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A few minutes prior to the kickoff of Sept. 18’s Redskins-Cowboys game, radio play-by-play man Larry Michael asked broadcasting partner Sonny Jurgensen what fans should expect from Skins running back Clinton Portis. Before giving him the standard few seconds to respond, Michael told listeners that the Hall of Fame QB’s thoughts were “brought to you by Shoppers Food and Pharmacy.”
Michael then asked Sam Huff, the broadcasting team’s third spoke and second HOF-er, if the Skins defense would be able to “get to Drew Bledsoe,” then got in a plug for “Manassas Chrysler, Prince William’s only five-star Chrysler dealer,” before letting Huff answer.
Then listeners to WJFK-FM’s broadcast were told that Brandon Noble would be out of the game, and Michael said that that tidbit was “brought to you by [mortgage banker] Provident. Ask about their super-low home-equity rates.”
This segment, which the station calls the “Mercedes-Benz 50-Yard Line Report,” was interrupted for taped spots from UPS, Nauticon Imaging Systems, Wawa, Hooters, Budweiser, Cox Communications, FedEx, GTSI and Sun Microsystems, HCA Virginia (“the official hospital of the Washington Redskins”), Home Depot, McDonald’s, Purple Heart, Toyota, and Wachovia. When Michael came back, he said the temperature inside the stadium was 90 degrees, information “brought to you by Carrier.” A quick sentence from Jurgensen about “what’s at stake” for the Redskins in the Week 2 tilt was sponsored by Shula’s, a steakhouse chain. News that the only change in the Skins’ starting lineup from the opening game would be QB Mark Brunell was “brought to you by AvcomEast.”
Just another week with Redskins radio, which in recent years has become the broadcast equivalent of a NASCAR fender.
There’s nothing new about sponsorship in sports broadcasting. But Redskins games, where the on-field action is never allowed to get in the way of a paid plug, have taken the concept where no one has gone before. On Redskins radio, there actually are sponsors for sponsors: Several times during the Dallas broadcast, Michael introduced the results of the weekend’s other NFL games by saying, “The GMRI scoreboard is brought to you by McDonald’s Restaurants.”
Michael is only in his second year as the broadcast team’s leader, and as far his play-by-play skills go, nobody has yet confused him with Vin Scully or anybody from the Buck family or even with the guy he replaced in Redskins radio, Frank Herzog. But there’s not a more enthusiastic pitchman in the business.
Most of the words out of his mouth are subsidized. Whenever Sonny and Sam aren’t talking, he’s jumping in with an ad. After a comment from Jurgensen about Sean Springs’ being the son of an ex-Cowboy, listeners heard Michael say that Springs “is a Redskin through and through. Springer Mountain Farms Chicken is now the only chicken endorsed by the American Humane Society, available at Giant Foods.” He interrupted Sonny and Sam’s banter to say, “I don’t know how you guys got here, but I drove my Nissan Titan all the way from Washington, D.C. Come test-drive the tough 2005 full-size Nissan Titan at your local Nissan dealer today.” Then Michael wondered aloud whether FedEx, another big-time Skins patron, would deliver the car back home for him, since “FedEx can travel anything!”
Much of what Jurgensen says is bought and paid for, too. “SJ-9 cigars are only available at Old Virginia Cigars!” Jurgensen blurted out between plays early in the contest. (The smoke’s designation refers to Jurgensen’s initials and uniform number.) He also used airtime to relate that he’s really satisfied with the home-theater system he got from Myer-Emco, and, later, the digital cable service “provided by Cox.”
When Cowboys running back Julius Jones took a hard tackle, Jurgensen said, “He’s going to remember that hit for a while. He can read about it tomorrow in the Washington Post.” A week earlier, after the Skins broke up a Chicago Bears pass play, his comment was “Nice defense! The only place you’ll find better coverage is in the Washington Post!”
Sometimes Michael and Jurgensen form a shilling tag team. A first-half Brunell incompletion for some reason incited Michael to tell the audience, “If you love bacon come into Subway. Eat fresh.”
“Eat fresh!” shouted Jurgensen.
The prevalence of ads isn’t the on-air guys’ fault, of course. Because of finances, WJFK needs pitchers more than it does football guys. In 2001, the station paid $50 million for a five-year deal for the rights to broadcast Redskins games. The WJFK-Redskins alliance was by far the most lucrative radio contract in NFL history. The money to pay off Dan Snyder has to come from somewhere.
The WJFK deal with the team ends after this season, and no announcement has yet been made about extending the relationship. The bad news for listeners is, the barrage of game-time advertising isn’t likely to be stemmed anytime soon.
On the way to making the team the most valuable sports franchise in the land—a report earlier this month from Forbes magazine put the Redskins’ worth at more than $1.2 billion—Snyder has gradually assumed greater control of the Redskins’ news-delivery scheme. His team now produces several shows for area TV stations, and he founded Redskins.com TV, a webcast news service.
So nobody should be surprised if after this season Snyder takes the radio broadcasts in-house, too. He’s already made a move seemingly in that direction by putting Michael on the Redskins payroll last spring as executive producer for the Redskins’ broadcast properties.
That means he’s now in charge of the well-camouflaged infomercials—among them The Joe Gibbs Show on WRC-TV Channel 4 and Redskins Game Day on WTTG-TV Channel 5—now coming out of Redskin Park. WRC doesn’t produce the Gibbs show, but host George Michael (no relation to Larry Michael) never lets on that Snyder, and not the station’s sports department, is bankrolling the program. Advertisements for Redskins.com TV are shown again and again between interview segments with Gibbs, during which the coach tells viewers that “the only way to get the real story” is from the team’s news outlet, which seems like a direct slap at the integrity of the reports Michael does for WRC. The height of disinformation, however, comes when Michael directs e-mailers to send questions or feedback about the show not to the Redskins but to an NBC address: CoachGibbs@nbc.com.
Lou Holder, who MCs WTTG’s Redskins smoochfest each Sunday morning, likewise fails to inform viewers that he and others in the station’s sports department who appear in the infomercial are promoting the team, not objectivity, during their half-hour onscreen. The Washington Redskins copyright notice that shows up at the very end of the program provides the only concrete evidence that this is propaganda, not news. The whole thing reeks of Pravda, however: Holder never mentioned the controversy surrounding the then-fresh benching of quarterback Patrick Ramsey during the Sept. 18 edition of Game Day. Instead, the featured segment was an interview with Tiffani, a Redskins cheerleader. Holder grilled Tiff about her decision not to use body paint during the cheerleaders’ most recent calendar shoot and questioned her claim that her favorite food is raw cookie dough.
“Cookie dough?” Holder asked, with lifted eyebrows.
If the TV infomercials are any indication of what to expect from in-house radio broadcasts if Snyder assumes control, the games will be just as taxing on fans next season as they are now. And that’s pretty darn taxing. Despite the fantastic finish in the Skins win over the Cowboys, keeping track of all the paid spots left me too tired to stay tuned to WJFK for the postgame show.
Or, rather, the Mercedez-Benz Official Post-Game Show.
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Illustration by Josh Neufeld.