When Erik Rydholm first wrote up his plan for an ESPN television show featuring Tony Kornheiser and Michael Wilbon, he kept his goals fairly modest.
“I do remember writing that, if done right, this is the type of show that lasts 20 years on television,” Rydholm said last week.
The show, of course, was Pardon the Interruption. Rydholm’s optimistic 18-page treatment earned him the job as coordinating producer for the show; he’s since become its executive producer and grand poobah. And while PTI hasn’t yet made it to the two decade mark, it’s celebrating its 10-year anniversary this week. Heck, that’s longer than Kornheiser’s columnettes lasted.
“It wasn’t a bold prediction; I was just saying that history has shown, if you do this type of show right, it can be on an awful long time,” Rydholm said, referencing the long tenures for Siskel & Ebert, Crossfire and The Sports Reporters. “Two really smart people, with chemistry, talking about something that’s relevant, had the potential, if done right, to last.”
Which, contrary to newsroom opinion at the time, this show has. And for that entire decade, it’s been shepherded by Rydholm, a 44-year old Alexandria resident and former Internet entrepreneur whom Kornheiser calls a genius every chance he gets.
“He has vision no one else has,” wrote Tony Reali, who has worked with Rydholm since the beginning. “He still cuts those heads out every morning. Hangs them in the back of the set like our own Sgt. Peppers album cover. And that's the fun side of Erik. But it’s the vision that separates him. In a sports conversation based on opinion, he demanded thought. In a world of talking heads, he saw a relationship. And, of course, he saw Kornheiser in a turban, earrings and dress.”
Rydholm, who went to Brown and then worked in television in his native Chicago, moved to the D.C. area in the mid-‘90s to concentrate on The Motley Fool, an investment newsletter he started with his best friend from college, Tom Gardner, and Tom’s brother David. The company went all boom during the late’90s, but was in the process of “re-trenching,” as they say, in 2001.
To take his mind off some of the unpleasantness, Rydholm came up with the idea that he’d write newspaper columns about sports, just sitting peacefully in the Wrigley Field bleachers, without anyone depending on him for their livelihood or a business plan. And thus:
“For all of the press-box patterers who lament the comeback attempts of the aging athlete, who scold Jordan’s competitive nature for writing checks his body won't be able to cash, I wonder how easily they will be able to put down the pen a few years down the line when they find themselves growing long on years and short on options,” Rydholm wrote in a piece for the Chicago Tribune. “Retirement isn’t easy for some people.”
A former co-worker, ESPN executive Jim Cohen, saw that piece and reached out to Rydholm. Knowing he was based in D.C., Cohen asked about Kornheiser and Wilbon. Rydholm said he revered them and, indeed, the entire Post sports section. (Yay!) Looking for yet more distractions, Rydholm agreed to come up with a show treatment. When ESPN then asked Rydholm to actually produce the show, he took a leave from the Motley Fool and started his own television company.
PTI, of course, was a runaway success. Eventually Rydholm also took over Around the Horn. The shows moved into new studios in the ABC News building downtown. This year, he launched Dan Le Batard Is Highly Questionable , whose stars are in Miami but which is run out of a control room in Washington.
So while Rydholm still roots for Chicago sports teams and has trouble calling Washington home (he lives in a month-to-month apartment in Old Town), he now supervises a mini-empire of ESPN programming emanating from D.C.
This means that, in addition to changing the landscape of sports television, Rydholm kind of works a lot.
“About three weeks ago, I thought there was a decent chance of my dying,” he agreed, when I asked how three daily shows hadn’t killed him yet. “I wake up in Old Town, work at home for two and a half hours, commute into town, curse at the commute, work straight through the day, drive home, curse at the commute and then fall asleep. That’s about it.
“What I love is the work I do. It’s just sewn into my life. The job doesn’t enable other parts of my life; they’re inextricably linked.”
Rydholm and his PTI pals all agreed not to make a big deal about the 10-year anniversary. The 2000th show was marked a few days late, with Kornheiser blowing a horn. None of them wanted to “go the Today show route, with people on the couch taking you through memories of the show,” Rydholm told me. “That’s not why we’re here.”
Plus, if you talk too much about how you survived for 10 years, people will inevitably ask whether you’re on your last legs, and how much longer you can last. Hey, speaking of which.
“There is absolutely no indication that people are waning in their appreciation of it,” Rydholm said of his creation. “I want to be vibrant and relevant. That’s what I feel like the show needs to be. And I plan to be here for as long as it goes.”
(And if you’re wondering why I didn’t write an appreciation of Tony or Mike, well, that would be kind of weird, wouldn’t it?)