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Keith Olbermann's future; Jim Calhoun moves to broadcasting

This is not your father's Keith Olbermann.

At least not when it comes to his current relationship with ESPN, a romance that has been far more Sleepless In Seattle than The War of The Roses. The broadcaster that New Yorker magazine once tabbed as “One Angry Man” returned to ESPN 14 months ago, and this current incarnation of Olbermann has been a mix of fire (on the air) and fidelity off it (there has been no public bashing of his employer or colleagues).

With more than a year in the books back at ESPN, Sports Illustrated caught up with the 55-year-old broadcaster last week for a two-part conversation on his current work experience and a host of other topics (His show “Olbermann” can be seen daily at 5 p.m. ET on ESPN2). Part 1 of this conversation ran on Monday

Is there an assignment in broadcasting that you have not done that you would like to do before you retire?

I have moderated Presidential debates, been the anchorman for the Presidential Inauguration and several election nights on national newscasts. I hosted Super Bowl and World Series pregame shows. I covered the Oscars once for the Los Angeles Times … Frankly the only thing undone in my career is something I do not expect will happen because it does not make sense to anyone else involved. My goal was to be a baseball or hockey play-by-play person. My role models growing up were Jerry Coleman, Phil Rizzuto, Joe Garagiola and Marv Albert. Those were the people I grew up listening to. If you were interviewing me in 1973 and told me I got to do all I’ve done, I would have said, “What about play-by-play?” My goal was to be the Yankee announcer and I don’t think that is going to happen. I did play-by-play for one MLB game in 1993, a regional game for ESPN. That was it. And I don’t think it will happen again.

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Why was your show moved from late night to 5:00 p.m. on ESPN2?

[ESPN president] John Skipper asked me to go. He said we have been thinking about this for a long time and think you can do 5 p.m. strategically -- and it would have a consistent home on a nightly basis. One of the things that is slightly contradictory about my career -- and I think I can vouch for it with all the warts that are correctly or incorrectly ascribed to me -- I am actually a team player. Dating back to whatever job under whatever circumstance, when people ask me to do something and explain to me why they want it done and how I can make it happen, I'll do it. I was on SportsCenter 21 years ago and [executive vice president] John Walsh and a guy named John Lack [a former vice president] came up to me said we would like you to give up SportsCenter, which is going really well, and host ESPN2. Not to make any comparisons between that product and the show we have now, but everything I heard about that show said to me: “I don’t think it is going to work.” Well, I didn’t think it would be voted the seventh worst thing in sports by Sports Illustrated in 1993 but by the time that happened, we were just happy we were not No. 1. But they asked me to do it and I did it.

It’s interesting that Skipper would discuss with you himself?

Well, I will give you the provenance of this. John took a particular interest in this [his coming back]. He was the first person I spoke with about coming back. He has had a personal interest it. Obviously there are a number of things on his plate and I am not in touch with him on a daily basis or weekly basis, but we are in touch frequently and I enjoy his company and I think I can say without fear of contraction that he enjoys mine, too. The original request came through Norby Williamson, who has also been terrific in this whole thing and who fought for this; he came up with the sort of the outline and what [management] wanted to do. I said this to John Skipper when I met him in March 2012: “For crying out loud, if you had been running the place in 1997, I might never have left.” Even if it were not sincere and I believe it is, the understanding of talent as a commodity is a newfound thing within ESPN relatively speaking, and for somebody like me it is delightful. It is looking at my experience elsewhere and saying, “This is valuable to us. We have not all worked at every other television company. How do they do that there?” That was never the attitude before. It was, “Don’t pollute our place with your wild CBS ideas.” So I am not in constant contact with him but John has always told me that anything I would like to discuss with him, he wants to take the time to discuss with me. 

The Sports Business Daily reported that your show at the new time slot is up 61 percent from what was in same window last year. But you and Outside The Lines also have to go up against the strong ESPN bloc of Pardon The Interruption and Around The Horn. How much ratings pressure do you feel?

Remember what was said at the ESPN Upfronts last spring and it is strategic: Part of this process is to point out to people that the second most widely watched and thus No. 2 name in cable sports in this country is not Fox, NBC or CBS. It is ESPN2. I had seen individual show ratings, like how we did the first night at 5 p.m, but reading that in Sports Business Daily was the first time I had seen them on the whole. Not that they have denied them to me but I have not asked because I really have graduated emotionally at the ripe young age of 55 to the point where I can actually be satisfied with whether or not I like the show.

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So if it is better ratings than what they had previously, terrific. But part of my deal is you guys let me do the show I want to do, you are happy with it and I am happy with it, and if you think the ratings are low, you figure out what to do about it and come back to me and we will work it out. The things that I know about that suggested to me the show was successful was we were bouncing around the schedule due to the program overload at 11 p.m. to now being on every day at the same time and suddenly being sponsored, having segments sponsored by fairly big advertising names. We have Lexus as a presenting sponsor on the show and that is always a good sign when you have a sort of class advertiser that wants to do that. All credit to the sales department. But yes, we are going up against Happy Hour. I said to Bob Ley when he was on my office, “Should we brand us as Unhappy Hour?”

How big is your show’s staff?

We have essentially two executive producers and one line producer who are all sharp guys. One of them is David Sarosi who was with me at MSNBC, worked with me at Current TV -- we crawled out of that wreckage -- and here we are again. So he has worked with me at three different companies.  Then there is Kevin Wildes (the executive producer) and Matt Ketaineck (our line producer) We have four segment producers (Matt Collette, Charlie Hulme, Gavin Shulman and Omar Williams) and I have a really good researcher (J.B. Kritz) who fact checks everything in the show and what a blessing that is. Everybody makes a lot of mistakes and very few get on the air because of this one guy. Then we have our director (Brian Nalesnik) who came over from MSNBC, our booker (Darren Demeterio), and three or four more PAs. There’s also the tech crew and some editors. It is a small, compact staff and they are top flight.

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How do you decide on the subject of your lead essay and who picks the daily Worst Person in the Sports World?

I make the final call. We have a set of eyes looking at the sports world and I want them to operate in a vacuum for the most part. They email me in the morning with a consensus of four or five things they think might make a nice commentary. I may or may not have an idea … As for the worsts, we do the same basic premise that we used at MSNBC which was if I tripped over something that was just egregiously obvious to me I will forward to my executive producer. About midday they will send me a long email with 20 or 25 options and I pick them out and write it.

What are the first things you read or watch each morning?

I tend not to watch a lot of sports on television. I never did. At night our show was a hybrid commentary highlight show and I needed to be absolutely up to date on every possible bit of breaking news. I don’t really need that now so I try to stay away from almost anything on TV sports. Like the screenwriter who does not want to read other people’s screenplays, you worry about being influenced by what is going on. I listen to a lot of radio and I tend to go down the worm holes on the Internet and find myself for some reason reading the sports section in Oshkosh just for the hell of it. I like to read the anti-establishment sports sites if you will, the Deadspins, the Awful Announcings and the Big Leads. I tend to think of them as my philosophical offspring from the ’90s. However Gawker-ized Deadspin might be, it is still a very useful anti-establishment point of view. We tend to find a lot of worst person stuff on those sites. I sound like a millennial: I don’t go to TV for my news. I go the Internet and Twitter.

Can Fox Sports 1 one day be part of the every day conversation for sports fans in the U.S?

I don’t know enough about the daily operations but the key ingredient that has been left out of this equation is this is not their first attempt at this. It is not the first time they fell off and got the horns from the cattle in sensitive places which I think is a fair description of what has happened to them in the last year based solely on their own predictions. This happened to us [at Fox] in 1999. I was on the other end of it and I was one of the people who got the horns. I saw the product firsthand in 1999 and there were people in 1999 and one guy in particular named Tony Ball. He hired me and said “This is the money we are going to give you and half of the money we are giving you you will earn  in the introductory press conference."… The premise of what Tony said was that in five years we might be approaching 50 or 60 percent of their {ESPN] ratings. He said it was a five-year plan and I said, “You are exactly right." Three weeks after he said that, he moved back to England to run BSkyB. I said, “I’m screwed, aren’t I?” He said, “Yeah, I think so.” He checked out, and they went from a five-year plan to a five-month plan. What they had then and what you have that ESPN does not have is a potentially captive audience from almost every local telecast of every NBA, NHL, and MLB game. You had them at the time. They were already watching Fox Sports on cable. All we had to do was get them to stay to watch a national sportscast.

I don’t know if you can introduce another all sports cable network now under any circumstances and expect it to reach half the size of ESPN. People are not watching TV sports when they are watching ESPN. They are watching ESPN, and consuming ESPN one way or the other. They might not differentiate in their minds at this point between ESPN,, ESPN2, ESPN Radio. It’s all one product. You will always succeed with game telecasts and there will be enough people watching your studio shows around game telecasts. But it is very difficult to get a studio show launched in cable unless you have the incumbency that ESPN represents.

Who do you consider the leader in the clubhouse for the Worst Person in Sports in 2014 and why?

This segment -- as you know -- is simultaneously two seemingly mutually exclusive things: searing criticism and pure larfs. In the latter category, judging by the reactions in the studio two recent ones are real favorites: The AHL’s Adirondack Flames introduced a new mascot ("Scorch") who is shown in his introductory video defeating a Glens Falls, NY firefighter and presumably leaving him for dead. And if that weren't bad enough they created a back story in which "Scorch" is the last surviving flame from the fire that leveled Glen Falls' business district 150 years ago. If THAT weren't bad enough, all of this had to be apologized for by team president Brian Petrovek, who as the Harvard goalie in the late '70s used to get tortured by us Cornell fans. Tied with that is Mark Donnelly, the anthem singer at the British Columbia hockey game who tried to skate as he sang and almost immediately face planted.

Among the serious ones, the award basically has been retired to the school board at Neshaminy High in Pennsylvania, which has been trying to jam the word "Redskins" down the throats of its student newspaper editors who object to having to use it or print it. These people shouldn't be allowed within a mile of any school -- especially this Stephen Pirritano clown who reportedly [via Vice Sports] wanted some of the kids arrested.

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How long would you like to remain at ESPN?

I have given it no thought whatsoever. If you don’t count my college radio experience, which was essentially a professionally run station, I have now been doing this for 35 years and three months. That is a long time. I got my first paycheck to cover anything in sports when I was 15. Bert Sugar hired me to work on a book with him. So I have been doing it for a long time and what I have learned is never having accurately predicted my future in terms of this business, I could be here another year or another 20 years. I have no earthly idea and it is almost insulting to everyone to say, “Oh this time I really think I am going to be here forever.” I could have said that at Fox, Current or CNN in the 20th century or 21st century. When you can say I made boastful or inaccurate predictions about how long I was going to be at one company in two different stints in two different centuries, it’s time to stop predicting.

The Noise Report examines some of notable sports media stories of the past week:

1. Jim Calhoun described the process of becoming an ESPN analyst as an evolution rather than a specific post-coaching career plan. The former UConn men’s basketball coach and three-time NCAA champion was an obvious choice for ESPN given the proximity of the school and how many UConn grads work at ESPN, but Calhoun had spurned ESPN’s since retiring in 2012. 

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In an interview last week with Sports Illustrated, Calhoun said he finally decided to take the job because he liked being around other people who love the game. He cited ESPN colleagues Jay Bilas and Seth Greenberg specifically.

”I’ll be around the sport I love,” Calhoun said. “I do have a couple of opinions about the game and the state of the game.”

One thing ESPN and Calhoun will have to navigate are discussions about UConn. Calhoun is a UConn employee as a special assistant to the school’s director of athletics. That’s a pretty major conflict that Calhoun/ESPN should inform viewers about every time UConn comes up.

“No question I have to be as objective as I possibly can about something I am very subjective about,” Calhoun said.

He will morph among the studio, game telecasts and conducting sit-down interviews with coaches. (He’s tight with Jim Boeheim, Tom Izzo and Mike Krzyzewski so I’d expect one if not more of those to happen.). He will first appear on the network calling one of the State Farm Champions Classic games on Nov. 18. (Michigan State vs. Duke at 7 p.m., followed by Kansas vs. Kentucky).

On the issue of being critical of people he has personal relationships with, Calhoun said, “I don't think my job is to be critical. It's to be fair, to make observations and evaluations. I'm not looking forward to debating anyone. I think I am honest and fair and the most important thing is I have information. I don't think I am going to set up a debate.”

Calhoun spent 26 years as UConn’s head coach and a total of 40 as a collegiate head coach from 1972-2012 (14 years at Northeastern). His overall record as a head coach was 873-380, one of only eight Division I coaches in NCAA history with 800 wins.

1a. ESPN announced former college basketball coaches Stan Heath and Craig Robinson have joined the network as men’s college basketball analysts. They will call games on ESPNU and appear on studio programming.

1b. During our conversation, Calhoun said college basketball is badly in need of a commissioner. I asked him if he had someone specific in mind. “God rest his soul but Dave Gavitt [former Big East Commissioner] would have been the ideal guy. He was a visionary, and at least for 30 years he set up the greatest league in the history of college basketball. I am prejudiced, but I also think I am accurate. I just think we don't have control. Football has control. Are they running the NCAA? I did not say that. They are running football. I just think we should have more voices on what is best for basketball. I think if we had a person at the top who could make these kind of calls as opposed to something random, it would be a lot better for the sport. Football has that and we don't. We need a voice.”

2.  HBO Sports will debut in November a reality special on Kevin Durant’s offseason. The show -- The Offseason: Kevin Durant -- debuts Nov. 4 and follows Durant from May 31 until training camp in late September. Durant is listed as one of the creators and producers of the show (Jay Z also has a producer credit) so viewers should have a healthy dose of caveat emptor while watching.

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3. Fox's late-afternoon Sunday telecast of the Cowboys-Seahawks on Sunday drew a 19.2 overnight rating, the best regular-season overnight for any NFL broadcast since 2011 and tied for Fox' best rating since '96, according to Sports Business Daily.

4.Ad Age reporter Anthony Crupi reported that 30-second spots for Fox’s coverage of the World Series are "pricing at around $520,000 a pop, up slightly versus last year.”

4a. The next 30 for 30 documentary ("The Day The Series Stopped") focuses on the Bay Area earthquake that ended Game 3 of the 1989 World Series on October 17, 1989. It airs Tuesday night at 10 p.m.

5. ESPN OTL anchor Steve Weissman will receive a citation from the Connecticut Coalition Against Domestic Violence next month as one of 100 area men working to improve the lives of domestic violence victims throughout Connecticut.

5a. Fox Sports has released its schedule and its announcers for the 2014 CONCACAF qualifiers for the Women’s World Cup.

5b. L.A. Daily News reporter Tom Hoffarth had an interesting Q&A with NBC NHL analyst Mike Milbury, who now advocates abolishing fighting in the league.