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Locals are founding fathers of ESPN's "SportsNation"

Updated 4:30 pm, Thursday, July 28, 2011

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  • SportsNation co-creator Jamie Horowitz and his two-year old son Jake take a break on the set of SportsNation. Photo: Contributed Photo
    SportsNation co-creator Jamie Horowitz and his two-year old son Jake take a break on the set of SportsNation. Photo: Contributed Photo

 

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They're two of the most powerful people in sports you've never heard of.

The names Jamie Horowitz and Kevin Wildes don't ring too many bells. But if you're a sports fan, they've likely had an impact on your life.

Horowitz and Wildes are the co-creators of the hit cable staple "SportsNation," which airs weekdays on ESPN2 at 4 p.m.

Wildes lives in Fairfield, on Beach Road. Horowitz also resided in Fairfield on Birchwood Drive until July 1 when he moved to Weston.

They marked the show's two-year anniversary on July 6 with a huge celebration on air at ESPN's Bristol campus.

Horowitz defines SportsNation as "the fun show devoted to talking about the stuff fans care about."

But the actual show is only where the fun begins.

THE GENESIS

Horowitz graduated magna cum laude from Amherst College in 1998 and caught on with NBC Sports' Olympic coverage in 2000, serving as a researcher. He was traveling all over the world writing athlete biographies and learning about the Olympians for NBC's coverage of the Sydney, Australia, games.

Horowitz climbed the ranks at NBC, and in 2004 he created and produced "National Heads Up Poker Championship" for NBC.

"That was my big break," he said during an interview at ESPN's Bristol campus on Monday.

From there, ESPN recognized his producing talents-- after winning his four Emmy's at NBC-- and hired him to oversee its "World Series of Poker," beginning in the spring of 2006.

That is when Horowitz and Wildes were brought together in ESPN's New York offices. Wildes was already a producer there.

"He's one of the most creative people I've ever met," Horowitz said of Wildes. "We push each other...I couldn't have done this without him."

Horowitz and Wildes met through SportsNation's third creator Dave Jacoby, who introduced the two during a business lunch.

"We started debating what works on TV and really haven't stopped," Horowitz said.

By 2009, Horowitz was producing 32 hours of primetime poker. He came up with a new idea for a show that would be an off-shoot of these lunch and after-work debates he and Wildes had at bars and their apartments in New York.

"When we were developing the show, we had three goals," Wildes said. "Inform, interact and amuse."

These are the top-three on the "10 rules of SportsNation" -- Wildes and Horwitz's `commandments' by which every telecast should abide.

To enhance the idea, they called on the services of Colin Cowherd, ESPN Radio's brash and opinionated mid-morning talk-show host. Cowherd served as part creator, part-talent, part casting director for the new show which was to be "SportsNation."

All they needed to find was Cowherd's perfect foil.

BEADLE-MANIA

San Antonio-native Michelle Beadle was the YES Network's New Jersey Nets pre- and post-game reporter and also hosted YES Ultimate Road Trip.

When Cowherd, Horowitz and Wildes were auditioning females to serve as Cowherd's co-host for "SportsNation," Beadle was one of the last ones to strut her stuff.

Cowherd immediately knew they had a winner.

"She's crazy," he said on Monday in Bristol. "She has that `it' quality."

Since the show launched on July 6, 2009, it has become the youngest, most male-watched show on the network, and Beadle has a lot to do with that. The 34-year old starlit has an easy-going nature that is matched only by her passion for her job.

"It's been really fun," she said in the ESPN newsroom before going on-air Monday. "No day has been like any other."

But for Beadle, it is not so much about being the leading lady of SportsNation, but its owner.

"This is the first project I've been on where I've felt I own it," she said. "We all share this and it is ours."

JUST ANOTHER DAY

On a given day, any number of recognizable TV and radio personalities, athletes and coaches can pass through ESPN's newsroom.

Monday, the room was abuzz at the news that the NFL lockout would be ending, which created a call to arms for opinion and news in The Worldwide Leader's television enhanced work area.

Any talent you could name-- from Sal Paolantonio to Mike Golic to Trey Wingo imitating Arnold Schwarzeneggar-- paraded through the newsroom, waiting for the word that football would return.

Roger Goodell and DeMaurice Smith's press conference went down just 30 minutes before SportsNation was set to begin taping. Four Southeast Conference football coaches were on campus, including Steve Spurrier, and for most organizations it would be the biggest day of the year.

But for Horowitz, it was simply Monday.

"Not really," he said when asked if the day was different from any other.

Horowitz met with about 15 production assistants at 10 a.m. to give a blow-by-blow outline of the afternoon's show. The assistants create content like "cheers, jeers and tears" or the litany of questions to be posed to ESPN.com's SportsNation on Twitter and Facebook.

The interaction between the online "Sports Nation" and the program is what sets the show apart, according to Horowitz.

"We're a show that is born from the Internet," he said. "We've stayed true to that."

The production meeting's tone is light and relaxed, yet focused. Jovial barbs are launched picking on the assistants' wardobes, show ideas as well as other inside jokes.

"We like to practice how we play," Horowitz, the former Amherst point guard, said using a basketball analogy. "We can't just turn it on."

After the meeting, production assistants scurry to cut highlights for the show. Horowitz completes any fine-tuning the show needs to undertake, and Wildes chimes in at the end wanting Beadle to discuss Smith's attire as the NFL's work stoppage progressed.

When the show's highlights are ready, its segments are written and timed down to the second, Horowitz and Wildes take their seats in the control room, Beadle and Cowherd on set in front of a raucous and vociferous crowd of production assistants and guests.

"We have a saying," Wildes said. "We take sports seriously but not ourselves."

The show is true to that credo. On this day, Beadle and Cowherd debate which career move was better: Jay Cutler's decision to become single, or Ben Roethlisberger's marriage? All the while Horowitz sits in his perch, chirping in both host's ears. "Needle her," he tells Cowherd.

After the show is done taping Horowitz stands and says to his crew, "Congratulations, we've made a television show."

THE FUTURE

Beadle, Horowitz, Wildes and Cowherd all have different views of the future of "SportsNation."

For Horowitz, the horizon is more a state of mind rather than a concept.

"I'm in a constant state of `what's next,'" he said. "I love creation, I love innovation."

He and Wildes are busy, though. They're co-producing a new half-hour program called "Numbers Never Lie" which launches Sept. 12 on ESPN2 at 3:30 p.m. starring Michael Smith and Charissa Thompson.

"SportsNation" will move to 5 p.m., and follow a pair of shows hosted by Jim Rome and former Miami Herald columnist

Dan LeBatard, respectively.

Horowitz also just returned from Las Vegas where he was producing World Series of Poker's live test-run of its "Main Event."

For Beadle, "SportsNation" could use more trips, like the one embarked upon in 2010 through Big 10 country. The crew went to four football powers in four days, starting with a show in Wisconsin and ending in State College, Pa.

"It was an ambitious trip," she said. "I love being on live, though. We get immediate input."

Wildes believes taking the risks and reaping the benefits of those gambles are at the crux of his and Horwitz's vision.

"Our team can take a wild idea in the morning and make it happen in the afternoon," he said. "It's OK to fail. There'll be another show in 24 hours, let's learn from our mistakes and get better."

Cowherd doesn't know where the show is headed, but he knows he's in safe hands with Horowitz calling the shots.

"I want eyeballs," Cowherd said. "(Horowitz) has a keen, objective sense of what works on TV. He has terrific television instincts."