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JP Finlay talks a lot.
As the lead “insider” covering the local NFL team for NBC Sports Washington, Finlay talks on a daily TV show, records a podcast at least three times a week (often more), and does guest spots all over the D.C. sports media landscape. He talks fast, gets his thoughts across clearly, and is often willing to let his commentary run a little more freely than his bosses might prefer, all traits that make him an entertaining local sports voice.
But he does not seem to love talking about himself, because as soon as you ask him about his success, he starts by preemptively apologizing for it.
“Answering those types of questions sucks,” he says, “because you sound like a cocky bastard sometimes.”
As someone who once held a role similar to Finlay’s, with notably less success, I’m fascinated by his achievements. (I was the D.C. football team’s official blogger from 2008 until 2011.) And as someone who will discuss my shortcomings without even being asked, I’m fascinated by his reticence.
Finlay, 37, grew up in Montgomery County, earned his undergraduate degree at the University of Maryland at College Park and his graduate degree at Georgetown University. And, as used to be common, he grew up rooting for the local NFL franchise. The team’s victory in Super Bowl XXVI, after the 1991 season, looms particularly large.
“That season had a tremendous impact on my life,” Finlay says. “I don’t think we’re sitting here and talking about this shit without that.”
After graduating from Maryland in 2003, Finlay sold insurance; he was generally successful and didn’t hate the work. “But then I turned 25,” he says, “and I was like, ‘Oh, shit, I don’t wanna do this forever.’” He followed his love of writing to Georgetown, and then, in his words, “Started grinding.”
Finlay would take whatever writing gigs he could. He talked to Massachusetts Senator Scott Brown about his swing while covering Congressional softball for Roll Call. He moved to North Carolina and worked for a small local paper. He returned to D.C. and wrote for a trade press covering the business of power lines.
All the while, he continued working toward sportswriting in a path that was pretty common at the time. He kept his own blog, then contributed to a successful local indie blog (MisterIrrelevant.com), then signed on to the local outpost of a national site network for pennies-per-hour (SB Nation DC) and found a way to be part of an established local outlet just dipping its pinkies into sports (Washingtonian).
Eventually, he took over the graveyard shift at Comcast SportsNet (now NBC Sports Washington, a broadcast partner for the Washington football team), tweeting out the scores of games and trying to generate viral content.
“At that point in 2013 it was basically just a TV station and a website,” Finlay says. “So getting good clips from our air and from games onto the web was still priority number one.”
He joined the network full time on a management track, not a writing track—the insider roles at the time were held by more established writers and reporters. Finlay hustled to pick up football-related assignments around his management duties, and when lead football insider Tarik El-Bashir moved back to covering hockey, Finlay’s bosses gave him his shot.
“That job had been pretty high-profile for a while,” Finlay says, “and I definitely was not, but they let me take it and it’s worked out pretty well so far.”
(This would usually just be the “full disclosure” portion of this piece: Finlay and I are generally friendly and have crossed paths in a number of places over the course of our media careers. I also wrote for Mr. Irrelevant, and currently do a podcast with one of the site’s founders. The Washington Post’s Dan Steinberg helped both Finlay and me get exposure by linking to our work when we were writing for minuscule audiences. I used to appear on-air on Comcast SportsNet to yap mindlessly about the football team. I also went to College Park, and also grew up in Montgomery County.
Transcribing my conversation with Finlay, though, is the first time I’ve ever caught myself sounding like I’m in therapy. When I listen to Finlay’s story, it’s like listening to an alternate version of my own, if I had been more successful at it.)
Finlay’s fellow insider was Rich Tandler, and the two formed a complementary pair—Tandler was older, more focused on the details of football, while Finlay gravitated toward showing the personal side of players. They brought that dynamic to a podcast, which has gone from humble beginnings to the most successful podcast across all regional NBC Sports networks.
The podcast caught fire, Finlay says, in part because he still has a very clear understanding of the team’s fans, especially because he grew up as one of them. The team, he says, was “the the most important entity in my life until I was 25 years old, especially as a kid.”
As the podcast has grown, it has taken on more of the ballast of a traditional corporate program—sponsored ad reads and clear production—but Finlay believes that a big part of what contributed to the show’s success was its charge-ahead nature, and he is determined to maintain that. “They used to let me run it all,” Finlay says. “And I would absolutely, unequivocally forego audio quality for speed. And I, frankly, still think that’s the right move, but that’s a conversation to have with my 800 bosses.”
Tandler died suddenly at 63, five games into the 2018 football season. When I heard the news, I felt faintly sad that he had likely spent so many of his final moments thinking about quarterbacks Alex Smith and Colt McCoy, but Finlay took a different lesson from the loss of his friend and sparring partner. “With Tandler, his lifespan with this shit was almost inverted,” Finlay says. “He spent the bulk of his life in restaurants and jobs he didn’t love. At the end, he’s doing what he loved, so he’s thrilled.”
An NFL beat demands a crushing amount of time, and Finlay is keenly aware of that. He has two young children, which is brutal for anyone on the beat (“I worked a fucking preseason game on her fourth birthday,” Finlay says). Finlay’s wife knows that even on his days off, he’s going to be locked to his phone, scrolling through text messages and Twitter.
“Some of the asks on me are tremendous, but I also push for more and more all the time,” he says. “So some of it is a me issue. You asked, how did it happen? A lot of it is me just hitting the accelerator all the time.”
Which, in the end, is probably a major reason for his success. There are much worse “me issues” to have.