It was early in the summer 2013 and Dan O’Toole was driving on Ontario Highway 401 on his way to the TSN studios in Toronto. O’Toole and his longtime broadcasting partner, Jay Onrait, were nearing the end of their tenure as the popular co-hosts of Canada’s version of Sportscenter, “SportsCentre.” Earlier in the year, Fox Sports plucked the popular pair — who were essentially unknowns in America — and tapped them to host “Fox Sports Live,” which was set to be the flagship show on Fox Sports 1 when it launched in August.
As O’Toole remembers it, a song by the Canadian group Blue Rodeo came on the radio and the move across the border to the States finally hit home.
“It was a Canadian moment, the song was mentioning Lake Ontario … and I was a blubbering mess,” O’Toole said by phone late last month.
A few months later, chatting with The Big Lead over the phone on Dec. 23, from sunny Southern California, O’Toole and Onrait aren’t looking back or regretting their decision to take their well-honed Canadian act south, even if it meant spending a Christmas season without even the remotest hint of snow. The duo says they haven’t changed their approach the sports highlight show and are hitting their (American) stride as the calendar turns to 2014.
If anything, the biggest change is working with an entire crew, as opposed to a remotely operated set of cameras as they did at TSN.
“Now we have actual humans to interact with so we don’t get so lonely at night,” said Onrait, who recently published his first book, “Anchorboy.”
O’Toole and Onrait say they grew up loving sports highlight shows and over the decade working together on the TSN desk developed an easy rapport. That’s why, in the age of highlights coming across instantly on the Internet, the pair say there is still a place for the nightly highlight show — think the must-see “SportsCenter” format of the mid-1990s.
“You can get score and highlights anywhere,” O’Toole said. “We made it unique in the way we delivered it. People knew they weren’t just getting the scores and highlights. That’s why Fox searched us out and brought us down there. … There’s only a certain amount of people who can deliver it in a unique way. We take pride in having fun. First we’re sports fans, probably broadcasters fifth, if that. When you boil it down sports are entertainment. We don’t try to make it bigger than it has to be.”
For instance, O’Toole says one of the rules they’ve given the writing staff for Fox Sports Live is to avoid giving away the highlight in the headline. As fans of the format, they say they want to use highlights to help tell a bigger story.
“It may be out-dated to some, but we enjoy it,” Onrait said. “It’s not just highlights, we want to make it into an actual show and try to develop that ‘show within a show world.'”
Still the question remains, at 11 p.m. on a weeknight – in the era of 1,000s of channels, Twitter, video games, DVRs, on-demand services and streaming – why would a sports fan elect to tune in to watch a show devoting some of its time to highlights? Onrait takes the approach that often media folks “connected” to whats going 24/7/365 forget they are actually in the minority compared to the viewing public. The so-called Twitter “echo chamber” is often just that, meaning there are untold millions still consuming broadcast media as they have for decades.
“A great example of (this) is the last Olympics in London,” he said. “NBC was determined put it on in primetime, even though most of the events already happen. People on Twitter kept questioning that, it’s the old way of doing it. They already know the results. Turns out they watched in record numbers … TV ain’t dead yet.”
[RELATED: Can SportsCenter Be Saved?]
Even so, an established highlights-based show like ESPN “SportsCenter” has found itself at a crossroads, while other competing shows have barely made a dent in the ratings. Fox Sports Live viewership has benefited with live sports as a lead-in, such as during the week of Nov. 10 when the Oklahoma/Baylor game along with Phoenix NCWTS race helped the program to its best ratings, averaging 161,000 viewers for the first hour. Fox Sports Live closed 2013 strong with the 132,000 tuning for a Sunday morning 10 a.m. broadcast — it’s best number in that time window.
Onrait and O’Toole say Fox executives want them to keep doing what they’ve been doing for years.
“They want us to do more, not tone it down,” Onrait said. “That’s been the biggest surprise, if anything.”
Whatever 2014 might bring, don’t count on O’Toole and Onrait changing their act any time soon, whether it be their lighthearted approach to sports or their interactions with fellow Fox Sports Live cohorts like Charissa Thompson or Andy Roddick.
“The biggest thing we’ve found, how likeable and great people Andy Roddick, Gabe Kapler and Donovan McNabb are” O’Toole said. “I told Roddick to his face, you were a bit of an a-hole on the court, and he’s like, ‘yeah I know,’ We would call out Roddick on the (TSN show). [Goes into anchor voice] ‘After the match Roddick would go out and kick a puppy.’ … You talk about a guy who’s nothing like the character he portrayed as a professional tennis player. He’s the most down to earth guy.”
If that’s the case, it sounds a lot like Fox Sports Live’s two hosts.
Canadian Pop Culture Speed round:
Onrait and O’Toole, like any sportscasters are full of pop-culture references, so we thought it would be fun to quiz them on some Canadian-centric topics …
TBL: What’s the best Canadian potato chip flavor (flavour)?
Jay: Ketchup … because I feel like there’s no condiment more American than ketchup and it’s shocking (it’s not for sale in America). I didn’t know until we moved there weren’t any more ketchup chips. You eat them as a kid, they’re so savory. As you get older you don’t eat them as much, maybe just a handful. It was great to give some to NFL crew and watch Jimmy Johnson devour a handful. Or Michael Strahan.
Dan: Ketchup chips you can’t find. Salt and vinegar. All Dressed Chips. I miss Canadian chocolate. It’s alll based out of the UK. Cadbury. Coffee Crsip. Dairy Milk. We bring them down and the crew that we work with go nuts. Smarties. I couldn’t believe you can’t get them. You have something called Smarties but its not the same. … My family was back in Canada and they brought back a suitcase full of chocolate. The crew goes nuts for it.
TBL: Favorite ‘Trailer Park Boys’ character?
Jay: It has to be Mr. Lahey. So funny.. So ridiculous. It was all so.
Dan: Easily Bubbles. The first two, three seasons of ‘Trailer Park Boys’ is maybe the best TV you’ll ever watch. If 1A is Bubbles, then 1B would be Conky that puppet that Bubbles brought out. Whenever I see those episodes I fall off the couch in tears.
TBL: Which were/are the best “Roughriders:” Ottawa, Saskatchewan or DMX?
Jay: We always laugh that there were two teams named Roughriders in a league (CFL) with under 10 teams. Ottawa is coming back and they’re not allowed to be Rough Riders. We were kind of upset. Saskatchewan are the best Roughriders. They’re the most popular team and won Grey Cup when they hosted it. It’s the best thing you could have for CFL. … Even you don’t cheer for the Riders, but you cheer for them in a big game. It’s kind of like the Boston Red Sox or Yankees. Wherever they play they have more fans.
Dan: Saskatchewan is a place you hold in your heart because it’s not a tourist destination. If you go there, you want to go right back. They are the nicest humans on the face of the earth. They kill you with kindness.
Jay: (Saskatchewan Roughriders) were so bad for so long, people felt bad for them. It was almost like when Boston just won (the 2004 World Series), people were happy. Now after this last one, people were like enough, already.
TBL: How many Nickleback Albums do you own?
Dan: I have the first two. The first album is like a rock album.
Jay: I’m very proud to say I own no Nickleback albums or Avril Lagine albums and I never will. It wouldn’t be very Canadian of me if I wasn’t happy for their success. They’re good Alberta boys. (Onrait is from Alberta) I’m very happy for their success so long as I don’t have to listen to their music. [Ed. Note: Onrait’s Best Music of 2013 list is solid.]
TBL: The ironic modern day hockey mullet, thumps up or down?
Dan: I believe they call it “flow” now. It’s really just hockey hair. The mullet was just one form of it. Hockey players, even at the junior level, are known walking around because of the hockey hair they always have flowing. It’s a trademark by hockey players, sort of a way to say I’m king (blank).
Jay: It’s cyclical. It’s inevitable the mullet would return and that hockey would be its place of its rebirth, so to speak.
TBL: Who’ll be the better Canadian basketball player when it’s all said-and-done, Steve Nash or Andrew Wiggins?
Jay: I’ll say Wiggins because the ceiling is even higher even though Nash won two MVPs. With Wiggins they talk like him being the next LeBron. I’d have to say Wiggins because of the ceiling higher, but hard to judge without him ever playing an NBA game.
Dan: I don’t want to put more undue pressure on Mr. Wiggins. Let’s go with Nash because Steve Nash is the same height as me. I might be taller. Maybe. I also love Nash … his charity 100 percent of the money it raises goes into the charity. He pays for all the administrative stuff himself. It’s another reason to love him.
TBL: Should America try once again to adopt $1 coins?
Dan: You have the dollar bill. Sometimes you go to the store and don’t realize how much money you have. I could have a lot of money in my wallet, but I could have 21 ones. I’m always having to count my money. (In Canada) I knew if my pocket was a-jigglin’ I had some loonies and twoonies. … Canadian money is so colorful. It’s a potpourri.
Jay: I couldn’t be happier to be rid of the coins. It was like walking around in the Old West. People say they don’t know how much money you have. You have eyes, just look in your wallet! They have numbers on the bills. I love the bills. Huge fan of American money.
TBL: Win Butler, leader of the Arcade Fire, American or honorary Canadian?
Jay: We’re always happy in Canada and proud of the fact we have a massive immigrant culture. Win came to Montreal to go to school and met his beautiful bride. Their child is Canadian. As far as I’m concerned he’s as Canadian as anyone. We’re happy to have him as long as he wants.
Dan: I’ m baffled how (Arcade Fire) makes money because there’s 400 members in the band.
TBL: Was Alex Trebek better with, or without the mustache?
Jay: With. I miss the mustache. Some people like Tom Selleck should never shave it off. Trebeck is in that category.
Dan: I’ve grown an appreciation for the mustache after growing one for Movember the last three years. As they say, you’re not really a man until you grow a mustache. We have respect for anyone who grows for more than a month. So yes, with.
TBL: Better coffee: Tim Hortons or Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf?
Dan: We had a Tim Horton’s tradition before every shift.We’d get two extra large steeped teas from Tim Horton’s before every show. We grew to love it but we haven’t found the equivalent yet here in the States.
Jay: Hortons is like Dunkin. It’s not necessarily the best, but it has that unique taste that’s familiar. It’s not trying to be Starbucks.
TBL: Does Canada really want the Expos back?
Dan: Yes. Build a downtown stadium and the Expos will work. The Montreal Expos and Quebec Norqidues, although with the Hartford Whalers are the uniforms I miss the most.
Jay: Sure yeah. There are two big communications companies in Canada, Rogers owns the Jays. Bell owns part of TSN, so we worked for Bell. I tried to convince (Bell executives) to buy the Rays and build them a stadium and bring them North and then make an Expos channel. … Bottom line is I should be running Bell.
TBL: Give me one good reason to visit Winnipeg?
Jay: I’ll give you many. It’s a totally underrated city. It’s super hot in summer and there’s great beaches. There are a lot of great restaurants. Probably the best cougar bar in America, Palimino, is in Winnepeg if you’re into that. Winnipeg is home of Neil Young and the Guess Who. I could go on.
Dan: One reason to book a ticket to Winnipeg is a Winnipeg Jets home game, nuff said.
TBL: Who’s the best Twitter follow north of the Border?
Jay: Ellen Page, she lives in LA but her Twitter bio says “I am a tiny Canadian.” She has a lot of funny things to say on there. She’s keeping it real.
Dan: Bob McKenzie, the hockey insider at TSN. He’s sort of like the grandfather that oversees all of Twitter in Canada. I think half the population following him. I give it to Bobby because of his grandfather and statesman-like attitude.
TBL: Would Tim Tebow be a star in the CFL, as many people speculated?
Dan: A quick snapshot, in the CFL if a QB throws for 300 yards it’s like, yeah, he had an okay day.
Jay: It’s the same problem he has here. He might be okay, but he couldn’t play QB. He doesn’t have the arm for it. It’s a bigger field. A wider field. Guys who’d be better in the CFL are like Drew Brees or Russell Wilson, who are smaller and use their legs.
TBL: Is poutine the greatest foodstuff ever invented, yes or no?
Jay: If you’re talking the hours between midnight and 4 a.m., yes.