Jay Onrait and Dan O’Toole will shape identity of Fox Sports One as ESPN alternative

Later today Fox Sports will officially announce the hiring of sports anchors Jay Onrait and Dan O'Toole from TSN.  The popular SportsCentre anchor pairing will be making the move south across the border to be integral figures in Fox Sports One's nightly studio show, Fox Sports Live, that will be a direct competitor to the American version of SportsCenter on ESPN when the network launches in August.

News of Onrait and O'Toole's departure from TSN broke late Friday afternoon and all reports indicated Fox Sports One as their landing place.  While many American sports fans may be skeptical of the Canadian imports, the duo are as synonymous with the Canadian SportsCentre as the glory days of Dan Patrick and Keith Olbermann were in the states.  Just how successful are Onrait and O'Toole?  This December excerpt from Toronto Life best captures their je ne sais quoi:

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They don’t take themselves, or their trade, too seriously. They aren’t disrespectful, but neither are they reverential toward people who run fast and hit balls with sticks for a living. In an industry where the strategy is to present clips at such a rapid pace that viewers don’t have time to even consider changing the channel, Onrait and O’Toole slam on the brakes every few minutes for a drawn-out bit of comedy, and dare viewers to stay with them. It isn’t sophisticated satire, but it works and has earned them a massive following: during an average week last fall, SportsCentre drew more than two million viewers. Their main competition, Rogers’ Sportsnet Connected, drew 101,000 in the same week; the third-place program, The Score in the Morning, drew a paltry 24,000. The Wall Street Journal recently ran a piece with the headline “Why Can’t We Have Canada’s SportsCentre?”  

When the story first became public on Friday, no less than Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper tweeted about the pair leaving TSN…

The exact roles of Onrait, 38, and O'Toole, 37, at FS1 and Fox Sports Live have yet to be determined.  The plans and format for Fox Sports Live continue to take shape as the network prepares for the late summer launch date.  SI's Richard Deitsch has some possibilities for the show including a 3 hour block from 11 PM – 2 AM ET and the involvement of Onrait, O'Toole, Charissa Thompson (moving from ESPN back to Fox) and central roles for athletes like Andy Roddick, who Onrait hinted at working with in a Twitter reply.

In this pairing though, Fox is going to a blueprint for their staple studio program ESPN deliberately discarded long ago.

Since the days of Olbermann and Patrick, ESPN has ensured none of their talent outshine the network or the highlights.  SportsCenter has moved from an era dominated by colorful anchors, big personalities, and popular partnerships into an age where the anchors are largely interchangeable straight news people whose purpose is to read highlights and set up Bristol's bevy of analysts.  

In that sense, the established pairing of Onrait and O'Toole will be a direct counterpunch from the outset for Fox Sports One.  Onrait and O'Toole will be given every chance to become household names and their irreverent humor will serve as an immediate alternative to the establishment.  Could you imagine this happening on ESPN?

The Canadian pair's off-beat, envelope-pushing style is quintessential Fox.  The network is hoping Onrait and O'Toole will continue their success in making the move to the states as they help to build the identity of Fox's new cable sports network.

Matt Yoder

About Matt Yoder

Managing Editor of Awful Announcing and award winning sportswriter. Bloguin consigliere. The biggest cat in the whole wide world.

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