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Dan Patrick defied the odds after leaving The Mothership

Dan Patrick isn’t supposed to be here.

You don’t walk away from the Worldwide Leader — telling everyone you want to spend more time with your family and actually mean it – then get to keep your career.

But amid news Monday that the former ESPN star-turned-radio guy-doing-TV-again just sealed a deal to syndicate his DirecTV show to a collection of regional sports networks reaching 85-million people, Patrick has a hard time hiding his satisfaction.

“Not many people leave The Mothership and live to talk about it,” admitted Patrick, who asked to leave ESPN back in 2007, he says, after getting a “take it or leave it” offer from the sports broadcasting giant that would have required spending too much time away from his family.

At the time, pal Rick Reilly wrote a column for Sports Illustrated calling the decision one of the five worst moves in sports entertainment history.

But three years later, Reilly has left his award-winning column to try television on ESPN while Patrick has built a blueprint for success after dissing the biggest kid on the sports block.

“I’m not going to assess the trade; I’ll let other assess the trade,” laughed Patrick, who also writes for Reilly’s former employer, Sports Illustrated. “After (Reilly) got traded to ESPN, I gave him some advice and when I went to Sports Illustrated, he offered me guidance. Rick was trying to do something he’d never done before, while I have no problem putting money down on myself.”

And over three years, Patrick has built his own eclectic array of patrons to replace “The Mothership.” Premiere Radio Networks, the Clear Channel-owned company which syndicates everyone from Jim Rome to Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck, distributes his radio show to 230 affiliates.

DirecTV came along in 2009 to create a televised version of the program for its subscribers – kinda-like a sports-themed version of Howard Stern’s TV show, with fewer strippers, less cursing and more knuckleheaded guy pranks. And there’s the work for SI and his appearances on NBC’s Football Night in America.

On October 25, Patrick’s show will become available on 25 more regional sports networks owned by Fox Sports, Comcast and MSG – a deal that marks the first time DirecTV has sold one of its original shows into the syndication.

The move sends ripples through the industry in loads of ways – from providing another tasty bit of content to help competitors of the Worldwide Leader, to strengthening the network of regional sports networks which have become serious competition for local TV sports departments.

It also marks a logical progression for Patrick, who says his moves to grow his show have come naturally.

“I wanted to circumvent the system a little bit,” he said of creating a televised version of the radio show he does each morning. "I wanted to make sure, if we couldn’t get into a market radio-wise, maybe we could get in there TV-wise. And it would give you content; you gotta have radio gold, with a little glitter in there to catch your eye.”

To that end, Patrick built a “man cave” studio outfitted with a pinball machine, flatscreen TVs and a wall filled with Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition covers. His cast of producer/sidekicks – lovingly referred to as the Dannettes – throw dodgeballs at each other to settle bets and take the edge off Patrick to stand as the sole performer.

“You’re trying to find your niche, because The Mothership takes up a lot of air,” he said. “I like to think we do a different show than they do – I like to think what I do with my guests is better. You’re trying to find what you do that’s different than what they do.”

In a conversation with Patrick, The Mothership comes up often. That’s what happens when you wind up competing against a behemoth you helped build; teaming with Keith Olbermann in the mid-‘90s to turn wisecracking about sports highlights into the mega-successful program, SportsCenter.

And while some at ESPN may act as if they supported the franchise which eventually helped define the network from Day One, Patrick remembers it differently. He talked of being reprimanded for acting on air as if they were bigger than the network, warned to stop calling their program “The Big Show” and instead remind viewers “This is SportsCenter.”

(They wound up saying the phrase in such a sarcastically overblown way, it became a catchphrase in ways the executives hardly intended.)

“I remember walking out of that meeting saying ‘I’ve got three kids; I can’t get fired,’” Patrick said. “Olbermann looked over and said ‘F— ‘em.’ He gave me the guts to let me be who I was. And it should have been embraced a lot more than it was.”

So in 2007, Patrick decided to close the book on 18 years in Bristol, Conn., and move on, building a new show that broadcasts in a studio one mile from his house and allows him to be at home for dinner almost every night.

Ask if he lucked out – splitting from the Worldwide Leader just when record audiences were turning to sports TV and technology has fragmented the media landscape more than ever – and Patrick allows that he might be riding the tip of a few potent trends.

And if this latest move with The Dan Patrick Show works out, he expects it won’t be long before he’s dealing with The Mothership once again.f you have a concept, they will eventually swallow it up and make it theirs,” he said. “I guess you’re supposed to take that as a compliment; ‘Wow ESPN stole your idea.’ I’ve already heard from some of their talent who are curious about how I pulled this off. I think they hope I succeed so they’ll have a place to land, too.” 

Eric Deggans is TV and Media Critic for the St. Petersburg Times and a 1990 graduate of the Indiana University School of Journalism. His work has also appeared in the Washington Post, Village Voice, VIBE magazine, Chicago Tribune, Detroit Free Press, Chicago Sun-Times and many other publications. He also writes a blog on media, The Feed, at blogs.tampabay.com/media.  

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