TSN SportsCentre anchors Jay Onrait and Dan O'Toole are moving to Fox Sports One this summer, and that should have a substantial impact on the U.S. sports media landscape. Onrait and O'Toole are expected to be a crucial part of Fox's plans to develop an ESPN alternative. However, the implications of this move aren't only below the 49th parallel. The departure of Onrait and O'Toole will present TSN with a substantial hole to fill, and they'll have to be careful how they do it.
Onrait and O'Toole became huge stars in Canada over the last decade, bringing an oft-comedic approach to highlights that had them doing such stunts as paper bat attacks, Phantom of the Opera riffs, dancing to the techno Euro 2012 theme and making Sammy Davis Jr. jokes on the air. They became synonymous with the late-night Sportscentre, which dominates its competition. As Toronto Life's Malcolm Johnston pointed out in a December feature on the pair, getting 20 times the audience of the nearest competition is incredible, and while some of that's thanks just to TSN being a more prominent network than Sportsnet, a lot of it was thanks to the talents of Onrait and O'Toole. It's easy to find scores and highlights without going near Sportscentre, but the program was often still worth watching for moments like these:
That's not just an individual sentiment, but one shared by many of the Canadians who flocked to the Onrait and O'Toole show night after night, and one endorsed in the Wall Street Journalpiece "Why Can't We Have Canada's SportsCentre?" that prompted Fox executives to start thinking about hiring Onrait and O'Toole. It's notable that Onrait and O'Toole's style was not a network creation, though, but rather arose from them pushing the envelope and TSN executives smartly deciding to let them keep going with it. From that Toronto Lifepiece:
Onrait’s boss is Mark Milliere, an executive who doesn’t suffer fools. He has a reputation for dressing down hosts who try to be funny with swift, soul-crushing concision (“This isn’t the ha-ha hut” is a typical admonition). Onrait was terrified of the man, but he wanted to get noticed: his co-host, Jennifer Hedger, was a gorgeous, porcelain-skinned blond, and competing with her for the eyes of a young male audience seemed like a losing proposition. He needed to do something. So he decided to let his personality out. Sitting at his desk in the newsroom, he wrote a script that had him chugging an entire carton of chocolate milk. It was absurd, unnecessary and unlike anything viewers had witnessed on the otherwise no-nonsense broadcast. It was also quite possibly his ticket to unemployment.
The morning after his chocolate milk stunt, Onrait checked his email, dreading the coming reprimand from Milliere. But there were only notes from friends and colleagues applauding the hilarious bit. No emails from Milliere. No calls, either. Onrait had pushed the line, and the line had moved. …
As Onrait and O’Toole’s stunts became more regular, so did the feedback from Milliere. He’d occasionally make requests that they tone it down, but just as often he’d congratulate them for a funny segment. Milliere realized what is now obvious: the show’s viewership was changing. Smart phones allow sports fans to watch highlights almost immediately after they happen, and from anywhere. Fans no longer need SportsCentre or its competitors to stay up to date. Onrait and O’Toole presented a solution. In the same way that viewers tune in to The Daily Show to get a little satire with their news, they would turn on SportsCentre for sports with a side of schtick.
That piece sums up what Onrait and O'Toole do very well. Their act works because of the chemistry between them, and it works because their show is still sports at its core. Onrait and O'Toole aren't just comic figures trotted out every few minutes in an attempt to force laughs, unlike some previous attempts to mix sports and comedy (hello, Frank Caliendo!); they're serious and capable anchors who just happen to know when to have fun as well. Onrait and O'Toole still provide all the essential sports news, and they crack people up, but that comes from having fun with funny sports things when they arise, not trying to make everything a joke. The overall package is a success because of the skills of Onrait and O'Toole, and because of their ability to find the proper balance between sports and comedy. TSN can't just hire a couple of stand-up comics to replace them; what these guys have is special, and no replacements will be able to replicate it perfectly.
That doesn't mean TSN should go back to "just the facts," though. The success of Onrait and O'Toole proved that adding some comedy to the highlights can be tremendously beneficial, particularly to pull in the connected younger people who get scores and highlights via smartphones or computers and might never turn on a highlights show otherwise. No, the crucial lesson for TSN should be that it's all about chemistry, balance, timing and letting personalities shine when needed. There are plenty of promising SportsCentre anchors already at the network, including Kate Beirness, Bryan Mudryk, Natasha Staniszewski, Nabil Karim and Cory Woron, and there may be other talent internally or externally that just needs a shot. Onrait and O'Toole showed that many viewers want some personality with their sports highlights, but it has to be organic and not forced. The key for TSN to replace them won't be going with people who try to be Onrait and O'Toole, as that's going to lead to just a poor imitation. Instead, the network will need to tab some talented anchors and give them the space to be themselves and express their own personalities on the air. That's what really worked with Onrait and O'Toole, and that's a formula that seems much more promising than just trying to replicate the departing guys.