The Message

The ESPNing of America is being felt in Denver.

The style is instantly identifiable: hyperactive language, frequent pop-culture references mingled with absurdly trivial arcana, plenty of ludicrous catch phrases and a winking acknowledgement that caring about muscle-headed athletes who spout cliches like Linda Blair spews pea soup in The Exorcist is kinda silly, but what the hell?

That's the approach to television sports popularized by cable's ESPN, and its influence has spread far and wide. Fox Sports is practically an ESPN tribute channel, and many local sports anchors, inspired equally by ESPN and jokester pioneers such as Los Angeles's Fred Roggin, present segments that occupy a middle ground between information dispersal and comedy routine.

In Denver, though, it's a different story. Of the primary TV sports headliners in town, only Channel 7's Tom Green displays a noteworthy sense of humor, albeit one that's drier than the ESPN model; his peers, meanwhile, alternately specialize in blandness (Channel 2's Jim Conrad), faux-suavity (Channel 9's Tony Zarrella) and oiliness (Channel 4's Marc Soicher). As for the stations' second-tier anchors, they mainly provide competent but colorless readings of the facts. The assumption, apparently, is that Denver sports addicts are so obsessed with their teams that any effort to spice things up might provoke a riot -- or at least a flurry of channel-changing.

He could go all the way: Channel 4's Vic Lombardi spices up Denver's sports news.
Susan Goldstein
He could go all the way: Channel 4's Vic Lombardi spices up Denver's sports news.

The exception to this rule? Channel 4's weekend anchor Vic Lombardi. When he hit the Denver airwaves in 1998, it was hard to know how to take him, what with a name that sounds like it was made up by a diehard Green Bay Packers booster and a delivery that recalled satirical sportscasts by former Saturday Night Live regular Joe Piscopo, who yapped in capital letters and exclamation points. But over the years, Lombardi's enthusiasm has proven to be contagious. He seems pathologically incapable of sitting behind a desk, preferring instead to bob and weave from a standing position beside a giant screen, talking as much with his hands as his mouth, using the script pages he holds to punctuate points that you need to know. Just as important, this wiry thirty-year-old makes it clear with each adjective he hurls that he's got this sports stuff in perspective.

"There's no sports fan more serious than me," says Lombardi, who's won eleven local Emmy awards over the years, eight of them for reporting. "But this isn't rocket science. This is a game, an outlet, an escape. It's not as important as my kid's education, and when too many people treat it that way, it grinds on me."

Although his manner of speaking makes him seem like a fast-talking New Yorker, Lombardi is actually a local boy. He was raised in north Denver by parents who immigrated to the States from the central Italian town of Villa San Michele in 1966. "I didn't speak English until I was six or seven years old," he says, but he's loved sports for as long as he can remember -- and he counts the early '80s debut of ESPN in Denver as a major event in his life.

"I'd heard of ESPN, because I had friends in Arvada and Aurora who were already getting it, and I wanted to see it -- bad. And when it finally got here, I watched it religiously. ESPN invented a whole genre of sports. I think most of us who grew up in the '80s and '90s looked at that as something new, and it's where we learned to do what we do."

After graduating from Holy Family High School, Lombardi interned at Channel 4 before enrolling at the University of Colorado. A year later, like the good Catholic boy he is, he transferred to Notre Dame, and when he wasn't taking classes, he was working for free at a nearby TV station in South Bend, Indiana.

He was subsequently hired by the outlet but moved to a station in Austin, Texas, three months later. There he got a chance to push into ever loopier areas. "We had this sports-challenge thing, where people would challenge me to do things like kick field goals off people's noses. And I was young and uninhibited. I'd do anything."

Three years later, Lombardi became the main sports anchor at a station in Phoenix. But this self-described "mama's boy" so wanted to return to Denver that when Channel 4 offered him a secondary gig in 1998, he grabbed it -- but only after being assured that he'd be able to host a Sunday-evening sports program of the sort he'd been doing in Arizona. There was a problem, however: Channel 9 had purchased the rights to do a Denver Broncos show from the NFL, and league regulations designed to protect this investment strictly prohibited the amount of game footage other stations could use in a program of their own. Thus, a sports show assembled by Channel 4 wouldn't be allowed to screen more than a minute or two of footage from the day's game -- and in Broncotown, what's the point of that? Worse, the competitive nature of Denver sports broadcasting meant that Channel 9 was watching for any violations. "They guard their contract very closely," says Channel 4 sports producer Steve Cox.

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