Media Circus: What if I told you one of the most powerful teams in sports never played a game?

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Monday April 3rd, 2017

Director Daniel Forer has no idea if ESPN Films will use the tag line he has composed for his upcoming 30 for 30 documentary on the wildly successful afternoon sports talk show hosted by Mike Francesa and Chris Russo on WFAN Radio in New York City from 1989 to 2008. But it’s a good one as far as a sales pitch for viewers outside of New York City:

What if I told you one of the most powerful teams in sports never played a game?

Over the 50-minute “Mike and the Mad Dog” documentary (running time will be an hour with commercials) that will air this summer on ESPN and premieres on April 21 at the Tribeca Film Festival, Forer highlights the rise of the iconic sports talk show, the impact the show had both in New York City and nationally, as well as the absurd fights and ultimate dissolution of the partnership.

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ESPN Films executives have long wanted to do a “Mike and Mad Dog” documentary but something always seemed to come up regarding either Francesa and Russo, or finding the right person to helm the film. When Forer met with ESPN Films staffers a couple of years ago, he told them that he had a connection to Francesa—Forer was a producer at CBS Sports in the late 1980s when Francesa worked as Brent Musburger’s researcher and information guru. Forer also happened to be there the first time Francesa appeared on CBS’s airways (it was a late night studio appearance during the NCAA tournament).

He also had a way to get to Russo. Upon having a Chinese dinner one night in New Canaan, Conn., with old friend Ted Shaker—the former president of CBS Sports who serves as executive producer of the documentary—Forer told Shaker that he was thinking about making a film on the popularity of the “Mike and the Mad Dog” radio show. Shaker told Forer that Russo was one of his neighbors in New Canaan and he believed he could get Russo on board. The two soon met with Russo, who agreed quickly to cooperate for the film.

Forer said it took much longer to get Francesa—a couple of months—but he made his big pitch in Aug. 2015 when he flew from his L.A. base to meet with Francesa at his Long Island-based country club. Said Forer, who directed and produced the film: “We had lunch and talked and Mike said, ‘You know what, I’m in. I’m comfortable and it’s that time in my life where if someone wants to look back I’ll do it.’”

With both Francesa and Russo on board, ESPN Films told Forer that they saw this as a 20-minute short film. But as Forer got into the story and research, he told ESPN Films that they could not do the story justice at that length. So ESPN executives Connor Schell, John Dahl and Libby Geist greenlit the doc for an hour.

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“Mike and the Mad Dog” opens at the third annual FrancesaCon, which is a celebration of all things Francesa for his most diehard fans. It was at last year’s event at Manhattan’s Irving Plaza when Russo appeared, much to the delight of those (nearly all men) in attendance. Forer said he wanted to start the film in present day to have contemporary peg of the relevance of both men. The film also weaves in the story of WFAN, the nation’s first 24-hour sports-talk station. The station lost $8 million in its first year but eventually rode success behind Don Imus as its morning drive host and the arranged marriage of Francesa and Russo in the afternoon.

The film provides a lot of testimony on the impact of Francesa and Russo, including Yankees general manager Brian Cashman, Giants co-owner John Mara, former NBA Commissioner David Stern and now Fox MLB analyst Alex Rodriguez. Forer said his group (including editor Mario Diaz, associate producer Vincent D'Anton and John Fontanelli) interviewed more than 35 people for the film, including former colleagues and bosses, members of the New York sports community and media members. The best of that lot are CBS Sports announcer Ian Eagle and WIP Radio personality Chris Carlin, both of whom served as producers for the show and are brutally honest of the childish behavior exuded at times by Francesa and Russo. The CBS announcer Jim Nantz, who worked with Francesa at CBS and is a longtime friend, also provides some interesting psychoanalysis on the relationship.

To Forer’s credit, this is not hagiography. He addresses head-on the most controversial moment of the show’s 19-year run. Shortly after 9/11, Francesa and Russo asserted that the attacks were prompted by the U.S.’s support of Israel and suggested that American Jews should submit some sort of loyalty oath, choosing between either Israel or the U.S.

“They are both aware of the role that that incident plays in the history of ‘Mike and the Mad Dog,’” Forer said. “Neither one shied away from answering it and their takes on it. They were both very direct. Mike was Mike. He maintained the position he has always maintained: There was nothing controversial and he doesn’t believe they offended anyone. Chris is a little more sensitive to it and does understand criticism of it. He was more forthright in sharing with us his opinion of what happened that day. I was very pleased both addressed it and neither as afraid to address it. I said nothing would be off the table and they accepted that.”

The best part of the film, in my opinion, has nothing to do with sports talk. It’s Francesa, in a rare moment of fragility, discussing growing up without a father and dreaming of owning a rich man’s house one day, and the death of his younger brother, Marty, who committed suicide. Forer said he interviewed Francesa in a single setting, a seven-plus hour interview. Forer said he wanted people to understand why Francesa and Russo are who they are and why they are who they are on the air.

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“Mike didn’t hold back and allowed us to get into aspects of his life, his family,” said Forer, who worked for a number of years as a writer on the CBS show Touched By An Angel. “Mike is very proud of how far he has come and I think knowing where he began will help people see how far he had to come to get where he is.”

Forer said he interviewed Russo for six hours, including following him on his train commute from Connecticut to his SiriusXM job. The director said he grew to like his subjects very much and that Francesa is far more generous than he appears on air. Forer said he reached out noted Francesa critic and New York Post sports media writer, Phil Mushnick, as well as Bill Parcells, a one-time close friend of Francesa’s, and Mike Piazza, who likely arrived in New York because of the radio show, but the schedule did not work out with any of the trio. Asked how he will judge success of the film, Forer said, “Have I done the best job within my capabilities to tell this story the most honest, objective and entertaining way possible?”

As for Francesa and Russo, they have not screened the film. Forer said they will first see it when the public sees it at Tribeca Film Festival.

For “Mike and the Mad Dog” devotees, the film will be about three hours too short. What will be interesting is what kind of traction the film gets outside of the New York-Philadelphia-Boston area.

“The arc of their personal story is compelling and the impact they had on sports across America is undeniable,” said Forer. “I think it will have interest to those across America if they give it a couple of minutes. But it’s not a typical sports story.”

The Noise Report

(SI.com examines some of the week’s most notable sports media stories)

1. Episode 111 of the Sports Illustrated Media podcast features writer James Andrew Miller, the best-selling author of books on CAA, ESPN and Saturday Night Live.

In this podcast, we discuss ESPN embarking on significant layoffs, with the emphasis being on those in front of the camera; how many people Miller believes will no longer be working at ESPN; how much money ESPN is being charged with cutting; management’s rationale for its decisions; what the Walt Disney Co.’s extending of Bob Iger’s contract means for ESPN; where he sees Bill Simmons’ immediate future; the success of Barstool Sports; what’s next for FS1 personality Katie Nolan; ESPN’s decision to move Sam Ponder into the Sunday NFL Countdown host spot; why ESPN’s moves to replace Chris Berman were not as clean as you might think; Miller’s next project; the future of Dan Patrick at NBC; how sensitive ESPN management is to internal criticism of content (e.g. LaVar Ball); FS1’s opinion shows; and much more.

 

You can subscribe to the podcast on iTunes, Google Play and Stitcher.

2. Anyone who covers sports television knew that the NCAA semifinals would be up this year because of the move back to CBS from TBS (the networks rotate the semifinals and finals every year). The question would be how much. The answer was a ton. The North Carolina-Oregon semifinal drew 18.8 million viewers, up +46% from 2016, and the second highest viewer average for the late Final Four game in 19 years. In the early game, Gonzaga-South Carolina drew 14.7 million viewers, up +40% from a year ago, making it the second most-watched Final Four game in that window since 2005. CBS and Turner said the NCAA tournament is averaging 10.4 million viewers, up +14% from last year and the second-highest viewer average through the Final Four since 1994. 

For perspective last year’s title game between Villanova and North Carolina—one of the most compelling finals in history—drew a disappointing 17.8 million total viewers across TBS, TNT and truTV, down 37% from the 2015 title game (28.3 million) featuring Duke and Wisconsin on CBS. Those pushing little difference between cable and network—and you can understand why cable officials would want to push this—point to the 2015 semifinal game between Kentucky and Wisconsin which was the highest rated semifinal game (22.6 million viewers) in 19 years including games on CBS.

2a. Dave O’Brien, Doris Burke and Holly Rowe after Morgan William’s shot to end UConn’s 111-game winning streak:

3. The women’s Final Four moved to a Friday-Sunday format this year from a Sunday-Tuesday format. That’s counter to what ESPN would ultimately want. “Our recommendation was to keep it where it was but at the end of the day it is their tournament,” said Carol Stiff, the vice president of women's sports programming at ESPN. “Moving it to a Friday up against the NBA is not ideal. But if they think this is what is best for the game, we are their media partner and we will make the move.”

Added ESPN analyst Kara Lawson: “From a TV perspective, I don’t love it because it makes the semifinals on ESPN2 and the semifinals were always on E1 [ESPN]. That’s a big deal on TV.”

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3a. Lawson said she has enjoyed moving out of the studio to the game booth (with Dave O’Brien and Doris Burke) because she gets to say more given the length of a game. “As little as time as we have had together, I think it’s gone really well,” Lawson said. “They have been great about working me in.”

3b. ESPN had 167 credentials for the women’s basketball Final Four.

4. Pieces of note:

• Charlotte Observer’s Jesse Soloff writes about his late wife: A blue bungalow, a big backyard, and a future that was all too short.

• The Detroit News had an oral history of WrestleMania3.

• A powerful, painful piece from Joline Gutierrez Krueger, who lost her son to heroin.

• ESPN.com’s Eli Saslow on Cuban slugger Yoan Moncada.

• From Bloomberg BusinessWeek: How Dominos atoned for its sins.

• From The New Yorker’s Tad Friend: Silicon Valley’s Quest to live forever.

• From SI’s Michael Rosenberg: Why Is Colin Kaepernick Still Looking for a Job?

• Grade-school chess teams from Franklin County, Miss.

• What happens when diagnosis is automated, by Siddhartha Mukherjee.

• Via Gizmodo’s Ashley Feinberg: This Is Almost Certainly James Comey’s Twitter Account.

• The Hollywood Exec and the Hand Transplant That Changed His Life.

 •From The Portland Press Herald: More people die from drugs in Maine every year than breast cancer. More than car crashes.

5. Sporting News writer Michael McCarthy interviewed Mike Greenberg about his future away from ESPN Radio’s Mike and Mike show.

5a. A television viewer was responsible for Lexi Thompson losing four strokes at the LPGA's first major, the ANA Inspiration in Rancho Mirage, Calif.

5b. Toronto Sports Media did a roundtable on the ethics of newsworthiness.

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