5 minutes with Woods: Why ESPN, Golf Channel played ball with Tiger
ESPN and Golf Channel conducted short weekend interviews with Tiger Woods
The two networks agreed to certain restrictions, but didn't compromise on content
Interviewers Tom Rinaldi and Kelly Tighmann perfomed well under the constraints
Willie Weinbaum was sitting in his midtown Manhattan office late last Friday afternoon when the phone rang. The voice on the other end was a familiar one, and it posed a loaded question:
"What are you doing this weekend?" said Vince Doria, ESPN's senior vice president and director of news.
Weinbaum started laughing.
"What did you have in mind?" Weinbaum said, knowing he was about to be sent somewhere interesting.
Weinbaum, one of ESPN's top producers and a key behind-the-scenes player on myriad big stories, including Peter Gammons' sit-down with Alex Rodriguez last year, quickly learned he was heading to Florida to produce the first one-on-one interview with Tiger Woods in months. The golfer conducted interviews Sunday afternoon with both ESPN and Golf Channel.
Both networks agreed to the restrictions outlined by Woods' management team: The interview would last five minutes (Golf Channel got an extra minute in the end) and be done standing, and the final footage could not be shown until 7:30 p.m. ET on Sunday. There was also a precondition that the interview be held outside, but rain derailed that plan.
"We're in the information business and some information is better than no information," Weinbaum said. "Obviously, we would have preferred more time, but if the alternative is not getting the interview, our choice is to always serve our audience. But throughout there was a consistency: There would be no conditions on the questions."
Weinbaum insisted ESPN would not have accepted the interview if there were any restrictions on content. As for the possibility of Woods' cherry-picking his interviewer, Golf Channel vice president Tom Stathakes had given an early indication of where his network stood when he told USA Today that Golf Channel was fine with that potential arrangement. "Anybody who tells you otherwise is full of it," Stathakes told the newspaper. "If we're going to get the biggest exclusive in sports in a long time and they say, 'Hey, we prefer this person to do it,' then that's who is going to do it."
Before the Woods interviews were announced, SI.com posed the same question to a number of other high-profile broadcasters who cover golf: Would you let Team Tiger dictate the choice of questioner as a condition of getting the first one-on-one interview with him? The responses proved interesting:
Said Dick Ebersol, Chairman, NBC Universal Sports & Olympics: "Any important NBC Sports interview in the past decade has been conducted by Bob Costas and that will continue. He is simply the best interviewer in sports."
CBS Sports said through spokesperson LeslieAnne Wade, "We would never consider it."
Said Doria: "Generally, we offer specific people when pursuing an interview. If the subject comes to us, and requests another individual, we'll certainly consider it. If we're comfortable with it, we'll accommodate the request. Obviously, we reserve the right to decline the interview. In the case of Tiger Woods, I would say that Tom Stathakes has summed it up accurately."
Doria had already called reporter Tom Rinaldi by the time he reached Weinbaum. Rinaldi said he and Woods have a "cordial" relationship and that he was picked by ESPN because he had spoken with Woods several times before as part of media scrums and individual sit-downs.
Rinaldi and Weinbaum arrived in Florida early Sunday morning. The interview was initially scheduled for 5:30 p.m., but the Woods camp moved it up because of rain in the area. Around 1, Rinaldi, Weinbaum, two ESPN cameramen and a group from Golf Channel were greeted at the gates of the Isleworth Golf and Country Club, near Woods' Windermere home, by Glenn Greenspan (a Woods spokesperson) and a representative of Isleworth. Because of the rain all parties decided to find a new location that had cover -- and ultimately decided to shoot the interview on a deck in the back of a house at the club.
Rinaldi said Greenspan was the only person who accompanied Woods when he arrived at the club about 3:20 p.m. There was roughly 10 minutes between the time Woods arrived and when first frame rolled. Rinaldi said he pulled Woods aside for a short talk before the interview.
"I can't speak for him, but it was important for me to gain a sense of where he was at, without coming close in any sense to revealing any specific questions that we would ask him," Rinaldi said. "I wanted to make a little bit of small talk and to gain a little bit of sense of how he was doing. It was a very simple conversation. If you are going to do an interview in what will be a tense situation, I think those moments prior are important."
The Golf Channel sent longtime anchor Kelly Tilghman, two camera people and Dan Overleese, who is the head of operations for the network. The network found out it would get the interview Friday night and Tilghman was assigned the interview on Saturday. Stathakes, Golf Channel's senior vice president for programming and news, said it was the network's decision to assign Tilghman.
"I did that because I thought it would be better if we had a woman interview him," Stathakes said. "I just thought he might open up to her a little more. They know each other. I would not categorize them as friends, but he knows her and he has known her for a long time. I thought she would be better to do it."
In the past Woods' IMG agent, Mark Steinberg, has referred to Tilghman as a "friend" of Woods', and the golfer helped defuse a hot-button issue two years when Tilghman was suspended by the network for two weeks for saying that young players who wanted to challenge Woods should "lynch him in a back alley." Woods said there was no ill intent with her words and the issue passed. Tilghman and Woods have known each other for more than a decade and she is one of the announcers in the EA Sports games under his banner. That said, Tilghman was not soft on Woods with her questions. She and Rinaldi both made something of the short time frame, and Tilghman also broke the news that media consultant Ari Fleischer had severed ties with Woods.
"We got more questions than we thought and I think Kelly did a great job," Stathakes said. "I thought Rinaldi did a good job, too."
You can find a question-by-question breakdown in this terrific recap by The Sporting News. The most interesting -- and brazen -- question either reporter asked was by Rinaldi: "I ask this question respectfully, but of course at a distance from your family life, he said. "When you look at it now, why did you get married?"
Said Rinaldi: "As more and more came out, that became the question that occurred to me first. Not to ask to him first, but the first question that occurred in my mind to pose to Tiger Woods."
CBS turned down the interview, with Wade telling reporters that the network was interested in an extended interview without restrictions." But as Richard Sandomir of The New York Times correctly pointed out in this excellent piece, CBS had no realistic window to air an abbreviated interview Sunday. Also, it's most likely interviewer from the sports division, Jim Nantz, was calling NCAA basketball games.
The question of whether ESPN and Golf Channel should have agreed to Woods' conditions is not an easy one. CBS has received terrific press for its stand -- which I can assure you has irked its competitors. I would not agree to any preconditions on the choice of interviewer, restrictions on content or pre-forwarding questions to Woods. These would be deal breakers. But given who the subject was and the news value from hearing him answer questions for the first time in months, I would have agreed to the same deal as ESPN and Golf Channel.
"At no point would we have ever presumed five minutes could provide a conclusive or comprehensive visit with Tiger Woods," Rinaldi said. "It represented a step, and in this case, it is a first step."
ESPN interviewed Woods between 3:30 to 3:36 p.m. Sunday. Golf Channel's interview took place seven minutes later. Both networks billed it as an exclusive.
"I got a kick out of ESPN saying they had the first interview with Tiger because we were all in the same room." Stathakes said, laughing. "We interviewed him literally five minutes after. We shifted the position a bit, but we were all in the same spot."
Stathakes said his network would not have agreed to the interview if it had to submit questions to Team Tiger in advance. But he did say he spoke to Steinberg numerous times over the weekend, and thought Steinberg had a right to know if "we were going to put something like text messages" on screen. "I think they would have a right to know that, but they knew we were not going there," Stathakes said.
One of the glaring holes in both interviews was that there were no questions about Dr. Anthony Galea, the Canadian physician who treated Woods' injured left knee and is under criminal investigation for drug violations on both sides of the border.
"Part of the challenge would be to ask that question with precision for platforms and audiences well beyond sports who are not going to know anything about Dr. Galea, and how succinctly can you summarize that," Rinaldi said. "'You have been treated by a Canadian doctor who has been charged with being linked to performance-enhancing drugs. What is your connection to him?' Not only is that difficult to say succinctly, but it comes so far from the range from the other questions we had asked him. But if we had more time, we would have loved to have asked him."
Stathakes said Tilghman would have asked about Galea and more about Woods' wife, Elin, had the network been given more time. He also reiterated to SI.com that his network would cut the same deal again if offered.
"You might get one nugget of information out of that five minutes that people care about," he said. "We would do it 100 times and I know ESPN would do it again 100 times. We want to sit at the adult table. I think for a long time the Golf Channel has not been considered on the same par as ESPN, NBC or CBS. We're fighting like hell to be respected and recognized, and for people to understand that we are just as good as CBS, NBC and ESPN. The fact that we were included meant a lot to us."
Rinaldi admitted he was nervous before the interview, and was working on three hours of sleep thanks to a previous assignment and an early-morning flight from his New Jersey home. Upon reflection, he wished he had not clipped off Woods as much as he did. He and Woods did not talk for long after the interview but did have a brief exchange.
"When we wrapped up, I did say to him, "Tiger, thanks very much for doing this,' " Rinaldi said.
Woods looked at Rinaldi.
"It was tough," Woods told the reporter, "but thanks for being straight up with me."