- Mike Tirico talks his move from ESPN to NBC, his long-term NFL future, his relationship with Al Michaels and more.
Mike Tirico will be the future play-by-play voice for Sunday Night Football. His boss all but confirmed that last week in an interview with Sports Illustrated. “I certainly think he is in position to take Al’s [Michaels] role when Al decides to step away,” said NBC Sports Chairman Mark Lazarus. “That I think is our collective expectation.”
If you read this column regularly and follow sports media news, you are well aware that Tirico was the presumed game-caller for NBC's new package of five Thursday night NFL telecasts, a role that was thought to be part of the inducement to get him to leave ESPN for NBC Sports last July. You are also no doubt aware of reports last month that the NFL vetoed NBC’s supposed plan to have Tirico call the Thursday games, citing contractual obligations with both NBC and CBS (which also will air NFL games on Thursday night) that the network's No. 1 Sunday broadcast and production handle the Thursday assignments. (One of the NFL’s top communication staffers put out a long statement making it very clear about such a contract.)
Both Tirico and NBC Sports officials insist this was never the case. In an extended interview with SI last week, Tirico says NBC never told him he would call Thursday Night Football, nor was it part of his contractual negotiations.
“The assumption was just made when I got hired by NBC that I was hired to do Thursday Night [Football] but nobody ever said that,” Tirico said. “When I had to make the decision on making the move [from ESPN to NBC], one of the questions I had was regarding staying involved in the NFL and how much real estate was there at NBC. With NBC getting Thursday Night Football, it added to the real estate, but I wasn’t coming here to do play-by-play or coming to work that night. It was, ‘I’m going there and it will be a long-term play for me.’
“I knew what the contract was [with the NFL] and that they had to guarantee certain talent for both networks. So when I came here, I thought there was enough going on at NBC that there was a place for me. Everyone made an assumption and I guess that is just a lesson in how dangerous things can be because that was not the case when I signed. It was we are going to figure this out as we go through, and this is now where it has ended up and I am perfectly fine with it.”
Tirico’s NBC roles included hosting part of the network’s Rio Olympics coverage and hosting NBC’s Ryder Cup coverage from Sept. 30–Oct. 2 in Minneapolis. As for the NFL, Tirico will host Football Night in America from the Sunday Night Football game site (his assignment includes feature interviews as well as pregame, halftime and postgame responsibilities) and call play-by-play on two NBC-produced games for NFL Network. He will also serve as a fill-in play-by-play announcer for Notre Dame football's first three NBC games of the season while Dan Hicks will be on assignment for the Fed-Ex Cup playoffs.
Thus, over the course of an 11-week stretch at his new job that began in July, Tirico will have hosted golf’s The Open Championship and 15 nights at the Olympics including the closing ceremony, call two NFL exhibition games, host Football Night In America on Sundays, call Notre Dame football and host the Ryder Cup.
“That is better than my entire year at ESPN, with no disrespect to those assignments,” Tirico said. “That’s as good a portfolio as you can have regarding hosting events and variety. Right away that told me what they think of me. I’m super happy with today and what tomorrow will be. I’m not sitting around wondering if this was the right move.”
What have NBC executives said to Tirico about his NFL role long-term, especially given Michaels turns 72 in November?
“For the long term, we have not talked about much,” Tirico said. “I am going to keep the negotiating stuff private because I don’t think anyone who has a contract talks about what is in their contract in specifics and if they do that is their business. I choose not to. I will tell you this: They have been very honest and upfront that I will be a big part of what NBC does know and in the future. I trust these guys a lot. My future is not going to be one forgotten about or without a path forward. I believe in those guys and without saying this is specific what we have discussed or negotiated, I feel super comfortable I will end up in good places and doing good things.
“I signed up to join a lineup that has Mantle and DiMaggio in Bob Costas and Al Michaels and they are still great at what they do,” Tirico said. “We saw that at the Olympics. I had to make the decision whether there was enough space at NBC to continue to grow my career at this point in my life knowing these guys are both still there and both still terrific at what they do. By these assignments I have now, that shows me there was absolutely enough room and that this was the right move. What it will be in five years, I don’t think any of us know what it will be but I am fine where we are right now.”
Tirico said that he did not speak to Costas and Michaels prior to making the decision to move to NBC Sports. He had a relationship with both but not to the point where he would pick up the phone to discuss his career. Since joining NBC Sports, however, Tirico and Michaels spent a lot of time together in Rio because they were working similar schedules.
“I think if you do this you are a little bit of nerd about sports television and the history of sports television and I spent every day talking with Al about events he did, doing games, and working with different people along the way,” Tirico said. “I would characterize my relationship with Al as we were acquaintances, knew each other, and thought kindly of each other. Now I would characterize him as a friend. We had some terrific conversations that were so important to me.”
During the NFL preseason, Tirico called two games with Cris Collinsworth, who is of course the partner of Michaels on Sunday Night Football. It was the first time the two had worked together and Tirico said the feedback he received from the broadcast was excellent.
“I felt like I had worked with Chris even though I hadn’t,” Tirico said. “I was so familiar with his style. He is so easy to work with. You can ask him anything and he can take it to a good place. If there was anything I walked away from in those two games it was that there was such a small adjustment to get used to the rhythm of a different network that does business a different way.
“I know what I have done for 10 years with Jon, Jaws [Ron Jaworski], Tony [Kornheiser] and Joe [Theismann] at ESPN. Our peers at other places thought it was a representative of a prime time broadcast. So I have no doubts in my mind that I am qualified to do that job at that level. Whatever they at the league want to say about that is their business. My bosses at NBC or my old bosses at ESPN, I think they have shown the confidence in me. In no way do I look at this and think maybe I am not at that platform. I have done this job and can do this job and I am not overworked at the reading of this by other people. I know what I can do and I think there is a good track record out there for anyone who wants to make an opinion one way or another.”
Tirico said he plans on watching his old mates on Monday Night Football, which isn’t a surprise given how close he is to analyst Jon Gruden and new play by play announcer Sean McDonough.
“I hope they are better than they have been the last 10 years,” Tirico said. “Sean is a 25-year friend. I helped Sean move out of his apartment when I was a freshman at Syracuse. He got a job at TV-38 in Boston when I was working at the college radio station where we all worked. I was a freshman just hanging around trying to learn and we got a call at the station that Sean McDonough, who had just graduated the prior May, was moving to Boston and that we needed to help him pack up. That is the first time I met Sean McDonough, true story. There is not a week that goes by where Jon [Gruden] and I don’t talk to each other. [Producer] Jay Rothman and [director] Chip Dean are dear friends and that whole production group is family. I truly care about those people and want them to succeed. ”
THE NOISE REPORT
(SI.com examines some of the week’s most notable sports media stories)
1. College GameDay’s season debut from Lambeau Field marked the final time Lee Fitting served as the lead producer on college football’s longest-running pregame show. After 12 years onsite, Fitting now oversees all college football and basketball studio and remote production. Longtime producer Jim Gaiero will become the new CGD producer. On Sunday I exchanged emails with Fitting:
SI.com: What stood about today for you given that it was your last one in the chair?
Fitting: It was emotional. It was humbling. It was rewarding. We have the best crew in the business, but more importantly, we have a group that will do anything for the betterment of the show. It’s the ultimate team. It’s family. And it’s always the show first. It’s not ‘What network is a game on?’ It’s not ‘What conference?’ or, Where do we owe a favor?’ It’s do what is right. Egos are checked at the door. It’s never ‘I’ or ‘me’. It’s always ‘we’. That is why the show has been so successful because the number one priority is—what is best for the college football fan? You hear people say that GameDay is often replicated, but never duplicated—that’s because of the team and family attitude that everyone on this show has. To be around that group of people that share that sentiment and see that sentiment thru every week was super-emotional for me in my last show. I’m just so appreciative on what this group has done for me and my career. I look around every single week and say to myself everyone I work with is the best in the business at what they do. They’ve made my job so easy for 12-plus years and seeing that come to an end and trying to thank all of them for what they’ve done and what they mean to me was the toughest part. In the end, the group put on a very memorable show at a very memorable location on the biggest opening weekend ever. The GameDay crew always rises at the biggest moments on the biggest stage and has a whole hell of a lotta fun doing it. That’s what I’m most proud of.
SI.com: How often will you be at the GameDay site heading forward?
Fitting: I will be at Bristol Motor Speedway this week to be with both GameDay and our game coverage. After that, I’ll be popping in from time to time, but the show is in great hands and those guys need to be on their own for a while. Plus, I have a lot to learn on the event coverage side and want to be around that as often as possible. The goal is to find the right mix of being around GameDay and letting the crew run with it on their own.
SI.com: Who makes the selection on GameDay sites heading forward?
Fitting: This will work the same as it has in the past. It’s a group process—on-air, off-air, producers, etc…. all will have their input. I will still be heavily involved in the decision. Ultimately, I will make our suggestion to my boss, Stephanie Druley.
SI.com: What should viewers know about Jim Gaiero?
Fitting: He’s produced big events before—being our lead NASCAR producer for years, producing the Indy 500 and CFB and CBB games. He’s been around big shows. Jim has everything we were looking for in a producer: he’s great with people, he’s real, he lets people do their job, he loves college football, has a great personality, and most importantly, he embraces the family atmosphere that’s been created on GameDay. He will absolutely crush it as the leader of GameDay. The show is in great hands.
1a. Tirico has called college football on radio and lives in the college football hotbed of Ann Arbor. He said he jumped at the chance to call Notre Dame football. The broadcast will call the team’s first three home games.
“Notre Dame football is as big as gets,” Tirico said. “If you have an opportunity to stay involved doing play-by-play, to be a part of something you have not been able to be a part of, to do games at a legendary venue with a program as rich in tradition as anyone, who would turn that down? Fan base criticism is part of our job in 2016 and that’s okay. It’s an artful dance calling Notre Dame. You are fully covering both teams, it’s not a homer broadcast, but the Notre Dame fans would of course like it to be. But so does every set of fans. I always tell people about a national broadcast: You are three broadcasters in one. You are the broadcaster for the home team, you are the broadcaster for the road team, and you are the broadcaster for all the other people watching. All three audiences don’t necessarily hear what you are saying the same way. What you come to realize at the end of the day is be honest, do the job, be fair and you will be fine.”
1b. ESPN PR said the first Saturday of the college football season, combined with U.S. Open coverage, drew 249.1 million minutes viewed on its WatchESPN streaming product as well as 2.7 million unique users. The four games (LSU-Wisconsin, Oklahoma-Houston and USC-Alabama and Georgia-UNC) had streaming audiences top 500,000 unique viewers and 100,000 average minute audience.
1c. New Yorker writer Robin Wright on being the first women to cover Michigan football for the Michigan Daily:
1d. SB Nation’s Spencer Hall, who is no fan of yours truly, wrote a really interesting essay on football, codified violence and the American bison.
2. The Internet may hate Phil Simms, but his bosses at CBS Sports have his back.
2a. Chris Berman, Steve Young and Lindsay Czarniak will broadcast the Rams-Niners game for ESPN on Sept. 12. That game has more than usual interest given Colin Kaepernick’s decision not to stand during the playing of the national anthem. ESPN’s public editor wrote about the network’s plans to cover the anthem. What remains to be seen is how much the broadcasters discuss Kaepernick during the game. Young of course was a Hall of Fame player for the Niners and remains close to the organization. He’s also a thoughtful commentator. His comments could be very interesting during the game if allowed the freedom by his partner to explore.
2b. ESPN announced it reached a multi-year agreement with Keyshawn Johnson that includes new roles on television and ESPN Radio. He will work as a Los Angeles-based NFL analyst and become a regular daily host for ESPNLA 710 AM, ESPN’s owned radio station in Los Angeles. Previously, Johnson appeared on ESPN’s Sunday and Monday NFL pregame shows.
2c. ESPN NFL insider Chris Mortensen said he received very encouraging news last week from his oncologist team of doctors at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center that now enables him to focus on recovery rather than treatment. Said Mortensen: “The Stage IV throat (oropharyngel) cancer that was diagnosed in early January and treated with intensive chemotherapy and radiation has been virtually reduced to zero detection of the disease through the latest scans and exams.”
2d. On the question of reports of NBC wanting Tirico to call the Thursday Night schedule, Lazarus said, “It is correct is we have a contractual obligation to use our number one team on Thursday night. That is fact. We made that commitment, CBS made that commitment, and that was always our plan and expectation. We signed that deal long before Mike Tirico was ever part of our company. We never had any other plan. Our plan when we discussed Mike coming to our company was that he would be involved in football in a very big way and that was always contemplating the Sunday hosting role for Football Night In America and calling some games, notably the preseason games and ones that have date conflicts with other games we have on. Mike’s flexibility in terms of being a host and game-caller suits who we are extremely well and we will utilize both of those skill sets.
Asked specifically if NBC asked the NFL for any kind of contract addendum so Tirico could call games, Lazarus said, “We told them that we were hiring Mike and they said the expectation is that you are using [Al and Cris]. We said, “Of course. That is our commitment and we will live up to our commitment.”
2e. Costas will be the host of NBC’s Thursday Night Football. “When Bob Costas shows up at an event, it is a big event,” Lazarus said.
3. Episode 74 of the Sports Illustrated Media Podcast features the longtime professional wrestling journalist Dave Meltzer, the editor of the Wrestling Observer Newsletter and WrestlingObserver.com and a writer for MMAFighting.com.
In this 75-minute episode, Meltzer discusses his journalistic approach to covering professional wrestling; how forthcoming wrestlers and WWE management are; how he approaches reporting on WWE vs. MMA; how important technical proficiency is versus mic skills; what he views ESPN’s foray into WWE content and why he’s not convinced they will cover the underbelly of the sport; how Brock Lesnar is treated in WWE as compared to everyone else, the rise of the Diva division; whether Hulk Hogan will return to the WWE; how he finds sources in pro wrestling, the future for Big Cass and Roman Reigns, his relationship with Vince McMahon and Dana White, his thoughts on the Raw/Smackdown split, 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, you can tweet at me here.
4. Non sports pieces of note:
• One of the best reads of 2016 is this true crime classic from Los Angeles Times writer Christopher Goffard on a PTA mom’s dangerous intersection with a well-to-do couple.
• Via Gabriel Sherman of New York Magazine: How Fox News women took down the most powerful, and predatory, man in media.
• The improbable story of the man who won history’s ‘biggest murder trial’ at Nuremberg. From Karen Heller of The Washington Post.
• From the always terrific Boston Globe writer Eric Moskowitz: A McDonald’s worker retires after 32 years at the fry station.
• Amazing, sobering read: How to Tell a Mother Her Child Is Dead.
• Via Outside: The Real-Life Superhero Who Beats the Cops to Bike Thieves.
• Via Dan Barry of the NYT: The task of recounting what happened to the jetliner on Sept. 11, 2001, falls to Robert Franz at what is now a national park in Pennsylvania.
• Felix Hall was lynched at Fort Benning in 1941. The U.S. government never solved the murder. This piece was written by a recent journalism graduate from Northeastern University. Just remarkable work.
• Here’s how the reporter above, Alexa Mills, reported the story.
• From Baltimore Sun reporter Justin Fenton: With two teens missing, Cecil County authorities make a deal with their suspected killer. Would it bring closure?
• Rolling Stone’s Seth Harp on U.S. soldiers left for dead in Iraq, their epic battle for survival, and the military cover-up that kept them silent.
• Via NYT: Flooding of Coast, Caused by Global Warming, Has Already Begun.
• From Texas Monthly: How a kid from Laredo became a hit man for Mexico’s most dangerous drug cartel.
Sports pieces of note:
• The most remarkable NFL-related story you'll read this week, via Buffalo News writer Tim Graham.
• ESPN’s Marc Stein, on coaching tennis at the U.S. Open.
• Via Steven Godfrey: The cord-cutter's guide to (legally) watching college football.
• Via The Undefeated: What the Kaepernick story says about the lack of diversity in journalism.
• The AP on Craig Sager’s cancer battle, with an assist from Charles Barkley.
• From The New Yorker: The Mania of Michigan Football.
• Wall Street Journal’s Tom Perrotta profiles the roof operator at the U.S. Open
• SI’s Luke Winn on a reserve freshman basketball player who declared for the NBA draft because he believed his God wanted him to do so.
5. Bill Simmons interviewed pal Tony Kornheiser about sports writing among other topics. For those of you that asked, ESPN PR said Kornheiser asked for permission and it was granted. Said a spokesperson: “We determine podcast appearances on a case-by-case basis. Tony asked for and was given permission for this one.”
5a. Ken Carpenter, longtime golf journalist, passed away at age 59.
5b. Sports networks, sorted by annual revenue, via Sport TV Ratings:
5c. FS1 will air its first U.S. men’s national team World Cup qualifier on Tuesday at 7:30 p.m. ET when the United States meets Trinidad & Tobago, FS1 will air Mexico-Honduras (JP Dellacamera and Cobi Jones) after the U.S. game.
5d. NBCSN in August had its best monthly total-day audience on record, averaging 517,000 viewers on a total-day basis, tops among all cable sports nets, including ESPN, which averaged 418,000 viewers, per Sports Business Daily. NBCSN's prior record was in February '14 during the Sochi Games.
5e. HBO said Marc Payton, who retired in 2013 after 32 years of directing fights at Home Box Office, will come out of retirement for one fight and travel from his home in Houston to England to direct the London portion of a boxing doubleheader next Saturday (5:30 p.m. ET) headlined by the Gennady Golovkin-Kell Brook middleweight title bout at the 02 Arena in London.
5f. Tuesday will be a big sports night for Showtime featuring a two-and-a-half hour sports block including an all-new edition of the news magazine 60 Minutes Sports (8:00 p.m. ET), followed by the ninth season premiere of Inside the NFL (9:00 p.m.) and the second installment of A Season with Florida State Football (10:00 p.m.).
5g. The NFL Network debuts two documentaries on Wednesday night highlighting the Super Bowl champion Denver Broncos—Worth the Wait: Gary Kubiak and the 2015 Denver Broncos, and America’s Game: 2015 Broncos.
5h. The SiriusXM FC soccer channel will air a show next Wednesday (11:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m.) examining the lack of African Americans playing at the youth and professional soccer levels as well as in the coaching ranks. The show, America Series: Breaking Down Barriers, will be hosted by Sirius XM's Jason Davis and Clinton Yates of The Undefeated.
5i. The Scott Van Pelt-led midnight ET SportsCenter will celebrate its one-year anniversary on Sept. 7. ESPN PR sent out some numbers on the show, highlighting that Van Pelt has brought down the average age of viewer during that time slot.
5j. ESPN declined comment on FS1’s late programming decision to move Undisputed, the new Skip Bayless vehicle, up a half-hour earlier in an attempt to siphon some audience from ESPN2’s First Take (which begins at 10:00 a.m. ET), the old home of Bayless.
5k. One of the most remarkable sports photos you’ll ever see was taken this weekend by DallasNews.com photographer Jae Lee:
5l. Via Austin Karp of SBD: Little League World Series finals viewership:
2016: 2.56 million viewers