Do we need sledgehammers to blast away the ignorance? Blowtorches to thaw the collective brainfreeze? Simple medical logic cannot be repeated enough: It’s unconscionable, if not criminal, to resume contact/close-quarter sports amid a pandemic until athletes know they’re safe beyond doubt. And with testing capacity still woefully inadequate, and no vaccine or cure in sight, they will NOT be safe — does everyone grasp this? — regardless of flim-flam assurances from sports leaders who’ve suddenly become infectious disease experts, armed with overnight degrees from the University of Phoenix.
For every realistic soul such as NBA commissioner Adam Silver, who told players that resuming the season is increasingly unlikely amid perhaps “the single greatest challenge of our lives,’’ America remains vexed by an obnoxious wave of empathy-challenged snakes such as Dana White, who said not long ago, “I don’t give a sh-t about the coronavirus.’’
The mixed-martial-arts maniac thinks he’s a conquering hero after staging UFC 249 in Jacksonville, Fla., the first live U.S. sports event of magnitude since the outbreak. I would call him a rogue so obsessed with making money, turning itchy gamblers loose and promoting his violent sport — at $65 a pop, for a card without spectators in a nation where nearly half the adult population is jobless — that he abandoned all cogent concern for human life in what only can be called a debacle. In a sane world, White would be apprehended for putting lives at risk, proceeding with the event after a fighter, Ronaldo “Jacare’’ Souza, and two of his cornermen tested positive for the virus. This after White and UFC owner Endeavor, a Hollywood agency rocked by the crisis, angered the health community by using 1,200 antigen and antibody kits that should have been directed to states and municipalities lacking tests.
The mayor of Washington, D.C., Muriel Bowser, says her virus-gripped city can test only 1,500 people a day. But White can use 1,200 tests, damned the dying. See, he wanted to be “the first’’ to carry out President Trump’s reckless desire to resume live sports, convinced that his hotel-to-studio quarantine plan provides the playbook for other leagues when, in truth, it’s a cautionary tale for why sports shouldn’t resume. Let’s see if White gives “a sh-t’’ should the virus spread through his kingdom, cancel two more fan-free events this week in the same building and, I don’t know, maybe infect him.
“It’s not unexpected one person would test positive. The system works,’’ said White, whose count was off by two, if not more to come. You will hear not even the slightest condemnation of White on any news platform attached to ESPN, which greeted app users hours before UFC 249 with an eyeball blitz: a large ad hawking the ESPN+ exclusive pay-per-view stream. Remember, ESPN is owned by Disney, purveyor of hopes and dreams, and run by Bob Iger, who said during an earnings call reporting the company’s $1.4 billion bloodbath: “People find comfort in our messages of hope and optimism.’’
If Iger thinks hope and optimism ooze from sweaty cage fighters who might be spreading a deadly virus, I invite him to climb into the Octagon. Or listen to Zachary Binney, an Atlanta-based epidemiologist who used his Twitter page to torch White as “negligent’’ for mishandling safety protocols and restarting the event too soon. “If this was your system working as designed,’’ wrote Binney, “your system is bogus.’’
But then, this is what happens when the UFC president worships Trump. He thinks the White House is named for him. “I want to congratulate Dana White and the UFC. We love it,” Trump said on the broadcast. “We think it’s important. Get the sports leagues back. Let’s play. You do the social distancing and whatever else you have to do, but we need sports. We want our sports back.”
It’s enough to make one hurl — and puts into perspective a story that normally would elicit contempt, the possibility that Mike Krzyzewski’s imperial reign at Duke will be sullied if Zion Williamson was paid in the latest chapter of the sneaker scandals. Does paying a college basketball player, even at pious Duke, compare to jeopardizing lives? If it struck you as odd that no fighters criticized UFC for proceeding with the event after Souza was sent home, well, it seems Dana The Megalomaniac threatened their livelihoods. As tweeted by Showtime Sports president Stephen Espinoza, they were required to sign documents agreeing to accept possible losses of purses and bonuses. Responded White: “What (expletive) law school did he go to? I can’t stand that (expletive) creep if you couldn’t tell. He’s just a (expletive) — look at him, that creepy, little dude. What the (expletive) does he know about our contracts?”
After which White declared, somehow, that his life-and-death-farce was an unequivocal success, providing a blueprint — gulp! — for other U.S. businesses to resume. “The whole world is weird right now. Everything is weird. This whole event is weird,’’ he said. “We live in a different world than we did two months ago. The bottom line is, the system worked. What you don’t want to do is two days after the fight say, `Oh (expletive), Jacare tested positive.’ The system worked that we put in place.
“Without sounding like a jackass, we’re really good at what we do. We’re very, very good at what we do. We’ll just get better. The longer this goes, the better the testing technology will get and the faster it will get. We’re going to prove by next Saturday that professional sports can come back safely.”
Or, that he can put several of his employees on ventilators. Never mind that White, while waiting for the test results Friday, not only staged a weigh-in with Souza but wasn’t wearing a mask as he fist-bumped the fighter. And never mind that UFC bagged its original safety-first plan and held post-fight interviews in the Octagon, which placed color commentator Joe Rogan in virus peril when he was to have conducted remote interviews as fighters wore sanitized headsets in isolation. Yep, this is how we do it, Dana.
What frightens me is that too many power players in sports, a $200-billion industry teetering on the brink, share White’s hellbent view about the health catastrophe of our time. Of course, millions worldwide want sports to return — the owners losing billions, the networks dying with Korean baseball, the fans who need entertainment and self-identity joyrides, the gamblers who would rather contract Covid-19 than go another day without real action. But athletes are not automatons or slaves in this fraught, unprecedented equation. They are human beings with loved ones who shouldn’t be subjected to wealth-over-health pressures just because live events are “essential’’ to the American psyche, the crumbling sports and broadcast economies and Trump’s nighttime La-Z-Boy diversions. The smart play for Big Sports is to wait, until 2021, and then move forward after assessing the fallout and reimagining the industry.
Once again, with emphasis: Why resume games and events if the people in uniform — players, coaches, officials — aren’t safe?
“I think 2020 has been practically lost,’’ said tennis icon Rafael Nadal, speaking for many athletes. “I’m hopeful of being able to start next year. Sadly, I’m not going to lie to you, the feeling is that we are losing a year of our lives.’’
“I am worried like the rest of the world,’’ NBA star C.J. McCollum told Yahoo Sports. “You have to think at some point when there are drastic measures that need to be taken, `Is it really worth it?’ It’s either safe or not.’’
Yet the stench of self-interest continues to share the air with zillions of coronavirus particles. Don’t confuse the cautious reopening of businesses — or even attempts to re-establish the PGA Tour, the ultimate solo sport — with the ill-devised concept of team sports returning while defying physical distancing mandates and mass-gatherings bans. Leagues and broadcast networks would like to play ball as soon as this summer while people continue to die in large numbers, maybe right next door. And if you dare to oppose the resumption of games, well, you must be a negative nabob or germophobic dweeb who hates sports, as I’ve been called.
In the rush to resume — Major League Baseball wishful-inching toward a July 4 start, the NFL releasing its schedule and expecting a September start with fans in the stands, the NBA clinging to a pipedream within a quarantined Walt Disney World and Las Vegas casino hotel — it’s inhumane to be planning games, even on television with empty seats, until every commissioner, pushy owner and sneaky operative with a political or financial agenda can state the following without flunking a lie-detector test: Sports Bubbles will not be petri dishes for contagion.
They might hope for the best, but hoping is not knowing when it comes to the pandemic. I shouldn’t have to issue updates: the death count hasn’t slowed, with the virus killing nearly 300,000 worldwide and 80,000-plus in the U.S.; at least 1,000 Americans have died and 25,000 have been infected each day since early April; and the U.S. leads the world with almost 1.4 million cases. But Big Sports continues to shrug and wear blinders, dedicated to ignoring the blight in the interest of money. It’s one thing to resume sports after 9/11, or during wartime when the battles are overseas. But this virus is a ghostly, unsolvable evil that has locked us all in a toxic grip, capable of striking anyone at any time despite inane views that it afflicts only the elderly and the poor. Sports, with or without spectators, is just asking for a mass breakout. This is no time to come off as greedy and arrogant in a nation overwhelmed by two horrors: Covid-19 and rampant unemployment. The leagues can curry the favor of politicians and doctors who downplay the health risks, yet isn’t that a blatant disregard for life, especially if they use tests still lacking in some hospitals and laboratories? And if sports leaders do hoard resources like White, do they realize how many tests would have to be regularly administered? How difficult and maddening it would be just to stage one nine-inning ballgame or 60-minute football game?
Is anyone out there thinking? Not MLB commissioner Rob Manfred, who is proposing a season of 80 games or so in geographical pods, with expanded playoffs, while asking players to take pay cuts — and assume health risks. This reeks of a typical attempt by owners to paint players as bad guys in a brewing labor dispute, and right now, no one is in the mood for mud-slinging between billionaires and millionaires. Shame on the owners for not pausing their selfish desires and waiting for credible medical answers, assuming any are coming.
“The coronavirus will establish the timetable for sports. … We will have coronavirus in the fall. I am convinced of that,’’ said Dr. Anthony Fauci, in quarantine himself after possible contact with a Trump administration staffer who tested positive.
Actually, Silver is thinking. As NBA legend Shaquille O’Neal calls for the season to be canceled and Los Angeles Clippers coach Doc Rivers admits he’s “worried’’ about reopening practice facilities, Silver is confronting the truths that other commissioners prefer to disregard, telling players gloomily on a conference call, “Until there is a vaccine or some magical cocktail that prevents people from dying from this virus, we are going to be dealing with it, collectively.’’ Meaning, players will assume health risks to resume play and draw ample salaries sure to shrink. That’s because spectators aren’t expected until next season at the earliest, if then, in a league that generates 40 percent of revenues via paying customers. According to The Athletic, Silver told players the NBA “couldn’t start now even if we wanted to,’’ even as franchises are “crushed’’ financially by the pandemic.
And California governor Gavin Newsom is thinking. His state is home to 15 franchises in the four major sports leagues and numerous big-time college facilities, yet he is the anti-White, refusing to consider sports without live audiences, let alone with fans in the stands. Asked about the NFL’s schedule release, Newsom could have played a smooth political hand, knowing that a $6 billion stadium for the L.A. Rams and Chargers is nearing completion. Instead, he posed a hard question for commissioner Roger Goodell and owners.
“Imagine what the league — broadly, leagues — do when one or two of their key personnel or players are tested positive,’’ he said. “Do they quarantine the rest of the team if an offensive lineman is practicing with a defensive lineman, and they (have) tested positive? What happens to the rest of the line? What happens for the game coming up next weekend? It’s inconceivable to me that that’s not a likely scenario, so it’s a very challenging question you’re asking.”
As for fans in stadiums and arenas, it’s impractical until 2021 in a state that has topped 2,700 deaths. “It’s difficult to imagine a stadium that’s filled until we have immunity and until we have a vaccine,” Newsom said. “it’s a very tough question for these leagues to answer, because they must have a safety-first, health-first mindset, and there are conditions that persist in this state and this nation that make reopening very, very challenging.”
It’s also good to see Mark Cuban, who still hasn’t ruled out a presidential run, finally emphasizing health-first after once leading the charge for sports to resume. “Seriously, if you’re a player, who do you trust with your life?’’ Cuban told ESPN Radio. “If you’re a coach or a trainer or, anybody for that matter, that’s essential personnel for getting something back together, do you trust the hotel that we’re going to stay at to keep everything safe — the technology they’re using, the protocols they’re using? … The problem, obviously, is because we can’t test people, then we can’t assure anybody’s safety, whether they’re basketball players or anybody else.’’
How long will it take for sound judgment to cut through the self-centered delusion? Stop to consider the Real Real. We’re actually going to abandon distancing and masks so football players can tackle each other, basketball players can drip sweat beads on each other and baseball players can breathe on each other? We’re really going to proceed with seasons when one positive test — among hundreds of essential personnel who would be tested daily — might shut down the league? The NBA is weighing whether to allow children, wives and girlfriends inside its Quarantine Bubble, which could prompt Vegas to set at least one over-under in its empty casinos: How many people catch the virus on the first day of testing? God forbid if a league copies the UFC strategy of not creating a lockdown perimeter around the hotel and arena, asking 300 workers to be responsible when entering the outside world during an eight-day period of events. MLB wants teams to play in home ballparks within areas less infected by the virus, but wouldn’t players risk bringing strains back to their families each night? And does Manfred, an attorney by trade, realize legions of lawyers are ready to pounce if the virus spreads? MLB has political support from Trump and some governors, but what about other officials in states, cities, counties and one Canadian province? How can baseball start in July when five ballparks in California are shut down? They’re going to make the Dodgers, Angels, Giants, A’s and Padres play only road games for months? Has Manfred called the wives and kids of affected players, telling them Dad won’t be around for a while … and might bring home the virus, too?
Mike Trout and Clayton Kershaw, two of baseball’s biggest names, already have said no. How can MLB stage a legitimate season without superstars who don’t want to take risks? And I don’t need to tell athletes that a second wave of the pandemic could be in the on-deck circle, preparing another wicked blast. All of these proposals, these hopeful stories disseminated by ESPN and other sports media ventures whose survival depends on the resumption of sports — has anyone asked the athletes what they think? Sports cannot happen unless the athletes say yes. Don’t presume they will.
“We’re in a situation where you can’t make this mandatory. You can’t tell a guy you have to come play or else your roster spot is not going to be here when you come back. You can’t tell a guy to risk his life and the life of his family and the lives of anyone he chooses to be around to come play this game,’’ Boston Red Sox pitcher Collin McHugh told Mass Live. “I’m a husband, I’m a father. There are many guys in the league with underlying conditions, with preexisting conditions like diabetes and heart arrhythmias. You look at our coaching staffs, there’s tons of guys over 65. Umpires, there’s a lot of guys over 65. When you’re talking about the risk factors, there are going to be guys who sincerely have to weigh the risks of coming back versus staying at home.”
Said St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Andrew Miller, in an ESPN interview: “I don’t think anything can be done until (safety) can be guaranteed and we feel comfortable with it. It’s not hard to get one degree of separation away from players who have kids who may have conditions, or other family members that live with them.’’
Don’t tell that to some sports executives who are pressuring athletes to return … or else. ESPN quoted two NBA general managers — unnamed — who expect athletes to cave in and play when faced with no paychecks. This is not the time, obviously, for meat-on-the-hoof demands.
Yet the NFL marches on, convinced a gladiator sport will proceed with fans and expecting players to be ready for tackling warfare in September. Hopefully, this is more a grandstand play ahead of lucrative broadcasting negotiations than an actual firm plan, because how did the virus spread in Italy? Oh, when tens of thousands of fans, packed together in a soccer stadium, simultaneously released untold amounts of saliva when goals were scored. Let the Miami Dolphins present a vision for physical distancing and 20-point cleansing while reducing Hard Rock Stadium to a 15,000-seat venue; it’s still a petri dish. And if local governments, such as California, don’t allow fans inside stadiums, the NFL insists it will play in states and cities that do — the same strategy proposed by MLB. Is this not absolute lunacy? In a matter of weeks, we’re casually going to assume regular seasons will happen, with no concern for consequences if, say, a star player fails a temperature check and must be removed for immediate testing? Imagine the panic, the preposterousness of it all, just so rich leagues and networks can salvage billions.
That is to assume Americans even want sports without bodies in the seats. What begins as a unique experience inevitably will devolve into a creepy reminder of lost normalcy. Imagine an NBA playoff game with no fans, Tom Brady vs. Drew Brees with no fans, SoFi Stadium debuting with no fans for Rams-Cowboys. People who say they’re ready aren’t giving themselves enough credit for their roles in the total experience. Fox Sports has talked of creating virtual fans and piping in a crowd-noise track that ebbs and flows depending on game developments. Look, the essence of sports is palpable human energy. And it’s gone until people come back to stadiums and arenas. And most aren’t coming back, as several surveys have indicated, without a vaccine.
Sports continues to stay somewhat relevant in the news cycle. LeBron James is among those outraged by the fatal Georgia shooting of Ahmaud Arbery, an unarmed black man gunned down while jogging by two white men. Charles Barkley still bemoans his frayed friendship with Michael Jordan, whose 10-part docu-series hit a creative peak Sunday night with a chronicling of his father’s murder and his subsequent decision to play minor-league baseball — though still failing, in a production controlled by Jordan, to investigate his unavoidable gambling habits during a still-murky 1993. The college basketball cesspool gurgles, with the NCAA referring to Kansas and coach Bill Self as “egregious’’ rules-breakers, while Giannis Antetokounmpo says his social-media accounts were hacked and that he doesn’t ache to sign with the Golden State Warriors. Oh, and the Baltimore Ravens want to dump safety Earl Thomas after his wife, allegedly pointing a gun at his head, found him in bed with other women … and his brother Seth.
Still, I can’t help but fixate on the fool in Jacksonville and his two encore events this week. UFC now stands for Unabashedly Flouting Coronavirus.
The athletes aren’t safe.
So, please, shut down sports before someone dies.
Jay Mariotti, called “the most impacting Chicago sportswriter of the past quarter-century,’’ is the host of “Unmuted,’’ a frequent podcast about sports and life (Apple, Podbean, etc.). He is an accomplished columnist, TV panelist and radio host. As a Los Angeles resident, he gravitated by osmosis to movie projects. He appears Wednesday nights on The Dino Costa Show, a segment billed as “The Rawest Hour in Sports Broadcasting.’’
Jay Mariotti, called “the most impacting Chicago sportswriter of the past quarter-century,’’ writes a weekly media column for Barrett Sports Media and regular sports columns for Substack while appearing on some of the 1,678,498 podcasts in production today. He’s an accomplished columnist, TV panelist and radio talk host. Living in Los Angeles, he gravitated by osmosis to film projects. Compensation for this column is donated to the Chicago Sun-Times Charity Trust.
Jac Collinsworth Has Learned From The Best
“The way he would take all of the young people, myself included, under his wings. You couldn’t get this anywhere else.”
Jac Collinsworth got his first taste of Notre Dame football while watching his brother Austin play for the Fighting Irish. There was his brother playing on special teams and getting a chance to return kicks.
“I remember sitting in the stands for his first football game inside Notre Dame Stadium thinking this is the coolest thing I’ve been a part of,” said Collinsworth. “The history of this building and my brother is out there in a Notre Dame jersey.”
Not only did Jac eventually go to Notre Dame as well, but he just completed his first season as the play-by-play voice for Notre Dame Football on NBC. As a student, Jac was part of the NBC sideline production team during his four-year education at South Bend from 2013 to 2017 and he was the sideline reporter for the NBC broadcast of the Blue/Gold spring game in 2016 and 2017.
“To work on the broadcasts for four years — as an intern really — with Alex Flanagan and then with Kathryn Tappen for three years down there on the sideline and being in all those production meetings, it was such an invaluable piece of the journey for me.”
And now, the 27-year-old is the television voice of the Fighting Irish.
“To see it all come full circle and be up there in the booth, it was really a special experience every single game,” said Collinsworth.
After graduating from Notre Dame, Collinsworth joined ESPN where he was a correspondent for NFL Live and Sunday NFL Countdown while also hosting the ESPN-owned ACC Network’s football show The Huddle.
Jac then returned to NBC in 2020 and was part of the Notre Dame telecasts during the pregame show and halftime show for two seasons. Collinsworth had the opportunity to learn under veteran play-by-play voice Mike Tirico, especially during the production meetings.
Tirico became a mentor to Collinsworth.
“I felt like I was getting a graduate degree watching him handle those meetings,” said Collinsworth. “The way he would take all of the young people, myself included, under his wings. You couldn’t get this anywhere else. To be able to do that for two years and still have him as a close friend and somebody I can text…I text with him before every single game.”
Another huge mentor to Collinsworth has been the legendary Al Michaels, the former play-by-play voice for Sunday Night Football who is now calling the Thursday night package for Amazon.
“I talk to him all the time,” said Collinsworth. “I’ve had dinner with him. He invites me out to play golf. We just get on the phone and spent 45 minutes just breaking down everything. Every time that phone rings I don’t care what I’m in the middle of, I walk outside and I take that call.”
Collinsworth, the son of former Bengals wide receiver and current NFL Sunday Night Football analyst Cris Collinsworth, first felt the broadcasting itch growing up in Ft. Thomas, Kentucky. It goes without saying that his father was a huge influence, but Jac remembers when Highlands High School was being renovated when he was in 7th and 8th grade.
The first part of the renovation was a brand-new broadcast facility.
“It was a studio that had these amazing cameras, a desk, lights and two sets,” recalled Collinsworth. “To this day, I’ve never seen a high school setup…I mean this is better than most college setups…a state of-the-art facility.”
The class was called “Introduction to Filmmaking” and Collinsworth started out wanted to be a cameraman.
“I became obsessed with running around the school and filming all this stuff whatever students were doing,” said Collinsworth.
From there, Jac gained experience in editing and producing but deep down inside he thought he wanted to be a cameraman…that was until his first taste of on-air experience.
“They started a rotation where everybody in the class had to try hosting the announcements live right before the final period of the day,” said Collinsworth.
And the rest is history.
An important part of Jac’s growth as a play-by-play announcer came last spring working NBC’s coverage of the United States Football League. Paired with Jason Garrett, Collinsworth was able to continue the learning process before taking over the Notre Dame duties. He appreciated the fact that these were really good football players that were among the best players on their college teams and could very well be in the NFL.
And just like for the players, the USFL was an opportunity for Jac to get better at his craft.
“Just continuing to learn the art form of calling a game,” said Collinsworth. “The timing and getting out of the way sometimes and letting the broadcast breathe and rising for those big moments.”
An incredibly big moment for Jack would be if the opportunity to work a game with his father ever presented himself. It’s something that he’s thought about and would love to see come to fruition somewhere down the road.
But if that happens, there could be a problem for the viewers.
“Would anybody be able to tell who is talking?” joked Jac.
Jac and his father sound so much alike it’s scary. In fact, during our twenty-minute phone conversation, I really had to pay attention to listen for any discernable difference between Jac and his dad and it was very hard to find any.
But it would still be fascinating to hear them work together.
“I think it would be a very cool experience,” said Jac. “We would have so much chemistry that it would be a crazy experience. I would love to do it. I’d be getting out of his way and let him make points and I wouldn’t be afraid to take a couple of shots at him. I think it would be damn entertaining.”
While their on-air roles are different, Jac has been able to learn a lot about broadcasting from his father. While he does — for the most part — give his son some space when it comes to work, Cris leaves Jac a note prior to each broadcast, mainly has it pertains to a specific aspect of a telecast like coming back from a break or the flow of a telecast.
But there’s one valuable lesson that Jac learned from his dad years ago that he has adopted for himself.
“Probably the biggest thing I’ve learned from him is, he is a worker man,” said Collinsworth. “He just works at this stuff.”
Jac would constantly see his father going through film at various hours during the day, but Cris would still pay close attention to his son’s studies at school and would let Jac know about it if he saw something wasn’t right.
Like when Jac would be having some difficulty with a math assignment.
“I’m like ‘Dad, this is calculus, I can’t figure out how to do this equation’,” said Jac. “He would put that clicker down and come up and he would be deep in the math book going through the chapters learning all this calculus that he hasn’t done in 40 years. I’d come down at six in the morning and he’d still be flipping through the math book while I’m eating breakfast and he’s teaching me the lesson to make sure I got it for the quiz.
“That’s how he was…just the work element is the biggest thing that I still use every day and I definitely got it from him.”
Aside from his football duties, Collinsworth has also been a NASCAR studio analyst for NBC and he’s also been the voice of Atlantic Ten Men’s Basketball and the Atlantic Ten Tournament. There’s something to be said for getting experience in multiple sports because each sport has its own pace and its own flow.
Some play-by-play voices specialize in one sport and some can handle multiple assignments. In Jac’s case, there’s one sport that stand above all the others.
“The rhythm, feel and flow of a football game is my favorite,” said Collinsworth. “Football has always been my first love and grew up around it. Basketball happens fast not to mention you’re on the court and you’re right there in the middle of it. I’ve called baseball games too and that’s a very slow game.”
Jac Collinsworth is still very early in his broadcasting career but he has great talent and he’s been rewarded with some amazing opportunities like Notre Dame Football and being part of NBC’s NFL coverage.
But he knows that he’s had some help along the way and he’s very grateful for it.
“I feel like I’m living out a dream and I feel like I’m standing on a lot of people’s shoulders that helped me get there,” said Collinsworth. “I think about a lot of people who didn’t need to but chose to help me when I was a kid. I feel like I have a great responsibility to take that advice and take it as far as I can and that’s what I’m trying to do.”
And it all started with a high school television studio and his willingness to try all different aspects of the business.
Peter Schwartz has been involved in New York sports media for over three decades. Along the way he has worked for notable brands such as WFAN, CBS Sports Radio, WCBS 880, ESPN New York, and FOX News Radio. He has also worked as a play by play announcer for the New Yok Riptide, New York Dragons, New York Hitmen, Varsity Media and the Long Island Sports Network. You can find him on Twitter @SchwartzSports or email him at DragonsRadio@aol.com.
Chris Kinard Has 106.7 The Fan, The Team 980 Primed For Continued Success
“Coming right out of the books and beating our direct competitor in the first month will always be something I’m proud of.”
When Jim Riggleman resigned as manager of the Washington Nationals in June 2011, it was the first time Chris Kinard thought the fanbase cared about the team.
Riggleman wanted the Nationals to pick up the option on his contract and effectively remove the “interim” tag from his job description, and once they declined to do so, he essentially packed up and left.
From the time he was young, Chris Kinard was interested in media, and he had early exposure in the industry since his uncle Lee worked as a television news anchor in Greensboro, N.C. The elder Kinard was the pioneer of the Good Morning Show on WFMY News 2 and was honored with the dedication of the main studio in his honor from where he worked since 1956.
By the time he was in fifth grade, Chris Kinard began listening to radio and realizing it may be a viable career path for him to pursue. He shadowed his uncle in 1996 to learn about news media and television broadcasting; however, he gravitated towards working in radio in part because of WJFK-FM, and had an affinity towards professional sports.
“A local morning show here in D.C. on a top 40 station was kind of my entry point,” Kinard said. “I listened to that show actually when it moved over to WJFK for years in middle school and high school.”
At the time, WJFK-FM was broadcasting in the talk format and was among the network of stations syndicating The Howard Stern Show and other programming targeted towards the male 25-54 demographic. Kinard was an avid listener of the station, tuning in to its programming for several hours a day over the course of many years.
Today, it is known as 106.7 The Fan and it is managed, along with Audacy’s cluster of radio stations by Kinard himself. He was responsible for flipping the station’s format from talk to sports in 2009 and has helped cement the brand as dominant in the ratings.
“Flipping the station to sports will always be a bittersweet thing for me,” Kinard said. “I grew up with the station [in] the previous format and I took a lot of pride in what we were doing at the time, but I think we launched with great success. Coming right out of the books and beating our direct competitor in the first month will always be something I’m proud of.”
During his freshman year at American University, he got word that The Sports Junkies were making a public appearance a few minutes away from his childhood home. Additionally, he found out the show was looking for people to volunteer to serve as interns, an opportunity he knew was simply too good to pass up.
Inherently shy, Kinard introduced himself with the hopes of landing an internship at WJFK-FM. A few weeks later, he received a phone call informing him that he was selected to work as an intern, a surreal opportunity for him to begin working in sports media. Little did he know he would still be working at the station, albeit in a more substantial role, 25 years later.
“When it started and when I was actually in the building and seeing the behind the scenes, I was kind of in awe,” Kinard said. “….I had no idea what I was doing really except that I really wanted to be there and couldn’t believe that I was and wanted to soak it all in.”
Three months later, one of the show’s producers who largely acted as a call screener left the station to pursue another opportunity in media. As a result, there was a gap to be filled, and since Kinard had been diligent and responsible as an intern, he was hired part-time to take over the role. At the conclusion of his sophomore year in college, he was hired full-time as the producer of The Sports Junkies – a development in his career he calls “fortuitous” initially difficult to foresee balancing with two years remaining to earn his undergraduate degree.
“It was a really kind of interesting conversation with my parents about whether to do it or not and how it would impact my schoolwork and that kind of thing,” Kinard said. “I just was determined to take that opportunity; I knew how scarce they were I guess just by seeing people who had been at the station and working part-time [for] several years who had left because they couldn’t get a full-time position.”
By the time he was in his junior and senior years, Kinard had valuable professional experience from working at WJFK-FM and also interning at the local ABC affiliate station. Although he participated in some of the student-run media outlets at the school, his mindset was to prioritize what he was doing off campus.
“I’m not sure that I actually got a lot out of college to be honest with you because I was doing it outside of school already just by kind of virtue of connections,” Kinard said. “Being in Washington, D.C. and all the opportunities that are available here, [that was] really… my focus more than anything else.”
During his first year as show producer, The Sports Junkies became nationally syndicated on Westwood One Radio and was achieving notoriety and high ratings within the marketplace. The show is hosted by four childhood best friends – John Auville, Eric Bickel, Jason Bishop, and John-Paul Flaim – who began the program on public access television in Bowie, Maryland before joining WJFK-FM as evening hosts in 1996. None of them had any formal broadcast training, instead utilizing their indelible chemistry and local background to auspiciously impact sports media.
“They’re very authentic,” Kinard expressed. “I think when people hear them, they can relate to them. They sound like every guy’s group of friends sound when you get together. I think they sound like our city; they sound like sports fans in Washington over the last 30 years.”
All four co-hosts recently inked four-year contract extensions to keep The Sports Junkies on 106.7 The Fan, officially putting pen to paper together in studio earlier this month.
Since 2016, The Sports Junkies has been simulcast on NBC Sports Washington, and although listeners now have the ability to add a visual component to their experience, it did not change how any of the co-hosts approach the job. From the beginning, there was a mutual understanding that the show would still operate in the same way with the cameras serving the purpose of pulling back the metaphorical curtain.
“It is really a fast-paced show in terms of the camera switching and the direction of it because there’s four guys, so I think this show translates really well,” Kinard said. “There’s a lot going on because there are four hosts, not just two talking heads. There’s also two producers that chime in a lot. There’s a lot of movement, I think, within the show because of just how dynamic of a cast it is.”
Since its official shift to the sports talk format in 2009, 106.7 The Fan had primarily competed with The Team 980 to try to win in the ratings. In November 2020, Audacy, officially agreed to acquire various stations across the United States owned by Urban One, including The Team 980, effectively ending that competition. Part of Kinard’s job is to oversee both sports talk stations, which now compete with ESPN 630 DC.
“We have some really talented staff,” Kinard said. “I’m not sure we’ve ever had more talent under one roof than we have now. Having two stations in my market allows me to groom new people and give people opportunities quicker than I could with just one station.”
Moreover, he helped launch 1580 The Bet, a radio station broadcasting in the growing sports gambling format in partnership with the BetQL Audio Network and CBS Sports Radio. Its creation coincided with a nationwide effort by Audacy to better utilize certain signals to their full potential, and with the proliferation and legalization of sports betting in select states across the country, many of them flipped to this format.
“I think it was important to have the BetQL Network represented in Washington at a high level because of the proximity to the MGM National Harbor, which is just kind of 15 minutes away from the radio station,” Kinard said. “[It is] on a signal that, in the past, had not been a big ratings play, so that was a great opportunity to just kind of own sports in Washington – to have 106.7 The Fan; The Team 980; and 1580 The Bet all under one umbrella.”
A compelling draw to sports radio is live game broadcasts, and as brand manager of Audacy DC, Kinard is responsible for maintaining 106.7 The Fan’s relationship with the Washington Capitals and Washington Nationals. When the teams are doing well, it usually results in better metrics for the station.
“There’s a huge correlation between winning and listenership and also advertiser interest,” Kinard said. “There’s a segment of the fanbase, I think, that thinks that local sports radio roots against the teams. It’s not that we root for the teams necessarily, but if you ask any host probably on any radio station in America whether it’s better for their individual show’s success and their overall station success if the teams are successful, I think everyone’s going to say it’s way better.”
Prior to the start of this NFL season, Audacy DC parted ways with the Washington Commanders due to a disagreement regarding “the value of the broadcasts.” The Team 980 was previously owned by the Washington Commanders franchise itself and had been the flagship station of the team for several years through its sale to Urban One in 2019. The Fan had not had the radio broadcast rights to the Commanders since 2006 before it was broadcasting in the sports talk format, hence why The Sports Junkies co-host Eric Bickel stated that the station had had no relationship with the team for two decades.
Since the Commanders officially entered into a new partnership with iHeartRadio, its flagship station has been BIG 100, which airs a classic rock format. Consequently, The Team 980 had the opportunity to change its on-air strategy, airing five hours of pregame coverage every week followed by extensive postgame coverage. During the games themselves, the station has broadcast Burgundy & Gold Gameday Live, a show that has had stellar listenership thus far.
“I think play-by-play rights are really important and do have a ton of value, but only if it’s done in a way where there’s partnership on both sides but also an understanding on both sides that the team has a job to do and the radio station has a job to do,” Kinard expressed. “Our focus is just to continue to provide great talk and coverage of the teams.”
As media continues to evolve with changes in technology and consumption habits, Kinard remains optimistic about the future because of the influx of new talent and the leadership at Audacy.
“We have just a wealth of talent and content, and I think that content will cut through no matter what’s going on with technology,” he said. “I think that we will continue to push to make sure that we are on the platforms that we need to be on and that we own that content and can monetize it for the future. I don’t know how anyone could compete with that, so I’m really excited about it.”
Kinard’s vertical movement in the industry might not have been possible without finding a mentor in Michael Hughes, the station’s general manager. Over the years working in the industry, Kinard grasped that managers are often not thinking about the needs and wants of individuals because of the myriad of responsibilities they are juggling related to the entity as a whole over any given period of time.
As a result, it is essential for subordinates to communicate with their superiors, as they are “at the mercy of the communication [they] receive,” according to Kinard.
“I had a conversation with him about… wanting to be a program director,” Kinard said of Hughes. “I think he took that seriously and took that to heart and he said, ‘Well, let me help you be prepared for that when the time might come.’ It just so happened that it came less than a year later.”
Derek Futterman is a features reporter for Barrett Sports Media. In addition, he serves as the production manager for the New York Islanders Radio Network and lead sports producer at NY2C. He has also worked on live game broadcasts for the Long Island Nets and New York Riptide. He previously interned for Paramount within Showtime Networks and wrote for The Long Island Herald. To get in touch, find him on Twitter @derekfutterman.
Pete Thamel Was ESPN’s College Football Missing Link
His no-frills approach is refreshing in a time when many “insiders” view being as famous as the athletes they cover as a quasi-goal for their futures.
For a network often accused of “running” college football, it always seemed odd to me that ESPN never had that true news-breaking reporter it had for other sports. That is, until it hired Pete Thamel in January of this year.
ESPN poured resources into “insiders” like Adam Schefter, Adrian Wojnarowski, and Jeff Passan while it poured rights fees into the SEC, Big 12, Pac-12, ACC, and the College Football Playoff, but from the outside, it looked as if the network just wasn’t interested in having that same type of reporting for college football, which is truly puzzling.
When the entire postseason of the country’s arguably second favorite sport is centered around what is best for your television channel, you would think supplementing it with high level, national reporting would be a priority.
Maybe the right deals never came to fruition or maybe the value just wasn’t seen by the network until Thamel became available, but his contributions to ESPN’s college football coverage have been immeasurable.
In a day and age where reporters break news on Twitter and get around to eventually writing a story for their outlet’s website, Thamel flexed his reporting chops in a major way on Sunday. While the rest of the college football world was still pondering whether Ohio State should consider firing Ryan Day, Thamel dropped a bomb on the sport’s landscape by revealing Wisconsin had hired Cincinnati head coach Luke Fickell to run their program. His initial tweet was accompanied by a link to ESPN’s website with further details about the move.
Pete Thamel was so convinced he was the first and potentially only person working on that ever-changing breaking news story, that he took the time to write the story, submit it through ESPN’s editorial staff, and then release the news before anyone else. In 2022, that’s the equivalent of mailing his story from side of the country to the other in order to break news. And yet, he was so far ahead of the game that he was able to take his time, gather his facts, and report an accurate, succinct story that would be of value to him and his network. What a novel concept.
One of Thamel’s best qualities as an “insider” is he — thus far — hasn’t been plagued by questions that have been a factor in the perception like his ESPN counterparts. Schefter, Wojnarowski, and Passan have each faced their own incidents during their time as the lead reporters for ESPN but Thamel, in my opinion, is unlikely to be pulled into those scenarios. It seems clear Thamel doesn’t release things for the benefit of anyone other than himself and the outlet he works for.
He doesn’t seem to be swayed by agents, athletic directors, coaches, boosters, or anyone else with skin in the game. His no-frills approach is refreshing in a time when many “insiders” view being as famous as the athletes they cover as a quasi-goal for their futures.
Last week, College GameDay host Rece Davis noted on the show’s podcast that Thamel brought “something to GameDay that GameDay’s desperately needed for years”, and he’s right. Not only did ESPN need a news breaker for it’s digital outlets, but it needed that presence on its pregame show.
And when you think about it, nearly ever other pregame show has that role filled. Schefter and Chris Mortensen hold that role for ESPN’s NFL coverage, FOX Sports has Jay Glazer in its NFL pregame show and Bruce Feldman for Big Noon Kickoff. It’s just an area ESPN lacked.
But they made a fantastic hire by bringing Thamel aboard, and his reporting will serve the worldwide leader well over the course of the following weeks as the college coaching carousel heats up.
Garrett Searight is the Editor of Barrett Sports Media and Barrett News Media. He previously was the Program Director and Afternoon Co-Host on 93.1 The Fan in Lima, OH. He is also a play-by-play announcer for TV and Radio broadcasts in Western Ohio.