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Nice Guys Finish First: An unorthodox TV arc for ESPN's Tony Reali

My relationship with Around The Horn began in Dec. 2002 when Sports Illustrated assigned me to review the new ESPN show for our magazine. Here is what I wrote at the time:

How bad is ESPN's month-old Around the Horn? The daily gabfest -- in which host Max Kellerman presides over a panel of four sportswriters who attempt to out-argue each other -- is nearly impossible to watch, and most other critics agree. Last week the Los Angeles Times, whose writers regularly appear on the show, called Horn "30 minutes of hell, orchestrated by a blathering self-important loudmouth...."

The loudmouth in question (Kellerman) left for Fox Sports Net less than two years later. He has since returned to ESPN and is now one of the hosts of ESPN2’s Sports Nation as well as an LA-based ESPN Radio host and HBO boxing analyst. After Kellerman bolted for Murdoch Country, ESPN then assigned an interim host for Around The Horn. The host was barely known and not expected to last long.

His name was Tony Reali.

Ten years later, Reali remains the host of Horn and will soon join Good Morning America as its social media correspondent. As part of that new job, he will be relocating from Washington D.C. to New York City, which means he will be giving up his duties as a Pardon the Interruption regular after 13 years. Reali said he decided to step away from PTI in part because of the GMA deal but even more so because he and his wife Sami wanted to raise their newborn daughter Francesca in New York City. Reali is a Fordham University graduate and was born in Staten Island.

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"Forget about opportunities in television, let’s talk about opportunities in life," Reali said last week. "My experience has taught me it’s good to plan and better to roll with it. This was true for me at PTI, true for me at Horn and true for me when a hotel lost an engagement ring and I found myself on a knee in between the men's and women's bathroom at LaGuardia Airport. Opportunities come sometimes when you least expect and you have to be willing to say yes to scary questions… On Horn I filled in as a panelist in a pinch once or twice with two minutes notice, and as a guest host three or four times, but none of that prepares you for the phone call that came at halftime of the Patriots-Panthers Super Bowl (in 2004), not long after Janet Jackson's boob was introduced to the entire world, that asked me to fill-in as host the next day. I was asked the scary question and I said yes."

That turned out to be fortuitous for ESPN. Around The Horn is a ratings success – the second most-watched talk show on ESPN behind PTI -- and draws between 500,000 and 800,000 viewers depending on the time of year. According to Sports Business Daily, the show averaged 747,000 in 2012, 782,000 in 2011 and 943,000 in 2010. ESPN management countered to SBD that the overall numbers are much higher when factoring in WatchESPN and DVR play.

"The on-air success is just an extension of who he is off-air: he knows more about everything than any of us, works his butt off, challenges readily, collaborates eagerly, is warm and witty, and aspires to produce special moments," said Erik Rydholm, the executive producer of PTI, Around The Horn and Highly Questionable. "It also helps that he's a ham."

"Tony has an amazing gift for finding what he has in common with everyone -- and he can build relationships from there," said Highly Questionable co-host and ATH panelist Bomani Jones. "He's also one of the kindest, most accommodating people I've ever met. It also doesn't hurt that he's probably both the best and most likable personality on the network, yet somehow seems to be the completely unaware of this fact."

Jones hit on something that deserves mentioning. In my decade of covering ESPN, I have yet to come across anyone at the network who does not like Reali. It would be hard to quantify but Reali might be the most well-liked on-air talent at ESPN. He was initially hired as a researcher for PTI but immediately became an on-air figure named "Stat Boy," whose role was to correct hosts Tony Kornheiser and Michael Wilbon on any factual errors they made during the show.

Around The Horn remains a mixed bag for me. The show has become eminently more accessible and watchable since the days of the unctuous Jay Mariotti, and I might have been too harsh when I wrote three years ago that ATH "should be shown in North Korean prison camps." Given the premise of the show is sports writers hot-taking it up for points (and airport recognition), it’s not a show I’ll ever love unconditionally. I do love, however, that it has provided sports writers some nice extra cash.

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But that is independent of Reali, who I like as an on-air performer very much. He’s quick on his feet, ego-free and very much himself in a world where often people are not. In my interview with him, I asked him the following: "You know I've been a prominent critic of Around The Horn, particularly that it cheapens sports opinion. Why am I wrong?"

"We've challenged ourselves to be smarter over the years," Reali said. "I am in no way disparaging anyone who's ever been on the show, including myself in a younger life. But we've challenged ourselves to be smarter in opinion, delivery and premise. The original premise was a national show with regional voices. That may have worked in 2002, it was a much harder sell in 2006 and 2010 and 2014 as the landscape changed. The way people consume information is so radically different. Our audience has gotten smarter and that demands any show to do the same. We talk about sports for living and it's important to realize what that is and what that isn't, and not take it too seriously. It's not always about who's right. Our show champions that all the voices matter, which is an aspect of the show that I don't know if we convey strongly enough at times. It's an important point to us and we try to quietly assert that in each broadcast."

Reali said he believes ATH is a better product today because it’s "faster, smarter, more diverse and more accessible to the public." He cited the companion videos the show produces offering behind-the-scenes access of the panelists as something unique to the product. (I must admit, the ATHtribute to Goodfellas was sensational).  

Rydholm does not know what Reali will be doing a decade from now but believes he will be successful whatever that is.

"It took him many years to go from 'I can't believe I have this job' to 'I want this and more,'" Rydholm said. "He has serious creative aspirations and talents to match. But mostly, I just see him being an incredible father. He and his wife are moving to New York first and foremost to be closer to family. For years, Tony never took a single vacation day. But a few weeks ago, after the birth of their first child, he wrote, 'My heart now beats outside of my body.'" 

THE NOISE REPORT examines the biggest stories of the week in the sports media.

1. Last Thursday’s Seahawks-Packers NFL debut drew 26.9 million viewers, up 7 percent from last year’s opening-game and the third-most watched "NFL Kickoff" game in the 13-year history of the event. (The Saints-Packers game in 2011 drew 27.1 million). NBC Sports Live Extra said it drew 507,662 unique viewers, topping last year’s "NFL Kickoff" game by 51 percent.

1a. Clearly, ESPN NFL reporter Sal Paolantonio has been delivering his reports with much more gusto/theatrics/panache over the last few weeks. The last time I saw that much ham was during Easter supper. Is there something behind this?

"This is partially my fault," said ESPN senior coordinating producer Seth Markman said, laughing. "I have reinforced this to our NFL reporters and we just had a conference call on it so it is probably fresh in Sal’s mind. The information is No. 1. That goes without saying. We love our group of reporters who go out to the stadiums on Sunday. However I did stress on the call that a lot of the reporting, especially on Sunday morning, I fear it is white noise. People are multi-tasking, they are doing a million things at a time on Sundays. People are not watching TV the way they used to. So the one message I had for the reporters was you kind of need to cut through and find a way to grab the audience’s attention. Sal has always been the best at that and most of it is his language and phrases. I'll leave it up to you whether it is going too far but I will say after shows, I usually remember what Sal talked about. And I can’t say that for everyone."

1b. Some hot NFL takes from the opening weekend. (Let’s see if they turn out to be cool):

"This might be the best defense ever."

– NFL Network Steve Mariucci on the Seahawks' defense.

"Geno [Smith] had better playmakers in college than what he has right now."

– NFL Network analyst Marshall Faulk on Jets quarterback Geno Smith

1c. Really strong work by NFL Network’s Andrea Kremer with this interview of Patriots quarterback Tom Brady.

1d. ESPN NFL analyst Tom Jackson on Browns quarterback Brian Hoyer: "He cannot survive this. I can give you an example today, as you watch this show, we’ve seen Johnny Manziel come out to the stadium. We’ve seen Johnny Manziel warming up. We’ve seen Johnny Manziel selling Snickers. He’s not even scheduled to play. When I think about what Brian Hoyer is up against the most polarizing figure in the National Football League, I reflect back on Kyle Orton and Tim Tebow, and Tim Tebow couldn’t even throw. Yet, you knew at some point, he was going to have the starting job. Brian Hoyer has been around this league enough to know that at some point -- I don’t know whether it will come Week 4, the bye week, or some week after that, or maybe next week -- the job will belong to Johnny Manziel and everybody knows it."

1e. ESPN said that Monday Night Countdown analyst Ray Lewis will address the Ray Rice video between 5:00 p.m.-7:00 p.m. ET prior to the Monday Night Football opener. In his only in-depth interview on broadcasting, Lewis addressed last year with The MMQB how he would address controversial issues on television.

2. Great work by ESPN College GameDay producer Luis Aldea ​and editors Melissa Horton and Rob Labay with this feature on walk-ons.

2a. Fox Sports had a crazy-huge rating for Baylor’s 45-0 rout of SMU. The 762,000 viewers was Fox Sports 1’s most-watched telecast of that week.

2b. Fox’s telecast Saturday of Oregon’s win over Michigan State drew the best-ever metered market rating for a Fox college football regular season game and was 111 percent over last year’s West Virginia-Oklahoma game.

2c. This isn’t a story about whether announcers will remain unbiased during a broadcast. It’s a story about a college football coach dictating to a news outlet what to wear when that outlet covers them. 

3. Rydholm said he does not have an immediate replacement for Reali on PTI. "I suppose I need to get to work on that," he said. "I have until Monday evening, right? Honestly, no idea long-term. Reali was a hard-working behind-the-scenes staffer when we stuck him on air; I like how that worked out."

3a. Here’s the video PTI staffers created for Reali’s final show. Very nicely done.

4. Over the last week I’ve written individual previews of the football-airing networks including Fox and NBC and an across-the-board one for The MMQB. On Monday I’ll debut ESPN on and later this week the NFL Network and CBS.

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5. Incredibly frustrating for tennis viewers to watch the whitewash that occurred on ESPN’s airwaves regarding the dismissal of Patrick McEnroe as head of player development for the United States Tennis Association. You can live with a network trying to protect its talent (up to a point), but viewers got played. The New York Times broke the story of McEnroe’s dismissal, reporting that two people with direct knowledge of the U.S.T.A.’s handling of the situation said the organization’s leaders had planned to remove McEnroe from the position after the Open, to avoid distractions during the tournament. The Wall Street Journal’s Tom Perrotta and Matthew Futterman also delivered for readers with this comprehensive piece. When it came time for ESPN to have McEnroe, its longtime analyst, on set to discuss what happened, viewers got Chris Evert and Hannah Storm praising McEnroe’s tenure, zero questions of substance, and brother John McEnroe yukking it up, and joking with the audience that he was not likely to be hired (Gee, thanks). A blank screen would have provided more context and been more honest.

5a. Roger Federer’s comeback win over Gael Monfils on Thursday night drew a 1.6 overnight rating for ESPN, the third-highest US Open tennis rating in the company’s six years of televising the Open and its highest number since 2009.

6.The Boston Globe’s Chad Finn had a deep dive on the evolution of the sideline reporter. Highly recommended.

7. Sports pieces of note:

• What was it like working at SI during the Don Draper, booze-filled Mad Men days? Read this Jeff Pearlman interview.

• Gay athlete Twitter bingo.

• Pulitzer Prize winner Rick Bragg profiled Alabama coach Nick Saban for SI’s August 27, 2007 issue. Last week it was chosen as one of SI’s most iconic stories.

• The Washington Post’s Rick Maese profiled ESPN's Adam Schefter

Wisconsin State Journal’s Tom Oates on colleague Tom Mulhern.

Non sports pieces of note:

The New Yorker’s David Kushner examines Anonymous. Really interesting.

• Via Alan Feuer: The Rise and Fall of the Biggest Pot Dealer in New York City History.

• A Washington Post investigation on police taking hundreds of millions of dollars from motorists not charged with crimes.

• Via the always-excellent Monica Konnikova: The hazards of going on autopilot.

• Grantland’s Molly Lambert on the celebrity picture hacking scandal.

The Washington Post’s Radley Balko on how St. Louis County profits from poverty.

• For those who enjoy f-bombs in print: Pearlman wrote a letter to the Gannett corporation.

8. Pam Oliver told Essence Magazine in a first-person piece that she saw the handwriting on the wall. When Fox hired Erin Andrews, she was cooked.

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9. Well done by the Miami Herald. It stood firm against some press bullying and FIU's athletic department backed down after its foolishness.

10.The New York Daily News will no longer use the Redskins nickname in its publication.

10a. ESPN's E:60 will air a feature on the McCluer South-Berkeley football team (Ferguson, Mo.) Tuesday at 8 p.m. ET. The program spent four weeks chronicling the team.

10b. Nice tribute by Fox Sports for longtime NFL producer Bob Stenner, who worked for 40 years in a lead production role for FOX and CBS including for Pat Summerall and John Madden. Stenner currently works for as the producer for Fox NFL announcers Thom Brennaman and David Diehl.

10c.The New York Times reported that Fox Sports will debut a soccer red zone channel for the UEFA Champions League group stage.

10f. Nice work by ESPN to honor its employees who have been with the company for its 35-year existence.