SBJ/June 3-9, 2013/Media

When sports TV columnists were common, he was the king

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John Ourand
Every sports TV PR executive has a favorite Rudy story.

Fox SportsLou D’Ermilio laughs as he remembers accusing Rudy Martzke, the longtime USA Today sports TV columnist, of taking “Dick-tation.” That was shorthand for saying that Rudy was in Dick Ebersol’s pocket, only publishing news that was favorable to Ebersol’s NBC Sports.

A favorite story for ESPN’s Mike Soltys dealt with Rudy’s colorful language and regular weekend phone calls. Soltys also laughed when retelling stories of Rudy’s Sunday morning voicemails as he reported his Monday columns: “I know you’re at f---ing church, but call me when you get back.”

Veteran sports PR executive Vince Wladika still cackles as he refers to Rudy’s “alligator arms,” which is Wladika’s way of saying that Rudy never picked up a check.

Storied character: Rudy Martzke wrote the sports TV column at USA Today for 23 years.
Always referred to by just his first name, Rudy retired from writing USA Today’s media column eight years ago. But he lives on in sports media today through these types of stories that hark back to the salad days of sports TV columns. When Rudy wrote his column in the 1980s and ’90s, most major newspapers had regular sports TV columnists. Today, precious few exist.

But the Rudy stories exist because Rudy is a unique character who wrote one of the most important sports TV columns for 23 years. Given that his successor, Michael Hiestand, took a buyout from the paper last month and the future of the paper’s sports TV column is in doubt, I decided to catch up with Rudy and see what he was up to these days — and hear some of the Rudy stories from his perspective.

Living in Orlando and traveling regularly with his wife (affectionately called “The Mouse”), Rudy works as a consultant for some sports properties that he did not want to identify. But Rudy still keeps an eye on his old beat, as well. It was no surprise to see Rudy and “The Mouse” at a CBS Sports party in New Orleans the week before the Super Bowl. The network’s top sports PR executive, Jen Sabatelle, invited them.

The first question I asked Rudy was about “Dick-tation.” He isn’t upset by that characterization because he said he covered Ebersol more than others during the 1990s. Rudy said his articles were a function of Ebersol’s place in the sports media business rather than a personal affinity for the executive.

“Within a year of Ebersol coming into NBC, he was acquiring properties,” Rudy said. “So what was I writing about? Nothing but Dick Ebersol. He was an executive who was available when you called in. I would call, and he would call back in a few minutes.”

Rudy remembered going on a press tour with NBC Sports in 1992, just before the Barcelona Olympics. It wasn’t until he got to the airport that he realized he was the only member of the press in attendance.

“I said, ‘Dick, where’s the rest of the press? Are they in their room?’ He said, ‘No, they’re not. You’re the only one. I enjoy traveling with you, and through USA Today, I can reach the whole country anyway through whatever story you write.’”

When they arrived in Barcelona, Ebersol invited Rudy to his suite. Rudy described it in his column the next day as a four-room suite that overlooked the Mediterranean Sea.

“I woke up the next day and saw Ebersol,” Rudy said. “He had the column faxed to him. He said, ‘There’s an error in your column today. It’s a five-room suite, not four.’ He wanted the other network executives to know how high he was living.”

If Rudy wrote his column today, he’s convinced that PR executives would accuse him of being in ESPN’s pocket because the media company has been so active acquiring rights.

“I’d always be writing about ESPN,” he said. “ESPN has come on so strong. They have so many things going. Their tentacles are everywhere.”

What about the other sports networks?

“Fox has expanded itself. They do a lot of big events,” Rudy said. “CBS has the biggest golf schedule; they have the NCAAs. NBC is trying hard. They have the NFL and some golf events.”

One aspect of writing a column that Rudy doesn’t miss is TV ratings. He learned early-on how important the networks viewed those ratings numbers. He almost immediately became aware how hard network PR hands would try to spin the numbers, as well.

“They would always explain to me why their rating was good and the others were bad,” he said. “You had to read between the lines.”

Rudy recalled battles with Wladika, in particular, when Wladika headed up Fox Sports’ PR department.

“He’d sit there and argue the most minuscule thing,” Rudy said. “Vince used to argue every week, and Lou D’Ermilio would sit at his side and just kind of chuckle and laugh because Vince was making me run through hoops.”

As for Wladika’s accusation that he had “alligator arms” …

“Well, Vince had a bigger budget than me.”

John Ourand can be reached at jourand@sportsbusinessjournal.com. Follow him on Twitter @Ourand_SBJ.
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