As the 2019 NFL Draft arrives in Nashville, look out for new coverage (including ABC's new draft show) and new faces (including former country music star, Jason Fitz).
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You don’t have to hear Jason Fitz to recognize that ESPN’s rising voice is different. You only have to look at him. “The tattoos were just incredible,” ESPN Audio boss Traug Keller says, recalling his first introduction to Fitz. To not lose sight of what he’s achieved, Fitz inks his biography on his right arm (his left is dedicated to his wife, Sunny). “The story of his life on his arms,” as Keller puts it. And what a story it’s been.
Fitz might have the world’s only ESPNU tattoo, but you’re going to have to search to find it. More skinspace is dedicated to the American Music Awards, Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve, Saturday Night Live, and the Grammys. Before Fitz took a swing at sportstalk, he was a world-travelling, award-winning strings player for pop-country group The Band Perry, as his arm attests.
Years after making it in Nashville, Fitz returns this week with the NFL Draft in town to host Golic & Wingo Thursday and Friday morning as well as contribute to evening coverage across ABC, ESPN, and digital platforms. Fitz’s old friends will get to see what he’s accomplished since quitting music in 2016. “It bridges the two careers I’ve lived in such an amazing way,” he said.
I knew when I was four that I was going to be a violinist for the rest of my life, Fitz used to say. By age eight, he was practicing eight hours a day. He played Carnegie Hall at 10 years old, attended Julliard, and moved to Nashville in 1997 to chase his dreams. Touring with The Band Perry, he achieved them. But after spending 300 days of a year on the road, he told his wife, I’m thankful for what I do, I’m great at what I do, but I don’t love what I do. Together, they decided Jason should find a way into sports, his true passion.
In November 2012, Fitz sat in his car, too embarrassed to tape anywhere else, and recorded the first episode of The Jason Fitz Show using his musical recording equipment. For years, he recorded the podcast every week from wherever in the world the Perry’s were performing. And whenever he found himself on the East Coast, he networked with any ESPN exec he could get in front of.
So you want to win the life lottery twice, ESPN’s VP for talent negotiation Rob Savinelli asked Fitz the first time they connected in 2015. People win twice all the time, Fitz said. He started getting a handful of fill-in shots, and eventually landed a regular gig on ESPNU’s College Football Daily in ’16. That’s when he quit the band, knowing neither how to host a TV show nor how he was going to pay his bills.
He quickly added a daily radio show on Nashville’s ESPN station. He got reps on the Snapchat version of SportsCenter. And in 2018, he was given a nationally syndicated weeknight show with Sarah Spain. Since, he’s become a frequent host on Golic & Wingo, ESPN Radio’s morning flagship. “He’s crammed his 10,000 hours into 12 months and that’s how he goes after things,” Keller says.
On tour, Fitz led rehearsals and managed any mid-set tweaks that had to be made on the fly. “He was the heart of their music for anything we were doing live,” former TBP production manager Earl Neal says. “All those moments prepare me for what I do now,” Fitz says. “My main job is to set everybody else up.”
Neal was surprised along with everyone else when Fitz left the group to pursue sports talk, but he hasn’t been shocked by his friend’s ascent since. On the radio, he hears the same Fitz he got to know on the road. As Keller describes it, “Fitz treats it like he’s talking to a friend, and not everyone understands that intuitively. That separates him from a lot of pack.”
After asking if Fitz seriously believed he could work his way up another uber-competitive industry, Savinelli wonder what ultimate goals the fiddler had in sports. Once again, Fitz was unfazed. I want to be the face of the network for a generation, he said. Crazy, sure, but nothing has stopped him yet.
When SportsCenter on Snapchat earned an Emmy nomination in 2018, Fitz headed back to his favorite tattoo shop. This time, though, he asked to leave the statue as a silhouette. He’ll get it filled in when he wins one.
This week brings a huge opportunity for Fitz, whose Nashville ties will earn him extra visibility during draft coverage. While his longtime followers get to see how far he’s come, first-time viewers will get an introduction to the fresh face. And if all goes well, maybe it’ll inspire the next bit of ink.
THREE MORE DRAFT MEDIA STORYLINES
Honestly, the word “Draft” only barely describes what the NFL’s yearly player selection process has become. The days-long festivities “will sprawl across almost all of downtown Nashville.” ESPN is “unleashing the entire power” of its networks to cover the event. There’s going to be a draft village, multiple music stages, and possibly 100,000 fans. Can we really call all of this the same thing we called a bunch of executives gathering in a ballroom decades ago? Of course not. It’s only a matter of time before we’re talking about the NFL’s annual Selection Spectacular or, maybe, its Super Draft.
The big media story this year centers around ABC’s new coverage of the draft, hosted by Robin Roberts and ESPN’s College GameDay crew. That broadcast is aiming to win over casual viewers with a focus on human-interest drama. But here are three other topics worth tracking—in addition to which linemen your team is targeting.
How Will ABC’s Presentation Affect ESPN’s Offering?
Theoretically, the existence of a more mainstream draft show on broadcast television offers the opportunity for the ESPN version to better serve its draft-obsessed viewers. Producers will be wary of leaning too hard into wonk territory, though, careful not to isolate the middle fan who wants X’s and O’s but is also tuning in to see hugs and kisses. ESPN has pulled off differentiated shows with its MegaCast productions before—could we one day see a draft show as geeky as the Coaches Film Room?
NFL Network’s New Leading Man
While Mel Kiper will do his thing yet again on ESPN, Daniel Jeremiah will debut in NFL Network’s lead analyst chair after former guru Mike Mayock took the Raiders’ general manager job. With the channel since 2012, Jeremiah previously spent time as a scout for the Ravens, Browns, and Eagles. And to think, he might be working at ESPN if the network wasn’t in the middle of a hiring freeze when the expert was a free agent.
Booger McFarland’s Chance to Shine
This time last year, Booger McFarland was a college football analyst on ESPN2’s draft coverage. Thursday, he’ll be on ESPN’s main set. McFarland’s Monday Night Football future remains unclear (Peyton Manning is reportedly not joining the show). For now, he has an opportunity to reset the narrative, free from the mocked Booger Mobile and no longer tied to Jason Witten.
• E:60, OTL, ESPNW, and SportsCenter were awarded a Peabody Award for their coverage of Larry Nassar’s abuse at Michigan State and their “precise demonstration of how rape culture works systemically.”
• Following so-called “final bids,” Sinclair Broadcasting is reportedly the leading candidate to buy nearly two dozen regional sports networks.
• NBC soccer host Rebecca Lowe will co-host the network’s Kentucky Derby coverage on May 4 with Mike Tirico.
• The Warriors can close out the Clippers Thursday night. Something tells me Kevin Durant’s battle with the media will last longer.
• The WNBA is coming to CBS Sports.
• According to founder Omar Raja, Bleacher Report-owned House of Highlights became “the first U.S. Sports Media brand to pass ESPN in a follower count on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram.” It now has close to 13 million Instagram followers.
• As ESPN staffs up the ACC Network, former Miami Hurricanes coach Mark Richt is joining as a studio analyst.
• The Le Batard Show is heading to New York for a live event at the Gramercy Theater.
• In The Boston Globe, Chad Finn discussed what has changed during his first decade on the sports media beat.
• Is it too late to get Ava DuVernay to direct the NBA Finals?
THANK YOU INTERNET…
...for the pain and promise of college decision reaction videos.