After midnight in L.A., when even the Jenners and Machine Gun Kelly are asleep, I realized why a ballgame had hijacked me as it cannonballed toward a sixth hour. It wasn’t about rivalry hype, a hopeful premise that the Dodgers — baseball’s corporate goliaths — suddenly are being challenged by a revived bottom-feeder in San Diego. It wasn’t the assembled starpower and affluence — the $365 million of Mookie Betts, the $300-million-plus deals of Fernando Tatis Jr. and Manny Machado, Trevor Bauer’s $40 million a year, the batboys making six figures with comped hotel suites (kidding, I think).
It wasn’t even the startling element of raucous crowd noise, louder than 15,250 humans seem capable of generating in what surely was the decibels leader of sport’s pandemic era, Super Bowl and Wrestlemania included.
No, I was excited enough to keep watching because: (1) the players showed up for the weekend series, in uniform, even as Tatis, Machado and Betts have battled injuries; (2) they were excited to be at Petco Park, engaged in mid-April fury with the urgency of “a playoff game,” as Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said afterward; (3) not a soul was taking the evening off due to “rest” or a “minutes restriction” or “load management” or while tending to a “personal matter” or a “mental day;” and (4) the Friday night game was friggin’ great — all four hours and 57 minutes of it, including an incident that emptied dugouts and bullpens — proving that the length of an extra-innings classic doesn’t matter when intensity and quality are next-level and both teams actually are trying to win a championship.
And what happened the next night? Another thriller, crisp and low-scoring, featuring more animosity — a God-fearing Clayton Kershaw, firing f-bombs at Jurickson Profar, who fired them back — and ending with Betts racing 60 feet, laying out his delicate body and saving the 2-0 victory by slamming into the grass and securing a liner in the heel of his glove, an inch or two from a trap. Imagine, a player of that pay grade risking his health so early in a season.
“I just kind of blacked out,” said Betts, who celebrated by pounding his chest four times and shouting into the night. “I was kind of in the moment. I just knew when the ball went up, I had to catch it, and that’s what I did.”
If this is an indirect way of upbraiding the NBA for its disjointed regular season, so be it. Certainly, Major League Baseball is overloaded with its own problems — COVID-19 outbreaks, tanking teams, sexual harassment probes in front offices, ball-doctoring by pitchers such as Bauer, an abysmal percentage of Black players on rosters (7.6 percent) and the darkening clouds of a labor impasse at season’s end. The Minnesota Twins are the latest team to require game cancellations after multiple positive virus tests, making fans think twice about attending games while reminding the sports world that a pandemic still rages. “This is the unfortunate reality that we live in,” Twins manager Rocco Baldelli said. But at least MLB, after weeks of promising special drama in these Dodgers-Padres tussles — “We’re going to get 19 World Series games this year,” the Dodgers’ Justin Turner said — delivered in the first of six series between teams separated by 120 miles of interstate highway.
I have no reason to trust the NBA and its careless competitive breaches. Unspoken tension between the players and commissioner Adam Silver, who insisted on starting a 72-game regular season only 71 days after last season ended, has resulted in an unwatchable mish-mash of athlete and franchise indifference, DNPs and suspicions that some stars aren’t injured as much as they’re being stashed away protectively for the playoffs. And those who are legitimately crippled — Denver’s Jamal Murray is out until next season with a torn ACL, ruining the Nuggets’ hopes — have every right to wonder if a short offseason increased the risk of serious injuries. After losing an estimated $2 billion in the Disney Bubble experiment, Silver saw financial advantages in a Christmas Week start, as encouraged by broadcast partners ESPN and Turner, while ending the postseason just before the Tokyo Olympics in late July.
The players aren’t happy, blaming the league for a spate of injuries both real and imagined. The Toronto Raptors, champions two years ago, are among those deeming “rest” more important than a playoff berth — even in a season when there are 10 qualifiers in each conference. “There’s certainly ups and downs to this thing more than I’ve ever experienced in my life. To be honest, this is probably the most un-pure year of basketball I’ve ever been a part of, just from the whole league and rushing the season back,” the Raptors’ Fred VanVleet said. “It’s pretty much all about business this year on every level and it’s hard to hide it, you know what I’m saying? … I think this year, the industry side has taken precedence over some of the love and joy.”
What Silver didn’t anticipate was an aesthetic disaster, the antithesis of the Dodgers-Padres masterpieces. If you doubt this, consider NBA ratings have dropped again, to the point a TNT doubleheader last week drew only 724,000 viewers, or less than we used to attract on ESPN’s “Around The Horn” during our peak years. The best potential story in Silver’s kingdom is across the bridge, in Brooklyn, where the Nets might be the most potent offensive team ever. Too bad we’ve yet to see the starting core — Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, James Harden, Joe Harris — play more than a handful of minutes together. Durant, of course, is returning from a career-threatening right Achilles’ tendon rupture. But it happened almost two years ago. Two months after an unrelated hamstring injury in his left leg, the Nets routinely keep him out of games as a precaution more than a necessity. Harden is out with a hamstring strain, but he’d surely be playing on it in the postseason. Irving? He comes and goes as he pleases, the most maddening free bird in sports, capable of calling in sick or wigging out on a whim. Somehow, Nets general manager Sean Marks is fine with the flim-flamness, which prioritizes playoff health over all else, continuity and chemistry be damned.
Anyone thinking about the fans in this equation? Last week, the NBA was poised for its potential version of a hot new rivalry: Nets vs. 76ers. ESPN was so juiced, it broadcast the game on its blowtorch feed and two other platforms, ESPN2 and ESPN+, which featured an all-gambling analytical focus for the first time. Hours before tipoff, the Nets announced Durant wouldn’t play, choosing to use him 27 minutes the previous night against the dismal Timberwolves to ensure at least one win in a back-to-back sequence. Across America, viewers flipped channels. The showcase game was a bust, producing numbers lower than AEW, pro wrestling’s junior-varsity brand.
“We want to get everyone healthy, and that’s just as important as circling the calendar for Philly,” Durant said.
“We’ve got to protect him,” coach Steve Nash said.
Ah, Nash. He was leading a comfortable life in Manhattan Beach as a soccer aficionado, an advisor to the Golden State Warriors and Canada’s Olympic team and a philanthropist who once was named one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people. Why did he take the Nets’ gig again? He has used 30 different starting units and is accustomed to games with 10 or fewer active players. Just when he was excited about acclimating big man LaMarcus Aldridge in the starting unit, the seven-time All-Star abruptly retired due to an irregular heartbeat. If that’s not random, how many times has Blake Griffin suited up compared to his frequent flannel-shirt sightings as a cheerleader?
“We may not get any games with our whole roster. Nothing is promised tomorrow,” Nash said. “I don’t want to worry about or be concerned about things that are out of our control. I also don’t want any excuses. You start playing that game where it’s like, well we haven’t had any games with our full roster. But in a sense, that’s irrelevant. We don’t control that.”
Irrelevant? The Nets are a title contender, not a playoff aspirant. “We just keep moving forward, keep trying to get better, and if we get a full roster that would be great and if we don’t we keep plugging away every day,” he said. “I’m not going to worry about when we’ll have the full roster. We’ll just chip away every day with whoever is available. Continue to build this thing and if we’re fortunate to have everyone back, that will be a blessing.”
Nash won’t say it. I will: The Nets are exploiting their fans, and Marks is on board to avoid a player mutiny. Sunday, Durant was in the starting lineup for an ESPN game against the Heat, who didn’t have star Jimmy Butler, out with what was called a sore ankle. Durant launched an immediate scoring burst — eight points in the first 93 seconds — then was lightly fouled by Trevor Ariza in the hip area. What happened next? Durant walked to the locker room with a “left thigh contusion” and didn’t return. Yet another hyped game was diluted, while NBA insiders asked: If Durant is this brittle, how are the Nets supposed to compete for a title? Or, is he simply a very good actor who’s distracted by his well-chronicled (and foolish) social-media wars?
“He’s sore,” said Nash, “but we don’t know how severe.”
Don’t mistake this as a claim that LeBron James, Anthony Davis, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Joel Embiid, Paul George and Donovan Mitchell haven’t been dealing with daunting setbacks. But I do wonder how many of these cases are being slow-played by teams focused entirely on the postseason, which means the final weeks of the regular season are being tanked by contenders. How can Silver, a self-described integrity enforcer, ignore rampant surrender throughout the league? He’s fortunate ticket-buyers still are kept at a minimum number, or he’d be sued for consumer fraud. He still might be.
This is no way to keep fans watching on TV or luring them to arenas as COVID restrictions ease. The pandemic has jarred many Americans into a pragmatic perspective: Who has time, money or energy for sports when the bigger objective is survival in a swirling, evolving world? As the industry is painfully aware, the ratings continue to crater for the biggest events — the Masters sunk to its lowest spring viewership numbers since 1993. This follows all-time lows for the NBA Finals and World Series and the lowest Super Bowl ratings since 2007. The NCAA tournament title game, which saw Baylor upend Gonzaga’s unbeaten season, was the least-watched since 1982. Don’t accept the easy explanation and assume it’s about cable cord-cutting. Or the premise that politics and anthem-kneeling have killed ratings.
Sports is entertainment.
And if the entertainment sucks, or is unreliable, people won’t watch. That goes for Netflix, the Oscars or the Brooklyn Nets. The NFL is the only league that has stood the test of COVID and continues to expect substantial traffic, which explains why CBS, NBC, ESPN/ABC, Fox and Amazon plunged $113 billion into 11-year deals. When the NBA leaks that it wants $75 billion in the next rights rush, when its current deal doesn’t expire for four more years, I would point to the Nets and other teams in the pattern of sitting players and ask if fans have lost measures of interest. The Western Conference-leading Utah Jazz, already missing Mitchell, rested Rudy Gobert, Mike Conley Jr. and Derrick Favors for “injury recovery” purposes Saturday. Who wants to watch second-rate events? When fans return to games en masse, shouldn’t ticket and concession prices be slashed if roster dilution becomes business as usual?
The NBA playoffs, starting a month later than usual on May 22, could be a ratings bust if watchability standards don’t improve markedly. This is the summer Americans have awaited for a very long time — free of isolation, who wants to sit at home watching basketball when no one knows who’s injured or not? The play-in format, meanwhile, already has been torched by Mavericks owner Mark Cuban and star Luka Doncic, who suddenly realize Dallas’ No. 7 seeding would require an additional three-game series against Steph Curry, Gregg Popovich or Zion Williamson. Said Doncic: “You play 72 games to get into the playoffs, then maybe you lose two in a row and you’re out of the playoffs. I don’t see the point.” Now that he mentions it, the fans might not see the point of tuning in.
I didn’t plan on watching more than an inning or two of Dodgers-Padres, Night One. The series seemed like a media creation that annoyed the World Series champions. “It’s just another division series,” Corey Seager said.
“Obviously, we know they’re good,” Betts said of the Padres. “But everyone is good in the big leagues.”
Was this a case of the inferior neighbor to the south, envious of all things L.A. and Hollywood, trying to manufacture a challenge? The Petco DJ played “Dust in the Wind” and “Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” as the Dodgers took batting practice. Really? Hours later, after four late lead changes and 17 total pitchers, Seager finally reminded us of the Dodgers’ supremacy with a modern novelty — a leadoff, two-run homer. Yes, the new extra-inning rules were in play, with a runner starting the half-inning on second base, and wasn’t it a treat watching the Padres finally succumb by using second baseman Jake Cronenworth in emergency relief? He allowed an RBI sacrifice fly to weak-hitting pitcher David Price, who flew out to … Joe Musgrove, last week’s no-hit wonder, who’d been inserted in left field. Later, Cronenworth struck out Betts, who went down swinging on an 89-mph fastball.
“I wanted to maybe throw a little harder,” he told reporters, “but they told me not to.”
All we wanted was more. It was the best baseball game I’ve seen since March 11, 2020 — the start of the COVID calendar — and probably the best wire-to-wire sports event. Night Two came close, with Kershaw and Yu Darvish dueling as a ripple of the sport’s best two pitching staffs. Kershaw smelled a farce when Profar let strike three whiz by him, then intentionally swung late, wanting home-plate umpire Tom Hallion to think he was checking his swing. When his bat grazed the glove of catcher Austin Barnes, Profar remained at home plate.
“That’s a (expletive) swing!” Kershaw shouted.
“Shut the (expletive) up!” Profar replied.
Hallion, whose performance was wretched all night, somehow let the New York replay crew decide if Barnes committed catcher’s interference, as the Padres were claiming. Meanwhile, Kershaw was yelling and pointing his finger at Profar, who was standing on first base and had to be restrained by coach Wayne Kirby from attacking the regal pitcher. “That’s a little scary,” Kershaw said later. “Barnes could have been seriously injured on that play. He basically swung down and backwards. I’m not saying it was intentional, but that was not a big-league swing.”
Profar was allowed to stay on first — the replay crew, oddly, agreed the catcher had interfered. But Kershaw, as usual, won in the end. With Darvish starting to wobble after retiring the first 14 batters, Kershaw came to bat with the bases loaded … and coaxed an eight-pitch walk that drove in the only run the Dodgers needed. “I was just trying to be annoying, really,” Kershaw said. “I wasn’t going to get a hit off him. He has too good of stuff. I was just trying to be a nuisance to him, fouling off pitches.”
The Padres avoided the sweep Sunday against Bauer, who allowed only a solo home run and two singles with seven strikeouts in six innings. The bullpen let him down, giving the Padres oxygen … until the rivalry resumes Thursday night in L.A. The Dodgers are 13-3, best start ever by a defending World Series champion. Playing in a division with three stragglers and a league with only a smattering of real contenders, why can’t they surpass the 116-win regular seasons of the 2001 Mariners and 1906 Cubs — and the 125 total wins of the 1998 Yankees? That team was the last to repeat as champs, part of a trifecta ending in 2000, and you sense the Dodgers, after years of falling short, are prepared to make the competition pay with a dynastic run.
“When it’s time to make a play or a pitch, we do it,” said Betts, whose 12-year contract extends through the 2032 season. “If we keep doing it, we’re going to be successful for a long time.”
That they rose to match the passion of the moment, with autumn so far off, is a tribute to the organization. The Dodgers are the gold standard in American sports, having mastered modern business practices and analytics and meshing them with MLB financial might matched only by the Yankees. Jerry Jones has the most valuable sports franchise on Planet Earth, but the Dallas Cowboys haven’t reached a Super Bowl this century. The Yankees are second on the list, but they haven’t won the Series since 2009. This season, they are a toxic spill onto themselves, still struggling to beat the team they’ve subsidized in revenue sharing, the Tampa Bay Rays, as fans pelt the field with baseballs and turn the Stadium into a danger zone. The Dodgers are a colossus, the bluebloods who got it right, from the on-field product to a Chavez Ravine experience improved by a $100 million renovation of the outfield pavilion and beyond, including what team president Stan Kasten calls “an open-air baseball history museum.”
Every beast needs an adversary. In a pop-culture context, the Dodgers are the triumphant Godzilla and the Padres are the quashed Kong. Neither the movie nor the first three World Series games, as Turner put it, let us down. “Neither team wanted to lose,” Price said after Night One. “Everybody was playing extremely hard. This is a good rivalry, a fun rivalry to be a part of. Just a ton of really good players.”
“We knew it was going to be emotional and intense coming here,” Roberts said after Night Two. “It’s certainly lived up to the billing.”
“Really fun to watch,” Kershaw said.
By comparison, the NBA tankers remind me of Shaquille O’Neal in his TNT office chair last week, asleep as Dwyane Wade and Candace Parker lobbed grapes at him. They have five weeks to wake up.
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 Jac 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.