ESPN 30 for 30: Mike and the Mad Dog (2017)

Directed by Daniel H. Forer

The great thing about the 30 for 30 series is how it approaches sports. Sports is such a general word, an all-encompassing word which includes everything from the major sports like football, basketball and baseball, all the way down to the more minor aspects, like the brother and sisterhood of athletes, political drama, personal journeys. What makes 30 for 30 so compelling when it’s at its absolute best is that it becomes more about the human aspect of the story than the sports aspect. With their latest, the 30 for 30 production team focus in on a pair of sports fans who changed the way we talk about sports. We live in a social media age where sports discussion is part of the 24/7 news cycle, but it wasn’t always that way.

In New York City in the late 80s, WFAN became the first 24/7 sports talk radio station. But after struggling to get numbers for its first year with national names, it turned to two unlikely personalities to turn things around. Mike Francesa was a New Yorker through and through. A smart, well-informed radio journalist with opinions. And then there was Christopher Russo. Russo, or “Mad Dog” as became his nickname, was also an opinionated New Yorker who had a penchant for on air rants. WFAN decided to pair these two men up for the afternoon time slot, despite the obvious displeasure of both. They hated each other, but the marriage turned into magic, as “Mike and the Mad Dog” transformed sports talk radio forever.

I can’t say “Mike and the Mad Dog” were before my time, their show ran from 1989-2008, but I also wasn’t their target audience. I’ve grown up on “Mike & Mike” for the most part, “pitting” Mike Greenberg and Mike Golic together to discuss sports. But “Mike & Mike” is not possible without “Mike and the Mad Dog”. We all have local sports nuts, and a lot of us are even local sports nuts ourselves, with opinions, with an appetite for knowledge, debate and discussion. For me, living in Columbus, Ohio, nothing is bigger than Ohio State football, and I’m lucky enough to live in a city with a great local sports talk radio station. After seeing this film, I can draw a direct line from “Mike and the Mad Dog” to the type of content I listen to on a regular basis.

That is an impressive legacy to leave, influencing how the entire industry operates, especially when Francesa and Russo hated each other. As the film explores, “hate” may be slightly harsh, but not overly so. They both thought the show would fail, they both wanted to be top dog, and at times they both didn’t talk to the other when not on air. What Daniel H. Forer’s film does is shine a light on an important topic in the sports realm today: discussion. What makes sports so engaging is the ability to cheer, jeer, and discuss with friend, family and co-workers. We can’t all be experts, even if we pretend we are all too often, so having two true locals with the extensive knowledge of Mike and Chris affords the avid sports fan an avenue off the field to still enjoy sports.

Mike and the Mad Dog reflects everything there is about sports. We may hate the opponent, but that doesn’t stop us from playing against them. In fact, it just makes us want to beat our rival that much more, which makes for heightened drama and entertainment. Nobody had the idea to insert drama into sports talk radio before Mike Francesa, Christopher Russo and WFAN, but after their success nobody will leave it out. Mike and the Mad Dog is the type of film perfectly suited for the shorter 30 for 30 format. It’s not a huge story, but it’s one that deserves to be told for its impact and influence on the sports world. The story may carry the film over its filmmaking, but I had fun exploring this relationship and how pioneering the relationship between Mike Francesa and Christopher Russo was.

*** – Good

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