On Top of His Game  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Features
From AJR,   May 1999

On Top of His Game   

Life is good for Dan Patrick, the widely respected host of ESPN's franchise "SportsCenter." He's playing a key role as the all-sports network strives to fend off a challenge from Rupert Murdoch's upstart Fox Sports Net--and Patrick's old teammate Keith Olbermann.

By Mark Lisheron
Senior Contributing Writer Mark Lisheron (mark@texaswatchdog.org) is Austin bureau chief for Texas Watchdog, a government accountability news Web site.      

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   » The Olbermann Factor


ON THE DAY JOE DIMAGGIO died, Dan Patrick is in his office at ESPN, a full seven hours before "SportsCenter" airs, leaving a saucy little voice mail message for a writer who profiled him in the February issue of Esquire.
Patrick had taken to leaving phone messages for the writer, Scott Raab, throughout their interviewing time. Sophomoric, mock homoerotic and very funny, they became a central part of Raab's story. Patrick stayed in touch with Raab after publication, not only because he came to genuinely like him, but also to try to help him secure an interview with New York Yankee pitcher David Cone.
This is the place Patrick has always dreamed of being. Not only to have interviewed the biggest names in sports, and to count some of them, like home run king Mark McGwire, among his friends; but to have achieved such respect in his profession that he can pick up the phone and ask Cone for a favor, not for himself, but for another journalist.
"Don't think that I don't appreciate the benefits of what I do," Patrick says, knees up, feet on the desk facing color monitors tuned to ESPN and CNN. "I know it sounds corny, but I'm still this kid from Mason, Ohio, who got a chance to be on ESPN. I never want to lose sight of that."
By virtue of his work as anchor of "SportsCenter," the most famous sports highlight program in broadcasting history, Patrick, who turns 42 this month, has earned a reputation as one of the nation's premier sports broadcasters. If Patrick and his former "SportsCenter" partner, Keith Olbermann, did not invent the ironic sportscast, they certainly perfected it. Using signature tag lines to send up not only highlights but second-rate sports broadcasting, the team--for better or worse--created a whole school of smart-alecky sports guys (see "The Olbermann Factor").
Now Patrick and Olbermann, still friends, are rivals rather than teammates as Olbermann has taken the act to the upstart Fox Sports Net. More on that later.
At ESPN headquarters, Patrick, the best known of an estimable stable of broadcasting talent, is often referred to as "the franchise"--but never regarded as a celebrity. It was Patrick, his producers say, who made possible the transition from the acerbic mockery of Olbermann to the almost somnambulant drollery of his current "SportsCenter" co-anchor, Kenny Mayne. Patrick, his producers insist, is the consummate team player, with an innate ability to modulate his writing and delivery to showcase his partner, any partner, to his best advantage.
In a golden age of "gotcha" journalism, athletes are candid with Patrick because he coaxes rather than cudgels. Patrick's Q&A feature, "Outtakes," in ESPN The Magazine, rarely fails to produce a provocative exchange with a newsmaking athlete. Chicago Cubs star Mark Grace calls whenever he is anywhere near Bristol, Connecticut, where ESPN is based. And Michael Jordan, who needs another interview like he needs another product endorsement, enjoys sitting down with Patrick.

IN HIS FORWORD FOR "The Big Show," the book about "SportsCenter" that Patrick and Olbermann wrote in 1997, highly regarded NBC sportscaster Bob Costas warned the success of the team would spawn many bad imitations. But, Costas said in an interview, this "frat-house mania about sports, like it's open mike at the Chuckle Hut," misses the essence of Patrick.
"He is a guy who has a style, not a shtick, that is welcome in this time of trying to impress, to get noticed, to come up with a catch phrase," Costas says. "He manages to inject some personality into his delivery without overwhelming the subject matter. He doesn't grab you by the lapels to speak to you."
Says Al Jaffe, the ESPN vice president in charge of recruiting talent, "With Dan Patrick what you see on the screen is what he is: a straitlaced Midwestern guy who loves sports. This is no cookie-cutter style; this is what he's all about."
Patrick not only remains a huge audience favorite; he's also respected by media critics, fellow sports journalists and athletes, a rare trifecta indeed. Inside and outside ESPN, it's difficult to find anyone who speaks ill of Dan Patrick.
Patrick is a guy who, after 20 years in broadcasting, still cannot believe the boy from Mason can be profiled in Esquire for doing something he always wanted to do. So what if his office is little bigger than an elevator overlooking a rear parking lot? It's his office. And although Olbermann often criticized the architecturally challenged compound, barricaded behind 17 huge satellite dishes 30 miles southwest of Hartford, ESPN is, as its logo explains, the worldwide leader in sports. And Patrick is the leader of its most important and profitable show.
More than ever, ESPN needs Dan Patrick. The network is facing its first challenge in the business of presenting national sports programming by Rupert Murdoch's Fox Sports Net.
After two decades of highlights and one-liners, ESPN is available in 76 million households. It has developed separate broadcast entities like ESPN2 ("the Deuce"), ESPNEWS and the ESPN Radio Network, as well as its year-old print offering, ESPN The Magazine. Fox has over the past two years lashed together 22 regional outlets, bought the broadcast rights to professional and college basketball games, Major League Baseball and auto racing, and created its own version of "SportsCenter" called "Fox Sports News."
Fox underscored its intent to compete seriously by hiring Olbermann away from MSNBC, where he had spent 10 months presiding over endless dissections of the Clinton/Lewinsky story after his bitter departure from ESPN in 1997. With little prompting from either network, newspaper accounts of the battle have been framed in the shorthand of Olbermann vs. Patrick. Larry Stewart, who covers sports on television for the Los Angeles Times, says that "SportsCenter" remains, far and away, No. 1. But by dint of the drawing power of Olbermann and Chris Myers, another respected former ESPN personality, Fox is making inroads, Stewart says.
It is hard to get a precise handle on how the rivals compare. "Fox Sports News" airs in four time zones from 11 p.m. to 1 a.m. (EST). With some repetition in the second hour, Fox can claim a show comparable in content to the one-hour "SportsCenter," which airs at 11 p.m. (EST).
In December, when ESPN carried college basketball games leading directly into "SportsCenter," the latter was viewed in about 1 million households compared with 250,000 for Fox, according to Fox estimates. With the return of the NBA to Fox after the conclusion of the players' strike, its audience rose to 350,000 over the two-hour show compared with 650,000 for ESPN.
Olbermann and Patrick have attempted to cocoon their friendship from attempts to market a showdown. Both say they miss working together. Both say they'd welcome the opportunity to work together again.
And yet both are competitive enough to be prepared for hand-to-hand combat if their networks require it. Patrick has wondered publicly if it was right for Olbermann to come back to sports for the money. Olbermann is pretty sure Patrick knuckled under to the rigid management that drove him out of ESPN. "It genuinely pains me to see him on this slowly sinking ship and wondering if they even listen to what he has to say," Olbermann says. "He got a new contract a couple of years ago, so he's content and secure, which is what he really wanted. But is that enough after the five years we had together? I wonder."
The sinking ship analogy is punk talk, Patrick says. "We invented what they are trying to do now. I am extremely loyal to my employer; there isn't anything wrong with that. I am not a cynic. That is what Keith became about sports, and he admits that. I am not jaded. I would never want to jade somebody else about sports."

UNLIKE OLBERMANN, who grew up consumed by sports on television, Patrick grew up competing. As a junior guard for the Mason High School basketball Comets, Patrick made the all-Fort Ancient Valley Conference team. As a senior, he averaged 20.6 points a game, made all-conference and was honorable mention all-state in Ohio. After every game, Patrick would watch the film two or three times "to make sure we got his stats right," says his high school coach, Jon Hopkins.
"He was an average jumper, a little slow, and he considered defense the spot in between the times he got to shoot," Hopkins says. "But he was very good without the ball and always got himself into the right spot at the right time to get his shot off. When I see him on television he is just like he was as a player, still the shooter who doesn't need all the flash and dash."
Thanks in part to ESPN commercials showing him shooting hoops in a driveway and his victory over NBA sharpshooter Dan Majerle in a three-point shooting contest, a myth developed that Patrick was a star at his alma mater, the University of Dayton. Doug Hauschild, who went to school with Patrick and is now Dayton's sports information director, says as good as he was, Patrick didn't make the Flyers varsity.
It was Hauschild's predecessor, Gene Schill, who gave Patrick permission to go courtside for the Dayton home games. Patrick, a broadcast major, called the play-by-play into the recorder and would bring the tapes back to Schill for evaluation, Hauschild says.
"That helped him get his first job, weekend anchor at WDTN-Channel 2 in Dayton," Hauschild adds. "He was definitely good, but nothing that would tell you he was going to be as big as he is."
Unable to root out any of the deeply entrenched TV sportscasters in Dayton, Patrick took a job as a morning anchor on that city's WTUE radio after graduating in 1979. Convinced that he could do better, Patrick says he rented video equipment, taped five minutes of sports news he had memorized and shipped the tape to Bob Ley, now a colleague at ESPN.
"He was very gracious," Patrick says. "Bob and Greg [Gumbel, a former ESPN broadcaster now with CBS] said I wasn't ready for ESPN but thought I had the potential to get another job. I ended up getting a job at CNN. They taught me how to be a journalist."
In 1988, after almost six years doing sports there, Patrick asked for a $10,000-a-year raise. CNN offered him $5,000. Patrick says he wanted to stay, but could not understand why, if he was so valuable, it would quibble over so little money.
The timing of the rift could not have been better for Patrick. John A. Walsh had taken over as managing editor of ESPN in January 1988. Walsh had been a wunderkind editor at the Washington Post, Rolling Stone, Inside Sports and U.S. News & World Report, and he would demand that ESPN bring a print sensibility to its programming.
To help make that happen, Walsh hired a number of people with serious newspaper experience and placed them in key positions. "We are as committed to getting it right as any newspaper," says senior coordinating producer Jim Cohen, once the deputy sports editor at the Philadelphia Inquirer. "Our credibility depends on our reporting. A lot of people don't realize that Dan, all of our talent, write their own scripts here. They aren't readers. You have to have good writing. Not only a feel for how to use words on paper, but how you deliver them on the air."
Once assembled, Walsh had his news people create in "SportsCenter" a kind of one-hour video version of a newspaper. Play of stories was determined by importance, starting with the most significant. In what was a departure in 1988, Walsh insisted that even the highlights follow the format. Basketball might be followed immediately by hockey followed again by basketball, depending upon news value.
Walsh hired Patrick during their first meeting. "He is the quintessence of what we were trying to accomplish here," Walsh says between conference calls in his office. "It was obvious that Dan was a passionate sports fan, that he was really into this. I really felt there was a lot more to him than he was able to express at CNN. Here, we had the perfect forum for that passion to get out."
For his part, Patrick says, "John Walsh wanted nothing less than to change the face of sports television. He said he wanted ESPN to be the place to go if you wanted to know everything about what's going on in sports. He wanted me to help take it to another level. At that time I had no idea what that was or what was required of me. But I knew I was in the right place at the right time."

IN THE BOWELS OF Building One, where the "SportsCenter" studio is located, people stare at hundreds of monitors, quietly adjusting knobs and headsets. It is the day of Joe DiMaggio's death, and editors and reporters move from pod to pod in the newsroom, adding news bits to the half-dozen pieces on the Yankee Clipper's life that were produced when the Hall-of-Famer got sick over the winter.
On a set separated from the newsroom by seven full-length glass panels, an ESPN anchor introduces one of the pieces that have been running continuously since moments after DiMaggio's death was announced. Across the top of the opposite wall, a bank of TV monitors presents the odd sight of 12 identically fluid, pinstriped home run swings.
Patrick comes into his office after the 4 p.m. news meeting carrying a thick packet of National Basketball Association and National Hockey League scores and statistics. These will be supplanted by the scores and the statistics generated by tonight's games, some of which will finish while Patrick is still on the air.
He will spend some time following up on rumors of college basketball coaches Gene Keady and Rick Majerus changing jobs. He will scroll the wire for news he can weave into his script. Utah Jazz star Karl Malone has promised to call before 7 p.m. for an interview Patrick will shape into his next "Outtakes" column for the print magazine. And after his network has for 20 hours worked every conceivable angle on the death of DiMaggio, Patrick must conceive some kind of summary for the 11 p.m. "SportsCenter."
"I think my job is, how do you make Joe DiMaggio a person?" Patrick says. "In a way he was dead before he was really dead. People didn't really know him, and yet everyone knew him."

ONCE, ON AN April Fools' Day, Olbermann and Patrick decided to reverse roles and deliver each other's catch phrases, Olbermann using "the whiff" in referring to a strikeout, Patrick commenting "real men don't taunt" to highlight a trash talker. But on the day Mickey Mantle, Olbermann's hero, died, the pair did a tribute straight. Both men consider it a high point in their broadcast careers.
When Patrick's interview with the notoriously reticent Detroit Lions star running back Barry Sanders aired, representatives from Nike, with whom Sanders has a contract, called Patrick. "They were amazed. They said no one has ever been able to get Barry Sanders to talk about himself that way," he says.
Baseball's Mark Grace, a friend of Patrick's since they met at a Pebble Beach golf tournament five years ago, says Patrick has earned respect among top athletes in a way few other broadcasters have. "First of all, he's very knowledgeable about sports," Grace said in an interview before boarding a bus to a spring training ballpark in Peoria, Arizona. "Second, I think players know he can ask tough questions without trashing them.... He does what he does with respect."
A sneak attack on an athlete during an interview might make good television once, but it isn't in Patrick's nature. In a recent interview with Wayne Gretzky, Patrick says he avoided the clichd question about the Great One's retirement because he thought it presumptuous to suggest he knew when Gretzky should bow out. "I want a person I interview to know they are a person, not a sound bite. I want you to know I am not going to attack you, that I care about every answer you give me. You can be hard on an athlete without carrying a hammer."
At the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communication at Syracuse University, often referred to as "Sportscaster U" for having produced Bob Costas and Marv Albert among many others, Patrick's style and thoroughness make him a good model, says Hubert Brown, a broadcast journalism professor there.
"It's very tough to convey to students how people like Patrick, above all, make it look so easy," Brown says. "They think it is stringing together catch phrases. What you don't see is that he's very knowledgeable about a lot of different things, things beyond sports; that he writes and delivers his own material; that his delivery is appropriate to the subject matter he is presenting; that he makes subtle shifts in the delivery as the show moves along.... To put him in a class with Al Michaels and Bob Costas is not a stretch."
Costas says he is sometimes left with the impression ESPN producers are guided not by Patrick's individual success, but by the wild popularity of "SportsCenter" when Olbermann worked with Patrick. A recent "Saturday Night Live" parody of "SportsCenter," with comedian Ray Romano firing non sequitur catch phrases, hit the target, Costas says. Careful to exempt Patrick and not to single out anyone in particular, Costas says ESPN might be better served to concentrate more on straight reporting.
"ESPN brought tremendous interest and energy to sports, which, on balance, is a good thing," Costas says. "They created an attitude and an identity, and they do it brilliantly, but you can overplay any hand. Some of their people seem desperate to create a style. The consensus is that their commercials are much funnier than their programming."
Two years after they split up, the buzz about "SportsCenter" with Olbermann and Patrick remains. Olbermann's on-camera rapport with Kevin Frazier, with whom he is paired on Fox, and Patrick's with Kenny Mayne are analyzed within the context of the Patrick/Olbermann partnership. Olbermann admits he and Frazier are getting there slowly, if surely. The people at ESPN love Mayne's style; Cohen cites "his quickness to give credit to others in a way that another anchor"--think Olbermann--"might not."
Olbermann concedes that as long as Patrick anchors, "SportsCenter" will succeed. There are, in fact, two Dan Patricks, he says: the on-air Patrick "with the ability to shut off his own ego when everything in television tells you not to," and the fiercely competitive Patrick who wants the newscast to be perfect.
"He'd always brand me the perfectionist, then beat himself up after every program," Olbermann says. "You cannot believe the work ethic, the competitiveness to make every program the best damn program we ever did."
The 11 p.m. "Sports-Center" wrapped around DiMaggio's death does not evoke the Olbermann/ Patrick tribute to Mantle. With very little left to say, Patrick instinctively lets the show's reporting tell the story and summarizes respectfully. His timing with Mayne is, as usual, sharp, giving his partner plenty of room.
This, Patrick says, is the bargain he has made with ESPN: freedom to write with little editing, freedom to choose subjects to interview. With a long-term contract, the very satisfying terms of which he will not discuss, Patrick is concerned about having "shelf life" in a field dominated by young talent. "SportsCenter" with Olbermann and Patrick caught a moment that has passed, he says.
"The true test of my talent may come working with Kenny. Kenny and I are completely different," he says. "I could say I'm a one-dimensional person, that I can only do this or this. `SportsCenter' would go on without me if I left, I think I know that. They've entrusted me with the franchise. I know that, too. I'm here to make this show the best it can be every night. I'll never get bigger than the place. They don't let you be bigger than the place."

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