In the sports media universe, Chris Christie guest-hosting Mike Francesa’s WFAN radio show is about the most interesting thing that’s happening this week. I might put it below the Shams-Woj rivalry, but I would definitely put it above the ESPYs.
At first glance, Christie seems like a natural for sports radio. Before he got stiff-armed by the Trump administration and before his approval ratings in New Jersey cratered, Christie had a reputation for owning hapless political adversaries. Or Marco Rubio, anyway. In Christie’s post-political life, why couldn’t he work at a GOP-friendly outlet like ’FAN, yell at Mark in Syosset, and pocket a few million bucks in the process?
In May, I interviewed Francesa. I asked him if he thought Christie could do his job. Francesa’s answer was yes — but it was a qualified yes. He was convinced Christie could master the theater of sports radio. But he was curious — or maybe even slightly skeptical — about how Christie would handle the grind that Francesa’s show entails.
"There’s a couple of things he’s going to have to deal with," Francesa said. "Number one, his favorability numbers right now are really bad. … A lot of people don’t like him. I mean, really a lot of people. So he’s got to change that."
Let’s pause here to savor the fact that a sports radio host is telling a governor and former vice-presidential short-lister that he needs to worry about his likability. That’s just wonderful.
"Number two …" Francesa continued. "If you really are passionate about the games and you love the games, it’s a job you can do. But it’s got to be a lifestyle. … If you’re not going to watch the ballgames, if you’re not going to go to the ballgames, if you don’t like to do that … you’re going to have trouble coming in here on Monday."
That’s the nub of it. Whatever you think of Francesa and his old partner Chris Russo, they have a monomaniacal devotion to sports. It was passion as much as it was a job. Outside of their professional glory-hogging, that was the appeal of Mike and the Mad Dog. Francesa and Russo signed off WFAN every day, came home, and planted themselves in front of the TV. Unlike the phonies at the TV networks, they lived the experience of a real fan.
What would surprise Christie if he sat behind your microphone? I asked Francesa.
"The depth that you have to have of the subject matter," Francesa said. "The audience is incredibly prepared. They know a lot. They really know a lot.
"I like to watch games. I like to analyze games. Games are my thing. I love games. I love to analyze games and think about what’s going to happen and how will the game play out. In that regard, I’m a frustrated coach.
"That and my ability to pick up the phone and call anybody I need to talk to. … For a very long time, I’ve had the ability to call up any owner, any coach. And that’s how I do it. I go right to the person."
Let’s stipulate that Christie won’t have the deep bench of contacts (John Calipari, Bill Parcells) that Francesa has. That’s OK. Sports radio isn’t really about guests anymore.
The bigger questions: Is Christie going to watch 162 Yankee games? Is he going to watch 100? 50? If he doesn’t, is he going to be such a wildly entertaining nutjob that Yankee diehards will listen to him rather than defect to Michael Kay?
Francesa noted that, depending on the season, a WFAN host can probably get by with merely toe-dipping in Knicks talk. He can’t do it with the NFL.
"You can’t come in and do Monday any other way in this town," he said. "You have to know what happened in the NFL." So in addition to the Yankees, et al., every Sunday Christie would have to watch seven-plus hours of the Giants and Jets plus the Sunday night game and other national games to have a working knowledge of the league, of fantasy, and so forth. That’s an enormous commitment for someone whose sports fandom has mostly been expressed through group-hugging Jerry Jones.
"Keepin’ up with what happens — it has be something you love," Francesa said. He knows all about the horror of having callers try to prove you’re not the all-knowing sports god. If Christie got Francesa’s WFAN job full-time, he would, too. The fantasy of sports radio in New York City is that it’s pure bluster. The reality is that it’s a right to bluster earned through research. Screw up, and the callers make you look like Marco Rubio.