The Only Game in Town

The show really begins just inside the glass doors of Comcast SportsNet’s offices at the Wachovia Center, with security guard Fred Bibbo. He’s quick with a “Yo, buddy!” and treats everyone like an old pal from the neighborhood — including celebrities like Adam Sandler and Drew Barrymore, whom he’s interviewed, in his uniform, when they’ve had sports movies to plug. Inside, it’s not unusual to see former Phillies reliever Mitch “Wild Thing” Williams prepping for post-game analysis — horizontally, on a couch in the green room, with his special pillow and the lights turned out, watching the game on TV. You might even run into the Governor of the Commonwealth, who was invited to drop by for Eagles Post Game Live and, nine years later, still hasn’t left.

In the middle of it all is the affable ringmaster, Michael Barkann, who on this May afternoon is on a break during Daily News Live, the shoot-the-bull session he hosts with a rotating cast of newspaper beat writers and columnists that’s become a televised watercooler for jock junkies in this town. Barkann recalls the horrors inflicted on viewers when the show would air from the Vet. “Our set looked like a piece of Formica on two wooden horses. The writers wore pants, but sometimes they were capris. It was ugly!”

Enter longtime Daily News scribe Dick Jerardi. His purple necktie highlights the pale tan dress shirt that blends almost seamlessly with his skin. He’s balding. A little jowly. And when DJ, as he’s known here, strolls onto the set to talk Phillies, the Preakness, the NBA Finals and anything else Barkann throws his way, he’s wearing khaki shorts and sneakers. The ensemble is actually an improvement over his old wardrobe, back when the cable sports network debuted 10 years ago this fall, when beat writers weren’t celebrities. But that’s exactly why the show works — Barkann is looser than his network news suits and crisp Windsor knots would suggest, and the newspaper guys make up for their style deficiencies with substance. (Thankfully for viewers, DJ and company are only seen from the waist up.)

“It’s a visual medium,” says Barkann. “But we’re semi-formal.”

Unlike ESPN’s SportsCenter, with its “boo-ya” catchphrases and slick hosts, Barkann and the other CSN talent aren’t bigger than the sports they cover, or even bigger than Daily News guys like Jerardi or Paul Hagen, whose oversize glasses recall Disney’s Chicken Little. They’re just (mostly) guys talking, and sometimes arguing. Very well-informed guys. For you non-sportsniks who have never quite understood what it is that (mostly) men are doing when they sit around talking sports, this is the place to tune in: Whether dissecting a play, an athlete who fails in the clutch, or owners who won’ t open their pocketbooks, these guys show us not just the world of sports, but how they view the rest of the world.

Back in 1997, though, the concept of a local 24-hour sports channel was revolutionary. No one really expected Daily News Live to become a hit. No one thought an Eagles post-game show would work, given that Comcast doesn’t actually televise the games. Now the network is such a part of the fabric of the sports religion here, it’s changed the cloth itself. Sports coverage on the 11 o’clock news is little more than highlights these days. Instead of scouring the newspapers with their morning coffee, fans can watch SportsRise. When Terrell Owens fled training camp and started pumping iron in his driveway, only one station went live from T.O.’s yard. In this town, it truly is Comcast SportsNet’s world. We’re just watching it.

BEFORE JERARDI makes his half-business, half-casual entrance on the Daily News Live set, Barkann dissects the Phillies bullpen with a guy who knows it well — former Phillies reliever Ricky Bottalico, or “Ricky Bo!,” as Barkann calls him. “That’s baseball,” says Bottalico. “One bad pitch in this game and your whole month goes to sh — shattered.” Barkann doesn’t flinch at the near-miss profanity. In fact, you’d think Barkann and Ricky Bo! go fishing on Saturdays — they don’t, but Barkann’s chummy rapport feels like locker-room banter. Another guest, Kevin Mench, plays for the visiting Milwaukee Brewers and is a die-hard Eagles fan; he called Barkann to ask if he could come on and rap about baseball and Birds. “What are ya doing living in Dallas?” says Barkann, busting Mench’s chops like they’re drinking Coors Light and watching the game — only in this rec room, rocker Ted Nugent might stop by (and did, to talk sports and hunting).

Back in 1997, Barkann was just hoping CSN would attract viewers, never mind athletes and B-list celebrities. After a five-year run with KYW 3, he was sports director at a TV station in Boston and planned to raise his family there. When his friends in the business heard he might move back to Philly for a start-up network, the reaction was always the same: “‘What are you doing?’” Barkann recalls, loudly. “‘You’re going to cable, man! It’s the black hole of TV! Light goes in, does not come out!’” But it felt right. “We would be the only game in town, literally,” Barkann says. “And Comcast doesn’t do anything to fail.”

Ed Snider, owner of the Flyers and Sixers, has a jones for winning as well. His first attempt at a sports network, PRISM, also featured movies, and when the station was sold off, he began dreaming of its all-sports second coming. Snider kicked the idea around with Phillies president Bill Giles, but it wasn’t until Comcast joined forces with Snider’s Spectacor — and his hockey team, both indoor arenas, and eventually the Sixers — that the pipe dream became possible. “Ed’s vision for a regional sports network was music to our ears,” says Comcast CEO Brian Roberts. “We’d never put our name on a channel. It was Ed’s passion with my dad’s vision of what Comcast could be.”

Snider and Roberts were the visionaries, but CSN’s architect was Jack Williams, who ran PRISM and, along with Snider, was responsible for transforming an also-ran music station into the sports talk-radio behemoth that is WIP. Williams had less than a year to take CSN from concept to air, and made critical decisions — building studios at the then-CoreStates Center not only kept the staff close to the action, but created a bond with fans, who watch broadcasts live from the concourse.

He also drafted then-KYW 3 sports director Tom Stathakes to run the news arm of CSN. “[Before CSN], you’d put the game on, you’d have a post-game show, and then you’d have a fishing show,” Williams says. “You had all this time to fill when the games weren’t on, and the thought was that those times were not important. We said, we’ll put a news operation together.”

Other KYW veterans followed Stathakes into what became a maelstrom of pressure — with just three months left before its October debut, the network didn’t have a name, a logo or a bottomless budget, and the “office” was two ­aluminum-sided trailers in the stadium parking lot. “We’d walk outside and see elephants from Ringling Brothers,” says Stathakes. “We’d listen to theme music in our cars to see how it would sound.”  

When the network went live on October 1, 1997, static and blackouts plagued some viewers. Soon, though, sports addicts could feed the beast all day long, with news, games and analysis. Six words flashed across a blank screen as a narrator reminiscent of Darth Vader heralded Philly’s new sports empire: “Your world is going to change.”

MICHAEL BARKANN IS a love-him-or-hate-him kind of guy — perpetually caffeinated, prone to giddy outbursts, and omnipresent, if you’re at all plugged into sports. He hosts Monday Night Live, an hour-long chatfest during football season; Eagles Post-Game Live, the network’s most popular show; and the 90-minute Daily News Live. Legendary Daily News writer Bill Conlin once said on the air, “Ninety minutes is just too long for a show of this nature.” He’s right, of course, but it usually works, largely thanks to Barkann’s knack for playing host, instigator, clown, homer and critic with equal ease.

The essence of DNL was on display in June, when Donovan McNabb made a rare studio appearance. Flanked by writer Rich Hofmann and CSN’s Derrick Gunn, the quarterback was prepared to take a few hits. Barkann fired first.

“For the first time in your career, the injury-prone label is coming up.”

“It’s unfortunate, isn’t it?” McNabb said calmly, sporting his new Amish beard and a polo shirt. “There’s a difference between being injured and not being able to play anymore. I can’t worry about the past.”

Then there was talk of his future. “Well, I mean, reality kicks in,” McNabb admitted. “I can’t play for 20 years. I don’t want to leave. I want to retire here as a Philadelphia Eagle.”

“Do you believe you’re gonna be here five years from now?” asked Gunn. “Honestly.”

“I do. I honestly do. Are you tellin’ me something?” McNabb turned to face Gunn and laughed.

“I know nothing!”

Barkann has allowed his thinning hair to gray, bringing a hint of gravitas to his otherwise ADD-kid-off-his-meds enthusiasm, a little of which leaked out at the end of the segment, to the quarterback’s amusement.

“We’re gonna take a break,” Barkann said. “We’re talking to Donovan McNabb, Super Five.” The host looked at Gunn, who was leaving during the commercial. “Gunner, thank you very much.”

“I like that makeup,” Gunn said to McNabb, coaxing out the jokester in him. “You’ve got more makeup on than [Barkann] does.”

“They use a putty knife with him!” said Barkann.

Not to be outdone, Gunn slipped in one last shot before the break. “That eyeliner looks great, by the way.”

McNabb closed his eyes and laughed out loud — a serious conversation about his career suddenly turned into the sort of towel-snapping locker-room moment he sees every day, and the viewers wish they could be a part of themselves.

For the Daily News sportswriters, all of whom make rotating appearances on the show, DNL’s popularity is a very real thing. DNL is talked about the day after, the way Conlin’s own columns are and ex-­Inquirer poet laureate  Bill Lyons’s pieces once were. “I can’t go to the Super Fresh without being recognized,” Bowen says. “But it’s very rarely about what I’ve written. I often wonder if some of the people even know I write for a newspaper.” (See “The Death of Sportswriting” on page 117.)

Now the ink-stained wretches are celebrities — the droll Bowen, the ­fashion-­challenged Jerardi, even sportswriter Bill Fleischman, whom Barkann calls “Ricky Rudd” for his auto-racing acumen: “I think some people who don’t follow NASCAR think my name really is Ricky Rudd,” Fleischman says. And those people are watching in surprisingly large numbers. Among men 18 and older in May 2007, DNL edged out SportsCenter at 6 p.m., and was barely behind ESPN’s popular Pardon the Interruption at 5:30. 

Apart from the writers, Barkann is Comcast’s most outspoken personality, but after ripping Phillies third-base coach John Vukovich for blowing calls — then hearing him explain his private health struggles — Barkann learned to ease off. “It was heart-wrenching,” he says. “I really regret that.” Vukovich later died at age 59. The heart of the issue, though — why the Phillies left Vukovich out to dry despite all of his health problems­ — was never addressed on-air. Doing so would point to the insensitivity of the Phillies management, and that’s a little too personal.

Situations like those resurrect an old concern that CSN is too soft, and that a network owned by the teams it covers can’t report on them objectively. (The Phillies sold their stake back to Comcast in 2001 as they were raising capital for the new ballpark.) When asked if he’s ever called CSN to criticize, Ed Snider says, “That’s confidential.” Regardless, the specter of his concerns and those of The Corporation are sometimes felt on-air, most recently in the lack of analysis of the Chris Webber trade that sent him away with a bundle of unearned Sixers cash. “There should have been a lot more hammering on the Webber situation,” says Conlin. “The way he was allowed to take the money and run, the way Billy King handled it — but it’s an institutional thing.”

The beat writers stress that they’re not beholden to the CSN machine — DNL panelists are paid $190 per appearance by the newspaper, not Comcast. Still, pressure from on high does occasionally trickle down. Conlin recalls the day in June when a column he wrote about the all-time worst Phillies was discussed briefly on DNL. His usual three segments were cut to one that day, and the next day, Conlin was conspicuously absent from the panel for a Phillies debate. “Certain pressure had been put on the Daily News people,” he says, “and it was made clear [by the Daily News] that if that continued, it would be a very serious problem. That has all been rectified, so far as I can tell. We’re not a house organ. They owe us the right to be impartial.”

The teams are also invited to take their criticism straight to the source: When the Inquirer’s Tim Panaccio remarked on the air that the Flyers staff doesn’t tell the press anything, Bob Clarke replied, “They just don’t talk to you, Tim, because you’re an asshole.” Barkann nearly went deaf from the roar in the newsroom.

TV ANALYSISTS WILL tell you the greatest feat in broadcasting — the real David Blaine float-in-the-air hoodoo — is to convince the viewer to pick up the remote and flip to your station without being prompted to do so. Action News is like Houdini in that regard; even on nights when it’s preceded by ratings killers like October Road, it still whoops up on the competition. During Eagles season, this phenomenon plays out every weekend, as thousands of diehards jump from Fox or ESPN or NBC to watch Barkann, plus a producer from NFL Films, an ex-Eagle and Pennsylvania’s governor, break down every imaginable moment from the previous four quarters on Eagles Post Game Live. No one figured Ed Rendell would stick around past his first show in September 1998. “It was like the prime minister smashing a bottle of champagne before the ship set sail,” says fellow panelist Ray Didinger, of NFL Films. But the Guv, as he’s now called, knows his football and — more ­important — cares desperately about it. After the Eagles’ “4th and 26” comeback win in the 2004 playoffs, Rendell’s co-hosts feared for his health. “He slumped in his chair and said, ‘I’m not going to make it,’” Didinger says. “I thought he was going to lose consciousness.”

Even more impressive than a football show topping the Guv’s “to do” list is the superstardom of Didinger. The 60-year-old was inducted into the NFL Hall of Fame for his writing, and to say his gridiron knowledge is encyclopedic is to suggest it has an end. Rendell’s blood pressure rises after a loss, Barkann gets fired up after a win, but Didinger is just there: Moments after the Eagles clinched a Super Bowl berth in 2005, the Guv sprayed champagne and led a chorus of “Fly Eagles Fly” minus Didinger, who simply looked bemused. “Why weren’t you singing?” Rendell asked during a commercial. “Governor,” said Didinger, “you can take the boy out of the press box, but you can’t take the press box out of the boy.” 

Like handprints in the Hollywood Walk of Fame, Didinger’s celebrity was cemented on Post Game two years ago as Barkann read a viewer question verbatim: “I want to know why Ray Diddy thinks the Eagles pass on third and short.” Ray Diddy! If there’s an antonym for “bling,” it’s “Ray Didinger,” but that’s exactly the point: He’s so comfortable in his skin as a football wonk that he’s, well, cool. His rock-star moment came soon after, as Barkann was driving the Post Game crew, minus Rendell, to the media lot outside the Super Bowl in Jacksonville. A window rolled down, and as soon as Birds fans saw who was inside the car, the mob closed in, snapping photos and shaking hands as if they’d spotted Paul McCartney. One offered up his phone — “Hey, Ray! Say hi to my cousin back in Mayfair!”

Ray Diddy is another CSN star with roots at KYW 3, back in the ’80s, when local TV news was a very different game. Sports ran four minutes a night; now it’s two and a half, tops. Stations had full sports departments, and weather was a two-person operation. Now it’s the opposite, and while our forecast fixation is partly to blame, so is CSN. Barkann says that in 2000, former NBC 10 news director Steve Schwaid told him, “I can foresee the day when we’ll toss down to CSN and you’ll just do our sports. We’re not in the sports business.” Sentiments like those made it easy for longtime Action News reporter Phil Andrews to join the CSN staff: “News directors used to tell me, ‘Viewers will get their sports from ESPN.’ Now they say, ‘They’ll get it from Comcast.’”

Radio also looms as competition for CSN, despite a steady flow of talent from one station to the other — WIP’s Angelo Cataldi was the Monday-night-show host until last year, and Didinger has an AM gig. When it comes to breaking news, like the Terrell Owens training camp fiasco, CSN news director Mark Jordan is keenly aware of WIP’s influence. “We know who comes on at three on the radio, I’m not going to lie,” he says — though in keeping with the fashion in Philly sports journalism these days, he doesn’t mention Howard Eskin by name. “It was, how do we beat them on this story?”

CSN has managed to find a niche because it’s more immediate than the newspapers (though its online presence is virtually nonexistent), more thorough than the competing news stations, and less abrasive than talk radio. One night at the studio, before Cataldi passed his Monday-night torch to his friend Barkann, he made an observation. “Some people have trouble being an asshole,” Cataldi said. “I don’t have that problem.” Barkann — who does a killer Cataldi and Bob Clarke; his Harry Kalas could use a little work — has thought about that line. “I respect him for that. But I can’t quite go that far.” Neither does CSN. For better and worse, it doesn’t have to — insight and analysis trump attitude, egos and gossip. Just ask Ray Diddy. “I can’t do ‘guy talk,’” he says. “I can’t talk about girls in bikinis. If they wanted flash and glitz, they certainly wouldn’t put me up there.”

JERARDI’S SARTORIAL STYLE seems to be catching on at CSN, judging by Mitch Williams’s wardrobe as he finally leaves his office — a.k.a. the CSN couch — for the Phillies’ post-game show, though he’s added a blazer to his shorts-and-t-shirt ensemble. Barkann sits next to him on the set, whistling Quiet Riot’s “Cum On Feel The Noize.” Someone in the booth asks Williams a ribald question through his earpiece. “I’m talking about Brett Myers’s stuff, not his stuff,” he clarifies. “Ya dirty bastard.” The Phils win with a walk-off home run, and Williams weighs in on the plight of Myers, the reliever who nearly cost them the game. “You feel bad, but believe me, that’s gonna happen,” he says. “You have to leave it at the ballpark.”

When you consider he was threatened with death after serving up a World Series-winning homer, Williams knows of what he speaks. Wild Thing isn’t polished, but neither was his buddy John Kruk when he started on CSN. Now Krukker’s on ESPN’s Baseball Tonight. Maybe Williams won’t make it to the national stage, but it doesn’t matter — CSN isn’t just a farm team these days, it’s the big leagues. Comcast SportsNet now controls 10 regional sports networks, all of them modeled after Philly’s, right down to shows like Chicago Tribune Live and Daily News Live in New York. Where Fox Sports Net and SportsChannel America failed, CSN, like its parent company, just grows larger, both here and across the country. “Fox tried the ‘Let’s take on ESPN’ approach,” says Brian Roberts. “We did the opposite. There’s something lost in the nationalism of programming. When I grew up, there was a lot of local programming, like Sally Starr. In the long term, Comcast SportsNet will continue to be a very popular channel.”

That’s a frightening thought when you consider the power CSN already wields. CSN is so valuable to Comcast that it’s credited with making this city one of the major markets that satellite hasn’t penetrated. When your cable rates creep up insidiously, when the contractor sent to fix your lousy picture is caught napping on your couch, when DirecTV whispers “Try me!” in your sleep, you ignore all of it, because without CSN, you’ll miss roughly 240 games a year, along with guys like Barkann, Ray Diddy, DJ and even Ed Rendell to help you and your buddies put it all in perspective. CSN president Stephanie Smith sees a future in which the network’s brand loyalty rivals that of Action News, the number one news station for two decades and counting.

Could Michael Barkann be the next Jim Gardner? “That,” says Barkann, “is scary.”

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