SBD/Issue 174/Sports Industrialists

Catching Up With "Around The Horn" Host Tony Reali

ESPN's Tony Reali
TONY REALI joined ESPN in July ‘00 as writer/researcher for ESPN’s “Two Minute Drill” quiz show. In September ‘01, Reali became researcher for ESPN’s “PTI,” where his role evolved into “Stat Boy.” That position eventually led to him becoming host of “Around The Horn” in February ’04. Reali, a native of Morganville, New Jersey, and a Fordham Univ. alum, spoke with Television Editor Paul Sanford about his career at ESPN.

Favorite vacation spot: Virgin Gorda, British Virgin Islands. I’m getting married there in a few months.
Favorite current sportscaster: Of the ESPN lot, JOHN BUCCIGROSS. Of a sportscaster that I would listen to do play-by-play that’s interesting, I like JOE BUCK a lot. SPERO DEDES, the Lakers play-by-play man -- he and I did Fordham broadcasting for three years together. He’s really, really good.
Favorite music: My favorite band of all time is a band called the Toadies. They had a song in the early '90s ("Possum Kingdom"). I love Stone Temple Pilots, and also my iPod has some old New York doo-wop stuff like FRANKIE VALLI and the Four Seasons.
Favorite Web sites you visit daily: TheBigLead.com and Deadspin.com. Those are my two reads. I’m a younger generation guy.

Q: “Around The Horn” is a kind of a game show because you score it. What was your favorite game show growing up?

Reali: My dad’s dream for me is that I take over for ALEX TREBEK. We were big “Jeopardy” fans. We watched "Jeopardy" more or less every night before or after dinner growing up.

Q: Is “Jeopardy” the show you would most like to host?

Reali: That’s the show my father would like me to host and I think that’s a pretty sweet gig, I’m not going to lie. I don’t think I can do the foreign accents like Alex Trebek can. He’s always good when there’s a French word on there.

Q: And you can act like you know everything already despite having the answers in front of you?

Reali: I think I already act like I know everything, but I know that’s not the case.

Q: How did you land the host seat on “Around The Horn?”

Reali: I took over for [MAX] KELLERMAN in February ’04. I got a phone call Sunday night at 11:00 while the Super Bowl was on. This is right when the Patriots are about to beat the Panthers. ... I got a phone call saying Max Kellerman is not showing up to work tomorrow. Now “PTI” and “Around The Horn” were right next to each other in the news rooms. The shows (were) close. They had the same blood lines at that point. I knew Max, I moved Max into his apartment in DC a year earlier, so he and I were close. I had no background in television other than writing for television and I had done the “Stat Boy,” which is 10 seconds of air time a day, because TONY (KORNHEISER) and MICHAEL (WILBON) wanted a sidekick (on “PTI”). So I got the call at 11 o’clock -- “We need you to fill in, you’re the only person within 500-1,000 miles that can get to “Around The Horn” tomorrow because Max is in a contract negotiation.” I put on my suit and my tie, went to work and it was a blur. I don’t remember anything of it. I’m sure it was the low point in television history. The next day happens and they say Max is not coming back. I put on my other tie, and by Wednesday I’m out of clothes and have to go shopping because I was 25 years old at the time. Really it’s all a blur now. I can’t comprehend how this happened because I had no experience and I was just a person who happened to be in the right place at the right time.

Q: Did you have any apprehensions or fears about being a TV host?

Reali: I flew out to all of the sites to meet the guys, like (WOODY) PAIGE and (JAY) MARIOTTI, because that was my biggest fear, that I would look like a dope because I didn’t know what I was doing on TV. I didn’t want to insult these guys. I mean BOB RYAN is in the Basketball Encyclopedia. He’s been writing for 36 years and I have to mute him. I didn’t even know how the game worked. The scoring system is still a mystery to me. That’s what I was concerned about. I was concerned that I would stumble over myself trying to be a TV person, but I was also concerned that I would look like a jerk to these guys who’ve been doing sports for so long. But after a while I learned to not really care about their feelings too much in that regard because they’re great guys.

Q: Does that make for better TV?

Reali: I think so. To me the show changed a few years in. We made the show more about the guys. "Four of America’s most road-raging sportswriters" instead of previously the show was about the host and his final say. I don’t really have a final say. Like I said, I’m not a sportswriter. I don’t have a background. I’ve been in locker rooms before and I’ve covered games before, but my opinion really doesn’t matter that much to anybody outside my family. So I don’t think it’s going to matter to people at home watching. The producer and myself made it about the guys, and we made it more about the competitive nature of the guys and the game show. I mean, they really do get upset when they don’t win. I’ve gotten phone calls from columnists after a particularly slow week of points for them.

Q: What was the strangest thing that’s happened off the air?

RealiJACKIE MCMULLAN almost choked on the air. That was scary. I guess she had an acid reflux-type situation. She had seen a doctor and it had gone away. She had been on pills and she hadn’t taken pills for about a week. Inside information: the show is taped. We tape it about 1:00. It takes 45 minutes to tape. That’s when we have the satellites ready and that’s when we can get four people from around the country all in the same stop without having to cover a game. So we’re “on air,” even though we can stop at any time if somebody were to curse. Jackie got crazy, and I know we can post-produce the show and get away from certain shots, cut off a microphone. I may have even muted her, but now I see her turning a different color and I’m like, “What’s going on?” Jackie is in Boston, and she is just with a robotic camera. She has nobody in the room with her. So I’m screaming, “Somebody get her water!” and the only person that can hear me is Jackie because she only has the ear piece in. She kind of falls off camera and of course it all turned out, thank goodness, well.

Q: How about a funny moment on the show?

Reali: Woody Paige won his 100th show and planned some elaborate celebration. Of course, we prevented him from winning his 100th show for about two weeks or so, just for the goof of it. And when he was getting into his speech the confetti that he had an assistant throw up in the air got into his mouth and he started to choke. That was just confetti in his mouth, so it wasn’t as serious (as McMullan). That was funny. That was the funniest on-air moment I can remember.

Q: Speaking of Paige, is this just TV or do Paige and Mariotti generally dislike each other?

Reali: I know they have a long relationship together. They both worked in Denver in the mid 1980’s. They worked closely to each other and that only lasted a month. So that’s my answer to that.

Q: What would viewers be surprised to learn about Kornheiser and Wilbon and what is your relationship with them?

Reali: The surprising thing is they are probably 100% like they are on TV. They are exactly like they are on TV. It’s just that what they do on TV is so natural. They can step off the set and have the same conversation, maybe with a few more colorful words in the news room. They’re best friends, and they’ve been that way for 30 years with Tony as Michael’s mentor.

Reali Says Delivery Of Argument Part
Of Scoring On "Around The Horn"
Q: How do you determine the points system for the panelists? Is it your mood? Just messing with the guys?

Reali: I judge the guys on point of view, style, information and how they deliver their argument. Anybody can recite stats. I love stats, but if you’re going to win a “bar room discussion” it has got to be memorable in a certain way. So I’m judging them on how they’re delivering it and whether it’s memorable, at least to me. I detract for incorrect information or a joke that failed, which is probably the biggest subtraction. I mute to direct traffic, that’s why the button was created because when you’ve got four guys on satellite, there is a slight delay between the four of them. We can’t have a normal conversation because with the four satellites talking over each other they can’t really hear. I think the mute button is one of the coolest things out there on television. I would try to get it out there on the street and sell it if I could format the technology. To be out on a date with a girl and she’s talking nonsense, mute and move on, next topic. It would be great in any situation.

Q: Do you model your on-air persona after anybody?

Reali: I think I did for awhile when I was younger and then I realized that kind of stinks. It didn’t fit me. I want to be more conversational. I write scripts for my show every morning. I had problems when I first started since the producers would try to help me out and I couldn’t even read their scripts because I couldn’t read in their voice. I do tend to be very conversational. I really dumbed it down for me to have it be more natural. I’d rather be myself.

Q: If this was an “Around The Horn” episode how many points did you just give yourself? Did you make the final?

Reali: Entirely too many. See, I don’t like to do these interviews because I don’t like telling the story and I don’t like talking about myself. I’m close to setting the scoring record, and right now Mariotti is probably going to come in on the two-way phone and mute me and take some points away.

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