Interview: Michael Barkann Is the Face of Philly Sports

Rupert PupkinCorrespondent IJanuary 17, 2009

[This interview is dually published on and]

Whenever you turn on the TV, Michael Barkann is probably staring back. He runs every show there is to run on Comcast SportsNet. He took some time between shows to chat with Shay Roddy about life, sports, and cheese-steaks.

Here is the lengthy phone conversation the two had Friday night, full of life lessons, sports opinions and a whole ton of laughs:

SHAY RODDY: Could you give us your background like how you got started, and the ups and downs of your career?

MICHAEL BARKANN: I was born in Jersey City, NJ, raised in East Brunswick, NJ, near Rutgers.  I went to East Brunswick High School, class of 1978.  I went to Syracuse University, where both of my parents went, and graduated in 1982 with a B.S. in Broadcast Journalism from the S.I. New House School of Communications.

I then went to NBC News in Washington, DC as a desk assistant. I was there for several months during the summer. From there I went to New Jersey Network in Trenton and I was a production assistant and then I became an off camera producer. After that, I began to write the weather for the anchors to read.

Then on Feb. 11, 1983, when I was 23 years old we had a blizzard, and on the winds was written “Mike's big break!”  Every day I would wear either a suit, or a jacket and tie with nice trousers, because I was brought up to believe you should dress for the job you want, not the job you have.

They realized that day that weather was the lead story and they needed a guy to deliver the weather so they asked me, “Mike, can you do it?”  So that night I gave the weather cast on the air.  It was awful by the way.

Not long after that they asked me if I would do this program called Weather Watch, which aired at 6:58 for 30 seconds and 7:28 for a minute and 30 seconds. It was taped at 4:00, so it was hit or miss. I would be saying chance of showers and it would be storming outside.

Not so long after that they asked me to do the weather for the news broadcast.  I did that for quite some time and I just thought I was Mr. Cool. Then they fired the No. 1 sports guy and made the backup guy the No. 1 guy. So they came to me and said, “So how would you like to be the… backup Sports Guy!”

And I said, “No, I’m the weather man!  I’m a starter, man!”  So I went home to my parents and I said, “I told them, I’m not a backup, I’m a starter… blah, blah, blah!”  So they said, “You’re an idiot, are you kidding me?  You’ve always wanted to be a sportscaster and they’re giving you that opportunity, and you’re looking to tell them?” 

So I went back with my hat in my hand and said, “Can I have a second chance?”  They said sure and I started doing backup sports in October of 1986, I was 26 years old.

A few months later I moved to CBS 3 in Philadelphia and became a Sports reporter.  I was at Channel 3 for five years and then I did not get my contract renewed, which has to do with facing adversity, I tell kids all the time things are going to happen, you just have to come back from them.

From there I went to Boston and became sports director at WLVI-TV.  I did that for five years.  I thought we were going to die in Boston; I just loved it.  Our daughter was born there.

But five years in I got a call from a few of my friends who were very instrumental in starting Comcast SportsNet, they asked, Can you come back, do you want to come back?”  It was an unbelievable opportunity so I did.

At the same time as this whole story line I began doing work for USA Network. I did some reporting for something they called, Tuesday Night Fights. Then they had the World League of American Football, which is an NFL backed Spring league. 

They were the ones that first started “helmet cam.” In fact I haven’t seen helmet cam since then. All that led to doing reporting for the U.S. Open Tennis, which I’ve done now for 18 years.

I also did three Olympic Winter Games for CBS.  That was in Albertville, France in 1992, Lillehammer, Norway in 1994, and Nagano, Japan in 1998.  I also did a couple Final Fours for CBS and I did a Fiesta Bowl National Championship Game.  It’s been great.  It has really been an awesome career.

What I tell kids is, “most of us will never get a World Series ring or Lombardi Trophy or Olympic medal. What’s after your name, regarding your college is your gold medal.  It’s something to be proud of.”

What would you say is your favorite sport to cover?

Oh, the NCAA March Madness tournament, easy. Don’t get me wrong, the World Series is great, the NFL is great but all things being equal, the first two weekends of the NCAA tournament, especially the first weekend.

If you’re with Villanova or LaSalle or Temple, or any of the Big 5 schools, and you see the other schools and you see their fans, bands, and cheerleaders you realize the enthusiasm is just off the charts. It’s really great, plus you get to watch great basketball all day.

So that’s my favorite all things being equal, but the Olympics, I mean Come on, that’s on another plane. But you know I love them all, the NFL, covering the Eagles...It’s all great.

Speaking of covering the NFL, you host Eagles Pre-Game Live and Eagles Post-Game Live on Comcast SportsNet.  Governor Rendell is on that show, or as you guys have dubbed him, “The Guv.”  What’s it like working with him?

It’s great, you know, he’s just a fan, but he’s very knowledgeable. He knows as much about the team, and who they might draft as any fan out there, I think.  And that was whole point, yes, he was the mayor, and yes, he is the governor, but he’s really just a fan. 

That’s why he’s there.  And every game he sits out in the seats, whether it rain, or sleet or hail, or snow, he’s out there.  He’s a diehard fan.

When it’s your profession to report on a team, can you still be a fan?

You know that’s a good question, because it’s tough. You know when you go down to the locker room for the first time, and meet all the guys, and see how they deal with the media, or you one on one, you find a lot of arrogance and egos.

And the fans don’t seem to care, they just care about, can they play ball?  But for me, that’s always mattered.  It’s the way I’m wired. And that’s tough to still like them and realize that they’re paid to do a job and they feel different then they did playing in elementary, middle school, high school, or college.

When they have to be there every day their attitudes tend to be different.

The same goes for me.  I had to start looking at things more analytically, which I liked.  But then again, I’ll get into it sometimes with sports writers who appear on Daily News Live.

I will say, “I want the Eagles to win the Super Bowl every year.  I want the Phillies to win the World Series every year.  The same goes for every Big 5 team, and the Sixers, and Flyers. I wan’t them to win every year, and I know not all of the writers feel that way. 

And to me, if you don’t feel that way then why do it? That sucks all the fun out of it. I mean I realize you can’t be a cheerleader but my God, why do it?

So yeah, it did suck some joy out of it, but I love what I do, and watching the great athletes out on the field certainly overwrites some of the unpleasantness of dealing with players.

Better interview, Streissand or Djokovic?

They were different. The Streissand interview was 1991 or 1992. It was big news at the time because she was dating Andre Aggassi, and not saying much about it. The language she used to describe him was so-

She called him a zen master didn’t she?

Yeah- [in his Streissand voice] “He’s so evolved, more so then his linear years, and he plays like a zen master out there.”  And I was thinking like oh, wow!

Bing, Bing, Bing!

Yeah, it was pretty heavy.  But the Djokovic one was different.  That’s just him though.  That’s who he is. The Djokovic one though was recent and that was really special, because not only the viewing audience was into it, but the entire stadium. They will both stay in my memory forever.

At 1PM on Dec. 28, did you ever imagine the Eagles would make the playoffs?

No, in fact we were down in the Caribbean that day, on vacation, and I completely screwed up the playoff scenario. I though once the Vikings won we were out. I thought that the Bears, Vikes, and Bucs all had to loose. 

I actually got a text from Kevin Mench, who played for the Rangers, Pirates, and Blue Jays.  He’s from Delaware and it said, “Can you believe this?” and I was like, “what?”  So I called the station to confirm it and they were like, “yeah!”  So we went to a bar and watched the game and it was incredible!

So this is the Eagles fifth NFC Championship game in 10 years. What’s been the biggest reason for their success?

Biggest reason...I have three. Andy Reid has put together a great organization; I really believe that, so he’s key one. It all began with picking Donovan McNabb, whom I would say is key No. 2.
In this offence you need to have a good quarterback.  And he’s played well for the most part. As frustrating as he can be at times he really has been key number two.

Key No. 3 has been Jim Johnson. Sure, you can throw in Dawkins and Stewart Bradley but JJ’s been the guy through most of it.  He thinks of the most creative defences and always has something special cooked up.

It all stems from Andy Reid. Everything else is peripheral.

Ok, Let’s move on to baseball. What are your thoughts on the whole Romero fiasco?

I don’t think he willfully cheated.  They accused him of negligence, and I agree.  If that bottle says raises or enhances testosterone, then that should be a red flag.  I know there are warning labels on the bottles now, that weren’t there when he purchased them, according to what I’ve read.

But, I think he needed, as much as he did do, to do more.  When you go into a clubhouse and there’s a list of accepted substances and your thing isn’t on it, I would just call the player’s association, or call the MLB and say, “look I need to know, can I take this?”  And get the answer he needs, and get it in writing. 

That being said, 50 games is way to harsh.

Yeah, is negligence really worth 50 games?

No, and it’s $1.25 Million. I think they could’ve given him 10 games for negligence.  Negligence means it wasn’t your fault but you should’ve paid more close attention to the details. So I think it was unfair.

Do you think the Ibanez signing is an improvement, a downgrade, or a wash?

I think it’s kind of like a wash.  I think when you look at their number side by side, Ibanez has worse career numbers, but his power numbers are up, his average certainly is up, apparently he doesn’t draw walks like Pat Burrell did.  I think it’s going to be a wash...perfectly put.

You had Elton Brand on Daily News Live tonight. With his return likely set for tomorrow, do you think the 'Sixers will continue their winning ways with him in the lineup?

Absolutely. He’ll provide them with more of a presence in the post, he’ll provide them with someone who will need to be double-teamed, he will provide them, because of that, outside shooting. Tony DiLeo who, going into tonight’s game is 9-6 as new head coach, wants them to take the outside shot. 

At the same time he wants them to defend, at the same time he wants them to run the floor. Elton Brand said tonight on DNL, that [paraphrased] “yeah it is good for me to observe the game. I’m an all-star and a double-double guy but it’s nice to sit back and observe the new team and see how they play together. 

Even though I never want to be injured this is not a bad thing ultimately.”

How ‘bout a couple Quick Six type questions…  Best Sports Movie is…
Good one. I’d have to say Field of Dreams. I love Field of Dreams. I love Rocky, The Natural, I haven’t seen all of them though.

How about Hoosiers?
Oh, Hoosiers was great. It was fantastic.

Best cheese-steak in Philly is…
Jims. No check that. Geno’s then Jims, close second.

Favorite city to travel to cover a team is…

Oooooooh! Good one! San Diego. Hold on, let me give you a couple more. San Francisco, Montreal, Boston, New Orleans.

Favorite Philly restaurant…

Toss up between...Pod and Buddakan.

Walk us through a typical day at Comcast SportsNet.

Every day is different.  The limo picks me up at noon, no I’m kidding. Some days if I’m doing 'Sixers or Flyers Postgame, I’ll get in later then if I’m not. I’m in constant contact with my producer Rob Ellis, he producer DNL-

He does a great job on 610 WIP-AM too.

Yep.  Same Rob Ellis that’s on WIP. I call him the sports savant.  He just knows everything.  You need that with someone who is producing a show like DNL. So, I’m in constant touch with him. 

I read the papers, the Internet, make phone calls...Whatever I need to do. 

I’ll talk to contacts I have, whether they are with local teams, or else-where in the country. I just try to figure it out. There’s really no time table for it. Once 3:30 comes, or 3:45, I really start getting more focused, if I can. Rob will tell you I’m not the most focused guy in the world. 

But you know, we put on make-up around 4.  Go through the run-down, with Rob shortly before that. We augment it, tweak it, work on the opening. Sometimes something new will come up like today we had an unusual opening with the Eagles pep-band and some clips James Convey put together.

He’s fantastic. He does headliners on Fridays, too.

I know the late John Marzano was a friend of yours, and he passed away right at the beginning of the season.  What are your final thoughts on him?

Well, its sad to me because it was just a life that was too short and he was 45 when he passed away and he left a wife and two daughters and two grandkids, and its sad to me that he’s not going to watch those grand kids grow up. 

He couldn’t watch the Phillies win the World Series, and he really thought they could.

He’s just sorely missed. I think about him every day. It’s a shame. It’s just a shame.  That’s why life is so precious.  Be as happy as you can and do as much as you can with your life.

We always used the sports terminology “leave it all out on the field.” Once you’re gone, you’re gone. I take that as a lesson learned.

From Dan Parzych (Bucks County):
What attracted you to working in the city of Philadelphia?

Well, initially that’s where the gig was. I was 26 years old, and working in Jersey.  At that point if I got a job in Milwaukee, I would have gone, Chicago, I would have gone, or San Diego, I would’ve gone.

I certainly knew about the city growing up… we used to spend summers at the Jersey shore and at the time we only got Philadelphia stations. I used to watch Channel 6 all the time. I used to watch Larry Kane, when he was on Channel 6, that’s how far back I go, before it was Jim Gardner.

Once I got here what stood out was the emotions. People wear their hearts on their sleeves here. 

People are hard working, there's a lot of diversity. You can find whatever you want to find.  That’s what has kept me in Philadelphia. I feel like it’s my home. When I was a kid, I wanted to work in New York, because that’s who I used to watch. 

But now that I’m here, I’d never leave.