It’s good to be the Sports Pope. Mike Francesa just had a big reunion with Chris “Mad Dog” Russo at a sold-out Radio City Music Hall, had a successful Francesa Con III, has a 30 for 30 about him on the way, and is still topping the radio ratings in New York on WFAN, and making a reported $5 million annually to do so. Francesa has said he’ll be leaving WFAN at the end of 2017, though, and perhaps that’s part of why he was so candid in his comments to Scott Feinberg of The Hollywood Reporter in a piece published Tuesday.
Francesa delivered plenty of strong thoughts and new information, including his endorsement of Donald Trump ahead of the New York primary, the revelation that scandal-plagued former New York governor Eliot Spitzer tried to be his co-host, his issues with CBS president/CEO Les Moonves (his ultimate boss), and his criticisms of Rick Reilly. Here are some of the highlights of what he had to say:
If you met Francesa and had no idea who he was, you might assume, from his husky build, thick Long Island accent and blunt manner, that he’s a construction worker or a trucker, rather than “the most relevant sports media figure in New York for almost three full decades,” as HBO’s Bill Simmons describes him. Francesa does come from a working-class background — he started beating the pavement at 9 with jobs that included parking cars at a beach club for the likes of Fred Trump (“First car I ever saw with a phone”), whose son Donald has been an acquaintance for 35 years and has his endorsement ahead of New York’s April 19 primaries (“Although I admit there’s a couple of things I’d like to see him hone on the edges”).
…The breakup was mourned by listeners and surely by WFAN, which had also lost Imus a year earlier, but Francesa, ever dispassionate, took things in stride. He approached Simmons about co-hosting — “I was under contract to ESPN so it was never really an option for me,” Simmons says — while “hundreds” of others approached him, including, he confirms for the first time, New York’s disgraced ex-governor Eliot Spitzer. (“I was like, ‘Are you serious?'”)
…There may soon be neither Mike nor the Mad Dog at WFAN, and CBS Radio itself sits on a precipice. “We’re up for sale right now, the radio division,” Francesa says. “It’s the worst-kept secret in America that [CBS president and CEO Leslie] Moonves detests radio — he hates radio as a business.” (CBS has acknowledged that it is exploring sale options for its entire radio division.) He adds of the “egomaniac” and “genius” with whom he directly negotiated his most recent contract, “He gets paid by the stock going up, and Wall Street hates slow-growth businesses. Radio is a high-cash-flow, slow-growth business. They don’t like TV anymore, much less radio.”
…Instead, Francesa suggests, he’s exploring uncharted territory that might welcome sports talk with a built-in following. “It’s becoming a content-driven, multiplatform business,” he says. “Soon you won’t be able to tell the difference between where a station starts and a podcast ends.” He continues, “Apple, Google, Facebook, Amazon — they’re all gonna be huge content players. They’re all gonna be in sports.” He claims he’s already received overtures from one of the above, but won’t engage in negotiations with anyone until his current contract ends. He also insists that money isn’t his only consideration, citing former Sports Illustrated writer Rick Reilly as a cautionary tale. “He had something he was great at and he went to something he stunk at,” Francesa says. “He wrote that back page better than anybody’s written anything in this country, and then he went off and became a fool at ESPN.”
Those are quite the unfiltered comments from Francesa, and it’s interesting to see him talking about potentially leaving typical radio for a more online-focused show. His great leaps forward haven’t always worked in the past (hello, Fox Sports 1 syndication!), so we’ll see if this one does. It’s also notable to see him being so critical of so many powerful people. Francesa’s plenty powerful in his own right, though, and with his dominance in the ratings and already-expressed desire to leave WFAN, it’s hard to see too many repercussions for him from it. We’ll see where he goes from here.