RealClearSports recently interviewed Chuck Todd, Chief White House Correspondent and Political Director for NBC. He also serves as contributing editor to "Meet the Press." Formerly, Todd served as the editor-in-chief of National Journal's The Hotline.
RCS: Many of our readers will recognize you as the NBC Political Director and White House Correspondent, as well as the former Editor-in-Chief of National Journal’s Hotline. What fewer readers might not know, however, is that at only 24-years old, you were a co-founder and the first managing editor of the Sports Business Daily.
How did your experience in sports media prepare you for a career in political media?
Todd: There’s the same amount of quid pro quos. Everything is done on the side. There’s sports agents and lobbyists, who probably come from the same DNA. There’s probably the same original Adam for lobbyists; there’s probably the same original Adam for sports agents. Politicians and players, they’re both very good at saying clichés all the time: Just one game at a time; just one piece of legislation at a time.
There’s a lot of differences I think in covering it. But in elections, it’s amazing how many political experts you find that are very into baseball. The statistical aspect of it all and the way elections work, and the way baseball works -- all the sports in general, but particularly baseball. There’s the same amount of passion. It comes with people. Hardcore Republicans or hardcore Democrats have a pretty similar passion for sports, similar to, for instance, college football.
RCS: With regards to online media, you’ve said that the ideal news site would in many ways emulate ESPN.com. What does ESPN do better than the typical news site?
Todd: Well I used to say that about ESPN.com two years ago. I’ll be honest. I don’t like the new format. It doesn’t feel as user friendly. It’s trying too hard to incorporate video. That’s just my opinion.
On a total side note here, a lot of websites are trying to incorporate video and text as one in the same. And everybody is waiting for this convergence. Obviously more and more people have broadband and more and more people are comfortable viewing video on the web, but it’s still really the secondary thing to do on the web, not the primary thing, which is to read.
That said, I still think the way ESPN.com is organized is still the best way to design a political site. If I were designing a political website for me I would still model it after some version of ESPN.com. Not quite the current version, but that’s OK.
RCS: A few months ago, RealClearSports conducted an interview with Tony Kornheiser in which he described the vision of Pardon The Interruption’s creator Erik Rydholm."[He]’s a genius. He created everything you see on the screen that’s being borrowed, and I use the word borrowed kindly -- that’s being lifted and stolen by every single network in the world. Erik Rydholm invented that. PTI is a great TV show…Now every network does it in every show they have. All the sports shows do it. The news shows do it. Everybody: MSNBC, CNBC, Fox News, ABC, NBC, CBS. They put people on clocks. They try and do games with people. They run a crawl. They run stuff on the screen. It’s too bad he didn’t patent it. It’s too bad he didn’t get paid for it, because he’d be a zillionaire."
You’re affiliated with three of the stations Kornheiser mentioned. How accurate is his statement? How much of the innovation in political media is driven by innovation in sports media?
Todd: Well I certainly think he’s over-congratulating himself on that front, but I have heard that quite a few times.
I actually think that cable has failed to recreate PTI and what PTI does well. Trust me I know of couple of instances where we tried at MSNBC and it hasn’t worked. I think we could have done some things differently that maybe possibly would have made it work. There is an aspect that at least in Washington intelligence would respond well to a political Washington show that is truly modeled after PTI. But I actually think the problem is you haven’t seen, and there actually hasn’t been an exact copy. The fact is we haven’t done it. We’ve tried and failed so we’ve gone another way on that front when it comes to supposedly copying PTI. But I do think what sports media did -- and obviously ESPN was the first successful cable show to figure out how to make money and use business and all this stuff -- So of course anybody worth their salt is going to try to look at ESPN and see what works.
ESPN, on television, has always seemed to be ahead in dealing with societies ADD issue. We’re an ADD society now. We’re entering an age in which there’s no more context. Look at the stuff that’s not working on ESPN. E:60, their version of 60 Minutes. All their long form stuff isn’t quite working. But what worked was when they started ESPNEWS, or when they started PTI, or when they started stuff that moves, adding HD information bars that are all over the place and all over the TV. They’ve been very good at dealing with the ADD issue of television audiences. Which of course is a challenge for all cable news audiences.
In many ways though I think as much as these people may want to say it was CNBC that ripped this stuff, I think they ripped some stuff from CNBC. CNBC had to do it because of statistics. And just the tickers and all that stuff. I think that’s where some of that stuff gets started and some of the news programs do try to borrow a little bit from that.
RCS: You gave an interview with TV Guide in which you said, “For a few years I worked at a sports publication. I realized that I missed politics and that you shouldn't make your hobby your full time job.” But there are guys out there who have had success commenting on both. Gregg Easterbrook, George Will and Keith Olbermann come to mind. So is there part of you that’s tempted to put your sports background and knowledge into an occasional column?
Todd: Absolutely. I wrote one a few years ago. I had this idea of entirely remaking the competitiveness of baseball. If baseball wasn’t going to go to the NFL socialized system of fully sharing revenue so that the Yankees and the Kansas City Royals had the same amount of revenue coming in, then I had this idea that, because baseball is about statistics meets strategy, if you have a payroll of a certain amount of money, you end up in a certain division, and you have to compete more often with folks that have this similar amount of payroll. So you force the competitiveness and you force the strategy. There’s a lot more strategy now behind contracts, and how much money you’re going to spend in free agents and all this stuff. And also it decides which division you end up in and who you end up playing. That way the Pittsburgh Pirates, and the Oakland A’s, and the Kansas City Royals might have shots to make the playoffs more often than now.
So bottom line, yes, I do like to slip in an occasional sports thing every now and then. But I keep it occasional.
When I did it full time at Sports Business Daily, what I found was that it was the same story over and over again in the early 90’s when I was doing it. Is so-and-so going to get a new stadium? Are they going to get taxpayer funding? And when they get the new stadium, is it going be Miller or Bud? Is it going to be Coke or Pepsi? You just realized it was just really the same stories on the sports business world over and over again. The market would change, my line would change, the tagline would change, but the stories were the same. And now I went to a ballpark and that’s all I would look at. How much signage they had, who had the pour, who was doing anything original and innovative. So I stopped enjoying sports, and I realized politics is more what I want to throw myself into and sports would be my decompression.
RCS: Not sure you’re aware, but Bert Blyleven has recently started writing for NBCSports.com. With more shutouts than Bob Gibson; more strikeouts than Tom Seaver; more complete games with four hits or less than Jim Palmer, Blyleven has been campaigning for over a decade to be elected into the Hall of Fame.
Todd: Which makes me uncomfortable.
RCS: You are an expert on campaigns. As a player on the Hall of Fame bubble for 11 years, is it possible that Bert Blyleven’s candidacy suffers from a tragically unmarketable name?
Todd: The thing is you can’t campaign for yourself. You know Jim Rice had others campaigning for him. That’s what I think finally got Jim Rice in.
You have to have others do it for you, number one. I am surprised for instance that there isn’t more of a campaign for all of these power hitters of the 80’s to get new respect, in that their numbers in the pre-steroid era are pretty impressive now when you look back on it. The problem those guys suffered from, these power hitters from the 70’s and 80’s, is that when the time came up for the voting in the early 90’s their 32-home run, 100-RBI seasons that they had didn’t seem that impressive when we saw Brady Anderson pop 50 home runs.
Blyleven shouldn’t be doing his own campaigning, but I do think there should be different campaigns out there for how to deal with the hall of fame. For instance, I like Bill Simmons' idea for the Hall of Fame, which is to create that whole pyramid idea. The Hall of Fame is to honor the most interesting, and sometimes it’s the best moments in baseball but the biggest moments, and it’s the history. The Baseball Hall of Fame is the history of baseball. They either have to figure out how to deal with the steroid era or how to also keep people within their eras.
And this is totally biased, but I want my boy Steve Garvey in the Hall of Fame. It kills me. That’s who I grew up idolizing. There was no better clutch hitter in the late 70’s and early 80’s than Steve Garvey, other than Johnny Bench. I’ve been to the Hall of Fame. How is Garvey not there? He was one of the most feared hitters. It kills me as a Dodgers fan that he’s not in the Hall of Fame because he was the best player on the Dodgers. Don Sutton is in the Hall of Fame simply because he kept getting wins. The best player on the Dodgers, on a team that had an incredible run from ‘74 to ‘83, which is basically the years that Garvey was there. And, by the way, Garvey played for the San Diego Padres and somehow helped them get to their first world series back in ’84. And why is he not in the Hall of Fame?
You know sometimes numbers do lie. They sit there and they just judge him by the numbers, and his numbers are ok but his playoff numbers are great. So he deserves it. The problem with campaigning is you can’t do it by yourself. I think everybody gets turned off when somebody tries campaigning for themselves. Other than politics, which seems like the only place where it’s accepted.
Another campaign I’d like to start in baseball is that somebody needs to rethink Greg Maddux’s place in major league baseball history. When you think about what he did and accomplished in the steroids era for a guy that never threw more than 92 miles-per-hour, we need to rethink it. Everyone knows he’s a great pitcher and a Hall of Fame pitcher, but he may be one of the five greatest pitchers of all time, but he was stuck behind the shadow of Roger Clemens who now it turns out might be a phony. It’s been unfair to Maddux his whole career. I think we need to go back and re-appreciate how great Greg Maddux was.
RCS: In the last two years, two sports-related issues have permeated the national political agenda: steroids in baseball and the BCS. Do you think political intervention has helped to bring resolution to the problems?
Todd: Clearly it helped in baseball. As much as I was a cynic about it -- like I guess I didn’t like politicians grandstanding about it, who were they to do this? Don’t get involved -- there’s a lot more serious issues. You know what, I feel better about baseball today than I have in ten years. As somebody who witnessed Mark McGwire’s 61st home run, the one that tied Maris, I feel like that whole moment was snatched away for me. It’s a phony memory now. At the time I thought, oh, isn’t this great. I’m at Busch Stadium and I get to witness that moment and now it’s a moment I wish I didn’t witness and pretend it never happened. So in that respect I think that the intervention worked.
In college football, I don’t know. There’s actually a legitimate reason for Congress to get involved, since a lot of these institutions are public. The government could get involved a little bit here and perhaps claim some version of jurisdiction. Other than gaining access to the BCS I don’t think they can mandate a playoff. Obviously university presidents have always been completely hypocritical about college football versus college basketball when it comes to the playoff idea. But that’s for university presidents to have to reconcile.
RCS: In an interview with the Sports Business Journal, you said fans should care about “the anti-government tide and an anti-business populist movement. There is a lot of anger out there. I would think people in the sports industry should be very attuned to the idea that government is not going to be handing our money, tax breaks or land for teams to build stadiums.”
To what degree has the sports industry been insulated from the economic recession, and to what degree do you think it’s still going to get hit?
Todd: Well It’s been insulated a little bit, I mean for instance, the NFL is lucky that it’s TV contract isn’t up this year or next year. It’s still a couple more years until it’s up.
I think that baseball is the one that’s going to get hit first. They’re going to get hit hard on this, because it is such a daily grind. Baseball clubs are more reliant on ticket sales. So the economic downturn is going to hurt them.
Now, as far as new stadiums, I think it’s going to be a very tough time. The idea that somehow state governments in some cases, or sometimes city governments, it’s not going to be politically feasible for them to grant tax breaks or give free land or something like these sweetheart deals that some of these people got for their stadiums over the last few years. It’s not going to be the same. It’s not going to happen. They’re going to have to be more innovative with their stadium proposals. In some cases do it themselves. In some cases just be a little more of a friend to the taxpayer about it.
The NFL is insulated from it somewhat because they don’t rely as heavily on ticket sales. You know, eight games a year, not 41. But baseball, basketball, and hockey I think are really going to get hit in the next year. I think you’re really going to start seeing next year.
I look at Washington and I think it’s happened in a lot of the bigger cities -- the good season tickets were never even marketed to individuals. They were only trying to market it to companies, so that they would buy these nice seats and use them as some sort of business expense. Well with businesses cutting back their expenses the first thing to go is stuff like that. And they’re going to have a hard time trying to figure out where to sell these things.
They’re going to have to drop their prices to a more reasonable level. It’s unbelievable. 20 rows back at the Verizon Center is a $160 seat. 20 rows back! It’s a $160! So my brother-in-law and his son really wanted to see Lebron James, so at face value the two of them together spent $320 for a father and son, one basketball game, and we didn’t even start in on the $20 or $40 parking. It costs $40 to park for the Nationals. They actually charge $40. It’s outrageous. It’s just crazy money and they’ve gotten away with it over the last few years because they figure, particularly here in Washington, that everybody is using other people’s money. Well, that isn’t going to work anymore and I think franchises are going to have to realize that they have to see that the fan is going to use their own money, their own power.
RCS: 47 states out of 50 are running deficits. In the same interview with the Sports Business Journal, you said “[T]he next great revenue generator for government is sports gambling.” A few weeks ago we had a discussion with Governor Jack Markell about his proposal to legalize sport betting in Delaware. He said, “Should we be successful, might other states try to emulate us in their state? They might.”
Do you believe legalized sports betting will spread to other states in the near future?
Todd: It’s going to spread like a virus. The New Jersey government essentially is suing. What they believe is they know Congress isn’t going to change the law when it comes to sports gambling, and New Jersey wants to have a sports book. Right now they can’t have a sports book. So what they want to do is say that that law is unconstitutional. This law that creates that somehow there’s an exception that allows sports betting for four states including Delaware and Nevada.
Now, I’ve interviewed New Jersey Governor Jon Corzine about this. It was the quick question I threw at him one morning on Morning Joe a couple of weeks ago. I asked him about it and he said we can’t get Congress to change the law. I said, “Why? Because Harry Reid, the Senate Majority Leader who happens to be from Nevada, would never support it?” But Reid’s not going to support some sort of change to law that’s going to hurt Nevada’s monopoly essentially on sports books. But with everybody capped out on the legalized gambling front: lotteries and even casino gambling feels a little bit saturated.
Where is money not staying in the United States? Well it’s in sports gambling, because if you’re not in Nevada you might be gambling with three sites that are based in the Caribbean or in Europe or whatever, and that’s where millions of dollars are going. That’s a potential revenue generator. With so many politicians afraid to raise taxes, or even fees, you go the gambling route. Slots is tapped out, lottery is tapped out, Card games tapped out. So it’s sports betting. It’s going to spread. They’re all going to figure out ways around this federal law or the Supreme Court is going to say what Congress passed is unconstitutional -- that somehow it’s in violation of the 10th Amendment; violation of a States right.
Now with the sports leagues, particularly the NCAA, but also the sports in professional leagues, they’re going to fight this like crazy because they’re fearful of it. But on the other hand, where would the NFL be without gambling? They’ll never admit it, but where would the NFL’s popularity be without gambling? I also consider Fantasy a version of gambling.
RCS: Are there still sports writers you make a habit of reading? And who are the ones, past or present, you most admire?
Todd: Well I grew up reading a guy named Edwin Pope of the Miami Herald. He was a legend down there. Everything for me began and ended with him. Then I came up here, and we were spoiled for a while between Kornheiser, Wilbon and Thomas Boswell. We had Shirley Povich. So with the Washington Post, we were really spoiled. I still try to read Boswell.
RCS: In your book, How Barack Obama Won, you paid tribute to Tim Russert, the man who brought you to NBC. “I kinda feel like Clete Boyer, the not so well-known third baseman for the New York Yankees in the early 1960s. Because the one thing you can’t take away from Boyer is this: he got to bat in the same lineup as Mickey Mantle. Well, I got to work with Tim Russert for a brief period of time; you can’t take that away from me.”
What is it about a good sports analogy that can accomplish so many things, from explaining a political strategy to providing comfort?
Todd: The thing is with sports –- even though and I’ll get an occasional complaint from women in my life: there are too many sports analogies out there and it’s not fair -- it is universal. People get it. It’s the ultimate escapism that Americans still have, even more so than the movies and television.
In politics there are winners and losers and in sports there are winners and losers. It’s just simple winners and losers sometimes. There’s immediate heartache, there’s drama and there’s all that stuff. It’s the ultimate reality show. It’s like politics. It works easily. People who are political junkies are sports junkies. Even if they’re not they have to pretend to be because it’s politically unpopular not to be a sports fan.
I really miss the Peter Gammons column from his Boston Globe days. I remember I would go out and buy the Sunday Boston Globe on Monday. They had Will McDonough doing their NFL column, which always had a bunch of news in it. You had Peter Gammons doing his baseball column. You had Bob Ryan. All these guys have now been swallowed up by television. None of them write as much as they used to anymore.
I’d say I read Bill Simmons, but he’s doing less columns. It always seems he’s doing some damn podcast or videocast this or whatever the hell it is. I just want to read a column again –- his rambling column. Not seven hour chat sessions. Just a 2500-word sports column. As they say, and I’ll leave it at this, something we can get through in one sitting.
RCS: One last question about sports betting. You’re a pretty good basketball player, so hypothetically, if President Obama challenged you to a game of one-on-one under the conditions that if you won, you’d get a 30-minute exclusive interview; but if he won, you’d have to shave your goatee.
Would you accept the bet?
Todd: Oh man, I don’t know. He’s got a secret that is very difficult. I haven’t been able to play with him yet. He said he wants to. We’re just trying to figure out how we can do it so it’s off the record -- this feeling that you can’t do anything with the president anymore.
He’s got a left-handed jumper and he goes left and when you don’t play against a lot of lefties on the basketball court it’s tough. I’m sure a lot of people out there agree. He’s got old guy game and I mean that as a compliment. Old guy game. How many people have gone out there, like some of the 20-something’s that are going to read this -- they go out there and see the guy with grey hair on the court and think, Oh, I’m going to get him. Then they realize the guy passes smarter, gets someplace A to B faster, and then has that annoying set shot that can’t miss. Then, throw in the fact that he’s left handed… forget it.
So, I don’t know. I don’t know if I could risk the goatee.
Plus, are you really allowed to beat the President? Does that work? I think only Reggie Love is allowed to beat the President. Because he would get too much crap from Coach K if he lost to the President.