Monday, October 25, 2010

Catching Up With The Fabulous Sports Babe

Radio personality Nanci Donnellan, better known to her legions of fans as “The Fabulous Sports Babe,” began her career here in the Tampa Bay area in 1982. After moves that took her to Seattle, Bristol, Conn., and New York City, the Babe took several years off from broadcasting earlier in the decade, but she is once again a fixture on the local airwaves. Always opinionated and willing to tell it like it is, the Babe can be heard weekdays on WHBO 1040-AM from 12-3 p.m. She recently took some time to talk about the changes in sports radio, the issue of local baseball attendance, and some fond memories involving the late George Steinbrenner.

Q. What was the climate like for sports radio when you first started in this market?

A. I don't know that we actually had a climate for it in the early 1980s. I started off with a sports show at an all-news/talk radio station, WPLP. Then in 1990, I put WFNS on the air. We changed the Plant City station and turned it into sports radio. That was the first all-sports radio station here in Tampa for sure.

Q. How has the scene evolved over the last 20 years?

A. It's evolved in that we have three all-sports stations now. They each offer different things, that's for sure. Sports is huge and much more popular now than it was 20 years ago with the advent of 24-hour networks, and the growing popularity of football. In baseball, you used to have a Saturday afternoon game. Now, you have multiple games every night that you can tune into. With football, on Sunday you could watch the game at 1 and the game at 4. Now you can watch every stinkin' one of them, which is the way it should be. We should be able to get whatever game we want.

Q. Back when WFNS got started, there were no blogs, no Twitter, no message boards. Now, there are numerous ways for fans to have their opinions heard that don't necessarily involve calling the radio station.

A. Radio used to be where you could express your opinions. You couldn't very well talk back to the TV, but as you said, people have turned into bloggers. Now even a regular fan can take the time a couple times a week to really expound on what they're feeling. I think it's great. I think it's wonderful.

Q. Some print reporters might take a differing view and say that kind of cuts into what they're doing, but you're saying it's a good thing that more people have a voice.

A. Absolutely, I think it is. I understand what newspaper reporters are saying. We've seen it already in television. Look how squashed the sports reports are on television. They used to be "X" amount of minutes long and you're lucky if you get three minutes now. Even in my business, there's so much syndication now. It's funny, when I was doing syndication 15 years ago I was on 300 radio stations across the country. That was a fairly new phenomenon, especially to that degree. Now, one of the main reasons that I'm here is that I really feel the local fan has been completely under-served. I'm really glad to see that more and more local talk is back.

Q. How about your show, is it more focused on local or national sports?

A. I've always taken both. One of the main things for me here is that this is a Tampa Bay radio station and we are going to talk about Tampa Bay. Now, if there's a big issue that is a national issue, obviously it relates to us. But by and large, I'm talking about the Rays and the Bucs and the Lightning and college football.

Q. Baseball was a big part of your show going back to the 1980s and the original effort to bring a team to this area. Would you have ever thought that we'd still be debating the location of the stadium?

A. No, but it has been my experience of being in this business in different locations that everyone complains about their stadium, everyone threatens to move, and they always get a new stadium and don't move. I think this obsession with attacking the fans in the end will backfire heavily on the ownership of the Rays.

Q. Would it be a different story if the stadium were in Tampa or is it the economic climate?

A. If Tropicana Field had been built in Tampa, they would be complaining about the stadium anyways. As far as people going, the ownership's total disregard for the economy here is somewhat surprising. They have no respect for what the average working person here is going through.

Q. And this area has been hit as hard as any in the country.

A. And the ownership of the Tampa Bay Rays either doesn’t know it or really don't care.

Q. Going back to 2008, what were your emotions on that season knowing how long and arduous the journey was just to bring baseball here.

A. I spent that whole season saying, "I don't buy it. Wait 'til Memorial Day. Wait 'til the All-Star break. Wait 'til August.” And it wasn't really until they were in the playoffs that I was ready to say they were for real. I believed in them and thought they were good -- I thought they were very lucky -- and that was fine. There were a lot of home runs in the bottom of the 8th and bottom of the 9th innings and it was very exciting. For someone who had season tickets for as long as I did, and to have seen so much bad baseball, it was incredible.

Now, I think the bar has been set and we have come to have certain expectations. I don't think that going to the World Series or deep into the playoffs necessarily has to be the expectation, but you expect a team that's good and no longer a joke. I don't expect them to fall back to that. Of course, based on Sternberg's whining about how he doesn't have any money, it may very well go back to that.

Q. Your thoughts on the passing this year of George Steinbrenner.

A. The bottom line is this: if there’s no George Steinbrenner, there’s no baseball in this town. People can say what they want, but George is the one that opened the door for baseball to come here. I talked to Vince Naimoli the day George died and he talked about how instrumental George was in helping bring baseball here.

A quick story on George. One summer on my show, we got a phone call from a George in Tampa. We didn't think anything of it, so I put him on. It was George Steinbrenner calling me. So every 4th of July – which was his birthday -- we'd get a call from George and it became a tradition. Then he invited me to Yankee Stadium for a playoff game one year to sit in his box, which was really an incredible experience. I remember how cordial he was, and that was a really impressionable point for me.

I remember a few years ago, there was a soccer team of teenagers from somewhere in South America. They were in Florida playing different teams, and something happened with either the airline or travel agency they booked their tickets through, and they were stranded in Orlando. There was a story about it, and you can guess who wrote the check to put them on a plane home to South America. That's the kind of person he was, the kind of thing he would do for people, and one of the reasons why he’s going to be so missed.

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