Cover 7 | Friday A daily NFL destination that provides in-depth analysis of football’s biggest stories. Each Friday, Richard Deitsch examines some of the biggest storylines in the NFL media world.
Richie Zyontz got his foot in the door of sports broadcasting in an almost unheard-of way today: He took a full-time security job at CBS’ headquarters on West 52nd Street in New York in the late 1970s and eventually made his way into the research department for CBS Sports. He would be the first person to tell you that he is old school.
For five decades Zyontz has produced pro football at the highest level, including the last 21 years as the lead producer on Fox’s top NFL broadcast. He has served as the lead television producer for seven Super Bowls, an assignment maybe two dozen or so people on earth can say they’ve done.
Between Zyontz and Fox lead NFL director Rich Russo, they have been part of 29 Super Bowls, including time at Fox and CBS Sports. Last year’s Super Bowl was Russo’s fifth as lead director.
Zyontz produced John Madden for many years and texted the legendary broadcaster daily before his death. The two were so interconnected that Madden introduced Zyontz to his wife, June, in 1986 and was the best man at Zyontz’s 1990 wedding, which took place at Madden’s old house.
“I’m thankful John isn’t around to hear that we’re talking to a reporter about Taylor Swift because I would not have gotten off easy,” Zyontz said, laughing.
But here we are. This site has done a lot of Taylor Swift this week. You may be sick of it, and I can understand that. I’m not here to tell you that the haters can’t hate, hate, hate, hate, hate. But as a column designed to give you a little background on the intersection of the NFL and the media, I was curious how the behind-the-scenes people for Fox’s broadcast of the Kansas City Chiefs’ game against the Chicago Bears last week approached a broadcast where one of the most famous people on the planet was at Arrowhead Stadium sitting in a suite next to the mother of one of the best tight ends in NFL history.
Zyontz said that his Fox crew had no official word from the NFL or the Chiefs that Swift would be in attendance. They were aware of the Travis Kelce and Swift connection because they live on Planet Earth. During pregame warmups, sideline reporters Erin Andrews and Tom Rinaldi independently learned Swift was expected at the game. (Zyontz wrote a blog for Fox Sports’ website after we talked that offers additional background here.)
“In the pregame, Erin and (analyst) Greg Olsen were on the field and Greg called Kelce over and asked what was going on and he sort of unofficially confirmed that she’d be there,” Zyontz said. “Up until that point, we didn’t really have anything firm. Just rumors. No one from the league or team gave us a heads up.”
A couple of hours before kickoff, Russo informed his camera operators of the possibility of Swift showing up because it’s an obvious shot for a broadcast crew in the same way sports telecasts will almost always show well-known people at a game. Rinaldi’s daughter was monitoring social media and passed along updates to her father who passed them along to the production truck. Russo told his camera operators to pan the corporate suites.
“I’m thinking she’s not going to be on the field during pregame, but I mean, what the hell do I really know?” Russo said, laughing. “Players left the field at about 3 p.m. local time and there was no sign of her. So before the game, I had certain cameras just kind of look in those respective suites.”
Russo said about five minutes before player introductions, one of his camera operators identified Swift in the back of Kelce’s suite. Andrews also recognized her from her vantage point.
Identifying where Swift was just one part of the equation. Next came the real issue of how a broadcast should navigate this. It would be editorial dereliction not to show Swift at some point during the game. But at the same time, you don’t want the broadcast to become “Access Hollywood.”
Taylor Swift is HERE for the Chiefs game 👀 pic.twitter.com/46SW4gEodz
— FOX Sports: NFL (@NFLonFOX) September 24, 2023
“In a situation like this, the broadcast crew, in this case (play-by-play broadcaster) Kevin (Burkhardt) and (Olsen), would follow our lead with the pictures,” Zyontz said. “It was sort of up to us to kind of captain this during the day. Russo and I have been through this type of thing before. Celebrities at a game is nothing new for us, but usually just to show them once. This celebrity had a vested interest in the game. It required a little more restraint on our part. Whether we succeeded or not is probably not for us to judge. But I think once the game got going and it was an awful game, those circumstances maybe helped us because we weren’t really missing much. It was a terrible game, but it also kind of had a joyful feel throughout because the times we did show her, she was reacting. It wasn’t gratuitously showing her throughout the course of the day. When there was a picture to be had, I think we showed it.”
The fact that the game was such a blowout — the final score was 41-10, and Fox moved some of its audience off the game because it was noncompetitive —made showing Swift, at least from my perspective, a character in the broadcast rather than an over-the-top distraction. She gave Burkhardt and Olsen some fun content in a game that was a viewing slog.
“Once the game starts, we are there to cover the game, but there is that balance as to how often we show her and when we show her,” Russo said. “Kelce had seven receptions and we’re not going to go to a shot of Taylor Swift after every catch. Or if Kevin and Greg mention Taylor Swift, we are not going to automatically go to a Taylor Swift shot because then I think it looks like we really are overdoing it. Like Richie said, I think the fact that it was such a blowout, especially in the second half, probably helped us in the sense where maybe we can show a little more than maybe normal.”
Russo said he assigned a low end zone camera operator, Andy Mitchell, to keep an eye on the suite, anticipating the possibility that Kelce might catch a touchdown pass. The reason Russo chose that camera position was because Swift was looking in that direction from the suite.
“Lo and behold, he scored a touchdown, and that was a hell of a great picture,” Russo said. “That came with a little forethought. Sometimes when people are in suites, there can be glare, there can be sun, the glass can be down. It’s not necessarily guaranteed that you are going to get shots of those people based on where the suite is in relation to the sun. So we were fortunate that she was visible during the course of the game.
Zyontz and Russo found all the Swift stuff amusing, especially their small piece in it.
“Listen, I have a daughter who is a huge Taylor Swift fan,” Russo said. “When I’m in the car driving with her, she’s playing Taylor Swift music all the time. So I was aware of what we were getting into. You don’t think about it during the course of the game, but obviously, I know we’re talking about one of the biggest entertainers in the world right now.”
“I would say I was pretty much shocked by the aftermath,” Zyontz said. “I didn’t really understand the impact of what this global icon means to people. This is like a merging of different worlds, right? You don’t often see grizzled cigar-smoking Bears fans watching a football game along with a whole generation of young people just to see a cutaway shot of their hero. It caught me a little off guard. Hopefully this week we can get back to football.”
The Chiefs-Bears game went to 67 percent of the country (33 percent had the Dallas Cowboys against the Arizona Cardinals) in Fox’s late-afternoon window. The window averaged 24.322 million viewers, which far exceeded the next most-watched NFL game (Pittsburgh Steelers–Las Vegas Raiders on “Sunday Night Football,” which averaged 20.6 million viewers). The game was down from the same Week 3 time slot last year, when 24.4 million watched Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady in a Green Bay Packers–Tampa Bay Buccaneers matchup.
Amazon Prime Video is off to an excellent start with its “Thursday Night Football” package. The New York Giants–San Francisco 49ers game on Sept. 21 averaged 13.92 million viewers while the Minnesota Vikings–Philadelphia Eagles game averaged 15.05 million the prior week. Those two games are the two largest audiences for “Thursday Night Football” since the package moved to Amazon.
(Photo of a Kansas City Chiefs fan cheering during Sunday’s game: David Eulitt / Getty Images)