Frontline's website this Wednesday at 1:00 p.m. ET. The subject is the book "League of Denial," in which ESPN reporters Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru trace league efforts to downplay a link between football and long-term brain damage. You can ask questions by heading to Frontline's site.

8a. Frontline will air "League of a Denial: The Concussion Crisis," on Tuesday from 9-11 p.m. ET on PBS. This is the documentary that ESPN bailed out abruptly last month when the NFL allegedly expressed its displeasure for the documentary.

8b. If you missed it, SI.com ran an excerpt from "League of Denial" last week that's worth your time.

9. My latest piece for the MMQB highlights some NFL media storylines, including ESPN NFL analyst Keyshawn Johnson's prediction prescience, the explosion of Fantasy Football analysis, and Steelers safety Ryan Clark's desire to be a broadcaster after his career concludes:

10. Updated Outside The Lines numbers: Last Sunday's first-run OTL (8-8:30 a.m. ET, ESPN2) averaged 249,000 viewers while a replay later that morning (9-9:30 a.m. ET) on ESPNews averaged 62,000 viewers. Contrast that with ESPN's final Sunday airing of OTL on Aug. 29 that averaged 846,000 viewers. You don't need to know the definition of "buried" to understand what's going down: The show has been buried since moving to ESPN2. A product that represents the best of ESPN deserves much better than this.

10a. Nice piece by NFL.com to honor NFL Media Group production specialist Natalie Packer, who died at the age of 30 after a bout with breast cancer.

10b. Saw a lot of complaints on social media about NBC tape-delaying its coverage of the Presidents Cup finale. Golf.com has a note on it.

10c. ESPN College GameDay analyst David Pollack trotted out a tired jockocracy conceit Saturday that somehow one must have playing experience to analyze a sport -- in this case being part of the upcoming College Football Playoff selection committee. Said Pollack: "I want people on this committee, guys, that can watch tape, yes, that have played football, that are around football, that can tell you different teams, on tape, not on paper."

It's an anachronistic, backward-looking take, summed up perfectly in this wise tweet from Every Day Should Be Saturday staffer, Celebrity Hot Tub.

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