Richie Zyontz, Rich Russo reflect on Fox Sports’ place in media entering 30th NFL season

The network’s longtime lead producer-director team will lead the Packers-Bears broadcast from the production truck outside Soldier Field.

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Director Rich Russo (background) and producer Richie Zyontz have been with FOX Sports since it began in 1994.

FOX Sports

Richie Zyontz and his CBS crew were in Washington late in the 1993 NFL season when they heard some strange news.

“We found out that some company named Fox got football,” he said. “Nobody knew anything about Fox.”

CBS had aired NFL games since the mid-1950s, and renewing its contract with the league always had been a fait accompli.

“It was as common at CBS as a three-martini lunch,” Zyontz said, “which, at that time, a lot of the executives at CBS knew very well.”

What they didn’t know was how badly Fox wanted to be in business with the NFL – so badly that Fox dwarfed CBS’ renewal bid for the NFC package by $100 million.

The next season would be Fox’s first airing the NFL, and when games kick off Sunday, the network will begin its 30th, an astonishing achievement considering its stunning entry into U.S. sports media backed by Australian billionaire Rupert Murdoch.

Among those games is Packers-Bears at 3:25 p.m., the window Fox has dubbed “America’s Game of the Week.” The network’s longtime lead producer-director team of Zyontz and Rich Russo, who also came from CBS, will be running the show in the production truck outside Soldier Field.

The matchup and setting might conjure memories for the pair, who worked with the renowned duo of Pat Summerall and John Madden at CBS and Fox.

“Chicago-Green Bay, Madden-Summerall. It’s like a hand in a glove,” Zyontz said. “John loved Chicago. He loved the sports atmosphere. He loved in the fall people would be talking Bears. The weather would get cold. He loved cold weather. He called it ‘hittin’ weather.’

“Russo and I were on his crew for a number of years, and we have so many memories of hanging out with John in Chicago, sitting in hotel lobbies, taking walks in freezing-cold weather. John loved Bears games.”

In June 1994, Zyontz joined Fox as the producer for the Dick Stockton-Matt Millen crew. David Hill, another Australian whom Murdoch hired to run Fox Sports, summoned Zyontz to Los Angeles to discuss producing a preseason NFL special. Based on his CBS experience, Zyontz figured the show would be simple enough: Put some analysts together and have them talk about the teams and players.

Hill had other ideas.

“He talked about things that were off my radar screen,” Zyontz said. “ ‘We need a magician; we need a comedian.’ I’m thinking, This guy is playing three-dimensional chess, and I can’t even find a checkerboard.

“That’s just the way Fox was. It was, try things, do things; don’t rely on what you know or what you’ve done. And I think for all of us, it was an eye-opener, and it made us all better.”

Hill also brought over Ed Goren from CBS to run the football production, and they set out to build Fox Sports. But at the time, the fledgling network’s only games were football. Madden jokingly called the entity Fox Sport – singular.

Russo started at Fox as the associate director on the Kevin Harlan-Jerry Glanville crew before rejoining Zyontz with Summerall and Madden the next year. Russo would benefit from Fox’s expansion into other sports.

“Fox really gave a lot of people opportunities in our field,” Russo said. “Because what happened was, it was football, then it was football and hockey, then it was football, hockey and baseball. And then NASCAR, and then for me NFL Europe. It gave a lot of us opportunities to grow in this business.”

Fox also grew the business itself. Hill devised the “Fox Box,” football’s first score bug. Initially, it rankled some viewers, and according to Hill, one was so perturbed that he threatened Hill’s life. Now it’s ubiquitous in sports television.

And 30 years later, the same can be said for Fox.

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