The National Football League and ESPN celebrate the marriage of cable television and Pete Rozelle's brand of pro football tonight when the Miami Dolphins host the Chicago Bears in a pre-season game at 8 p.m.
At times the contest on the field will be secondary to how the young and confident team of Mike Patrick, Roy Firestone and this week's third-man guest, Dick Butkus, pull it off. For almost two decades Rozelle has hinted that the financial future of the league rests with cable TV. If ESPN's game are a hit, the early 1990s will see a lot more games on cable. Maybe with even some pay-per-view tests thrown in.
Making every effort to win over the fans with new people and break with the traditional network approach to doing games, ESPN feels it has the format to impress the fans and keep them fully informed and wholly entertained.
Throw in a little rhyme with Allie Sherman and Chris Berman, who will have a special "X/O Cam" tracking their views for halftime analysis and during the game, as needed or helpful.
ESPN paid $153 million for a three-year package of NFL games. A quick rundown of the line-up shows Patrick doing the play-by-play. The George Washington University grad was Washington's Channel 7 sportscaster from 1975 through 1980 when he did Maryland games and Redskin pre-season games. Firestone will be the color man, the guy who will be drawing out the game's special guest and passing along some inside information and his opinions. He has won a number of awards for his interviews on "SportsLook" for the past seven years and has been called "interviewer extraordinaire" and "cable's Mr. Capable."
Sherman, the former coach of the New York Giants, has drawn a following on ESPN's weekly pro football wrap-ups with his quick-to-the-bone assessments of what's going right or wrong. Chris Berman is the solid anchor who will fill in all the news and scores when ESPN starts its eight regular season games on Nov. 8, the ninth week of the season.
In effect, tonight's game, along with the next three pre-season games (Sunday, Aug. 23, L.A. Rams at San Diego; Sunday, Aug. 30, L.A. Raiders at Dallas, and Thursday, Sept. 3, Minnesota at Denver, all at 8 p.m.) are a shakedown cruise that leaves eight weeks for ESPN to assess what works and what needs work. Tonight's telecast will also include the dedication of $100 million Joe Robbie Stadium.
Patrick brings an ardent zeal to games he works. As the play-by-play man he feels "the fans are going to get what they've always gotten" when he did Atlantic Coast Conference games for the Raycom / Jefferson Pilot telecasts and last year as the top man for ESPN's Saturday night college game. "I've got the best seat in the house. I truly love being there. I feel that's my greatest strength, the fact that I enjoy the game so much. Somehow that comes through and the fan enjoys it more. At least I hope it works that way."
Firestone considers his role "very, very challenging and exciting. First of all, it's a great package for me, ESPN and Mike. Secondly, it establishes me as a mainstream sportscaster. And most of all, the novel format is an opportunity to do some breakthrough color-man sportscasting. I'll be doing some Q&A with the guest, passing along information, opinions and commentary. It's an opportunity to try some things never done on network NFL telecasts."
The third-man guest dimension of the ESPN production is not an automatic plus. It has many drawbacks. Even Firestone, who has been plugging the idea publicly, admits it could be a "Pandora's box." Patrick says, "It's gonna be a fun ride." Somewhat like a roller coaster, with its ups and downs.
Consider that each guest will be sitting in a booth with a national audience listening for the first time. He'll be wearing a headset with directors and producers talking while he's trying to say something. Patrick noted that a guy may be glib and funny at rehearsal on Saturday, but come Sunday night, he may wind up sitting and watching for three hours.
Patrick explains, "We'll be flying a biplane instead of a jet. It may not be until midway into the first quarter before we find out if he'll contribute 50 percent or 5 percent. The guest is going to have to trust us and be comfortable with us. It's going to be like having this former star sitting with you in your living room and asking him questions that pop into your mind."
Firestone says the guest will not have to be a performer such as John Madden, Merle Olson, Frank Gifford and the other regular network color men have to be. There should be no pressure to be a star. "It will be my responsibility to bring stuff out of them, and draw upon their experiences and opinions. All they have to do is give their views, perspective, a little humor and little insight." Easy enough said, but the question remains, how much better are the Maddens and Olsons now than they were on their first try? The ESPN lineup will be a procession of first-nighters.
After Butkus this week, the lineup for the other three pre-season games is: Jack (Hacksaw) Reynolds, Lyle Alzado and Tom Jackson, in that order. The regular season lineup is still being negotiated with names such as John Riggins, Roger Staubach, Ed Marinaro, Larry Csonka and Jim Brown popping during talks. Riggins is slated for the Redskins' game at Miami on Dec. 20.
Whatever the guest lacks in glibness or preparation Firestone figures to cover. The 33-year-old Los Angeles-based sportscaster, who also works part-time as a stand-up comedian (he's been doing it since he was 15), is always well-prepared for his guest on "SportsLook." As an example of gathering yarn for tonight's telecast, he had a meeting with Butkus 25 days ago.
Firestone does not expect to resort to his imitations of other sportscasters (he does a great Howard Cosell and Keith Jackson) and then quickly adds, "This is not going to be the lounge at the Tropicana, but if it's a blowout, we'll have some fun." Firestone's experience has been as an analyst, never play-by-play. He did University of Miami games when he was a student there, graduating in 1973. He later did Southern Cal games in the Marcus Allen days, while working for KCBS-TV in Los Angeles where he won four Emmys, two Golden Mike Awards and an L.A. Press Club award for Best Sportscast.
He has been called a young Cosell, which he dislikes. "I am in no way, shape or form in the same galaxy with Howard." He freely praises Cosell for what he has accomplished and calls him a pioneer of today's sportscasting. He was also a figure of great controversy, and Firestone separates himself on both positive and negative grounds.
"I don't feel I'm anybody but Roy Firestone. I think that can be enough. I bring some insight and humor to my work. I am not an expert. I'm going to leave the X's and O's to others. My job is to develop a story line, weave the fabric of the telecast. I always care greatly about people, and try to bring to the fan what I know about people and the human condition.
"We have a solid three-man concept. We'll make the adjustments we have to after the pre-season games. A lot of it will be trial and error. We're going to have a different animal here. ESPN coverage is going to be like a snowflake: Every game is going to be different. It will be as close to a telecast as the guy sitting at home wants to see in terms of information, opinion, perspective and humor. I think we'll be a mix of all those things. I'll tell you this, it won't be boring."
Much of the skill and charm of a Firestone interview comes from a second, third, fourth question which moves the guest into areas of conversation often unopened. Being a color man, he has to talk between plays, where six to 20 seconds is all there is. That doesn't allow three- and four-question probing. But this doesn't faze Firestone, who feels good preparation will allow him to inject his views and opinions. "I'll have to be careful, because there is way around it. The game is still the thing."
That puts the ball squarely into Patrick's hands. The George Washington University grad, who lives in Vienna, Va., won many supporters with college football and basketball telecasts since becoming a freelance commentator in 1981. He also has a daily Mutual Radio talk show with Al McGuire and Billy Packer, and runs Patrick Productions, which handles a number of national accounts including the VFW and SADD, from McLean, Va.
Patrick's enthusiasm bursts across all of his views of ESPN's venture into NFL football. "It's a thrill for me to do anything that's a first. For cable, this is its biggest first. What a year it's been for me. First signing with ESPN and now being part of the NFL package. It's like having a nice big birthday party and then waking up the next day and finding out you're having another birthday."
Patrick calls the ESPN schedule of games "awesome." When the deal was being forged, Patrick said he read where cable would be a dumping ground for second-rate games. "That's hardly the case. The NFL wants this package to be a success. The league is going to need the additional cable revenues over the next 10 or 20 years and is being very good to us. They've told us, 'If we need anything, call us, we'll help.' The league seems to be bending over backwards to help us with anything we need to have a better show.
"Being national makes it a little more fun. Having 40 million viewers instead of a couple hundred doesn't change what you do. You still call a game the same way. As far as being under a national microscope, I can't get too involved. There's nothing I can do to control that. Everyone would love to be loved by 100 percent of the fans, sportswriters and critics. It doesn't work that way.
"We're just trying to put together something that works just as good as, if not better than, other telecasts. I'm not rapping what the networks do and there's no sense doing something different just to be different. We want to be a little more interestingly different. John Wildhack (producer) and Mark Payton (director) are great. We got to know and believe in each other doing college games last year. You can't find better people. When you have an idea, they like to say 'Let's do it,' instead of 'Let's not try that.' We trust each other."
The youthful looking Patrick, 42, is a 21-year sportscasting veteran. He remarried last month and honeymooned in London before doing the U.S. Olympic Festival in Durham, N.C. His new wife is Janet Bishop, a Washington Redskinette from 1982-1984.
Patrick feels the four pre-season games will be a shakedown cruise of sorts. "Teams use the pre-season to find the best way to use personnel. We'll have to use our pre-season the same way. Roy brings a great deal of talent to the package. We'll have to see what works and what doesn't. Then we'll evaluate our strengths and weaknesses and adjust for the regular season."
Maybe fans who are tempted to judge the NFL telecasts on ESPN right out of the box will also be better off to wait for the polished product come November.
Once in gear, this team figures to be better than average and just might be very good. Comparing this crew to the top network line-ups at the outset seems to be somewhat unfair. After ESPN wraps up its season with the Pro Bowl from Honolulu it won't surprise this watcher if Patrick, Firestone, et al place very high in the hearts of the fans -- and critics, too.
The complete 1987 NFL schedule on ESPN (All games at 8 p.m.):
Aug. 16 -- Chicago at Miami
Aug. 23 -- L.A. Rams at San Diego
Aug. 30 -- L.A. Raiders at Dallas
3 -- Minnesota at Denver
8 -- New England at N.Y. Giants
Nov. 15 -- L.A. Raiders at San Diego
Nov. 22 -- Miami at Dallas
Nov. 29 -- Cleveland at San Francisco
6 -- Chicago at Minnesota
Dec. 13 -- Denver at Seattle
Dec. 20 -- Washington at Miami
Dec. 27 -- L.A. Rams at San Francisco
7 -- AFC-NFC Pro Bowl from Honolulu