ESPN's Chris Fowler talks College GameDay; Fox Sports 1 launches
He is the longtime front man of one of the best sports studio shows ever created. Few broadcasters are more versatile and respected than Chris Fowler, who has hosted College GameDay since 1990 and also serves as ESPN's lead anchor for the Australian Open, Wimbledon, French Open and U.S. Open.
I profiled Fowler this week in the pages of SI, and over the course of multiple conversations he told me much more than we could fit into that space. I've included much of the unpublished parts of our chats here, including what Fowler wants to do in the future at ESPN. His contract expires next year after the World Cup and it's no secret internally that Fowler wants more play-by-play college football assignments.
Fowler and his College GameDay colleagues (Lee Corso, Kirk Herbstreit and Desmond Howard) will be at Clemson University on Aug. 31 (9:00 a.m.-1.p.m. ET) to open the 27th year of the show and its 21st year on the road. Below, Fowler talks about his future in broadcasting, what's next for GameDay and his non-sports passions:
SI.com: Generally speaking, are you happy at ESPN?
Fowler: I have been very happy—more than happy. Fulfilled, satisfied and challenged, and as long as that continues, I would expect to stay there. But what I think is important to know for anyone in this business is [that] people sort of view you in a static state. For me anyway, you want to be continuously challenged. Professionally, you don't want to coast into the sunset. I am 50. [He turns 51 on Friday, Aug. 23]. I have a lot more to do and there are other things I want to do that I have not done. I don't think it is anything secret internally what I want the next step for me to be at ESPN. I don't think that is a mystery given the landscape. It's why GameDay is a unique standalone thing for me. It doesn't act or feel like a studio show. But the live events are the most inspiring, unexplored thing for me.
SI.com: How so?
Fowler: I really have a passion to document live events as they happen. Hosting is wonderful and remains really satisfying but the joy for me is calling big matches and it was very hard for me to give up calling Thursday Night Football on ESPN. It became too much to manage with GameDay's increased schedule and travel. But giving up calling football in the booth was the toughest decision I have had to make. That remains something I am drawn powerfully to.
SI.com: Have there been other networks that have approached you over the years?
Fowler: Sure. There would be something wrong if the answer was no (laughs).
SI.com: Why have you stayed at ESPN?
Fowler: Gut feeling. Sometimes it was a last minute decision. I have really trusted my instincts about things. As other networks have shown interest or made offers, I have always eagerly listened and you would be foolish not to. I was close one time. I won't say which network [or] when it was, but I was close. I think if you are going to make a seismic shift in your career, you should do it for the right reasons, and the right reasons are exciting new opportunities and leaving for what is ahead, and not leaving because you are bothered by some aspect of the present. You don't leave out of anger. You leave because the next thing is more exciting.
SI.com: So how did a guy who lives in Manhattan learn to comprehend Toomer's Corner, the Grove and Between the Hedges?
Fowler: I like having a foothold in New York and I have been a part-time New York person for a long time, but I love the bigness of the world. I try my best to understand the places that are important in the college football landscape, and I don't find that incompatible with living in New York.
SI.com: You spent time in State College, Pennsylvania, in the mid-seventies before moving to Colorado, where you attended high school and college. Was Penn State your first exposure to college football?
Fowler: My dad [Knox Fowler, who passed away when Chris was 16] was a theater arts professor and taught theater directing to undergraduate and graduate students at Penn State. That was my first exposure to college football, in the early seventies. For faculty kids, the season ticket cost six dollars—one dollar per game. I was blown away by the atmosphere and really fell in love with it. If we had not moved there, I'm not sure I would have ended up on this path. We moved back to Colorado in the spring of 1977 after my Dad was diagnosed with cancer. We had family there and there was a renowned cancer hospital in Colorado Springs. He died a few years after we moved back.
SI.com: How concerned are you about Fox Sports 1's upcoming college football coverage?
Fowler: Not very. I don't mean to say that in a demeaning way. We are not concerned about whatever else is going on Saturday mornings. We are just focused on our show and the constant challenge of making it better. If you are GameDay, you have been around for twenty-five years and people seem to like it, I certainly don't think you overreact to new competition. But I don't want to sound smug because I don't mean to be.
SI.com: You have been the host of GameDay since 1990. Why is it still professionally stimulating for you?
Fowler: Because the scene changes every week. Doing a show in a studio would not be the same for any of us, and I don't know if we would have lasted this long. Taking it on the road gives it an energy, and we try hard to make sure that comes across differently every week. The crowd at Oregon is not the same as the crowd at Texas A&M or Florida. It's also a very challenging show to do. The show is not scripted or Teleprompted. It is formatted, but it is more loosely formatted than any show you can think of.
SI.com: How much editorial input do you have on GameDay?
Fowler: I would say it is a collaborative effort, but a lot. I work very closely with [producer] Lee Fitting, Kirk, a researcher named Chris Fallica and director Tom Lucas. It is a core group that puts its heads together and figures things out. I would say when you have hosted a show for 24 years, I think you should have a pretty good connection with the audience and what they want to see, what works and what does not. Thankfully, I am given a lot of input and there is a tremendous amount of mutual trust between host and producer on GameDay.
SI.com: Part of your job is to make other people look good? Is this tough on the ego?
Fowler: Not at all. One of the things I enjoy most about the job is being able to get the best out of analysts. I think being a skilled point guard who can dish out twenty assists but also take the big shot when called on is the essence of the job. I have a very hypersensitive meter for self-indulgence and try not to veer into territory where it is about my personality. It is always about the show and the event, and in large part, GameDay is about what the analysts have to say. I love to give opinions and GameDay allows me the latitude to do that. But like when you call a live game, it is about documenting the game and getting the most out of your analysts.
SI.com: You and Kirk Herbstreit have a great affection for Lee Corso. It must be difficult to contemplate life after he leaves the show?
Fowler: None of us want to face that reality because to some degree part of GameDay will have to be reinvented when and if that happens. We want Lee [who is 78] to stay as long as he wants to and he still remains an extremely important part of the show. He still has great energy. If anything, his health has improved since he had his stroke in 2009. So we have some time to ponder that but it will require a lot of thought. What Lee has brought to GameDay—I don't want to say it is irreplaceable because no one is irreplaceable—but it is really difficult to replace. His position in the pop culture history of cable TV is huge.
SI.com: How often do you expect to talk about Johnny Manziel this year?
Fowler: We have to cover it just like we had to cover the investigation into Cam Newton at Auburn, and it really took the focus off the amazing year he had. If it still is a massive story August thirty-first, believe me, we will be talking about it. Manziel, even before the summer, was so talked about because he is so polarizing. People hate him. People love him. He was a historic figure as a freshman Heisman winner and he is an electric player. In some ways he is a college Joe Namath, and the sport needs characters and all sports television needs characters. But it is a mess and a confusing story.
SI.com: You love music. What bands are a part of your rotation?
Fowler: I have one of the stranger iPods that you will come across, from Edith Piaf to Metallica to Cage The Elephant. I listen to everything from brand new alternative stuff to Of Monsters And Men to Mozart to jazz. I love blues guitar. Music is almost as important to me as sports. I really am a big fan, and fortunately my interest in sports has allowed me to become acquaintances and friends with a lot of people whose music I admire.
SI.com: Such as?
Fowler: REM were huge musical heroes of mine in college and I have gotten to know [band member] Mike Mills. It's interesting when you have a mutual interest in sports and you can build a friendship around that. Kings of Leon are friends, they are huge Oklahoma sports fans. Sheryl Crow is a friend of my wife and I. It sounds like I am name dropping and I don't want to name drop but I have gotten to meet people you just wouldn't expect. I have gotten to meet Vince Gil in Nashville and Darius Rucker is a friend. I once was called out on stage [by] Hootie and the Blowfish and I did tequila shot with them on my birthday once.
SI.com: You were a college disc jockey at the University of Colorado, right?
Fowler: Yep. I had a sports talk show and a music shift on KAIR Radio. It went close-circuit to all the dorms. I played early REM, Spandau Ballet, The Police, a lot of Nineteen Eighties new wave.
SI.com: What did you make of Jay Bilas's Twitter shaming of the NCAA?
Fowler: First off, it was very entertaining. I follow Jay and I laughed along with the people who read his tweets. Jay is a smart guy and with his legal background he has a particular take on the issues and a command of the legal aspects that I would never approach. I do think it is a complicated argument and I wonder if everyone who advocates athletes owning the ability to sell their signatures and memorabilia, I wonder if they have thought that out. Because the idea does not work and here's why: If an athlete could legally sell autographed stuff, then every booster club could set up autograph signings and who is to decide what market value the signature of an incoming recruit would have? In other words, fill-in-the-blank school would have someone step forward and say "I'll pay fifty thousand dollars for every time you sign something." Well, you have just funneled cash to the player in a quasi-legal way. Once you have opened up the ability for an athlete to make money off his signature or memorabilia, there is no controlling it. I don't know if people have thought that through. As arcane as the NCAA rulebook is, a lot of the rules in it exist because abuses have existed from Day One.
SI.com: You once told USA Today regarding Keith Olbermann that "for most of us to whine and complain about our jobs, we should get punched in the face." Have all the bridges been repaired for you?
Fowler: Keith does not have to repair a bridge with me. We get along fine. I have seen Keith in New York since he left ESPN and have watched his various shows from time to time and have enormous respect for his talent. That's not just a softball answer. To work with Keith is to understand how truly gifted he is in many areas. Nobody failed to notice that. He could sit down and just compose on a keyboard on first draft like very few people I have ever seen.
SI.com: Given how much traveling you have done, what is your favorite city to visit?
Fowler: Paris is my favorite city for its man-made creations, for its incredible history and the experiences I have had there. I have been there many times for work and for vacation. For me, I always answer that if you have not seen Paris, you need to see Paris. I love to plan trips for other people. Traveling is my, and my wife's, hobby. We do not have kids, so we have a lot flexibility to travel, and as much travel as I do for work, I love to travel for pleasure. If you have the means and opportunity, Africa is a place I would highly recommend seeing before you die. Most people feel a very fundamental connection to it, whether it is a birthplace of humanity or the wildlife or just the power of Africa. It is a place I have visited quite a few times and if I go there every year for the rest of my life, I'd still never be able to see all the places that I want to see or revisit the places that I love. My wife [Jennifer Dempster] and I honeymooned in South Africa, Botswana, and Zimbabwe.
SI.com: After a year and a half of dating, you and Jennifer went to Paris to see your mutual friend, Lance Armstrong, attempt to win the Tour de France. That's where you proposed. Was a yellow jersey involved in the proposal?
Fowler: Well, it had a yellow diamond involved. We were there to watch the Tour and take a trip afterward, at which time I thought I would propose. But I could not hide the ring in the hotel safe anymore without risking her finding it. So on the Sunday morning that the Tour ended, in the privacy of our hotel room, I proposed to her on the terrace. I consider that one of the greatest days of my life, to be engaged, to watch the final stage of the Tour, and then to be part of a victory party. It was a meaningful day on lots of levels.
SI.com: Does Jennifer still get up to watch GameDay after all these years?
Fowler: Of course.
SI.com: Really? I would not have guessed that.
Fowler: Lee Fitting has a nickname for my wife: Roone. That's after [the late ABC Sports chief] Roone Arledge. They text each other back and forth during the week. She'll let him know what she thinks about a lot of technical stuff. They both have a lot of fun with it.
SI.com: Your wife has a long and varied background on television. How often is she right about GameDay?
Fowler: I'd say ninety percent of the time (laughs).
(SI.com examines some of the more notable sports media stories of the past week.)
1. Assume Nothing. Less Is More. Be Cool.
Sounds like advice from the late and great novelist Elmore Leonard, but in this instance, it appeared on a graphics board during a Fox Sports 1 staff meeting prior to last week's launch as a reminder of the network's precepts. Less is more is also a good motto to follow for any review of Fox Sports 1 programming because what you see today will be far different than what you see on Day 100. The culture demands immediate judgment, but I'm not doing that this week. Instead, I'll pass along some early impressions on Fox Sports Live, the network's signature news and highlight show that hopes to swipe some audience from SportsCenter:
•There's a lot of content about Fox Sports 1 programming on Fox Sports Live. That's likely to make the marketing and social media departments at Fox Sports happy but it gets very tiring for viewers the seventh time you refer to a joke Regis Philbin made earlier that day. Plenty of people will be watching to see if Fox Sports Live delivers rights-based agenda programming, with heavy coverage of UFC and other Fox properties. They should be smart here.
•Fox Sports Live's highlight packages need upgrading. Compare what they do to SportsCenter and you'll see the difference.
•Highlight readers Jay Onrait and Dan O'Toole will be an acquired taste given their sardonic nature and show-within-a-show ethos. But I like them because they are smart, and I like smart. Onrait and O'Toole hosted solo FSL Sunday and it was a much smoother broadcast than the Saturday or Monday program. What I don't know is how this duo will perform when the moment calls for some sobriety.
•The ticker on Fox Sports Live has credited other media outlets by specific name and not the bogus "Media Reports" that ESPN uses. Excellent and correct. Bravo, Fox.
•Mike Tyson was a guest on Monday—he's always interesting—but the panel allowed his interview to spiral out of control very quickly (he also dropped some glorious F-bombs). Something Fox Sports Live producers will need to impart to the former athletes on its panels will be to listen to what guests have to say in order to formulate interesting follow-up questions. Tyson offered a million openings and only host Charissa Thompson and panelist Andy Roddick attempted (and barely at that) to follow up.
1a. Last Saturday's debut of Fox Sports Live began at 10:43 p.m. ET due to the network's live UFC programming finishing early. Fox ordered a fast national rating (an accelerated finding which includes live and same-day DVR viewing) for Fox Sports Live given the importance of launch day and the show finished with an average of 476,000 viewers and a 0.39 rating for that timeslot -- very healthy numbers for a first show. Interestingly, a Fox Sports executive said ESPN ordered their own copy of Fox's fast national data for Saturday night. That's not a common occurrence for a competitor, but we live in interesting times. (Update: An ESPN spokesperson on Thursday said the network did not order fast nationals for Saturday. The spokesperson said after Fox's Sunday claims on ratings, they ordered Fox Sports Live premiere data "to see how they were coming up with it."
1b. ESPN's Sunday night SportsCenter drew 1,465,451 viewers compared to 107,734 viewers for the 10 p.m. ET Fox Sports Live and 120,091 viewers for the 11 p.m. ET Fox Sports Live. An ESPN2 NHRA race that aired from 9:14 p.m. to 12:07 a.m. ET on Sunday night delivered 560,810 viewers (almost five times greater than Fox Sports Live's 11PM airing).
1c. The raw numbers on SportsCenter and Fox Sports Live from Monday: The 11 p.m. SportsCenter drew 1,939,702 viewers compared to 81,997 for Fox Sports Live (which started at 10:45pm).
1d. Fox Sports executives know it's going to be a long haul to siphon away part of ESPN's audience and they are wisely foregoing the setting of ratings goals (at least publicly) for their programs.
1e. Fox Sports said last Saturday's UFC coverage on Fox Sports 1 drew an average audience of 1.71 million viewers from 8:00-11:00 PM ET, and out-rated all four major broadcast networks among adults 18-49, adults 18-34, men 18-49, and men 18-34 based on impressions within each demo during that timeslot.
1f. Deadspin reported there were 11 Fox Sports accounts that responded to a tweet from ESPN's Bill Simmons.
1g. Mark it down: Mike Tyson uttered the first ever on-air curse on Fox Sports LIVE.
2. NBC had a strong opening weekend of EPL coverage, including thoughtful production and on-air presentation. This column has championed studio host Rebecca Lowe since she was hired earlier this year and Lowe showed immediately that she is in full command of the subject matter. (As one prominent ESPN soccer person told me when Lowe was hired: "She will be sensational for them.") The network lived up to its promise that it would highlight teams walking onto the pitch -- something important for world soccer fans -- and lead game announcers Arlo White and Lee Dixon have already leapfrogged every Fox announcing team after one broadcast. Well done.
2a. NBC Sports said in a press release that more than 3.4 million people watched its Premier League coverage last weekend. The network broadcast seven matches on three networks and the five games on NBC and NBC Sports Network averaged 443,000 viewers, up 78 percent over the five games ESPN/Fox Soccer averaged on opening weekend last year (249,000 average viewers). NBC said its telecast of Swansea City-Manchester United on NBC drew 792,000 average viewers.
2b. Washington, D.C., topped all U.S. markets for NBC's telecast last Sunday of Swansea City-Manchester United. The rest of the cities in order of ratings: Tulsa, Austin, Seattle, Buffalo, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Cincinnati, Orlando and Hartford/New Haven.
2c. SB Nation's Steve Lepore had a strong look at NBC's first weekend of Premier League coverage.
3. One of the interview topics I touched on briefly in my MMQB.com piece about HBO's Hard Knocks was the impact the show had on assistant coaches -- especially those who are head coaching candidates, such as Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer. I asked Zimmer if he believed the show had an influence on management around the league when it came to future employment.
"That is a hard question for me to answer," Zimmer said. "I think they can get a feel for the person but I don't know how many owners and GMs watch the show, especially during the season.... Now maybe I am naive to [say] that. I think they can get a feel for how a guy interacts with players or how he is in meetings with coaches, and maybe they could cancel guys out because they did not like his personality. I would love owners and general managers to come in my meeting room and watch me coach and teach the defense, not just one position but the whole defense. Watch how I interact with them. But the show is not going to use the hour to a show a whole meeting. They will show clips here and there. If a guy was a good teacher and coach, it could be a benefit to him if they showed the entire thing. So I do think it could help coaches in some ways."
4. Notable sports pieces this week:
• The New York Times used convergent storytelling (audio, video, text) to tell the story of jockey Russell Baze. It's a healthy time investment but it's thoughtful journalism and worth the journey.
• ESPN Outside The Lines staffers Steve Fainaru and John Barr produced a thought-provoking piece on the longtime Jets team doctor and why he has had so much authority over the NFL's concussion program.
• I really liked this Matt Gelb column on what it was like to cover former Phillies manager Charlie Manuel.
• New York Times sports columnist Harvey Araton wrote a remarkable piece on former NBA All-Star Dan Roundfield, who died attempting to save his wife from drowning.
• The Hollywood Reporter's Marisa Guthrie interviewed a number of female sports personalities and reporters -- including Erin Andrews, Mary Carillo and Rachel Nichols -- on sexism and tags of Sideline Barbie.
Non-sports pieces of note:
• New York Times reporter Sarah Lyall wrote a brilliant piece on what she learned after spending two decades covering the United Kingdom.
• Salon's Brian Beutler on what he learned from being shot.
• This is old but was sent around Twitter this week. Poet Donald Hall on "the third thing" that binds couples. It's a lovely piece.
5. Fox Sports lead MLB broadcaster Joe Buck received a ton of criticism for his call of last Saturday's Yankees-Red Sox game. One problem: He didn't call the game. That led to a very telling piece by Larry Brown Sports, who compiled some of the more amusing criticisms of Buck on social media.
5a. CBS Sports has generally ceded the pregame space in college football to ESPN, but it has wisely recognized that it needed to get aggressive with its studio coverage for one of the biggest regular-season games of 2013. CBS announced that its College Football Today pregame, halftime and post-game studio show will be onsite in College Station, Texas when Alabama meets Texas A&M on Sept. 14 (3:30 PM, ET). The studio show will broadcast live from Kyle Field from 2:30-3:30 PM, ET. Additionally, CBS Sports Network will air SEC Tonight from 7:00-7:30 PM ET that night focusing on Alabama-Texas A&M. "I think you will see us doing more of this," said CBS Sports chairman Sean McManus. "I think it's a trend that I will like to see continue at CBS Sports."
5b. Fox Sports will air a six-part documentary series titled Being: Mike Tyson. The doc debuts Sunday, Sept. 22 on Fox before moving to its regular Tuesday night time slot on Fox Sports 1 on Sept. 24 at 10:30 p.m. ET.
5c. Longtime sports columnist Jason Whitlock -- as big a fan of this column as it gets -- has returned to ESPN. (The news was first reported by Jason McIntyre of Big Lead Sports.) Though the columnist has a long history of torching ESPN and ESPN staffers -- from calling Mark Schwarz an "ass clown," to describing Skip Bayless's work as "negro-baiting," to not-so-praising Rick Reilly for "hoodwinking ESPN out of $10 million," to blasting ESPN as a network where one can "carry out personal vendettas" -- Whitlock announced on Twitter that he will no longer critique Bristol Land publicly. For those who posit that Whitlock's return to the network as a risk for ESPN, think again. There is no single person who can impact ESPN's bottom line, and like a Nutmeg State Roman Abramovich, ESPN president John Skipper can afford to buy up whomever he wants, especially if he believes it hurts his biggest rival and Whitlock's most recent employer, Fox Sports. (Similarly, if Keith Olbermann fails to deliver at 11PM on ESPN2 next month, it's only money lost, which ESPN produces at the rate Heinz makes ketchup.) Whitlock told Kansas City radio station 610 Sports last week that part of his ESPN deal, along with radio and television, includes starting a website to give opportunities to young writers of color. (Whitlock described the future site as "a minority, black-friendly version of Grantland" and called it "a great opportunity.") Every year at Columbia's Graduate School of Journalism, I interact with incredibly talented young journalists of color who would crush on a sports site with national reach. Here's hoping we get to see great young voices on that site.
5d. ESPN released this week how it will cover the U.S. Open tennis tournament.
5e. The Tennis Channel will televise 75 live hours of the 2013 US Open, as well as 90 original hours of nightly US Open Tonight and morning Breakfast at the Open shows.
5f. ESPN, which has lost a ton of on-air female talent over the last 24 months, including Erin Andrews, Michelle Beadle, Cindy Brunson, Michelle Bonner, Dana Jacobson, Amy Lawrence, Rachel Nichols and Thompson, announced it had re-signed SportsCenter anchor Linda Cohn and reporter Shannon Spake (NASCAR, college basketball, college football) to multi-year deals.
5g. Showtime Sports will air an All Access series featuring Floyd Mayweather and Canelo Alvarez. The series premieres Saturday at 10 p.m. ET.
5h. CBS Sports signed a multi-year deal to broadcast the Mountain West Conference football championship game. The inaugural title game will air on CBS on Dec. 7 at 10:00 p.m. ET.
5i. ESPN's broadcast of the Yankees-Red Sox game on August 18 drew a 2.5 overnight rating -- the highest overnight rating for Sunday Night Baseball in 2013. According to the Sports Business Daily, it was also the best rating for any Sunday Night Baseball game since Yankees-Mets on June 24, 2012.