Programming WFNZ is a Dream Come True For DiGiacomo
“If you can’t entertain, challenge, and engage a listener, you have no spot on my radio station.” Those sound like the words of a raging taskmaster, but they are actually the words of WFNZ program director Tony DiGiacomo (Dee-jock-omo). Tony is enthusiasm defined. He has a true passion for sports radio and makes a fun job even more enjoyable for the people around him.
I think Tony shares some similarities with Jim Harbaugh. They both attack the day with “an enthusiasm unknown to mankind.” Although they truly love what they do and the people they work with, they will not hesitate to turn off the buddy-buddy approach while pushing talent to new heights. They both have some unique quirks too. I can see Tony rocking khakis or something else off the wall like Harbaugh.
It’s an art to help talent improve while actually enhancing their passion for the industry. Tony does an outstanding job of accomplishing both. You can feel his enthusiasm for sports radio, his hosts in Charlotte, and his favorite baseball team below. It’s unfortunate that Tony uses all of his vigor to describe his love for the Cubs, but we all can’t be perfect. Enjoy, everybody.
Noe: I’ve noticed a very disturbing trend in sports radio. There’s Bruce Gilbert, Dan Zampillo in LA, you. You guys are all Cub fans. Are there any St. Louis Cardinal fans calling the shots in sports radio these days?
Tony: (laughs) Not that I know of. There is, however, a guy here on WBT our sister station named John Hancock — a 30-year radio vet who was just inducted into the WBT Hall of Fame — who’s a die-hard Cardinal fan. I do know that. He’s in our building, but no I can’t think of one actually. I know Matt Nahigian in San Francisco at The Game is also a die-hard Cub fan. I’m sure he’ll appreciate having that out there. A lot of Cub fans are running the show at sports radio stations across the country.
Cardinal fans, man. You know what? They’re a rare breed. People think Cub fans are nuts. Cardinal fans are even crazier. Cardinal fans believe baseball starts and stops in St. Louis. They don’t open their eyes to the rest of the Major League Baseball world. Where Cub fans can appreciate the success of the Yankees and the Red Sox and even the Cardinals over the years, because at our core we are baseball fans, because we suffered through losing for so damn long, man. So yeah, that is a trend. That’s not a disturbing one though, Brian.
Noe: It is very disturbing. It needs to change immediately. If I see any up-and-coming programmers that are Cardinal fans, I will definitely try to get them on the radar. So tell me Tone, how did you get your start in sports radio?
Tony: I grew up a kid wanting to be Harry Caray. I think like every Chicago kid who was interested in getting into broadcasting, they wanted to be like Harry Caray who was my idol growing up. I just loved the way he described baseball. It wasn’t so much the funky stuff he did with the glasses and “this Bud’s for you” and all that stuff, but I just loved how he described the game. He took you inside a broadcast booth with theater of the mind. He told great stories. I thought Harry was actually really good on radio too. He was doing radio games on WGN.
So I wanted to be Harry Caray, but then I realized that, hey, I had to pay for school. I went to community college for a couple of years, and in that two-year phase, I grew even more fond of the business. I then chose Columbia College in downtown Chicago. A lot of guys and gals have graduated from there. From Pat Sajak to Pat O’Brien to others that are in the Chicago media industry still. I heard it was a great school and spent two and a half years there. Their job placement scenario was perfect.
I got my first internship at WBBM — actually WMAQ at the time, which is now WBBM. I was a Bears network producer as an intern. I did that for a year, which was a great experience. Then, Brian Davis, the bald guy who calls the Oklahoma City Thunder games, actually turned me on to Sporting News Radio and said, “I know this guy named Mark Gentzkow who’s looking for some guys.” He was the PD at the time there. “Looking for some guys on a part-time basis and I think you and your twin brother will be great for this.”
So, that’s how I got my start at Sporting News Radio part-time. Running weekends, editing sound, cutting tape, all that stuff. My first job on a full-time basis was in 2000 running the Bob Kemp Show overnight and Rick Ballou who was on from 9 to 1. Rick is now in Jacksonville, and I think Bob is still in Arizona.
I worked overnights for four years and I actually dug it, man. I thought it was really, really fun. You got to learn so much in that time slot because the pressure was off on guest booking and all of that. It was where I could hone my skills as a producer and a programmer. I learned a ton from those two shows from 8 o’clock at night until 5 in the morning.
From there, I just rose thru the ranks at Sporting News. Then when Sporting News was bought by ACBJ Journals — which ironically is based here in Charlotte — when the Shaw’s took over they were moving the company to LA. I said, “I really don’t want to go to LA.” Then a couple of phone calls later, I found myself in Charlotte hired by DJ Stout who is one of my mentors, and still programming country radio here in Charlotte. That’s how I got down here.
It’s been a long and not so much windy road, but a solid road. To work in two markets like Chicago and Charlotte has been fantastic. A big city top-five market to a 23rd-ranked market, and to just be able to enjoy the ins and outs of a network, and go from network to local has been fascinating to learn. It’s made me a better programmer.
Noe: Did you have a vision or a goal to be in programming?
Tony: No, I wanted to be on the air. I always thought I was going to be on the air, and I fell in love with producing and programming. I fell in love with the rush of booking a guest. I fell in love with the rush of creating a great imaging piece. I fell in love with a great bit. I loved the interaction between host and producer and then becoming a sidekick on shows at the network.
Then moving down here and becoming a third-chair sidekick on the show “PrimeTime with the Packman.” I fell in love with that role. I got the best of both worlds. I was able to chime in on the air and add to great content while also delivering and producing the great content, which I thought was invaluable to listeners to have the experience of doing both.
I don’t think anybody tries to be a producer. I think everybody grew up through the ranks or in high school or in college, they want to be on the air. They want to aspire to be on the air. If you’re not aspiring to be that, I think they’re in it for the wrong reasons because everybody should want to be on the air. That’s the ultimate. But I do think the production side and producing side gives you a different rush which is also exhilarating. When a show comes together formatically and you can walk in studio at the end of a four-hour show and fist bump your host and be like, “You know, that was a great show.” That’s the best part about sports radio.There’s no monotony in this job and I love that.
Noe: Do you think there are hosts that might be better suited to be producers or programmers but are just unwilling to go down that road?
Tony: I do and it’s not that they’re not talented because I think everybody on the air has talent, but I think it’s the way you see yourself and the stage you’re at in your career. I think a lot of hosts think that that’s all they’ll do for the rest of their life. When in reality if they flipped a coin and realized how good they were at production and formatting and programming, they would actually fall in love with this side of the job.
This side of the industry is awesome. I come in as a programmer every day thinking what could I do today to make the station better? Whether it’s to coach a guy up, image a little better, suggest a guest to help a show or something else. It keeps things fun and interesting. I’ve been around some guys over the years and I’ll look at them and think, “Man, you’re really good on the air, but you’ve topped out. I think you’d be an excellent assistant PD, or an excellent PD, or heck even a great executive producer of a show.” But most don’t think about that. I also think there are some PD’s and producers who are really good on the air and just don’t allow themselves to expand their role and pursue those opportunities, so I think it works both ways.
Noe: What’s the toughest decision you’ve had to make as a program director?
Tony: Man, I’ve made some tough calls here in a year and a half. Looking back on it, we had to make a decision here to elevate a show which we formed about a year and a month ago. We had this dynamic show in “Garcia & Bailey.” Frank Garcia, a former NFL player, and Kyle Bailey who is an up-and-coming rising star from Charleston. We formed the show and I knew right away the chemistry was great. That’s something you can’t coach. Great chemistry is either there or it isn’t. You can coach the formatics and get guys better at the logistics of how to win the PPM game, but you can’t coach chemistry.
I also knew that our afternoon drive show, “Primetime with Chris Kroeger”, had been in afternoons for a long time and it too is a dynamic show. I met with my ops manager and we got together and said, “You know what, there’s this dynamic show that we believe is best suited for afternoon drive and we’ve got to make that adjustment.” It had nothing to do with Chris not being great because he definitely is, it was just about the way I saw the station flowing. Chris is a dynamite fit in middays and he’s already thriving since we made the move. That was a very tough decision. Certainly my toughest one.
There are times of course where you’re going to have to unfortunately cut a guy. Whether it’s for financial reasons or someone not delivering ratings. I think the tougher situations are when you have a really successful show in one daypart, and want to move them to another daypart, but still have another strong performer in that slot. My belief is that every daypart is important but you also have to consider where everyone fits and that’s not always easy to explain.
Noe: How do you go about that process? I don’t know what Chris’ mentality is, but someone might view that and say, “Hey, man. I used to be the starting quarterback and now you’re bringing me in as the Kordell Stewart slash player.” How do you talk a guy up and make him believe that he’s still very valued?
Tony: You’ve got to be honest with people and explain why you’re doing it. You have to let them know how they’re performing individually and as a team, from the producer, to the host, to the board op, to the engineer, and communicate that it’s not always about rating points. Sometimes it’s just about the dynamic of the shows that you have in front of you and where you feel they fit best.
As long as you’re honest with them, and you share your reasons, and remind them that you’re still a huge fan of what they’re doing and they’re not going anywhere other than to a different timeslot, I think you’ll continue to win together. It’s up to them to take you at your word and remain confident in themselves and sometimes that’s the hardest challenge, keeping a guy’s head right.
You know as well as I do, Brian, that in this job you go through ebbs and flows. One month you’re confident. One month nothing’s working for you and you lose yourself. Then you find yourself right back in the fast lane two months later. I believe that if you’re honest as a PD, you garner the respect of everybody on your team and find yourself having a lot of success together.
Noe: What’s a trait that’s a deal-breaker for you when you’re evaluating a host? Just something that’s unappealing and would cause you to say, “Nope. I’m not interested in this guy.”
Tony: I think just faking It. I think not being honest. You can tell when a guy is throwing something up against the wall to make it stick. Not believing in their opinion. Not feeling convicted in their opinion. That’s a big thing for me. Look, you don’t have to be so outrageous that I’m getting emails every day about how over the top you are, but I want you to have conviction in your thoughts.
I want you to have three things — I think, I feel, I believe. As long as you have those three things all the time you’re going to succeed. So if I don’t hear that out of a guy, that’s the biggest turn off of a host. If you’re just coming on the radio and reading the newspaper, I can do that every day. The guy listening can do that every day. He’s got his cell phone and can read scores in the palm of his hand. Engage a guy. If you can’t entertain, challenge, and engage a listener, you have no spot on my radio station.
Noe: What do you think is the most common mistake that hosts make?
Tony: I think the biggest mistake some make is not formatting a show. I think winging it is a huge mistake. If you do not format your show — and I’m not saying you have to format it like the best national host out there or the best local host in a market, but if you have no flow or plan for where you’re going, you are dying on a vine. The listener can tell, and the PD can definitely tell. And honestly the producer can tell. It may be easy to turn it on if you’ve done it for a while and start talking, but when you’re winging it, you’re not doing three things you should be doing, and that’s engaging, entertaining, and challenging.
I hear guys come on the air sometimes in different markets saying, “Hey, the Cavs and the Celtics played last night, let’s recap the game.” Okay, well what do you want to recap? What points do you want to hit on? Which way do you want to take the audience? How are you going to challenge them to think a different way? How are you going to incorporate sound?
You have to have a plan. You have to have a flow to what you’re doing. You can’t just, every time you turn on the mic in each segment, talk about something different. You have to have an educated way to do that hour and you don’t do that by winging it.
Noe: You’re a very enthusiastic guy. Do you find that you tune a host out if they don’t have energy or passion?
Tony: As energetic as I sound right now, when you’re too over the top and too high-strung the listener can tune you out. I don’t want my guys to be like me. I’m on a different level. Not to say that they can’t be like that every once in awhile, but I want my guys to be who they are. You know when a guy’s got energy. You also know when a guy is tired and just isn’t bringing it.
I don’t find that to be a tune out. I find that to be actually engaging if the guy is like that every day. I find it to be real. I don’t like the approach of the Stephen A. Smith’s of the world where it’s just in your face, yelling and screaming at you every day. You don’t have to talk louder or yell at me to get your point across. You can do that in a nice, calm manner. I don’t need you to yell at me and talk louder to get your point across. It’s the same point you’re going to bring to me if you do it the other way around.
Noe: Do you think it’s tougher to bring the energy out of a host that doesn’t have it, or to try to lower the caffeine level of a guy that is high-strung?
Tony: That’s a great question, because I’ve had examples of that. Mac in the morning, Chris McClain my morning show host, he is high energy, wake you up in the morning, caffeine rush every hour. I think it’s a lot easier to tone a guy down than try and drag energy out of him. A guy either has energy or he doesn’t. That’s just the way it is. Telling a guy to amp it up sounds fake because when they do amp it up it doesn’t sound real.
Having a guy tone it down is much easier in my opinion. I do that a lot with Chris McClain. I’ll get in around 7:30 in the morning and be like, “Hey, bro. You’re screaming at me today. While I love that you’re waking people up, let’s just tone it down a bit. Keep it on a level where everybody driving around is not going to tune you out because you’re yelling at them.”
Noe: The NFL just passed a new policy regarding the national anthem. What are your desires as a PD when it comes to your staff talking about topics that might transition from sports and bleed into politics?
Tony: My philosophy is I want you to talk about it, but I also want you to be educated. I want you to know your audience. By know your audience I mean, know how far you can go. I want you to give your opinion. I want you to give your take. I want to keep politics out of it, but if it’s a political issue I want you to be educated on the political part of the issue.
I had this example come up last Wednesday. I had Stan Norfleet filling in for Chris Kroeger while he was gone for a little bit. Stan works out of Atlanta, and does some work here for us too. He’s a very educated black man. A former high school and college football player who’s educated on the subject. He could’ve gone one of two ways. He could have gone so over the top because of race that I would have looked in there every segment and said, “Bro, what are you doing? Cut your mic off.” He went the opposite way. He educated people on what the rule change was, how it’s going to affect the NFL, and gave his take on it while not being political or one sided. He also listened to everybody that called in, and engaged them in conversation.
One of the things that we are not good at as talk show hosts — listening. I think listeners are the same way. I think listeners have a hard time hearing what hosts say sometimes. They just want to hear things a certain way. But if you are educated on the topic, you can have a thought-provoking conversation, and I will never turn your mic off. Ever. It’s the one thing that you’ve just got to be okay with — pushing the envelope. But push the envelope in an educated way.
Noe: You hear all of the talk about athletes sticking to sports. If you take that concept and apply it to sports radio, I don’t think that you can have that approach in this day and age. These are the main topics that people talk about. How you can constantly avoid all of them?
Tony: You can’t. The stick-to-sports guy is one guy that gets on my nerves all the time. Those guys call every day. They text you. They tweet you, “Stick to sports.” Well guess what? It is not entertaining. It is not engaging. It is not challenging to talk about a box score. What you’re going to do on sports radio is talk about a game in a way that you can find an angle, reasons why a team lost, reasons why a team won, and in this political time in sports especially, you can do that. You can get into a debate because there’s so much out there to educate yourself on in the debate to where it is thought-provoking, can’t-turn-the-radio-off sports radio. That’s what I love. The listener wants that. As long as you know your audience, you will succeed at that every day.
Now there are times where it becomes so racially stressed that you have to cut the conversation off and change gears. I think as a host if you’re good enough, you’ll know when that is. That moment will hit you during a four-hour talk show to where you go, “Alright, enough’s enough. We’ve gone too far. We’ve got to rein it in.”
But I love thought-provoking radio. It’s what we’re in the business for. If I wanted rip-and-read radio, I’d watch SportsCenter. It’s rip-and-read TV. You get a score. You get the highlights. You break the game down a little bit. Then you move on to the next game. If I wanted that, I’d listen to music during the day and watch SportsCenter in the morning.
I want my guys to challenge and engage. That’s the fun part about sports radio. When you can turn on a radio and my host makes you late for a meeting because of what they’re talking about, that’s awesome. It’s why we do this job.
Noe: I was thinking about the interviews that I’ve been on throughout the years. They always ask where you see yourself in five to 10 years. I never know what to say. I just want to do a good job, man. Do you have a vision of where you want to be?
Tony: Yeah, man. I love this town. I love this market. I’ve always thought if I can make this radio station a top-five performer every book, I’m doing my job. That’s my goal, to make WFNZ a top-three, top-five player in sports radio. Honestly, I love Charlotte. Not to say I wouldn’t go anywhere else to do sports radio, but I’ve grown so in love with this market and the sports landscape of this market and this brand. It’s a heritage brand. 25-years-old overall, and 20 years old in this current live-and-local format 6a to 7p.
When I took over for DJ Stout, the passion I have for Charlotte and for FNZ is just tremendous. While maybe I’d love one day to go back to Chicago or be in a top-five market again, I really love Charlotte. If I can stay here for my last 20 years in this business, I’d have no problem with that. I love this station. I love this community. I love our local sports. This is only a 22-year-old sports market. The Hornets and the Panthers are not that old. So we are growing on a daily basis.
Who knows what other professional teams might come here in the future. I think it’s the best time to be in this market and working for Entercom. I see myself in 10 years being right here. If not, Boston, Chicago, New York is where I’d want to be if I didn’t remain in Charlotte, but I want to be here. I don’t want to go anywhere else.
Noe: I just want your unbiased opinion on this. It’s going to be another 100+ years before the Cubs win a World Series again, right?
Tony: (laughs) No, it’s not going to be another 100+ years. You know what? I’ve thought about this a lot Brian. My brother Joe’s a die-hard. He’ll love that I’m mentioning him in here. The guys that you mentioned at the beginning of this conversation are passionate Cub fans, but my brother is one of them rare cats that lives and breathes every pitch from April 1st to October. If the Cubs are not 20 games over .500 every month, he freaks out.
I believe the Cubs will win another World Series in the next five years. It might even be this year. They are notorious for starting slow, but they have too many talented young guys, and too much of a star-powered young core to not win another World Series. I believe this team as currently constructed will contend for the World Series and win it this year, especially if they add a piece or two.
I’m proud to be a Cub fan right now, but I’m a lifelong supporter of my team. I think the best part about what happened in 2016 was hearing my dad cry on the phone. My dad, God bless him 70 years old, he went to games back in the 70’s when nobody went to Wrigley Field. When Wrigleyville was the worst part of Chicago outside of this little baseball stadium built in a neighborhood. So he suffered through every losing season more than my brother and I did. And to hear him cry over the phone in happiness, Man, I teared up. To call my dad from a sports bar here in Charlotte to a sports bar down in Tampa where he lives, and hear another grown-ass man cry about a Cub World Series, that was the best moment in my life. I’ll experience that once again with my father. I guarantee it.
Noe: That’s cool, man. Well, I think it’ll happen sometime between now and the next one hundred years, sadly. Hopefully, not this year. I’m not ready for this year. I need at least a good 15-year window in between.
Tony: I tell my brother all the time, and all of the Cub fans that call in, tweet or email me down here — you can’t win it every year. But if we’re in contention every year to make the playoffs and to go to the World Series, I am completely happy with that. Especially after all of those years of losing.
Brian Noe is a columnist for BSM and an on-air host heard nationwide on FOX Sports Radio’s Countdown To Kickoff. Previous roles include stops in Portland, OR, Albany, NY and Fresno, CA. You can follow him on Twitter @TheNoeShow or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Robert Griffin III Wants to Tell Your Story the Right Way
“Even if I do know you personally, I’m not going to bring that to the broadcast because that’s not my job.”
During last season’s VRBO Fiesta Bowl, Robert Griffin III was part of ESPN’s alternate telecast at field level alongside Pat McAfee. Suddenly, the Heisman Trophy winner took a phone call. Once he hung up the phone, Griffin divulged that his wife had gone into labor and proceeded to sprint off of the field to catch a flight. An ESPN cameraperson documented his run and jubilation as he returned home to welcome his daughter, Gia, into the world. It encapsulated just what motivates Griffin to appear on television and discuss football, and why he is one of ESPN’s budding talents with the chance to make an impact on sports media and his community for years to come.
“This was an opportunity for me to go out and be different in the way that the media covers the players and truly get to the bottom of telling the players’ stories the right way,” Griffin said. “I look at this as an opportunity to do that.”
Griffin was a three-sport athlete as a student at Copperas Cove High School, and ultimately broke Texas state records in track and field. In addition to that, he played basketball and was the starting quarterback for the school’s football team as a junior and senior, drawing attention from various schools around the country. He ended up graduating high school one semester early and quickly became a star at Baylor University in both football and track and field.
Robert Griffin III’s nascent talent was hardly inconspicuous, evidenced by being named the 2008 Big 12 Conference Offensive Freshman of the Year and then, three years later, the winner of the Heisman Trophy. In the end, he graduated having set or tied 54 school records and helped the program to its first bowl game win in 19 years.
Ultimately, he transitioned to the NFL in a career with many trials and tribulations, but through it all, he never lost his sense of persistence. Nearly a decade later, he returned to college, but this time as a member of the media covering the game from afar. Unlike a majority of former players though, Griffin did not formally retire from playing football when inking a broadcasting contract with ESPN.
“I haven’t retired yet at all,” he said. “I tell everyone that asks me the question that I train every day [and] I’m prepared to play if that call does come. I’ve had some talks with teams over the past two years; just nothing has come to fruition.”
While Griffin’s focus as a broadcaster is undeniable, he never thought about seriously pursuing sports media until his broadcast agent pushed him to do so. He was urged to take an audition at FOX Sports. Griffin broke down highlights and called a mock NFL game alongside lead play-by-play announcer Kevin Burkhardt. He was not prepared for that second part, but impressed executives and precipitously realized a career in the space may not be so outlandish after all.
Griffin then moved to ESPN where he experienced a similar audition process, this time calling a game with play-by-play announcer Rece Davis. Once the audition concluded, it was determined that Griffin would not only begin working in the industry, but that he would be accelerated because of his ability to communicate in an informative and entertaining style.
As a player, he saw the way media members covered teams – sometimes bereft of objectivity – and therefore saw assimilating into the industry as a chance to change that. Now, he is focused on telling the stories of the players en masse while being prepared to pivot at a moment’s notice.
ESPN’s intention was to implement Griffin on its studio coverage, but once executives heard him in the broadcast booth, the company had a palpable shift in its thinking. He was told he was ready to go out into the field and start calling games immediately, something of a surprise to him. FOX Sports felt similarly. This led to a bidding war between the two entities, which ultimately concluded with Griffin inking a contract with ESPN. He appeared over its airwaves plenty of times as a player, and even participated on a variety of studio shows in 2018 where he was almost permanently placed on NFL Live. This time around though, Griffin was suddenly preparing to work with Mark Jones and Quint Kessenich on college football games. He did not have time to consider the implications of the decision, instead diving headfirst into the craft and remaining focused on what was to come with producer Kim Belton and director Anthony DeMarco at his side.
“These guys took me under their wing, and I’m beyond indebted to them for that,” Griffin said of his colleagues. “They taught me everything that I know about the industry. They taught me everything I know about how to present things to the masses to where it can be easily digestible. They’ve allowed me to allow my personality to shine through.”
Demonstrating his personality was a facet of his makeup Griffin felt was inhibited by playing professional football, but he knows it would have been considerably more difficult to attain a chance to cover the game had he not laced up his cleats. Calling college football games with Jones accentuated his comfort in the booth because of Jones’ adept skill to appeal to the viewers and penetrate beyond the sport.
“He has the way to connect different generations of listeners to hear what he’s saying and perceive it in the same way,” Griffin said. “To me, that’s what we all strive to do in this industry is to be able to find the connective tissue between the fan who is 60 or 70 years old, and the fan who’s in their late teens or early 20s.”
From the beginning, everyone told Griffin to be himself and not adopt an alternate persona in front of the camera. That advice has guided him as he approaches his third year working in the industry.
“It is so hard to maintain a character or try to be someone that you’re not, but if you are who you are every single day, then every time you show up on camera you will be that person,” Griffin said. “I’ve made sure that when I stepped foot in front of that camera, I was going to be myself.”
Griffin identifies his style as pedagogical to a degree, critiquing players as if he was coaching them on the sidelines. He will never look to penetrate beyond football with his criticism, as drawing conclusions and using unrelated parlance could be viewed as indecorous. In short, Griffin III knows what it means to represent ESPN.
“We’re not a gossip website. We’re supposed to be critically acclaimed, prestigious journalists, and at the end of the day, that’s how I try to approach the job that I do. That’s why I got into the business – because I felt like there was a little of that going on, especially during my career, so I would never do to somebody else what was done to me.”
Over the course of his NFL career, Griffin was subject to immense criticism that went significantly beyond the gridiron. For example, sports commentator Rob Parker suggested that Griffin was not fully representative of the Black community and proceeded to question if he was a “cornball brother.” The incident resulted in Parker receiving a 30-day suspension from ESPN, and after he defended his comments and blamed First Take producers in a subsequent interview, the network decided not to renew his contract.
“My goal as a member of the media is to tell players’ stories the right way, and if I don’t know you personally, I’m never going to make it personal,” Griffin said. “Even if I do know you personally, I’m not going to bring that to the broadcast because that’s not my job.”
In addition to broadcasting college football games with Jones on ESPN and ABC, he also appears on-site for Monday Night Countdown, the network’s pregame show leading up to Monday Night Football. Making the decision to add NFL coverage to his slate of responsibilities meant that Griffin would be able to tell more stories and utilize his knowledge of players during their collegiate careers to enhance the broadcast.
The energy that he felt attending tailgates and interacting with fans at the college level gave him a unique skill set to translate to the NFL side, leading him to present the production team with an unparalleled idea for Week 1. He wanted to race Taima the Hawk, the live game mascot for the Seattle Seahawks who flies around Lumen Field prior to the start of each home game. It was an outlandish idea, but one that made sense for television because of the visual appeal it can present.
“If you know anything about hawks, they can fly up to 120-140 miles per hour, so they’re like, ‘There’s no way he’s going to beat this hawk in a race, but we’ll do it,’” Griffin said. “To that crew’s credit, they never once balked at any of the creative ideas that I brought to the table because they want to try different things and be exciting and have fun on the show.”
Griffin ended up winning the race, commencing the new season of Monday Night Countdown with immediate excitement before the Seahawks’ matchup against the Denver Broncos. He thoroughly enjoyed his first year on the show and having the chance to work alongside Suzy Colber, Adam Schefter, Booger McFarland, Steve Young, Larry Fitzgerald and Alex Smith.
“They always tell me, ‘Hey, anything you’re not comfortable with, you just let us know and we won’t do that thing,’” Griffin said of the show’s producers. “My answer always back to them is, ‘Well, I won’t know if I’m uncomfortable with it if I don’t try.’”
While Griffin had what looked like a seamless assimilation into the broadcasting world, he had a difficult moment when using a racial slur on live television in discussing Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Jalen Hurts. The clip quickly gained traction across the internet, and Griffin issued an apology on his Twitter account for using the pejorative language and claimed that he misspoke.
“I was shocked that it came out in the way that it did, and I immediately jumped on it and apologized because there’s no need to deny,” he said. “You messed up. You move forward, and I think that’s the easiest way to get over those types of things and to get back on your feet.”
The football season at both the college and professional level is undoubtedly a grind, and it requires a combination of dedication, passion and persistence few people possess. Robert Griffin III has garnered the reputation of being an “overpreparer,” often partaking in considerably more information than necessary to execute a broadcast. The information he consumes and conclusions he draws combined with his experience at both levels has cultivated him into a knowledgeable analyst who makes cogent, intelligible points on the air.
“I over-prepare for everything, and 70% of the information that I soak in going into a game or going into a broadcast for Monday Night Countdown, I don’t use because there’s just not enough air time,” Griffin III said. “There’s not enough opportunities to talk on it all.”
At the same time, he makes a concerted effort to make the most of his time with his family and separate himself from the field, engaging in activities including playing ping pong, going to the movies and supporting his children. He also embarks in charity work through his RG3 Foundation and strives to teach his daughters the importance of giving back. The mission of the nonprofit foundation is to discover and design programs for underprivileged youth, struggling military families and victims of domestic violence, and it has made a significant impact since it was launched in 2015.
“Trying to end food insecurity; making sure that our under-resourced youth have access to the things that they need just to survive – talking about food, clothes, books, the ability to learn [and] putting on these after-school programs,” Griffin elucidated in describing the organization’s mission. “We want to have an impact on our community. We mean that with everything in us and have shown that to be the true case of why we do this.”
Griffin’s wife, Grete, serves as the executive director of the foundation and also runs her own fitness business. Staying physically and mentally in shape is something they actively try to accomplish in their everyday lives, and lessons they are passing down to their daughters.
“I’m 33 years old right now, so if I want to continue to train every single day, I can do that for the next 10 years if I need to,” Griffin said. “Not taking hits and being physically fit is also a good thing for your own health, which is something me and my wife are extremely passionate about.”
Although his experience is in playing football and working in sports media, Robert Griffin III does not believe in limiting himself and would consider exploring opportunities outside of sports and entertainment. He wants to become the best broadcaster possible no matter where he is working in the industry and continue finding new ways to be distinctive en masse.
“We’re storytellers,” he said. “We’re here to break down things [and] to tell people a story the right way; things that people are interested in, and that expands across all media levels. We’re not closing the door on anything from that standpoint.”
While he was playing in the NFL, Griffin dealt with a variety of injuries that ultimately kept him off the football field and made it difficult to display his talents. Ranging from an ACL tear, shoulder scapula fracture and hairline fracture in his right thumb, staying healthy was a challenge for him over the time he played in the NFL.
Through surgeries and rehabilitation, he learned how to face and overcome these challenges. It has shaped him into the broadcaster and person he is today as he looks to set a positive example to aspiring football players and broadcasters everywhere.
“The eight-year career that I was able to have thus far didn’t come without roadblocks in the way [and] didn’t come without adversity. Learn from the adversity that you go through and learn from all the things and the lessons that you have that sports teaches you, and then go be able to present that to the masses.”
Derek Futterman is a contributing editor and sports media reporter for Barrett Sports Media. Additionally, he has worked in a broad array of roles in multimedia production – including on live game broadcasts and audiovisual platforms – and in digital content development and management. He previously interned for Paramount within Showtime Networks, wrote for the Long Island Herald and served as lead sports producer at NY2C. To get in touch, find him on Twitter @derekfutterman.
Pac-12 Pushing Enhanced Access, Deion Sanders Reeks of Desperation
What good is enhanced access for TV broadcasts or the star power of Coach Prime if those game telecasts aren’t seen?
Getting experimental has drawn some attention to USFL and XFL broadcasts during each league’s seasons. The Pac-12 is apparently hoping the same approach will draw viewers to its football telecasts beginning this fall.
Last week, the conference announced that its broadcasts on ESPN, Fox Sports, and Pac-12 Networks would feature enhanced access for viewers. Head coaches will be interviewed during games. Players and coaches will be mic’d up during pregame warm-ups. Cameras will have pregame and halftime access to team locker rooms. And handheld camera operators will be allowed to film parts of the field and game experience which were previously prohibited.
Those familiar with USFL and XFL telecasts will likely see some similarities to the greater access that those leagues allow their TV partners. Coaches are mic’d up on the sidelines, giving viewers insight into play calls and strategy. Players are interviewed during the game, providing near-instant reactions to success or failure. Cameras in the replay booth show how officials decide to either overturn or uphold calls on the field.
What the Pac-12 intends to do with its broadcasts won’t go as far as the USFL and XFL. Access to coaches and players is being expanded but will still have limits. The conference doesn’t have to demonstrate familiarity, credibility, and legitimacy to fans and media.
Spring pro football leagues are a tough sell to mainstream sports fans accustomed to college football and the NFL from September through January. Especially when the level of play is subpar and rosters are filled with unfamiliar names, the USFL and XFL have to give fans more reasons to watch.
USC, UCLA, Washington, and Oregon are established national brands and regularly compete with the top teams in college football. Utah has played in the past two Rose Bowls, seen on millions of televisions during the New Year’s Day holiday. All five of those schools finished among the final AP Top 25 rankings of the 2022-23 season. USC quarterback Caleb Williams won the 2022 Heisman Trophy.
Yet the Pac-12 is promoting the gimmick of enhanced access because it needs to attract positive fan and media attention. Right now, most of the headlines the conference is generating aren’t flattering.
Notably, the Pac-12 needs a new media rights deal. Losing two of its most prominent schools, USC and UCLA, to the Big Ten in 2024 certainly isn’t helping with that. Rumors have persisted that Washington and Oregon could soon follow. Additionally, the Big 12 is reportedly eyeing Colorado, Arizona, Arizona State, and Utah as possible expansion targets.
Pac-12 commissioner George Kliavkoff is left to tout Colorado’s new head coach, Deion Sanders, as a selling point in a new media rights deal. Never mind that Sanders hasn’t coached a game in Boulder yet. The Buffaloes are also coming off a 1-11 season and have won more than five games only once since 2007.
If Coach Prime is as successful as Colorado hopes, how likely is he to jump to a better program and stronger conference? And as mentioned in a previous paragraph, even if Sanders sticks around, Colorado could be poached by the Big 12. How much value would Coach Prime provide for the Pac-12 then?
ESPN’s deal with the conference expires in July 2024, shortly before USC and UCLA defect, and reportedly has no intention of renewing. (ESPN could still agree to a package of lower-tier games for late-night broadcast windows, but Andrew Marchand of the New York Post reports that doesn’t appear likely.) Fox’s agreement is up at the same time, though prospects of a renewal seem more optimistic. The network needs Pac-12 games to fill its college football Saturday inventory.
The options from there aren’t promising. CBS Sports’ Dennis Dodd reports that current speculation has USA Network, part of the NBCUniversal conglomerate, as a possible landing spot. According to The Athletic, Pac-12 commissioner George Kliavkoff believes that the conference’s next media rights deal will have a large streaming component with Amazon and Apple TV+ mentioned as potential partners.
A streaming partner might be good from a financial standpoint, helping produce some of the revenue that ESPN has cut off. But forcing fans to find your product and asking them to pay for another TV platform isn’t a good way to draw interest. It may well be a path to irrelevance and obscurity. That’s not going to compete with the Big Ten and SEC, or even the Big 12.
And as The Athletic’s Chris Vannini points out, how can streaming be expected to save a conference like the Pac-12 when it isn’t even helping TV networks (or standalone providers) right now? Disney is losing money with Disney+, ESPN+, and Hulu. NBCUniversal has lost billions on Peacock, as has CBS with Paramount+. Maybe the Pac-12 won’t care about that because it got paid. But there’s little chance for growth.
OK, Lincoln Riley, Chip Kelly, Dan Lanning, and Kyle Whittingham could be interviewed during games. But they probably won’t say much interesting during a game. Caleb Williams, Bo Nix, and Michael Penix Jr. will be mic’d up during warm-ups. Maybe we’ll see coaches and players going crazy in the locker room at halftime. Just remember that Peyton Manning said most players only have time to use the bathroom and have a snack. There’s your compelling television.
What good is enhanced access for TV broadcasts or the star power of Deion Sanders if those game telecasts aren’t seen by large audiences? To say otherwise is desperate. That’s exactly where the Pac-12 is.
Ian Casselberry is a sports media columnist for BSM. He has previously written and edited for Awful Announcing, The Comeback, Sports Illustrated, Yahoo Sports, MLive, Bleacher Report, and SB Nation. You can find him on Twitter @iancass or reach him by email at email@example.com.
ESPN Deal Used to Mean Stability for ACC, Now It Means Anything But
It was April 19, 1775 when the first shots of war were fired on battlefields in Lexington and Concord that would send shockwaves across the world. Some brave soul among a group of rebel farmers and blacksmiths, doctors and lawyers literally pulled the trigger on what would become known as “The Shot Heard ‘Round the World”. Indeed, the world would never be the same.
The college athletics version of that event was June 11, 2010. On that day, regents at the University of Nebraska officially applied for Big Ten membership and were unanimously approved by the other eleven schools (if the number in the conference name not matching the number of schools in that conference is something that bothers you, this column may not be for you). From that day forward, we have never really exited the “expansion era”.
One conference that has gone largely untouched in that time is the ACC. Only Maryland has left the ACC since 2010, heading to the Big Ten, and the conference has added Syracuse, Pittsburgh and Louisville in that same window. That is significant when you consider only the SEC and Big Ten have avoided any departures in this era. Every other major conference has seen great turbulence while those three conferences have primarily seen only growth.
That trend may actually continue for the ACC and that may not be a net positive for the conference or the ACC members. This is thanks to the long term grant of rights deal the conference schools negotiated with ESPN. The grant of rights means ESPN holds the broadcast rights to all home games of the current ACC schools, and do so for the next 13 years.
When the deal was signed in 2016, the 20 year media rights deal seemed like a win for the ACC, creating stability in a time of great instability. Now, what seemed like a “must have purchase” may be the impulse buy that the league schools regret for decades.
Put simply, the ACC has been lapped in the media rights race by the Big Ten, SEC and even the Big 12. At best, the ACC schools are working at a $10-15 Million per year deficit when compared to Big 12 schools. At worst, they are operating at a much larger $30-$40 Million annual deficit when compared to Big Ten and SEC programs. It would be a battle of monumental proportions for the ACC to compete on the same level as those other conferences at that large of a disadvantage.
The conference’s options are slim. ESPN has a deal that is locked for 13 more years, what benefit would it be to them to renegotiate just so the ACC can compete? For instance, it would require $140 Million annually from ESPN just to place the ACC in the same financial neighborhood as the Big 12 Conference. What would be the benefit to ESPN in doing that?
The other option for ACC schools would be to bang the departure drum. Almost all legal analysts have painted a very grim picture for the schools that would be itching to leave. The exit fee is $120 million and may get the schools some nice parting gifts but does not give them their media rights. Their home game broadcast rights will still be a part of the ESPN deal with ACC. That greatly reduces a departing school’s value to any other conference.
Maybe ESPN is willing to broker a deal for a departing school if it is going to a conference, such as the SEC, that has a large rights deal with ESPN. If one of the schools desires a departure to the Big Ten, who has large deals with networks not named ESPN, one would have to think The Worldwide Leader would be in less of a deal-making mood.
Some league athletics directors, led by Florida State’s Michael Alford, are suggesting teams be incentivized for success. Breaking the code; rather than equal distribution, the power schools want a bigger share of the money. This is where Wake Forest points out that it is all they can do to exceed football expectations on their current stipend, what will become of them if that money shrinks? It seems that conferences and leagues that steer away from an equally shared revenue model have had a difficult time making that work long term.
Maybe the ACC teams that are ready to punch out could flash back to the period of time our country was in with the events we started this column remembering. They have a team in Boston, go throw some tea in the harbor and revolt, have a modern day Boston Tea Party. As it stands now, there are several ACC members that want to leave the party they are part of. Their only problem is they are all dressed up with nowhere to go.
Ryan Brown is a columnist for Barrett Sports Media, and a co-host of the popular sports audio/video show ‘The Next Round’ formerly known as JOX Roundtable, which previously aired on WJOX in Birmingham. You can find him on Twitter @RyanBrownLive and follow his show @NextRoundLive.