Media Circus: From security guard to Super Bowl LI producer
- Richie Zyontz's passion and hard work moved up him up the ranks and across networks. On Feb. 5, he'll produce his fifth super Bowl.
Long before he became the lead producer for Fox’s top NFL team and before he worked under the famed CBS Sports production arm of Bob Stenner and Sandy Grossman, Richie Zyontz worked as a security guard for CBS Television in midtown Manhattan.
It was the late 1970s, and a temporary agency placed Zyontz, then a Boston University college student, to log some hours at CBS’s research department. That placement proved fortuitous: Zyontz made some important contacts at CBS including at the company’s personnel department. And upon graduation, Zyontz took a fulltime security job at CBS’s headquarters on West 52nd Street as a way to get his foot in the door of the television industry. “I had my oversized blue suit and a clip-on tie, and I kept CBS safe for democracy,” Zyontz said.
Soon after working in security, a fulltime job opened up at the research department. Zyontz took it, and it was there he made contact with Van Gordon Sauter, who was then the president of CBS Sports. Zyontz said Sauter saw his obvious love for sports—the George Gervin poster next to Zyontz’s desk helped the case—and when CBS expanded its sports division, Van Sauter hired Zyontz for the production department.
“I’m so lucky and thankful and I’ve always remained grounded,” Zyontz said. “I appreciate the people I work with. I never take the job for granted.”
On Feb. 5, when the Patriots and Falcons meet in Super Bowl LI in Houston, Zyontz will sit in the lead production chair, his voice in the ear of game announcers Joe Buck and Troy Aikman. This will be the fifth time (Super Bowls XXXIV, XLII, XLV and XLVIII) Zyontz has served as the lead producer for the main Super Bowl broadcast, an assignment maybe 20 or so on earth can say they’ve done.
Prior to working for Fox, Zyontz and Rich Russo, who will direct the game, were part of the NFL group at CBS Sports and trained under Stenner and Grossman, who spent years as the producer and director for Pat Summerall and John Madden. This is Zyontz’s 11th Super Bowl overall for Fox or CBS.
“I feel more nervous when I am sitting at home watching CBS or NBC do this game, and I’m not sure why that is,” Zyontz said. “Maybe its because I know what it’s like and I know what they are gong through, especially if it’s close. I feel nervous watching it at home. I don’t feel nervous at the game. I am an anxious person by nature but for some reason at my job, I feel relaxed and can enjoy the moment.”
This will be a quiet week for Zyontz as far as production but a busy one personally. After spending Monday at his home in northern Virginia, about an hour west of Washington D.C., he will visit his 93-year-old mother and his sister in New York City. Then it’s back to Virginia for a couple of days before heading to Houston next Monday. “There’s not a lot of prep stuff this week,” Zyontz said. “My bosses and I will coordinate on certain things because the Super Bowl brings a whole level of commitment. But generally this week I am just antsy about getting there.”
Zyontz’s crew has not had New England this year, but they have broadcast two Atlanta games including the NFC Championship. Once the Fox group gets to Houston, Zyontz and Russo will likely watch tapes of both teams. The production crew did a preseason game in Houston and have been to NRG Stadium a few times to examine the camera positions. Zyontz said it’s a good stadium to work in, and the broadcast booth is oversized for television.
“I think we are good now with Atlanta having just done this game,” Zyontz said. “And New England is one of those teams that when they play their hurry-up pace, it’s another layer for us to be aware of. But we have had teams, like Green Bay, that play fast and we are familiar with New England from years past.”
The one thing a game producer wants for a Super Bowl outside of a close game and no major plays or replays missed are players that viewers are familiar with. Obviously, both the Falcons and Patriots have star quarterbacks with Matt Ryan and Tom Brady. That will be an advantage.
“People [in our business] fell in love with Dallas for the ratings that they bring, but a fresh team, an exciting team, that maybe the country does not know much about yet in Atlanta is a lot of fun,” Zyontz said. “This is one of the great offensive teams we have seen in a while. I think it’s going to be a good one.”
The Noise Report
(SI.com examines some of the week’s most notable sports media stories)
1. SI.com reported on Monday that ESPN is canceling The Sports Reporters. The show is expected to end in May, just shy of 30 years on the air. In its place, ESPN will air an hour-long edition of E:60, its sports journalism magazine show.
1a. Sports Business Daily assistant managing editor Austin Karp reported that Fox drew a 27.4 overnight rating for Falcons-Packers. That’s the lowest for any early window conference championship game since 26.1 for 2013 49ers-Falcons game.
1b. ESPN told a number of reporters this week—including SI—that the company would ask President Donald Trump to provide an on-air bracket for the NCAA tournament. That’s the same as they did for President Barack Obama and other Presidential hopefuls, including John McCain. “At the appropriate time we will reach out to the White House,” said an ESPN spokesperson. “Nothing further on it yet.”
Whether Trump is interested is anyone’s guess—he’s been quoted more on golf, football and tennis than college basketball over the years—but it’s the correct move. To end a long-standing feature would give further credence to those who believe ESPN has a left-leaning bias. The ESPN’s public editor recently examined “the company’s perceived move leftward” and that “consumers have sensed that same leftward movement, alienating some,” and it’s probably the best piece this current public editor has done in the role. “We’ve done a great job of diversity,” said longtime ESPN anchor Bob Ley in the piece. “But the one place we have miles to go is diversity of thought.”
1c. I asked a group of NFL beat reporters about the strangest and most annoying media restrictions imposed by teams. Here’s the piece.
1d. On Sunday, ESPN renamed the NFL studio in ESPN’s Digital Center 2 building to honor Chris Berman and Tom Jackson:
1e. Some thoughts from readers on why viewers cannot get an NFL pregame show rivaling Inside The NBA.
1f. Zyontz said the Atlanta staff led by head coach Dan Quinn is one of the most accessible they deal with. “He is personable, knowledgeable and straightforward and accessible. He just exudes enthusiasm and a wonderful guy to talk to. The team is very helpful and accessible. We’ll see if that continues in Houston, but I expect it to.”
2. As part of a new Monday night NBA franchise, Turner Sports will use on only former players in play-by-play, studio host and reporter positions. Along with aiming for publicity for a package on a night that normally won’t draw big numbers—you are welcome, Turner Sports PR—Turner is hoping to create more conversation in the broadcast at the expense of traditional play-by-play voices. The experiment will last for five weeks of doubleheader action, beginning Feb. 27, at 7 p.m. ET. The game broadcasters include Brent Barry (primary host and play-by-play) with Derek Fisher and Grant Hill. A second team consists of Greg Anthony (primary host and play-by-play), Kevin McHale, Richard Hamilton and reporters Lisa Leslie and Dennis Scott. Studio coverage from Atlanta will be anchored by Chris Webber with Isiah Thomas and Baron Davis. TNT analyst Kevin Garnett will also be part of the plans.
2a. When the Minnesota United debut later this year in Major League Soccer, Kyndra de St. Aubin will become the only team-employed female TV color analyst among the league’s 22 clubs. De St. Aubin previously worked for ESPN Radio, the Big Ten Network, the Pac-12 Network and called the Women’s World Cup for Fox. Below, she discussed her new role:
Richard Deitsch: Why did you want the United job?
Kyndra de St. Aubin: I wanted the United job because it is a dream scenario. Not only do I get to cover a sport that I love and am passionate about, but it’s as an analyst for an MLS team. The cherry on top is that it is in my home state of Minnesota. I get to go back to the soccer community that made me who I am today and give back to that community and be a part of something really special. I could not have asked for a better more perfect opportunity for me and my family.
RD: The list of women who work as color commentators on men’s sports is not long and you are the only team-employed female TV color analyst among the MLS’s 22 clubs. How much do you see this as a pioneering role, if at all, and why?
KDSA: First off, I was and am truly honored to be hired for this job. Pioneer seems like a strong word because as you mentioned, there are a number of women that have done this for other sports. I would love for other women in the broadcasting industry to see this as an example that anything is possible—that times are changing and your hard work will pay off. You will get noticed and nothing is out of reach. I’ve had several young women approach me when I’m doing college games as a sideline reporter for football and basketball or analyst for soccer or softball and they say, “How do I get to do what you do? What is the path you took?” Now it’s pretty flipping cool that there are young women who can see me doing this in a men’s league for MLS and know they can do it too. But I will say that doing MLS versus NWSL or any other level of soccer, I won’t change the way I prepare for games or the way I do things because it’s men’s soccer rather than women’s soccer. I’ve always prided myself on hard work and being prepared, but most importantly once the whistle blows it’s soccer. Pretty much the only sport where every single rule and aspect of the game is the same for women and men—the ball, the field, the length of the game, the substitutions, the rules, everything. I love the sport and I respect everything about it.
RD: You’ve worked for the Big Ten Network, Pac-12 Network and Fox. How difficult is it to make a living as a fulltime soccer broadcaster?
KDSA: It’s not as difficult to make a living as a fulltime soccer broadcaster as it used to be. The fact that there are so many different networks and platforms is to our benefit as broadcasters. I was 100% freelance before this job, so it allowed me to take on as much work as possible for Big Ten Network, Pac-12 Network, Fox Sports and my job at the ESPN Radio affiliate in Phoenix at the same time. Just like anything in life, if you work hard and do a good job when called upon, you’ll keep getting more opportunities, more games, etc. Sounds so cliché, but it’s absolutely true. Hard word really does pay off.
2b. espnW’s LaChina Robinson spoke with ESPN basketball analyst Kara Lawson, SEC women's basketball analyst Tamika Catchings, and Baylor coach Kim Mulkey on the impact of Pat Summitt.
3. Episode 99 of the Sports Illustrated Media Podcast features Sports Illustrated senior writer S.L. Price. Along with his work for SI, Price has a new book out—Playing Through the Whistle: Steel, Football, and an American Town—which examines the history of Aliquippa, Pa. and football’s place in an American steel town.
In this podcast, Price discusses how to approach long-form sports writing; what makes certain subjects interesting to write about; the difference between sports feature writing in 2016 versus 2000; the process of interviewing dozens of people for a piece and how to organize it; why he wanted to examine Aliquippa, Pa., the home of Mike Ditka, Darrelle Revis and Ty Law among other NFLers; how he finds stories and profiles; how to write a feature when your main subject will not talk to you; whether you have to like a subject to write about them; playing basketball against candidate Barack Obama in Iowa for an SI column in 2007; how often he likes the pieces he wrote; why what the immediate future holds for Roger Federer; Rafa Nadal and Serena Williams; and much more.
You can subscribe to the podcast on iTunes, Google Play and Stitcher.
4. Non-sports pieces of note:
• This is a sensational piece by Jeanne Marie Lakas on the White House mailroom under Barack Obama. Best story I read this week.
• How a new college graduate created a fake news website that drew millions of views.
• President George W. Bush's letter to President-elect Barack Obama in 2009.
• How Vladimir Putin and His Cronies Stole Russia, by Anne Applebaum.
• Barack Obama, on what books mean to him.
• Via The Intercept: The Crimes Of Seal Team 6:
• Powerful piece by Carvel Wallace on race and Barack Obama.
• The New York Times obituary for Wayne Barrett:
• I asked my student why he voted for Trump. The answer was thoughtful, smart and terrifying.
Sports pieces of note:
• From SI’s Tim Layden: Tom Brady’s relationship with his receivers.
• Scott Cacciola on James Michael McAdoo, the last player on the bench for the NBA’s best team.
• Bleacher Report’s Flinder Boyd on the life of Joe McKnight.
• ESPN’s Craig Custance on All-Star Game hero John Scott, one year later.
• Golf Week examined Donald Trump’s impact on golf.
• From SI’s Jon Wertheim: The Indy 500 Rookie of the Year who was also an international drug trafficker.
• From Dave Zirin: The impact of Kurtis Blow’s “Basketball.”
• SI’s Greg Bishop profiled longtime Packers beat writer Bob McGinn:
5. The NFL Network sent out a release saying it was the second most-watched sports cable network among both 18–49 and 18–34 viewer demographic during the 2016 NFL regular season (ESPN ranked No. 1). The network’s average for 2016 was 256,000 overall viewers, up 3% from 2015 including NFL games.
5a. Bleacher Report writer at large Dave Schilling wrote a piece last week that examined where NBA players might land regarding being public on politics, particularly the politics of Trump. Schilling spoke to seven NBA players for the piece including Golden State’s David West and Marvin Williams of the Hornets. “I think it comes down to how popular he ends up being as President,” Schilling said. “There is more cover for people to speak their mind against a public figure if the opinion is so far drastically in the negative.”
5c. Miami Herald columnist Greg Cote remembers Edwin Pope, one of the great sports writers of the past 50 years.
5d.Longtime Orlando Sentinel sports writer Brian K. Schmitz announced he was retiring from the paper after 42 years of writing sports.