RCS Interviews Erik Rydholm

RCS: You are the creator and executive producer of PTI. Tony Kornheiser is on record saying, "[Michael] Wilbon and I are driving the car, but the car was built by our producer, Erik Rydholm. He's a genius. He came up with the whole gamut of what you see."

So genius, how did PTI begin?

Erik Rydholm: Mark Shapiro [former Executive VP of Programming at ESPN] had the general concept. Jim Cohen [former VP for Programming and Production] was charged with executing it. I had worked for Jim year before. Jim asked me to think up something that "looked different than anything else on television" and would be "the best show on television." Sounded like fun.

Tony is far too kind, though. The only reason I agreed to do the show was because of them. They have been two of my sports writing heroes, and any success we've had is due to their knowledge, perspective, and chemistry.

RCS: Wilbon and Kornheiser are big personalities. How difficult is it to manage them?

Erik Rydholm: Remarkably easy. They know who they are and what they're supposed to do -- they're friends who are supposed to have a vigorous discussion about sports and its place in the world. And it just so happens they'd be doing this every day even if they weren't paid to do it on the air.

Mike is a gent, and Tony is crusty... but under that rough exterior, he's a softie. I was slightly terrified of him early on. But then I got sick and he started calling me at home to make sure I was okay. I knew then that I had broken through.

But early on, before launch, he once came into the newsroom full of people who had just started work at PTI and said, "This show isn't going to last three months. But I'm getting paid no matter what. And I still have three other jobs. I don't know what you people are going to do."

It was very motivating.

RCS: Well, we'd expect something curmudgeonly from Kornheiser, but in his column Saturday, Wilbon wrote, “Sometime around 2 p.m. on New Year's Day 2009, after watching the first two periods of the NHL's Winter Classic outdoors at Chicago's Wrigley Field, I announced that I was leaving the house to take a drive. My wife, astounded, said: 'You've never left the house on New Year's Day in the whole time I've known you. Is there something wrong with you?'"

You're not his wife, but still we ask, what’s wrong with Wilbon?

Erik Rydholm: Mike has recently begun to exhibit some signs of "old-man" behavior -- you know, where the old man says that everything in today's world is junk and it was much better when he was young. And so, in this case, I imagine he is lamenting the passing of the all-day bowl game orgy. The great thing about Mike is that we've made him aware of this tendency of late, and he seems quite proud of it.

He is without a doubt the most comfortable person I've ever met. He has no doubts about who he is, what he likes, or what he does. This is the life he imagined, he wanted, he worked his ass off for, he attained, and he now enjoys.

RCS: You are also the creator and executive producer of Around the Horn. How did that begin, and how, from a production perspective, is it different than PTI?

Erik Rydholm: PTI had been on for about a year when Mark [Shapiro] and Jim [Cohen] approached me and my group about creating a sister show. We sketched out an idea for a talk show based on a game show construct -- where panelists would be scored for their opinions. But we couldn't come to terms, so Mark and Jim hired a brilliant, funny man named Bill Wolff to flesh out the concept and make it work. And he did so beautifully. But he, Max Kellerman, the producer, and the director all left about two years later and ESPN asked me to oversee the show.

And it's been a blast. We have this small little staff led by Aaron Solomon and Tony Reali that just knocks out the show every day. Those two really saved the show by keeping it up and running after Bill and the others departed. And they're the ones who work with the guys every day to make it work.

What's interesting is that PTI always received very positive reviews, and ATH often received a harsher judgment, but both shows continue to grow. I prefer to evaluate the success of a show based off the numbers of people watching. I figure if they don't like it, they won't watch it.

And we'll know in a hurry. So far, hasn't happened... Knock on wood.

RCS: Big news at ATH this week -- and the broader sports-writing world: Jay Mariotti, who is currently – and perhaps by his own admission – the most divisive personality in the industry, finally found employment at AOL Sports and yesterday wrote a column brashly titled “Obama and I will fix the BCS.”

My question for you is, on a scale of one to ten – one being Lou Gehrig; ten being Terrell Owens – how much of a prima donna is Mariotti?

Erik Rydholm: Damn you... using a numerical construct to pin me down. For me, honestly, Jay is on the Gehrig side of the scale -- let's go with a 3 or a 4. He has never been divisive on our show. He's never taken our team apart. Our group is so low maintenance. Now, I do hear from him when he hasn't won in a while or when he feels he wasn't scored properly, but part of that is that he likes the extra thirty seconds to talk at the end of the show.

Jay has received plenty of criticism. But he works as hard as anyone, and always has a provocative take. Whether you agree with it or not, he usually says something that he has thought out and is worth arguing about. I'm a Chicagoan and have read him for years. And while sometimes I felt like his columns could be a bit harsh on guys I wanted to see succeed, I read him. Heck, I bought the paper for him.

On ATH, we ask him for his point of view on ten issues a day, and he delivers good ones. We try to hold him accountable, and he's not above having fun with that. For me, he's been great.

RCS: Part of the controversy surrounding Mariotti was about the future -- or lack thereof -- of the Chicago Sun-Times. Sports-writing – and, more generally, the news industry – is in the process of a rapid realignment in which many newspapers are in danger of collapsing. You deal with professional writers on a daily basis. What should professional sports writers do to remain relevant?

Erik Rydholm: I'm reading this collection of Warren Buffett shareholder letters these days and at one point he says that he's learned that he doesn't have to solve big business problems, just avoid them. And so I guess that means having irons in many fires. It's odd because everyone laments the fall of the traditional publishing industry, but conversely, the barriers have lowered to an extent that anyone can self-publish. Bill Simmons was onto to this very early one.

I would also point out what you have done. You built a foundation through the convenient aggregation of interesting articles written by others -- source agnostic -- and now that you have that foundation laid, you start producing original content on top.

I actually had some experience with this years ago. I am a founder of the financial site The Motley Fool, along with Tom and David Gardner. Rather than working through the traditional financial news industry, we started our own newsletter and website and quickly found ourselves making an impact that we could never have dreamed we'd make through the traditional channels.

The thing that will suffer is first-hand access to the players, coaches, etc. The newspapers generate so much of that today. But you can see where some of that is going (personal blogs), and it will never disappear entirely because the teams need the coverage in order to sell tickets and new stadiums to the community. They have to talk to someone.

RCS: Do you think sports writers should make more effort collectively to engage blogs?

Erik Rydholm: I don't know. I don't think it matters. I don't think it's a rift that will lead to bloodshed. We're all working in the toy department.

RCS: You mentioned being a co-founder of The Motley Fool. Are there any parallels to creating one of the most popular financial advice sites and an ESPN television show?

Erik Rydholm: The biggest things I learned from The Motley Fool were to make PTI accessible (the rundown), accountable (errors and omissions), and responsive (soliciting e-mail input from viewers). And of course, working with Tom and David helped prepare me to work with Tony and Mike. The Motley Fool's motto is "To educate, amuse, and enrich." And while you probably haven't made any money on Tony and Mike's predictions, the first two parallel directly.

RCS: During the Vice Presidential Debate, CNN used a scoreboard system that was remarkably similar to ATH’s, for which their analysts acted like Tony Reali's, giving and taking away points from the candidates. Do you see sports-inspired innovations in political news casting frequently, and do you think they’re effective?

Erik Rydholm: I was transfixed by the CNN scoring. Loved it. I liked the focus group tracker more than the points, though. Most of their analysts seemed to have inherent biases. I could predict how Paul Begala was gonna score the thing ahead of time, you know?

But I do see some PTI and ATH influence out there, and respect it a great deal when it builds on what we've done.

RCS: After Jay Glazer broke the Brett Favre-Matt Millen phone call story, ESPN received criticism for an internal “DO NOT REPORT” memo that was leaked to the media. You told the ESPN Ombudsman that you didn’t have a problem with that memo. In hindsight, could ESPN have dealt with that situation differently?

Erik Rydholm: That's an area that I have little involvement with, so I could tell you yes or no and it wouldn't mean very much. We had some people on staff who wanted to go with the Glazer story and we had the ESPN desk asking us to hold off. When I looked at it, I didn't feel much was lost by waiting as long as ESPN wasn't sure of the story, so we waited.

We talked about it on Wednesday instead of Monday. The world kept turning.

RCS: Alright, last question: Tony Kornheiser says he's pregnant. Who’s the father?

Erik Rydholm: He says we'll find out on Friday. My own hunch: they must call Jason Whitlock "Big Sexy" for a reason.

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