There’s a steady drizzle setting in as Bob McCown zips up his leather jacket against the creeping November chill, takes a drag from a Benson & Hedges Light, and waves his hand in the direction of a gazebo across the way. “I did this whole thing about four years ago,” he says. “Had the backyard ripped up and redone, added this outdoor kitchen, had the fireplace extended. All this concrete is new.”
McCown casts his eyes around the expanse as a few leaves flutter down, adding to a thin carpet of muted colour on the surface of the pool. Not long ago, this was where he would end his work weeks, with boisterous gatherings of family, friends, and colleagues from The Fan, the Rogers Media-owned Toronto sports-talk radio station he helped launch in 1992. He would come home around 7:15 on Friday evenings, “there’d be 20 people in my backyard having a party, drinking my wine, and my wife would say, ‘Here’s the steaks, here’s the hamburger, here’s the chicken’ – whatever we were having.” He’d work the grill, watch others enjoy themselves, until things wound down around 2 or 3 or 4 a.m.
But in late September he put the house – a 10,600-square-foot stone-and-stucco manse that has the feel of a Real Housewives of Toronto soundstage – on the market. Located on the northern fringe of the tony Bridle Path neighbourhood, he’d bought it from his friend, the former Maple Leaf captain, Doug Gilmour, in 2005. Now, it can be yours for $10.9-million; the taxes will run you about $32,000.
“I love this house, I love this yard, I love this street, I love the neighbourhood,” he says. “Under normal circumstances, I’d die here. But they’re not normal circumstances. And to be in this house by myself, it’s just ridiculous.”
For decades, McCown’s circumstances were straightforward, almost easeful: He would zip down to The Fan’s midtown Toronto studios, grab a coffee, pop on his sunglasses, slide into his seat behind the mic a few seconds before 4 p.m., spend three hours sparring with A-list guests and any listeners who dared call in, and then retreat as quickly as he’d appeared.
But in June, 2019, with a year and a half left on his contract, Rogers paid him out and cut him loose, a prelude to the company pushing other on-air talent out the door, including Doug MacLean, Nick Kypreos, and his friend John Shannon. After pioneering sports talk in Canada in the late 1980s, being the first voice of The Fan when it went all-sports in 1992, dominating the genre for decades and helping bring talk to Sportsnet’s TV channels, McCown was suddenly unmoored. A few months earlier, an ugly dispute with golfer Mike Weir had spilled into the courts, and he was still dealing with the financial and emotional fallout. Then, in January of this year, McCown’s wife moved out. Their teenaged daughter and her son joined her in October, leaving McCown to rattle around their Bridle Path Xanadu on his own.
Through most of his career, McCown has cultivated a reputation as an introvert who hides his shyness behind a curmudgeonly bluster and those trademark shades. At 68, piercing and possibly painful introspection may not be in his wheelhouse. But over the past few months, during half a dozen phone calls and an in-person interview that together ran more than five hours, he has shared, in raw and sometimes bruising terms, what it has felt like to be abandoned, to have the anchors of his life pulled away.
Hours before he hosted his final edition of Prime Time Sports, McCown tweeted defiantly that, while he was leaving Rogers, “nobody can shut me up when I still have things to say.”
One afternoon in late August, someone gave me McCown’s number and I called him up to see whether he’d want to talk about a podcast he and Shannon had recently launched. We’d never spoken before; I figured he’d ask me to call back days or perhaps weeks later. Instead, he launched into a narrative about the year he’d had.
Within months of his departure from Sportsnet, he’d fielded “numerous inquiries about taking on a new initiative in broadcast. I had four offers,” including, he said, one from Sportsnet. “None of them really fit my agenda.”
But that was fine, he added quickly: he already had a lot going on. He mentioned a documentary about the all-female rock group The Go-Go’s, produced by his film company, Fadoo Productions, that had scored strong reviews at this year’s Sundance Film Festival and was now playing on Showtime in the United States and Crave in Canada. Stoney Ridge, a Niagara-area winery he bought in 2013 that has had success with Tragically Hip-branded vintages, was about to launch a sparkling Riesling carrying the name of Glass Tiger, the 1980s Canadian rock band fronted by his pal, Alan Frew. Backstage Beverage Brands, a new venture that will make private-label wines branded with celebrity names, was, he said, “right on the cusp of launching, with really big international stars.”
And then there’s The Bob McCown Podcast, in which he and Shannon spend a half an hour or so on Zoom, three times a week, talking to a guest and chewing over one or two big sports stories. McCown’s rolodex remains impressive: NHL commissioner Gary Bettman appeared in an early episode, days before the league returned to play, Toronto Blue Jays president Mark Shapiro came on to discuss his team’s 2020 prospects, and the former NHL player and coach Bruce Boudreau addressed rumours that he might join the Maple Leafs.
So McCown is not in a rush to go back on air at the moment. Especially since he’s been confronted with the new economics of the business, a radical realignment from the heyday when his base salary was estimated to be north of $1-million. “The marketplace isn’t where I would like it to be. But I’ve accepted that and I live with that.”
Besides, he seems to enjoy not having to know, for example, “who scored the third goal for Vegas last night.” Still, there’s something else, something almost existential, even if he might bark at someone who used the word: McCown spent his career watching sports actively, as a film critic watches movies, “constantly absorbing things and making mental notes of things that may relate to something I should know, a question I may ask. Enjoyment has almost nothing to do with it.” Now, he admits, he’s watching less and less. Without three hours of airtime to fill every day, what’s the point of even formulating the questions?
We touch base a few times over the ensuing months. Then, on a Sunday morning last month, he welcomes me in to his home office, to watch while he and Shannon (logging in from his own house) record a podcast interview with Ottawa Senators owner Eugene Melnyk. McCown’s office, a coffered-ceiling-and-fireplace number, is a shrine to his career, overstuffed with memorabilia: autographed photos of athletes and musicians; McCown bobbleheads; promotional posters of his various radio and TV shows through the years, one of which has a photo of him at the mic and block letters that spell out “MORONS!”, presumably aimed at listeners who called in; framed newspaper and magazine interview clippings, including one from 2005 in which he is posing, bug-eyed, pretending to read a children’s book about Valentine’s Day to his then-three-year-old daughter, Alison, while his wife, Christina, looks on with adoration.
A few minutes before they patch Melnyk in to the Zoom call, McCown, Shannon, and their producer are kicking around ideas of what to discuss with him. Shannon notes that Melnyk made much of his money in pharmaceuticals (he founded Biovail), so they decide to kick things off by asking for his perspective on the forthcoming COVID-19 vaccines.
You can tell McCown is engaged with this line of questioning, moreso than when talk eventually turns to how the NHL will proceed with the coming season and Melnyk’s optimism around the Senators. Later, sitting at his kitchen table, he play-acts how he felt “as soon as we got into hockey”: his eyes shut, his head lolls to the side, and he slumps as if gripped by a bout of narcolepsy. He knows a portion of the audience wants to hear Melnyk talk about where his team is at in their rebuilding process, but he believes a wide swath of listeners are looking for something else.
His instincts always served him well before, and as he talks about the audience he is trying to reach – the same audience that used to listen to him – his speech takes on a swaggering, rat-a-tat, italicized quality, like Robert De Niro’s Al Capone in The Untouchables. “You know who I talk to? The 55-year-old millionaire, works on Bay Street. In my mind, that’s my target audience. What’s he interested in? He’s a bus-iness guy, he’s interested in bus-iness! He’s interested in economics, he’s interested in behind-the-scenes! That’s why – who did I talk to [on the show]? Owners, general managers, presidents. That’s who I talked to!”
His blood pressure seems to be rising.
“I saw the demographics of my audience [at The Fan], I owned Bay Street! There was nobody – now, this is all ego talking, but it’s true! – there was no radio show in Toronto, in Canada, that reached more wealthy, influential, white-collar people. Not one. Not a music station – nobody else. I owned them.”
This is why, he says, it was so boneheaded of Rogers to let him go.
Before we proceed, a word about McCown and his relationship to authority. It seems to be not a coincidence that his career gained traction in the middle of the 1980s, around the same time as the rise of David Letterman and Howard Stern. Whether consciously or not, he found harmony in their key, playing a faux modest grump aggrieved by his own success and the pinheads who surround him. He would refer to his bosses, Rogers Media president Keith Pelley (a friend who left in 2015) and Sportsnet president Scott Moore (with whom he has a “love-hate thing,” who left in 2018) as “Thing 1 and Thing 2.” And he would take shots at the company.
But now, even as he insists he is not bitter, he is evidently in the midst of an unburdening. And it does not seem to be an act.
“I generated between $7-million and $11-million of revenue. I generated between $4-million and $8-million in profit. Profit!” he says. He runs through the roster of other talent Rogers cut loose in the summer of 2019. “Now, I love Kypreos – but what did he generate?” he begins. “John [Shannon]? Bit player. [Doug] MacLean? Bit player.” In contrast, McCown says, he was the only person Rogers could point to directly and say, his contribution led directly to profits. “This little island in the middle of this gigantic continent makes money. You can see it! It’s easy to compute! And yeah, it cost them a lot, more than it cost anybody else. But it made a profit. Why would you [mess] that up? That makes no sense!”
(Sportsnet declined comment.)
He admits now the episode sent him into a bit of a spiral. Was that what prompted the split with Christina? “I can’t answer that,” he says. He pauses, reconsiders the question. “I mean, there’s no doubt that I went through a transition. I can tell you that I was cool with it. But I was” – another pause – “unprepared. And, essentially, I got retired. And for a couple of months, I sat around here. And that wasn’t good for my relationship with her.”
He’d recently lost “a lot of money” after Mike Weir’s winery, in which he had a significant ownership stake, was pushed into bankruptcy. “There were a whole load of things going on, and I was probably pretty miserable to live with. And she decided to find happiness elsewhere.
“And I take responsibility for it. For some of it. Because if I was a better husband, if I didn’t have all this newness pressure on me, the uncertainty about ‘What do I want to do now?’, I would have been a better husband. And maybe, maybe things would have turned out differently. But they didn’t.”
At 20 years, his marriage to Christina was the longest of his four relationships.
So now he is trying to move forward. He’s lost about 30 pounds. “I went – whoa! If I’m going to find somebody else, I’d better look better than this!” he laughs. His lawyer’s girlfriend made him a profile on Match.com. “I’ve got broads coming out of the woodwork.”
And the podcast seems promising – this week he said it is now up to 100,000 downloads a month – but he admits the build is taking longer than he expected. “My [Sportsnet] audience, a significant percentage of it, probably the majority of it, are not traditional podcast listeners,” he says. “You have to spoon feed them how to do it on. That was part of the equation that we sort of missed.”
He’s convinced there’s money to be made. Like many aspiring podcasters, he cites Joe Rogan, the comic-turned-podcaster who signed a $100-million (U.S.) deal with Spotify last spring. “Now, I’m not Joe Rogan,” McCown acknowledges. “But I was more than Joe Rogan before there was Joe Rogan.
“I said to the guys” – by which he means John Shannon and their producer – “look, Rogan was making $30-million a year. We’re in Canada, we should be able to do 10 per cent of that. If we made $3-million a year, I’d be okay with that! Even carving it up. So that was sort of our objective.”
A couple of weeks ago, when The Globe and Mail first reported that Rogers was considering replacing the Blue Jays’ home with a smaller stadium and a mixed-use development, McCown texted to say that, some years ago, he had been involved in a mammoth, three-stadium proposal that might still be relevant. Would I like to hear the details?
We hopped on another call, and he sketched it out: Backed by a friend, a former pro sports owner with access to tens of billions of dollars of capital, he pitched the federal government on a development that would use the entire Downsview Airport site in the north end of Toronto for a new stadium district. It would include a baseball stadium, an arena for a second Toronto NHL team, a football stadium for an expansion NFL team, a high-performance sports school, a large central park, retail, and housing for 60,000 residents. Oh, and a monorail to service the entire, carless property. And a moat – for sailing in the summer and skating in the winter, with Tim Hortons placed every mile or so, for hot chocolate pitstops. They drafted Moshe Safdie, the iconic Montreal architect perhaps best known for Expo 67′s Habitat apartment project; so what if he’d never designed a stadium before?
“It was my concept initially, and it just kept getting bigger and bigger and bigger, and I just kept going because nobody said, No, you can’t do that.” But after Bell Media and Rogers Media teamed up to buy Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment in 2011, a second Toronto NHL team seemed unlikely. Other distractions stalled the project.
“We wanted to build something that was otherworldly. It would have put Toronto on the map in a way that it never has been and probably won’t be,” McCown said. But “the intriguing thing is, I talked to my partner yesterday and told him about the story in The Globe. And the first thing he said is, ‘should we go back and take a look at our big project?’.”