It’s no secret that Mike Francesa and Chris Russo didn’t love their arranged marriage at first. But surprisingly, it was a dating game that kept them from a divorce.
Francesa and Russo launched their afternoon show together on WFAN in 1989. By throwing two alphas in a tiny studio, the relationship was rocky at first, with both hosts hoping they could convince management to get rid of the other. Although they were rooting for a divorce, their relationship eventually improved and spawned the sports radio industry.
On the latest episode of The Mike Francesa Podcast, the former WFAN afternoon host was asked to describe the moment he knew Mike and the Mad Dog was going to be a success. Maybe this shouldn’t be a surprise, but according to Francesa, the relationship turned thanks to a big idea he had.
“We had a very rough start. It was exceedingly rough.” Francesa said on his podcast. “I don’t think people understand how rough it was. It was really bad. It was not pretty. And we both fought it and we fought it tooth and nail. We did not want to be together. We did not want to work together…it was a mess. It was being analyzed and criticized on a daily basis. It was getting enormous discussion in the morning and everywhere else in the media every day. It was a huge topic.
“But to me – And I give him credit for this because he had to allow this to happen – but I thought where the thing gelled for the first time and where I saw a light at the end of the tunnel was the contest that I created called ‘Dog Date Afternoon.’ It was my idea, and he went along with it. And it was a smash. It got a tremendous amount of attention. It got a tremendous amount of play. And he did a great job with it, he embraced it, which he didn’t have to do. And I thought that was the moment where it kind of went in the right direction.”
Dog Date Afternoon was a radio bit to get Russo, who was single at the time, a lady friend. The bit may not have found Russo his wife, but it was a turning point in his arranged marriage on WFAN. While their relationship was now improving thanks to Dog Date Afternoon, Francesa said they didn’t fully stop fighting it until the ratings were released. Once the ratings exceeded expectations, Francesa and Dog both knew there was no way of convincing management to cut bait and go with a solo host for WFAN’s afternoon show.
Francesa’s claim that Dog Date Afternoon was a turning point in their relationship is interesting for two reasons. The first being that it’s really hard to picture the cartoonish, ranting and raving personality of Mad Dog being pitched as a desirable bachelor. The second reason it’s interesting is that Mike and the Mad Dog prided themselves on abandoning guy talk in favor of sticking to sports. Yet it was Francesa’s pitch for a dating game radio bit that bonded the feuding hosts, putting them on track to become sports media legends and pioneers.