When Rich Eisen covered his first Super Bowl for the NFL Network 14 years ago, Media Day hadn’t yet become the spectacle that we all know and love (or hate) today. Back then, at Super Bowl XXXVIII, no one was asking Martellus Bennett what Tom Brady’s beard smells like. No one had a running gag of asking coaches and players if the Super Bowl is a “must-win game.” There were no men in superhero costumes, gorgeous women actively trying to distract players with painted-on denim, the lesser-known Manning brother wearing a goofy suit, or crudely-stitched hand puppets doing lousy Triumph impressions.
But as the Super Bowl continues to evolve, anyone with a pulse can show up to what is now Media Night, and try to catch players off-guard with hilarious, awkward, or even offensive questions. While some of the sports media’s old guard and curmudgeons might hate what the Super Bowl’s first night has become, Eisen loves the circus show and thinks it’s a great way for everyone to let loose, relax a little, and use football as an escape.
“Let’s be honest, we’re all competing for eyeballs and attention,” the host of The Rich Eisen Show on AT&T Audience Network told me as he prepared to head out for Media Night in Houston. “The NFL numbers, as we all know, this year took a hit due to — I believe and other people believe, because the numbers rebounded after – the political season took a bite out of the NFL, and sports in general. So, we’re creating a night where everybody can come in and talk about the sport, cast a spotlight on the sport, and cut through the static.”
The word that people love to associate with Media Night is circus. There are weirdos and comedians at every turn, be it PFT Commenter getting a laugh out of a Stoolie like Edelman, or a guy wearing a trash can with “LOSSWEILER” written on it. Kel Mitchell donned his Good Burger outfit to interview players, while Jimmy Kimmel’s Guillermo used a turkey leg as a microphone. Eisen doesn’t think the event needs to be toned down, because it’s good for business and the game. And even if it gets under a player’s skin, it’s still better than being asked the same boring questions over and over.
“Pretty much anybody who doesn’t have a record and a fingerprint gets a press pass, so the only people who might be inconvenienced are the players, who have to sit there,” he laughs. “Brady’s going to sit at his podium, and we can probably come up with a list of questions he’ll face in the first 10 minutes. Then, new reporters will cycle through toward the end of his availability and ask him the same questions, because they weren’t there when they were asked for the first time. That might put upon Brady, and/or anyone else at that podium, but it’s just an hour out of their week. And if somebody’s dressed as the Statue of Liberty or some Pokemon, that’s what the Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday media availability is for, if you want to ask a serious question. Media Day is a circus and the NFL is completely aware of that, but it’s also fun.”
Consider Eisen the ringmaster. After all, as Bill Belichick grumbled his way through the typical questions, and even some about his relationship with Donald Trump, Eisen had his special correspondent, J.B. Smoove, push his way into the scrum to ask the coach about his love for Curb Your Enthusiasm.
If Smoove is the appetizer, Snoop Dogg will once again be the main course, as the rapper and aspiring sports reporter will return to serve as Eisen’s special correspondent on Thursday. Last year, Snoop stole the show, as Cam Newton even jumped out of his seat to talk to the icon. But what’s really important for Eisen and impressive to us is that these guys are playing off their own knowledge of the game, and they come ready to report. Especially Snoop, who has an incredible knack for getting players to open up, like when he got up close and personal with Ronnie Hillman, who was the first of Snoop’s youth players to make it to the biggest game of them all.
“We just want him to be himself,” Eisen says. “Why would I prepare him? Snoop is as knowledgeable with football as they come. He knows all the storylines. I would never presume to tell Snoop how to act or form a question. He wants to be part of the NFL media and the paparazzi when he’s done with his music career, so we’ll give him a chance.”
If it sounds like Eisen and his team are having all the fun, they are. He doesn’t lie about that. But it also takes a lot of work planning a week’s worth of programming for what is the biggest time of the year for his profession. There should be a term for that.
“It’s a lot of work, but work is play. When people have a big week of work, the phrase you hear is ‘It’s like my Super Bowl.’ But now here is the actual Super Bowl. It’s just a fun week doing my show every day, from 11 to 2 here locally, and the guest list is something that I’m proud of.”
So far this week, Eisen has welcomed Smoove, Kurt Warner, Michael Irvin, Warren Moon, LaDainian Tomlinson, Marcus Allen, Willie McGinest, Aeneas Williams, and Dan Patrick to the show. Some of those seem easy, considering they’re his NFL Network coworkers, but come on – how cool would it be for your job to require talking to NFL Hall-of-Famers in addition to beloved celebrities, like Bill Burr, Jon Hamm, Kevin Costner, Bryan Cranston, and Matthew-freaking-McConaughey?
Ever the professional, Eisen keeps his cool when he’s interviewing his favorite actors, and like the rest of us, he just wants them to tell good stories. Sometimes twice.
“Matthew McConaughey was on in May, and as soon as we were off the air, he told this incredible story about how he came up with Wooderson’s ‘Alright, alright, alright’ line, which was completely ad-libbed,” Eisen recalls. “I made a mental note: The next time he comes on, I have to have him tell that story, and he did. I pinned that to the top of my Twitter feed, because it’s just a great story. I’m not star struck or awestruck. I’m definitely a fan of what I see coming out of a lot of people on the show. The idea is just to get them comfortable to tell us stories that we might not already know, or stories about what might come out of the next step in their careers. I’m really enjoying the heck out of it.”
As for the actual Super Bowl, Eisen is doing his best to remind everyone that there are two teams playing on Sunday. In fact, for the last week, The Rich Eisen Show has offered a “Daily Reminder” that the Atlanta Falcons are in the game. It seems like another funny gag on a show full of clever, occasionally silly moments, but it’s really not all that ridiculous. Take a look at the Super Bowl LI headlines so far this week, and it’s a laundry list of Patriots storylines.
Can Tom Brady get revenge against Roger Goodell? Can Brady win his fifth Super Bowl and become the greatest of all-time? How has Brady done this well with a guy like Chris Hogan? Chris Hogan played lacrosse, for goodness sake! Why won’t Brady or Bill Belichick talk about Donald Trump? It goes on and on and on. And unless a Falcons player gives us something juicy and newsworthy soon, we will need Eisen to keep reminding us that Atlanta is more than capable of ruining each and every story.
“They need to stop Tom Brady a couple times and get up early on him,” he offers. “Make him try and keep up pace with them. That will be tough to do on the No. 1 scoring defense. It’ll be very tough to do. Not turn the ball over. Keep Brady on the bench, and keep him on his ass when he’s not on it. If they can do those things, I think they can win the Super Bowl. It’s tough finding people who agree with that sentiment, though. There are a lot of folks here who think that the Patriots are just the better team. But there are a lot of metrics to point out that the Falcons may be the toughest team that the Patriots haven’t just faced all year, but maybe in any of the Super Bowls they’ve played.”
For the record, Eisen picked the Patriots to win the Super Bowl before the season began, because he thought Brady’s DeflateGate suspension was all the fuel the QB would need for what Eisen refers to as the “TB12 F.U. Tour.” Yes, Eisen is a Michigan man and an admitted Brady fan, but unlike the hot-takers of his industry, he changes his mind and doesn’t hide behind the copout of his preseason prediction. He picked the Steelers to upset the Pats in the AFC Championship Game, but obviously he wasn’t able to predict LeVeon Bell’s groin injury. Still, he may change his mind again.
“The Falcons have so many weapons that they could put the pedal to the metal from the start,” Eisen says. “They could beat the Patriots up; they have the ability to do that. It’s just a lot of people don’t think Atlanta can do that, because they’ve never done it before. But maybe this is the time. I might talk myself into that scenario by the time we make our picks on Sunday’s GameDay.”
The last time Eisen was in Houston for the Super Bowl, Brady and Belichick held off Jake Delhomme and the Panthers in a thrilling 32-29 battle in Super Bowl XXXVIII. The NFL Network was just 11 weeks old at the time, and Eisen remembers the experience vividly.
“I was just driving around Houston and passed the hotel we were staying in, and I remember walking into that hotel lobby and there were TVs all over the place showing the NFL Network. We were on in barely 10 million homes, because DirecTV was the only major distributor of NFL Network at the time. It was the first time we saw ourselves distributed in a major city for a major event, and I just remember how proud we were, how excited we all were. Now, here we are for our fourteenth Super Bowl with the NFL Network.”
As reporters fight their way through this week’s crowds to ask both the serious and ridiculous questions, Eisen has one piece of advice for the new crop looking to make their marks in the ever-evolving sports media industry.
“Just be yourself,” he offers. “The most successful people I’ve ever come across in this business are folks who were the same on the air as they were off the air. Dan Patrick, Keith Olbermann, [Chris] Berman, Stuart Scott – they were all the same person I’d seen on television before I became their colleague and then became friends with. If you’re gonna have an opinion, believe it. Don’t say it just to try and throw a verbal bomb to get clicks. There are enough people in the world who do that, and I think not doing that will make you an outlier to succeed in this business.”