When NBC's pro football announcers gathered in New York City last month for a preseason meeting with the NFL, Joe Browne, the league's director of communications, offered some career counseling. "I want to give all you rookie broadcasters the one bit of information that will make you a success," said Browne. He then asked them to jot down Rudy Martzke's phone number.
Martzke may be the best-known fixture in USA Today—after the weather map, of course. He is the paper's TV sports critic, and that makes him one of the most powerful people in the industry. "Everyone in the industry reads Rudy's column," says Ted Shaker, executive producer of CBS Sports. "It's become the place where the networks talk to each other."
Martzke's columns seem to be compiled rather than written, stuffed with predigested nuggets of information and enough fluff to have cushioned King Kong's fall. He gossips about network contracts, ratings and feuds among the moguls. He ticks off the best utterances by announcers—as well as the worst clichès—and he ranks play-by-play men according to how he likes them. He's the Louella Parsons of sports broadcasting.
A mild, decent fellow of 44 who bears a resemblance to The Flintstones' Barney Rubble, Martzke has been a flack for two college athletic departments and four pro basketball teams; the general manager of the ABA Spirits of St. Louis; a sportswriter and an editor for the Rochester (N.Y.) Democrat and Chronicle; and a secret admirer of Annette Funicello. He's a tireless, if not masochistic, viewer who watches as many as 60 hours of televised sports per week, mostly from a couch in the den of his Reston, Va., home. Old Martzke columns are stuffed in a torn plastic garbage bag in his basement. "Hey, I've won journalism awards," he says, a pen in one hand, a remote control device in the other. "But TV-columnwise, you have to be a good reporter."
Martzke isn't content just to report, though. His column is a battleground for network sniping. Often the shooting starts when Martzke tosses up a clay pigeon: He'll phone somebody from NBC's NFL '86 for a quote about the competition and then will call someone on CBS's NFL Today for a rebuttal. "I treat it like pro wrestling interviews," says NFL '86 coordinating producer John Filippelli. Says Shaker, "Rudy's column is perfect for sending out smoke screens or barbs."
Everyone wants in. When the Mets were thumping the Dodgers on an NBC Game of the Week, executive producer Michael Weisman switched to a cable feed from Detroit, where Walt Terrell was pitching a no-hitter for the Tigers. Weisman worried about substituting a cable-style production for network slickness. "The hell with that," dead-panned Filippelli. "We'll be a shoo-in for the Hustle Award."
The Hustle Award is an example of Martzke's compulsive listomania, along with Top Fact, Best Analysis, Best Line, Best Production and the All-Clichè Team. Broadcasters frequently call Martzke to complain about his ratings. Joe Garagiola confronted him at the 1985 All-Star Game because Martzke, poking fun at the NBC color man for his interminable references to old-time ballplayers, had compiled "Joe Garagiola's All-Time-Warp Team."
Says Mickey Wittman, who heads the broadcasting team for the Goodyear blimp, "When I'm in production trailers I always know if it's Rudy's columns that are pinned to the wall. They're the ones with the knife holes through them." Some TV people take Rudy in stride, though. After Martzke sacked an ABC college football telecast, director Andy Sidaris sighed, "Oh well. One more Emmy and my house would sink into the Pacific anyway."
Martzke doesn't need much prodding to divulge his All-Time End-Of-The-World announcing team: Bryant Gumbel, Brent Musburger and Bob Costas. "I wonder who will be the studio host, who will do play-by-play and who will get stuck doing color," muses Costas. "But the larger question is: Who will get off the best line and make Rudy's column?"
Rudy Martzke, USA Today's TV sports critic, lists his five favorite television shows:
1. ESPN's SportsCenter (when Chris Berman is on with his baseball nicknames)
2. (tie) NFL '86
4. CNN's Sports Tonight
5. Any show Rodney Dangerfield is on