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ESPN to go where stars are: sideline

By SHARON GINN
© St. Petersburg Times
published January 4, 2002

Given that Sunday night's Bucs-Eagles season finale is about as meaningless as an all-star game, ESPN is going to treat it like one.

It appears the majority of the Bucs' Pro Bowl players could be on the sideline with injuries, both real and exaggerated, which means Suzy Kolber is going to be busy. ESPN's NFL sideline reporter will spend the evening scurrying around interviewing stars and other usual starters from both teams, assuming their coaches are kind enough to put them on injured reserve so Kolber is permitted access during the game.

The network has no choice but to shift gears. What once was a much-anticipated grudge match has devolved into a preplayoff scrimmage, not even an honest preview of next weekend's wild-card game between the same teams.

ESPN initially wasn't even going to air this game, originally scheduled for Sept. 16. That weekend it was supposed to televise Cleveland at Pittsburgh, with its opening ceremonies for Heinz Field. In the post-Sept. 11 flurry of rescheduling, ESPN jumped at the chance to air the Bucs-Eagles matchup.

"I'm just as bummed out that these guys aren't playing as anybody else," said Jay Rothman, ESPN's senior coordinating producer for the NFL.

But, Rothman said, "It's our job to make it interesting. We can't go down there and give up."

ESPN will downplay what's happening on the field while offering extensive highlights and interviews of the combined 11 Pro Bowl players in attendance, cutting to Chris Berman for highlights of other games and discussing playoff-related "big picture kind of stuff," Rothman said.

It's not the way Bucs fans would prefer to spend a Sunday night. Nationally, the ratings should suffer.

But for Kolber, who also hosts ESPN2's Edge NFL Matchup, it will be a nice way to showcase her many skills.

"They call Kordell Stewart "Slash' in Pittsburgh, and to me, she is Slash," Rothman said. "I use her in a ton of different ways. ... Everything from graphics to commentary to highlight packages to interviews. She's been phenomenal. She's achieved the balance (for the show) I've been looking for."

MONEY TALK: HBO analyst Dan Marino thinks at least one player has reason to prepare for the Bucs-Eagles game. Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb will get a $1-million bonus if he finishes in the top five in touchdown passes. He's No. 6 entering the game, one touchdown shy of fifth place.

"Let me get this straight," Marino said. "He gets to play one game for a million dollars and he just has to throw some touchdown passes? I'd be praying to (Eagles coach) Andy Reid, "Please give me a chance to get in this game, at least for a half.' "

NEW YEAR, NEW OLBERMANN: Keith Olbermann -- formerly of ESPN, formerly of Fox Sports Net, formerly of ... oh, heck, we've lost count -- will resurface this month with his own programs on ABC Radio. Beginning Jan. 21, he will take over the Speaking of Sports and Speaking of Everything programs launched 40 years ago by Howard Cosell. Both programs air weekdays.

Since leaving Fox Sports Net over the summer, Olbermann has had a few low-profile radio gigs. He joined ABC Radio as a special commentator after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and has filled in for Paul Harvey and on the Sam Donaldson Live in America program.

If he fills in more for Harvey, area listeners can hear him on WFLA-AM 970. But with no ABC Radio stations in the Tampa Bay market, Olbermann's new shows are unlikely to be heard locally.

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