By now, we recall great games from the way we saw them on television, and, to a large extent, the way those sports events looked is because of the imagination of Ed Goren. The former vice chairman of Fox Sports Media Group assembled a sports life that is more like a highlight reel of great successes and great stories, most of which occurred on or near sports fields where he has spent so many weekends for most of the past six decades.
He was a top sports producer who became a top sports executive, and he wore both hats well.
Early on, Goren worked for CBS Sports, gaining fame within the business for producing NFL games. That lasted until 1993 when, in one of the most transformative broadcast transactions ever, Fox Broadcasting grabbed the TV rights to NFL games way from CBS. Not just NFL games, but NFL games featuring the National Football Conference, which comprised the best-known teams from the biggest TV markets.
Overnight, or so it seemed, the still wobbly Fox Broadcasting was for real.
While he was at CBS, Goren says now, he saw it coming, although nobody else did.
“When you go to Black Rock [CBS headquarters], you show your pass and walk right through, or you have to go to a desk and sign in,” he recalls. “I had a tendency to lose my ID. During this stretch, there was a two-week period that, on the sign-in sheet, I put the word “Fox.” I got the idea that, if this guy Rupert Murdoch is the riverboat gambler everybody says he is, why would he overpay for the [weaker American Football Conference], which is the second-best package? He’s coming after CBS. I was convinced he was coming after us.”
Actually, Murdoch’s Fox Broadcasting wanted the NFC and got it, and soon enough, Fox came after Goren. He was quickly hired by David Hill, the Australian that Rupert Murdoch had brought in from News Corp.’s British sports operation to become president of the sports division here. (“It was Fox Sport then,” Hill jokes, emphasizing the singular. He became the chairman of Fox Sports Media Group, but now he’s a senior executive VP for News Corp.)
It was as if Goren and Hill were twins, and that was the way it would stay. They built Fox Sports. There were arguments, but there was always resolution. “He would always remind me he had more education,” Hill says, jabbing his mate a little. Hill could remind Goren that he was the boss.
“We had similar backgrounds,” Goren says. “We both started out in news. We both spent a little time on the air. Then we both went to sports to become producers. We spoke the same language. I was so fortunate to have a partner who had a passion for production. I wasn’t working with a lawyer or an accountant. We spent 18 hours a day together, everyday throwing out ideas. It would start at breakfast and end up at a bar, and we’d come in the next morning with a wine-stained napkin with something on it and say, ‘Whose idea was this?’
“If it failed, we didn’t spend weeks trying to find out who to blame,” he continues. “We just moved on: what’s the next thing?”
Fox succeeded, beyond all measure and largely because of the style Goren helped stamp onto the product. “He’s one of the great, great heroes and success stories of the sports business,” says Dick Ebersol, former chairman of the NBC Sports Group.
Goren’s sports career began early. His dad, Herb, was a sports columnist for the New York Sun —Goren still devours daily newspapers, Hill confides — and, when Ed was just 3 years old, he went with his dad to Havana for the Brooklyn Dodgers’ spring training, where he met Jackie Robinson. Through his father, he knew Frank Gifford in his football prime because Herb Goren produced Gifford’s local television show.
But Goren has plenty of his own experiences, too. He swears this happened: he was producing a fight in San Juan, PR, between Muhammad Ali and a clearly overmatched European boxer, Jean Pierre Coopman. Everyone expected Ali to make quick work of Coopman — the fight was a laugher featuring The Greatest vs. a human punching bag. But Goren believes Ali kept the fight going just for Goren’s sake.
“It’s fight night,” Goren recalls, “and I’m on the stairs of the television truck, and here comes Angelo Dundee [Ali’s trainer] and the Ali entourage. I yell out, ‘Hey, champ, how many rounds is this gonna go?’ And he goes, ‘How many do you need to get your commercials in?’ I go ‘Give me five.’ He nods. I think he knocked him out in the first 30 seconds of the sixth round.” (Actually, Ali knocked him out at 2:46 in the fifth.)
There’s hardly a major sport for which Goren hasn’t produced an astonishing number of games. He has won a mind-boggling 46 Emmy Awards. His time as Fox Sports executive producer and president spanned 16 NFL seasons, including five Super Bowls; 10 NASCAR campaigns, including eight Daytona 500s; five NHL regular- and post-seasons; and four Bowl Championship Series, with three National Championship Games. In baseball, Goren has presided over 15 MLB seasons and 12 World Series. Around Fox, the sports staff knew it wasn’t October, it was Edtober.
He went crazy over bad-weather World Series, time-consuming and boring mid-inning pitching changes, and teams with less than stellar marquee value.
At the Beginning of NFL on Fox
With the NFL, Fox rewrote the book, perhaps most notoriously with the “FoxBox,” the little “situationer” in the upper-left screen giving the bare-bones necessities: score, time, quarter, and so on. Goren says he suggested it at his first meeting with Hill, but Hill told him he was a little late: it was already in his plans.
It’s an expected component now, but, in 1994, fans and TV critics hated it.
“If you’d go back to our very first broadcast with the FoxBox, you would have thought we desecrated the Taj Mahal,” Goren says. “I came back after our first broadcast and had a voice mail from an irate 49ers fan who pointed out we ruined his experience watching the game and, ‘if you don’t get rid of it, I’ll come down there and get rid of it for you.’ ”
Hill says he got a similar letter and, because of it, both men got police protection. (“Why did police take this threat seriously?” Hill helps a skeptical reporter by asking the question himself. “They told me, ‘Because the letter doesn’t have any misspelled words.’ ”)
But Goren wanted to be where the action was as a producer and an executive. He made sure “executive producer” was a part of whatever corporate title he acquired, always rolling up his sleeves as a program-maker.
“This is a unique business,” he says. “Monday through Friday, you’re running the business, and, on weekends, you’re a producer.
And that’s the way he wanted it. He recalls, “The worst thing I ever heard from a sports executive when I was groveling for the extra money to do something was, ‘Is that going to add a tenth of a rating point?’ But you can’t defend some of these things. You can’t say it’s going to give you an extra tenth of a rating point. It’s about the image and the posture of an organization.”