THE BALL'S IN HIS COURT: TONY PETITTI '83 ASCENDS TO HIGH POSITION AT CBS SPORTS
All his life, Tony Petitti '83 has been a fan of sportsâ€”particularly of college football.“So it's funny,” the former catcher and co-captain of the Haverford baseball team admits,“that I chose a small school with no football team at all.”
Nowadays, Petitti enjoys all the football he can handleâ€”as well as golf, tennis, and basketballâ€”as Executive Vice President of CBS Sports. He was promoted in November, after serving as Executive Producer for three years.
As Executive Vice President, Petitti oversees the daily operations of CBS Sports, handles the acquisition of new programming (the network recently secured a new six-year deal with the PGA Tour to remain the dominant broadcast network with 20 events each year), and maintains relationships with current rights' holders for the NFL, Super Bowl XXXVIII, the NCAA Men's Basketball Championship, the PGA Tour, the Masters, the PGA Championship, college football, and the U.S. Open Tennis Championships. He still performs his Executive Producer duties: staffing on-air talent and production personnel, creating and approving graphics and set design, purchasing and developing new technology, supervising event coverage, and monitoring editorial content for all programs. With Sean McManus, President of CBS News and Sports, Petitti also serves as Executive Producer of the NFL on CBS.
“Basically,” he says,“I'm responsible for everything you see on Sunday.”
Petitti, who currently lives in Westchester, N.Y., with his two daughters, 11-year-old Danielle and seven-year-old Alison, began his sports broadcasting career as a legal eagle. An economics major at Haverford, he graduated from Harvard Law School in 1986 and worked two years at the law firm of Cadwalader, Wickersham, and Taft before joining ABC Sports in 1988 as general attorney.“I saw it as an opportunity to work at something I loved,” he says.“I knew I didn't feel that way about law.” (He hasn't practiced since 1991.) He later became Director and then Vice President of Programming.
Petitti was responsible for acquiring and scheduling ABC Sports Programming, and created the Bowl Championship Series to determine college football's national champion. He was exposed to quite a different collegiate atmosphere than the one he remembered from his own undergraduate days.“I loved the Haverford experience, and being at a small school,” he says,“but it was fascinating to me to travel to these college games across the country and see 80,000 people in the stands week after week.”
The development of the unprecedented Bowl Championship Series raised Petitti's profile in the world of sports broadcasting, and in 1997 he was hired by Sean McManus, then the new president of CBS Sports, as Senior Vice President of Business Affairs and Programming, managing such activities as contract negotiations. In this position, he was instrumental in the network's reacquisition of the NFL in 1998.
“That was a real team effort,” he recalls.“We were constantly creating presentations and pushing our agenda. Every day I would go home and wonder if we really had a chance at this deal.” Since the NFL negotiates broadcast rights every six to eight years, Petitti knew that CBS would have a long wait ahead of them if the deal fell through.“We found out that the letter (securing the broadcast rights) had been signed on a Monday night, and the next morning it was on the front page of the local papers.” Given the amount of armchair spectators who opt to watch football games from the comfort of their living rooms, this achievement was a huge ratings coup for CBS.
After a stint as Vice President and General Manager of New York's WCBS-TV, Petitti returned to CBS Sports in 1999 as Executive Producer, where he was assigned to handle the broadcasts of such pressure-cooker events as the 65-team NCAA Division I men's basketball championshipâ€”March Madness.“From noon Thursday until one in the morning on Friday, we're producing 32 basketball games at once, bouncing the audience around from game to game, making sure they see the finishes. There's a lot of moving from one place to the other technically.”
The Super Bowl telecast is also both a blessing and a hassle for the CBS Sports staff.“With the number of people watching, the pressure to make it perfect is intense,” says Petitti,“and things will happen that you can't control.” That includes, of course,“wardrobe malfunctions” like Janet Jackson's infamous halftime performance in 2004.“That was nothing that anyone knew about,” Petitti reports,“just two performers pulling an idiotic stunt.” The evening of the mishap, he arrived home to hear his daughter ask,“Are you going to get fired because of Janet Jackson?”
That particular Super Bowl incident inspired significant changes in censorship and television across the board. But regarding the medium of sports broadcasting, Petitti finds that, during his nearly two decades in the business, it hasn't changed as much as one would expect.“The basic storytelling aspect, the presentation of the game, that's pretty much the same,” he says.“But there's a lot more we can do today because of technologyâ€”subtle things, like camera positions or special effects, so that the way in which a game is covered has evolved.”
Three of CBS Sports' popular technological innovations were Petitti's brainstorms. He devised StatTrax, a graphics program that reveals the stats of whichever player currently carries the ball, to appeal to“fantasy football” leaguers who track the stats of individual players to score points. GameTrax reveals real-time football scores from across the country at the bottom of the screen during a particular game, and does the same with basketball scores during the NCAA tournament. And then there's SwingVision, an extremely slow-motion camera that allows for replays of certain golf swings.“We wanted to show what a golf swing looks like when it's broken down frame-by-frame,” says Petitti.“You can actually see how Tiger Woods' club connects with the ball.”
Petitti has won three Emmy Awards. In 2004 the network's coverage of the Masters' Tournament was named Best Live Sports Special (â€œIt's like our version of Best Picture”) and received an award for Outstanding Short Feature for part of that year's Super Bowl broadcast. In 2003, CBS Sports won Best Live Turnaround for its showing of the Tour de France. Petitti himself was named one of Sports Business Journal's“40 Under 40” top industry executives in 2000.
But awards and accolades take a backseat to the pure pleasure Petitti takes in his work.“When I was younger, it never occurred to me that I would someday be able to do the things I'm doing today at CBS,” he says.“I love going to work every day. I'm incredibly lucky.”