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'Best Damn Sports Show' heads into second year

Sunday, July 07, 2002

By Chuck Finder, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Imagine stumbling into your neighborhood tavern. At the front table, having a rollicking time and talking sports, is a bunch of guys. There sits an old NFL player. Next to him is an old NBA player. Next to him is an old baseball player. Next to him ... hey, didn't that poor schmuck used to be married to Roseanne Barr?

TV Preview
"Best Damn Sports Show Period"
When: Most weeknights at 8 on Fox Sports Net Pittsburgh.
Starring: Tom Arnold, John Salley, Chris Rose, D'Marco Farr, John Kruk.

Welcome to the television show that otherwise defies description and sometimes belies its oft-censored name.

Fox Sports Net calls it "The Best Damn Sports Show Period," and it's heading into its Terrible Twos this month. Launched July 23, 2001, this national cable fare - seen locally at 8 on weeknights when Fox Sports Net's Pittsburgh affiliate has no Pirates or Penguins telecasts - has grown from one hour to 90 minutes to two hours. Now it is growing into a cross-country, monthlong tour, from Hollywood to Chicago to New York, in a move to spread the gospel of "The Best ...," well, you know.

"We've got awareness up, we see that in the research," said George Greenberg, the executive producer. "Our ratings are up, we're very happy with that. The last couple of months have been our biggest months, so the trend is going the right way. We've got the right demographic: the hard-core sports viewer. But we want to move it up. We've been on a year, now is the time to turn it. In reality, a lot of the country hasn't seen this show, and we want to make them aware."

Already, the show we'll tactfully abbreviate to "BDSSP" draws several times the audience that tuned into the cable network's "National Sports Report," which expired earlier this year. Yet because of regional channels such as Pittsburgh bumping the show until later (about 11:30 some nights) or off the air completely because of professional- or college-sports broadcasts of local interest, "BDSSP" has little time-slot consistency with viewers.

"That is the toughest message," Greenberg added. "The show is certainly good enough to go into everybody's living room every single night. But for most viewers, a baseball game or a basketball game or a hockey game comes in front of you a lot of those nights."

Maybe, late at night or on non-game broadcast days in Pittsburgh, you saw a bunch of fellows sitting on a set. Or tossing footballs with Steelers quarterback Kordell Stewart. Or breaking up Boston shortstop Nomar Garciaparra with crazy questions. Or putting a blond wig on Shaquille O'Neal and getting him to re-enact a scene from ... "A Few Good Men"?

"It's crazy," began Tom Arnold, the show's comedian in residence and the former Mr. Roseanne Barr (he's about to get hitched a third time), "in the fact I think they had an idea what to do with the show, but it organically became something else.

"When they put it to me, it was: 'It's sort of like 'The View' with sports, you know?' Getting the cast in order and setting the tone of the show, it's evolved into something else. It's a collision of sports and comedy."

The athletes, especially ones who "get it" and come on the air, seem to enjoy it. Heck, it has even received resounding critical reviews from such corners as Salon.com and the New Orleans Times-Picayune.

So the story goes, Fox Sports boss David Hill used to do a similar show back in Australia and pitched the idea for his corporation's cable entity. They took the ball, fumbled it. (Deacon Jones as the football player and Reggie Theus as the basketball player didn't quite work out.) Now they keep on running.

"We're not here to break news. We're here to talk about something different and have fun," Arnold said.

Greenberg admitted that he often holds his head upon hearing some of Arnold's questions to guests or comments to the panel. Such as the time he asked former sprinter Ben Johnson about steroids shrinking his, uh, starting blocks. Or the time he asked coach Bob Knight about flatulence in the huddle. But, Greenberg added, "I just don't know what's going to come out of his mouth. He's a lightning rod for people: They love him or they hate him. But he's compelling television. Tom's the catalyst to this show and drives it on a daily basis."

Arnold sits next to Chris Rose, who carries the difficult duty of being the schoolteacher to these unruly boys and keeping them on task. John Kruk, a former Phillies player from Keyser, W.Va., is a paunchy, witty ex-baseball player who gives it to Arnold pretty well. John Salley is the ex-basketball player and D'Marco Farr or Michael Irvin the ex-football player.

"When we started out, it was probably a little too crude," Greenberg said. "We didn't want to stay there. But we can burlesque any point we want."

Oh, and about that name: It came from Scott Ackerson, the guy who produces Fox's "NFL Sunday" pregame show. He yelled it out amid a conversation about 500 or so names. Then again, these are the people who brought you "That '70s Show."

"I'm going to be quite honest: I hated the title," said Greenberg, a longtime marketing type. " 'The media is going to slay you.' But it's said with a wink.

"Some markets won't say 'Damn.' They'll put 'censored' on the advertising board behind home plate. Our recognition factor is high. So, in hindsight, they made the right decision."

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