It’s a Friday afternoon at Chickie’s & Pete’s in South Philadelphia, and Eagles Insider Dave Spadaro is cozied up to the bar wearing — what else — a team-issued midnight green Nike long-sleeve. With the Birds set to open training camp in three short days, the part of town that worships at the altar of Merrill Reese on Sundays is brimming with optimism — as usual at this time of year, when losses have yet to pile up and the possibility of contending for a championship fills the minds of hopeful fans.
Radio technicians are busy setting up for a broadcast hosted by former Eagles linebacker and special-teams ace Ike Reese — a Pro Bowler during that enchanting yet ultimately dissatisfying run to the Super Bowl following the 2004 regular season. But nobody here in Crabfries Heaven seems to either notice or care. Instead, fans are magnetically drawn to Spadaro, a visually striking man who, over the past 20 years, has become one of the most recognizable faces in the Eagles ecosystem.
“Yo Dave!” a pair of grown men yell before throwing nods in his direction. He waves politely to acknowledge this odd ritualistic tribute, which strikes me as similar to what a Mafia don would receive while parading his turf. It’s a respect sort of thing.
Fans want to be Spadaro — and who can blame them? Over the past couple of decades, he’s turned himself into a mini media empire when it comes to covering the Eagles. He posts daily news, analysis and videos to the official Eagles website. He’s the sideline reporter for the Eagles’ preseason games, and makes weekly appearances on Fox 29’s pre-game show. He routinely shows up to talk about the Eagles on Comcast SportsNet, NBC 10, WIP and other local media outlets. He hosts an Eagles podcast. And of course, he’s a constant presence on social media, where his @EaglesInsider Twitter handle has 327,000 followers — more than Ron Jaworski, Donovan McNabb and Zach Ertz combined.
The fact that Spadaro is a member of the Eagles communications department and cashes checks cut by Jeffrey Lurie puts him in a bit of a bind, though, when it comes to working with his more loose-lipped peers in the media. Astute fans aren’t sure exactly what to make of Spadaro, who is unquestionably informative yet comes with the baggage of bearing the team’s official (and often sanitized) message. To his credit, Spadaro is cognizant of all this and doesn’t take himself too seriously. Displayed prominently in his office at the team practice facility — amid priceless Birds memorabilia collected over the years — is a piece of paper with a quote from Kevin Cooney, a veteran sportswriter for the Bucks County Courier Times. It reads: “The real threat to journalism in the new millennium is Dave Spadaro.”
“Am I aware that some people think that I’m a homer? I am a homer; who cares?” Spadaro blares when the subject comes up. “I want the Eagles to win every game. But I try to remain balanced, and I understand my audience. The question is, do fans believe that I’m a credible source for Eagles news? I would say 30 years in the business would suggest yes.”
Spadaro, who’s 52, came to our lunch at Chickie’s armed with a printed-out definition of what constitutes a journalist. After poking fun at my cheesesteak order for its lack of fried onions and extra cheese, he pulls the definition out and reads aloud that journalism is “preparing content for a mass audience,” suggesting that this means he, too, is a journalist and not a mere member of a public relations staff or mouthpiece for the team.
“This is sports entertainment,” he says. “People want to be happy about their teams. We have a tremendous following. Those people want to hear about what’s going on with the team, but they also want to hear good things, because the Eagles impact the community off the field profoundly. I get not being a fan, but if a writer says the Eagles winning or losing doesn’t affect them … bullshit. When the Eagles win, everything in this city is better.”
It’s just before 9 a.m. on the Sunday of the Eagles’ first open training-camp practice. In the bowels of Lincoln Financial Field, an awestruck fan in a Carson Wentz jersey holds the door for Spadaro at the Touchdown Club, softly mouthing, “It’s Dave Spadaro” as we walk in. With not much prep time, Spadaro summons the energy to play host at an event for paying fans that highlights this year’s flock of Birds wide receivers. A boisterous chant of “E-A-G-L-E-S, EAGLES” breaks out, and it’s not even 10 o’clock yet.
Sitting on a dais with former pass-catchers Mike Quick and Jason Avant is just one facet of Spadaro’s job outside his day-to-day reporting on the team. When he’s wearing his journalist’s cap, he benefits from a unique advantage: His interview requests with players and coaches are almost always granted. That’s how he was able to get the news that linebacker Jordan Hicks injured his hand on his honeymoon this summer. Spadaro was speaking with Doug Pederson — it was the latter’s first interview following a break in the off-season action — when the head coach got the update on Hicks. Other times, Spadaro is simply fed information by the organization.
“If there’s news that the Eagles want to get out, I’m the guy they go through,” he says. “Signings … trades … other moves. Just so we can tell our story, get our perspective out there.”
A typical day at the office is hard to quantify for Spadaro, who lives in Brewerytown and has a college-age daughter and son. (He and his wife are divorced.) Most mornings begin with him eating breakfast with the players in the cafeteria of the NovaCare Complex; from there, it can be anything: a post for the website here, a video shoot there. Spadaro sees his job as simple: Keep the fans engaged. “Between the end of the game to opening kickoff the next week, we’re just killing time,” he says. “I was always told: You’re bald; you have crooked teeth, a big nose and a gigantic Adam’s apple. … Be really entertaining and have fun.”
Spadaro got his start in traditional news media as a sports reporter for his hometown paper, the West Chester Daily Local News, while studying journalism at Temple University in the ’80s. (Spadaro’s father worked for Westinghouse; his mother was a stay-at-home mom.) He worked at WRTI, the campus radio station, and did play-by-play for Owls hoops, but he never wrote for TU’s student newspaper.
“My first gig was in 1985,” Spadaro recalls. “I was a sophomore. I called up the Daily Local News, and I’m like, ‘Hey, do you guys do internships?’ And they were like, ‘No, but have you ever written before?’ So I lied and said yeah. They told me to go cover the West Chester East-vs.-Boyertown boy’s soccer game, so I got in my Ford Fairmont and drove from North Philly all the way out to Boyertown. Then I went back to the newsroom, wrote my story, and got paid 40 bucks. I was like, ‘This is fucking awesome.’”
Spadaro eventually transitioned to covering professional sports, where he took a few lumps as a young reporter. He once interrupted star pitcher Fernando Valenzuela’s pregame meal by barging into the Los Angeles Dodgers’ clubhouse; in his first visit to the Eagles locker room, he got a tongue-lashing from none other than WIP morning-show host Angelo Cataldi about his less-than-professional attire. “I was at Temple and in a fraternity — Delta Tau Delta,” Spadaro explains. “I was covering the team for the campus radio station. I walk into the locker room during the week to get some sound, and I’m wearing a fraternity shirt with my name on the back. Angelo, who was a beat writer for the Inquirer back then, goes, ‘Hey, son, don’t you ever come into a locker room wearing that again.’ And while he was all curmudgeonly about it, lesson learned — I never did it again.”
After graduation, Spadaro worked at the Daily Local News for several years, then was hired to run Eagles Digest, a joint venture between the team and Curtis Publishing out of Florida. Spadaro says he was the third choice for the position with the fan publication, which was mailed out all over the world.
“I loved reporting for the paper, but I felt I had outgrown it. I took a leap into the team side, and I remember talking to Rich Hofmann from the Daily News about it. He said, ‘I don’t know, Dave, you’re going to the dark side now.’ I took the job and walked into a building full of employees who were very positive-thinking people. I was like, ‘This isn’t a newsroom anymore; they’re actually happy to be here!’”
In 1997, Spadaro was named the Birds’ director of publications, tasked with overseeing the Digest, the team yearbook, and GameDay magazine. Then the Internet got hot and everything changed.
“I took over the website in ’98,” he recalls. “Jon Gruden had been hired to go coach the Raiders, but he was still listed as the Eagles’ offensive coordinator on our site three months later. It drove me crazy. I sent an email to my boss, Len Komoroski, who is now CEO of the Cleveland Cavaliers, asking if I could take over the website. And he was like, ‘Sure.’ He didn’t care.”
Key to Spadaro’s crash course on website-building was an older woman named Arden Portny, who had been AOL’s director of technology when that company first launched. “She cashed out with AOL, came to the Eagles, and said, ‘Teach me sports marketing and I’ll teach you how to run your website and make money off it,’” Spadaro says.
In a world that now routinely sees athletes, politicians and other celebrities connect directly with their fans through social media and the Web, the Eagles were well ahead of the curve. With Spadaro, the team found a way to control its own message, bypassing — or least balancing out — the coverage in traditional media outlets, from the Inquirer and Daily News to WIP. Other teams around the NFL and in other sports leagues have followed suit in this regard, hiring their own versions of Spadaro to “report” on all comings and goings. The Eagles, meanwhile, have gone on to build a content team that now includes more than a dozen people.
“We took our website and turned it into a valuable property,” Spadaro says of Philadelphiaeagles.com. “We made a lot of money on advertising, grew a gigantic audience, and we changed the way things are covered today. My philosophy has always been content, content, content. The fans are never going to get tired of content.”
But can Spadaro’s content truly be digested without a grain of salt? Is he a trustworthy source? While no one questions the hard information he puts out about injuries or player signings, things get trickier when it comes to his analysis of the team’s performance. Two seasons ago, for instance, Spadaro continued to vociferously defend running back DeMarco Murray when it was obvious to even the most casual fan that Murray, well, sucked. Spadaro’s unwillingness to make appropriately critical remarks about the Eagles and its players often sparks battles when he appears on TV and radio programs with other journalists — scraps that he maintains are always in good fun.
“Dave probably knows as much about this team as anybody,” says NJ.com’s Eliot Shorr-Parks, a frequent sparring partner of Spadaro’s. “Obviously he’s paid to cover it in a different way, but I think he’d be the first person to tell you that. Especially in this time and age of journalism, he’s extremely successful at what he does. Dave has nuggets of information that people don’t get, being so close to the team. While I would say his analysis may be a little slanted, I think he does a great job.”
“I don’t think you should put a label on Dave,” says WIP host Howard Eskin, who also works with Spadaro on Fox 29’s game-day coverage. “What’s a journalist in today’s world? Are 60 percent of the people who are writing blogs and tweeting, are they really journalists? I will say this about Dave — I think he is a very astute football guy. He helps people learn about certain areas of the football team, and I think his insights are very good.”
Spadaro likes to use the phrase “sports entertainment” in describing what he does. Sometimes that quest to amuse his audience gets him in hot water, as it did when he famously spat on the Dallas Cowboys’ midfield star logo in January 2010. “It wasn’t the most professional thing to do,” he concedes. “I’m thankful the Cowboys responded with such class. I got caught up in the moment of being a fan and appealing to the fans. From that standpoint, I don’t regret it. But I think there are other ways to express an intense distaste for the Cowboys.”
These days, Spadaro is resigned toexercising caution in his daily inter-actions with constituents. His goal is to remain employed by the Eagles for as long as they both see fit. “I’m the everyman,” he asserts, despite his near-celebrity status. “I really love my job. I think I have the greatest job in the city — and I’ve been able to create within the job and keep myself intellectually stimulated. I grew up being a sports fan, and I get to work in sports. How fucking awesome is that?
“There’s a place for everybody in this business, because it’s entertainment. I’ll do it my way, and this writer will do it his own way. But I’m beholden to the team, so I can’t add a whole lot of bullshit. Ultimately, my accuracy is held accountable by the team.”
When Spadaro was a kid, his family, like many throughout the Philadelphia area, couldn’t afford tickets to games. That fact makes his current access a continuing source of awe. “I wanted to be Merrill Reese as a kid,” he says in a hushed tone, as if just speaking the idea of anybody else in the Eagles’ broadcast booth might cause the legend to drop dead. “Now I get to stand beside him, which is good enough for me. All I ever wanted to do was be a part of the team and win a Super Bowl … someday.”
Published as “The Insider” in the September 2017 issue of Philadelphia magazine.