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Send in the Clowns: behind the desk with SportsCentre’s Jay Onrait and Dan O’Toole

Jay Onrait and Dan O’Toole, the wildly popular, wise-cracking hosts of TSN’s SportsCentre, can’t stop laughing—at fumbling athletes, at ranting coaches and especially at their own jokes

Send in the Clowns: TSN Sportscentre Jay Onrait and Dan O'Toole

Onrait (left) and O’Toole are watched by two million viewers every week

In 2002, Jay Onrait was hired to co-host TSN’s late-night edition of SportsCentre. The broadcast, which airs after the night’s big games and matches, is the channel’s highest-profile slot. Onrait came with TV hosting experience and an encyclopedic sports mind. He was nevertheless an unusual choice: he’s a lanky joker with a background in stand-up comedy, the sort of guy who can’t resist contorting his face to make an audience laugh. He worships early David Letterman, especially his cheap gags, like when he’d chuck a watermelon off the roof. That sort of thing, he assumed, wouldn’t fly at TSN, where sports stats are analyzed with utmost seriousness.

Onrait’s boss is Mark Milliere, an executive who doesn’t suffer fools. He has a reputation for dressing down hosts who try to be funny with swift, soul-crushing concision (“This isn’t the ha-ha hut” is a typical admonition). Onrait was terrified of the man, but he wanted to get noticed: his co-host, Jennifer Hedger, was a gorgeous, porcelain-skinned blond, and competing with her for the eyes of a young male audience seemed like a losing proposition. He needed to do something. So he decided to let his personality out. Sitting at his desk in the newsroom, he wrote a script that had him chugging an entire carton of chocolate milk. It was absurd, unnecessary and unlike anything viewers had witnessed on the otherwise no-nonsense broadcast. It was also quite possibly his ticket to unemployment.

The morning after his chocolate milk stunt, Onrait checked his email, dreading the coming reprimand from Milliere. But there were only notes from friends and colleagues applauding the hilarious bit. No emails from Milliere. No calls, either. Onrait had pushed the line, and the line had moved.

Milliere soon shuffled his staff, and Hedger was moved to the 10 p.m. sports desk. Dan O’Toole, a sportscaster from Citytv Vancouver, took her place. Onrait liked him immediately. They were born only a year apart (Onrait in 1974, O’Toole in 1975) and had the same frat-boy sense of humour. They’d both grown up in small towns—Onrait in Athabasca, Alberta, and O’Toole in Peterborough, Ontario—and shared peripatetic existences as young broadcasters chasing jobs. They quickly became friends outside of work, going out for occasional drinks. Before long, O’Toole was inviting Onrait, who is single and lives in a Kensington Market condo, for dinners with his wife and two young daughters in Oshawa. On air, Onrait’s unpredictable behaviour, which could cause some co-anchors to freeze, didn’t faze O’Toole, and the more Onrait ramped it up—dropping ludicrously long pregnant pauses, talking directly to players in clips, experi­menting with voices (“L.A. Dodgers” became a Kermit the Frog–inflected “L.A. Dodgerrrrrrssss”)—the more O’Toole rolled with it.

One night, during an NBA game, a San Antonio Spurs player swatted a live bat, which had somehow made its way into the stadium, out of the air with his hand. The clip was shown on sports highlights reels around the world, but no one presented it quite like Onrait and O’Toole. Viewers tuning in to SportsCentre that night watched as a paper bat, dangling from a stick held aloft by a staffer off-screen, attacked a straight-faced O’Toole while Onrait riffed about the importance of rabies shots.

Onrait and O’Toole grew bolder and more outlandish. For kicks, they decided to see if they could resist smiling while obnoxious clown music played and the cameras zoomed in on their faces (O’Toole broke first). Another time, they played a clip of a man singing the American national anthem at a baseball game in an exaggerated operatic style; after he’d wrapped up the dramatic closing note in full vibrato, the camera switched back to Onrait, who, dressed as the Phantom of the Opera, delivered a hearty rendition of Music of the Night. Last summer, during soccer’s Euro Cup, which was held in Poland and the Ukraine, they cranked the tournament’s official music—a Euro techno beat—and held a 15-second two-man dance party behind their desks.

They don’t take themselves, or their trade, too seriously. They aren’t disrespectful, but neither are they reverential toward people who run fast and hit balls with sticks for a living. In an industry where the strategy is to present clips at such a rapid pace that viewers don’t have time to even consider changing the channel, Onrait and O’Toole slam on the brakes every few minutes for a drawn-out bit of comedy, and dare viewers to stay with them. It isn’t sophisticated satire, but it works and has earned them a massive following: during an average week last fall, SportsCentre drew more than two million viewers. Their main competition, Rogers’ Sportsnet Connected, drew 101,000 in the same week; the third-place program, The Score in the Morning, drew a paltry 24,000. The Wall Street Journal recently ran a piece with the headline “Why Can’t We Have Canada’s SportsCentre?”

As Onrait and O’Toole’s stunts became more regular, so did the feedback from Milliere. He’d occasionally make requests that they tone it down, but just as often he’d congratulate them for a funny segment. Milliere realized what is now obvious: the show’s viewership was changing. Smart phones allow sports fans to watch highlights almost immediately after they happen, and from anywhere. Fans no longer need SportsCentre or its competitors to stay up to date. Onrait and O’Toole presented a solution. In the same way that viewers tune in to The Daily Show to get a little satire with their news, they would turn on SportsCentre for sports with a side of schtick.

Today, 24-hour coverage is taken for granted by Canadian sports fans. And yet it wasn’t that long ago that sports updates were relegated to the five-minute slot at the end of the nightly news. That changed in 1984, when the TV executive Gordon Craig left the CBC to launch a Canadian version of ESPN. The result, The Sports Network, based in Toronto and initially owned by the Labatt Brewing Company, later by Bell Media, enjoyed 14 profitable years as Canada’s only dedicated sports channel. Its highlights show, Sports Desk, was a simple, low-rent operation, but viewers took to it. The landscape changed again in 1998, when CTV, Rogers, Molson and Fox joined forces to launch Sportsnet. The station was aggressive from the start: before it debuted, its execs wrestled the national cable rights for NHL games from TSN. But TSN had the history, the experience and the customer base, and the ratings reflected as much. Then, in December 2011, a bombshell: Bell and Rogers, the two leading sports broadcasters, teamed up to split a 75 per cent ownership stake in Maple Leafs Sports and Entertainment, giving them control of the Leafs, Raptors, Marlies and Toronto FC.