A Rough Start?

Extraordinary Machines

Dushan Milic

The Ballad of the Fabulous Sports Babe

The rise and fall (and rise) of a sports-talk radio pioneer

Nanci Donnellan, better known as the Fabulous Sports Babe, walked slowly one afternoon this past April to a table at a gelato shop on Beach Drive in St. Petersburg. She wore white Easy Spirit sneakers and a pink T-shirt and baggy rainbow-striped shorts. Her hands shook slightly.

“I’m the Babe,” she said.

Donnellan once was a sports-talk radio phenomenon, loud, brash, and 5-foot-2 and 300-plus pounds. She quickly became one of the top personalities on ESPN Radio when she debuted in the summer of 1994. She was the first woman ever to host a nationally syndicated sports show, and many in the industry consider her a trailblazer not just because of her gender but also because of her caustic, entertainment-first, sports-second style. She was the first person to have her sports radio show translated to TV. She signed a lucrative book deal with ReganBooks, the same publisher who turned Rush Limbaugh and Howard Stern into best-selling authors. She was a guest on Late Night with Conan O’Brien. She was written about in Newsweek.

It was a long way down. She got sick. Shows got canceled. She went mostly silent. This past January, she was in her fourth year doing a local show in a midday slot on the second-tier AM sports station in the Tampa Bay market, near her home, when she disappeared. The station said she had health problems. It was hard to know when or if she would return. She was replaced in late February.

In April, at the gelato shop, she sat at the table and took off her sunglasses.

“On January 22, I had a stroke,” she said. “You’re the first person I’ve told that to.”

But now she was better, she said, or at least getting better, and going to a speech pathologist. At times, she spoke sort of deliberately, but her diction was unmuddled. She thought she was ready to be back on the air.

The Babe wanted to work again, Nanci said. “I’d go anywhere at all.”

The Babe was born some 40 years after Nanci. It was 1989. She was working at WFNS-AM 910, the Tampa Bay area’s first all-sports radio station, and she was at her Pinellas County home doing her show prone after wrenching her back playing golf. “SPEND THE DAY,” she said, “WITH A FABULOUS SPORTS BABE!” The Fabulous Sports Babe. It floated out of her mouth and over the air like a cartoon lightbulb. The moniker was almost accidental, but Nanci recognized its power: In 1991, she went to Seattle, to all-sports KJR, where she earned $135,000 a year, quadrupled ratings, and saw her face on billboards. On July 4, 1994, in a studio in Bristol, Connecticut, she did her first show for ESPN.

“HONNNEEEEE, I’M HOME!”

Her catchphrases became her calling cards.

“Talk to me, Bubba.”

“What is it, Sugar?”

“DOOFUS ALERT!”

“GET A JOB, GET A HAIRCUT, GET A LIFE!”

“MY DARLINGS! HOLD TIGHT! MAMA IS COMING BACK FOR MORE CALLS …”

Her ESPN show began in July with 29 affiliates. By September, that number was 64; by the following February, it was 111; by the start of 1996, it was 170 and counting. Some 200,000 callers a month dialed 1-800-SAY-BABE for the chance to be one of the roughly 200 a day who made it on air to talk. The Babe attracted boldface names as guests. Pete Rose. David Stern. Mike Tyson. Crowds packed bars to watch her do the show on coast-to-coast tours. Newsweek called the Babe “the hottest new voice in the airstream.”

“She had a little more of a shtick, if you will, a showbiz side,” said Mark Champion, who worked in sports radio in Tampa during the Babe’s rise, before going on to become the play-by-play man for the Detroit Pistons. “She was acerbic. She would cut people off, she would hang up on people …”

“She was as good a sports personality as we’ve ever had,” said Stuart Layne, vice-president of marketing and sales for the Mariners when the Babe was in Seattle.

“No one on the airwaves sounded like the Fabulous Sports Babe,” said Linda Cohn, the SportsCenter anchor who befriended her in Bristol.

The Babe got famous. The Babe got rich. And the Babe let Nanci be somebody else.

It was easier that way.

Rays game. Tropicana Field. The Babe walked into the press box. She had on her Easy Spirit sneakers and her rainbow shorts. Sports reporters hadn’t seen her for months. They gathered around and asked how she was.

“I’m alive,” she said.

“You look good.”

“I feel good.”

She picked up some sheets of statistics and continued to her seats, down behind home plate, holding the rails and walking with a ginger, unsteady gait.

“I’m not actively doing anything,” she said. “I mean, people talk to me, and I chat with them, but I’m just enjoying my time right now.”

She reiterated, though, that she wanted to work again.

And if she didn’t? I asked how she’d feel about that.

“If that’s the way it’s going to be, that’s OK,” she said. “I’ll do a little Twittering here and there.”

On the field, the Rays’ Matt Moore prepared to pitch. In the stands, Nanci ate peanuts.

“Come on, kid,” she said.

A foul ball went into the stands. It caromed off an empty seat and took a big bounce. A woman wearing a glove reached up and snatched it.

“Way to go, girlfriend!” Nanci said. “Way to go, girl!”

I asked her about her mother.

“She was an Air Force wife,” she said.

Her stepfather?

“He was there.”

And she was an only child?

“Yes.”

Any kids?

“No.”

Ever marry?

“I think once,” she said. “I don’t remember.”

She shook shells off her shirt. “This is the best,” she said, and stared out at the field.

I asked her where she went to high school.

“Everywhere,” she said.

Everywhere?

“Six high schools.”

Where?

“Nobody cares where I went to high school. I don’t have friends from then.”

What about college?

“I went to like seven different colleges.”

Which ones?

She wouldn’t say.

Up on the Jumbotron flashed the winners of the StubHub seat upgrade. Two middle-aged women got to sit in easy chairs closer to the field. Their names were Anita and Lois. They waved at the crowd.

“Oh, I love them!” she said. “I want to be Anita and Lois right now.”

I asked if maybe sometime I could come visit her at her house on the water on a curvy dead-end road.

“Never going to happen.”

I asked if I could call her doctor to talk about her stroke and her ongoing recovery.

“You cannot,” she said. “Just stop.”

I asked her age.

“Do not put my age in there, help me God,” she said. “You can’t. It will screw me completely. Just tell them you forgot to ask.”

What’s the difference, I finally asked, between Nanci and the Babe?

Here, when talking about the Babe, Nanci was far more forthcoming.

“I can remember being on the national show and some guy from, like, Louisiana, he would call up and call me Nanci, and it was like, ‘Fuck you. Fuck. You. You have no idea who I am.’ Even now, it’s like, ‘Don’t call me that.’ It’s not the same person. The Babe is one thing that was on the radio, on TV, to be something. For a very, very long time, I would get pissed. You know, I’ve done this, I’ve been this person, for 15, 20 years, and people call me Nanci. Don’t call me Nanci. You don’t know who I am.

“I know I had to be that person,” she said.

“I had to,” she said.

“I had to,” she said again.

Nanci was born at Newton-Wellesley Hospital just outside Boston. Her mother was a Tampa-born Cuban. Her father was a high school history teacher. They split when she was a toddler. Her mother married an Air Force officer. They moved around a lot for his job — Alabama, Ohio, Washington, Libya. She listened to her little yellow transistor radio under the covers after lights-out and alone in the backseat on the family’s long car rides. The radio, she would say later, was her constant in the absence of others, her companion, her “dream machine.” The songs and the shows let her go in her mind to worlds that were not her own.

She graduated from Clover Park High School near Tacoma, Washington, in 1966. She went for four semesters to the University of Tampa, from 1966 to 1968, but didn’t graduate. She enrolled at Northeastern University in Boston in 1970, but she didn’t graduate from there, either. She started in radio in the ’70s at stations in Boston and on Cape Cod, working as a news intern, a traffic reporter, an overnight disc jockey. But she really wanted to do sports talk, even before there was such a thing in a 24-hour format, and she used these entry-level slots to work toward that. The first time was at the station on the Cape. The guy who usually read the scores was late to work. She wrote the copy instead. In 1981, she moved to Tampa, where she started doing sports full-time and ultimately made the transition. From Nanci to the Babe.

As the Babe became increasingly public, first in the latter part of her time in Tampa, then in Seattle, then at ESPN, her career cresting, Nanci remained mostly private.

Profiles of her ran in papers around the country. The Babe talked a lot. Nanci did not.

“Nanci is a private person,” she told Newsday.

“I keep that separate,” she told the Philadelphia Daily News.

“I told you I fell out of the sky,” she told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.

Want to know more? “Read it in my book,” she said in the Boston Globe.

The book came out in 1996. It was filled with gratuitous profanity and sophomoric potshots. The Babe in Boyland, which Neal Karlen of Rolling Stone was hired to write, was done almost entirely in the voice of an exaggerated version of the character Nanci had created. She called her listeners and her readers “assholes.” She called Bristol, the home of ESPN, “the Petticoat Junction boonies.” It was pitched as sort of a shock-jock tell-all, but it didn’t tell much, and it wasn’t about Nanci. It was about the Babe. Nanci made sure of it. The few brief parts that seemed by and about Nanci rang true. But they felt like slipups. Like embittered, incomplete snippets.

My parents didn’t believe in what I was ever doing, and the end result was that I felt like I didn’t really have a family at all.

She was into sports. She liked to play them, watch them, listen to them. Her mother and stepfather, on the other hand, wanted her to be “a human Barbie doll.”

To be honest, I feel as if everything I’ve accomplished in life has been in spite of my family’s lack of support.

They weren’t conversation starters. They were conversation enders. The message: Nanci’s off-limits.

I am Babe and Babe is me.

“She drew such a stark line between the character and herself,” said Karlen, who later worked at Minnesota Public Radio. “There were things she wouldn’t discuss. It was like the Berlin Wall. You just didn’t go there. She really did not want to break out of the Babe mode. She really had a fully developed character.

“She was ruthlessly not Nanci Donnellan,” Karlen said.

“She was sort of a fugitive of herself,” he added.

Many of the people who knew her knew the Babe more than they knew Nanci.

“She alluded to some issues she had growing up,” said Joe Fasi, who was her agent early on. “She actually came to Milwaukee” — where he lived — “for Christmas one year. I think she had nowhere to go or no one to spend Christmas with.”

“I didn’t ever meet any family of hers,” said Tommy Connolly, who worked with her in Tampa.

“There’s actually two people in there,” said Tedd Webb, another former Tampa co-worker, “one person that’s Nanci Donnellan and one that’s the Fabulous Sports Babe.”

“She had a whole other side,” said Rick Scott, a sports radio consultant who knew her in Seattle.

“My wife and I gave her a ride back to Bristol from New York City once,” said Jim Cutler, who did voice-overs for her show at ESPN. “She hung out with a lady named Mary Anne at the time, whom she called Flounder, affectionately.”

The people who knew the Babe, though, generally weren’t the same people who knew Nanci. Nanci did have friends. There was a Michael. A Rick. A Tom. A Kathleen. A Jane.

“The first time I met her, it was like, hello,” said Jane Steinberg, who worked for ABC and got to know the Babe in Bristol and New York before getting to know Nanci in Florida. “She was amazing. I thought she was funnier than hell and incredibly smart.

“When I first became friends with her,” Steinberg said, “I was surprised to see an incredible group of friends.” From Miami. From North Carolina. From Cape Cod. “I was happy, really, really happy, that there was this amazing group of friends, and it was only when I had an opportunity to meet her on her turf, which was Florida, where she was incredibly comfortable, that I met some friends who [would] come over, wonderful people, long-term friends, very outgoing, interesting people. Nobody who’d been in the business.”

Steinberg calls Nanci brilliant and sassy and spicy.

“I think she’s a wonderful and complicated human being,” she said.

There is a lot that is inward about me,” Nanci said. Late June by now. She was still looking for work. We were having lunch in St. Pete.

“I used the Babe,” she explained. “I just didn’t want to use Nanci …

“I think my entire focus was 100 percent on the Babe … I think everything was about being that person and being that brand.”

“You just didn’t, and don’t, let as many people see Nanci,” I said.

“I think that’s true,” she said. “I think that’s very true.”

“Does Nanci like Nanci?”

“Nanci likes Nanci OK,” she said. “I mean, Nanci’s been through a few things that have been pretty interesting of late …

“I don’t see anything wrong with Nanci other than the fact that I put it away so I could be somebody different.”

She was wearing another pink shirt. This pink shirt had on the front a black-and-white photo of a group of women.

“Who’s on your shirt?” I asked.

“Who’s what?”

“On your shirt.”

She looked down. She thought for a second.

“That’s my friend Paula. My friend Karen. People that I used to know. You see her dressed up with her glove on. We put her in right field.

“Boston. Long time ago,” she said. “They threw us out there and we played softball. I played an awful lot of third base and catcher. Mostly third base.”

I looked at the photo. I looked at her.

“Can we talk about love?” I asked.

“About what?” she said.

“Love.”

“You can if you want to.”

“Can we?”

“What does that mean?”

“Whom have you loved?”

“I don’t think that’s anything I would ever talk about.”

“Which is fair.”

“It’s not something I would ever share in any way. I mean, I wouldn’t … I’m sure there have been times in and out … I don’t know how good that is for me, Michael … I’m not so sure that’s a very good move for me.”

“That it’s a very good what?”

“I don’t think it would be a good thing for what I do. You know what I mean? I don’t think it’s a good thing for me.”

“To share that?”

“Pardon me?”

“To share that.”

“I don’t think that would be good for what I do, because of what I do for a living. It could distract from what I’m doing.”

“But you have loved and been loved?”

“I would say yes, here and there, if you wanted to, yeah. What does that got to do with anything?”

“Who people love, and that they’re loved, is important, I think, to anybody. It’s a tough row to hoe if there’s not that.”

“I guess, I think, those spaces come at certain times in your life, but I’m not one to see — it wouldn’t be anything that I would be interested — you know, it could come for five years, it could come for 10 years, it could come for two years. But I don’t think … it can’t take away from what I’m doing …

“How is Jane?” she asked. “How is she? She sounded good?”

“She seemed like a really great person,” I said, “a great conversationalist, sounded like a really interesting woman.”

“She is.”

“And a smart woman.”

“Yes.”

“And she clearly cares for you, and seemed to have insight into who you are — who Nanci is, you know?”

She looked at me.

“Do other people know who Nanci is? Or do they not?”

I asked her: “Who is Nanci?”

“Just a nice girl trying to make a living,” she said. “Just a nice girl trying to make a living.

“And you have to do certain things,” she said.

The book, and what the New York Times said was the $225,000 that came with it, was a product of the Babe’s phenomenal success, but it also turned out to be the beginning of the end of it. People at ESPN, her bosses and many of her peers, didn’t like some of the things she had said, and understandably. Did she feel invincible? Was it some kind of subconscious effort to slow her ascent, to try to squelch any additional questions? Fame and privacy don’t mesh. Keeping both at once is hard.

Bristol was tense. “Every person on the planet seemed to complain about what I was doing and how I was doing it,” she wrote in the book. “But I stood my ground and told all the suits to please get out of my airstream.” In May 1997, though, the Babe left ESPN Radio and shifted to ABC Radio Networks. The departure was bitter but not unwelcome to some in Bristol. The ABC show was essentially the same. She was still nationally syndicated. She moved to New York. She got a nice apartment. She got season tickets to the New York Liberty.

Then she got a call in September 1998, at four on a Friday afternoon, and heard the words, “Yes, it’s malignant.” Breast cancer was an uncontrollable career detour. But that wasn’t the only thing that contributed to the decline of the Babe. Success runs in cycles. There’s only one way to go from the top. ABC let the Babe go in August 1999. Ratings had started to sag. She went to Sports Fan Radio Network the next month. That lasted a little more than a year. She was in third place behind ESPN and Fox Sports Radio. On her site, sportsbabe.com, she put up a Gone Fishing sign. It stayed there for the better part of the decade. She insists she regrets nothing.

Nanci has needed her friends.

In the five or so years she wasn’t on the air, Nanci went for long drives, the radio off all the way. She lived on her ESPN and ABC earnings. She hung around her house in Florida and eventually began doing some local on-air fill-in work. Friends who helped her through cancer helped again when she had both knees replaced in 2007. She started losing weight in an attempt to become healthier. She lost 175 pounds. Her friends helped her this year, too, during her recovery from her stroke. Some of them were at her house when it happened. They were watching football, and she started talking nonsense. Something wasn’t right, and so they drove her to the hospital, where she stayed for nearly two months.

She could barely speak. Her thoughts were scattered. She tried to plug her doctor’s number into her phone. “Dddfs Ddf,” she typed. Early in her time at the hospital, a nurse came into her room and wrote her name on a white dry-erase board on the wall.

NANCI.

And it was important to her, she said, because “it made all the difference in the world to me to know that Nanci was there, she was still there, she was floating around …”

Her friends knew she was on her way back when they started hearing swears and getting her sarcastic e-mails.

Gabe Hobbs, her agent, who works in St. Pete, began making calls.

“When I started pitching her around the country,” Hobbs said, “I would get, ‘I thought she passed away. I didn’t know she was still alive.’ The challenge now is to get people to think of her as still relevant.”

There were two morning slots open at the Tampa Bay market’s AM sports station. Hobbs talked to 620 WDAE about the Babe. She didn’t get either of the jobs.

“I think she deserves to work,” Hobbs said. “I want her to work. I’m going to do everything I can to help her work. I think eventually someone will go ding, ding, ding. We’ve talked to several different stations in other markets and here.”

On sportsbabe.com in the spring, the Gone Fishing sign went away, replaced by a blog post.

hello?

hello?

hello?

A new FM sports radio station in the Tampa Bay market, 98.7 The Fan, debuted in August, and a new picture popped up on sportsbabe.com. It was of a business card. “On Air Talent,” it said. “Fabulous Sports Babe.” Her time slot? Two to six in the morning.

“That name, the Fabulous Sports Babe, is synonymous with sports radio,” said Mike Pepper, the program director for The Fan.

Overnights?

“It’s just what we had available,” he said. “And she wanted back in.”

And her health?

“We asked how she was feeling and she said fine,” he said. “I think the Babe’s the Babe.”

One recent late night, shortly after one in the morning, she sat in a studio in St. Pete. A CBS Radio lanyard hung from her neck. The ID card said “Fabulous Sports Babe.” She took a swig of iced coffee from a Thermos. On the desk was a Walmart sack with a six-pack of V8 energy drinks.

“The last time I did an overnight thing was a really long time ago,” she said. “I told them I’d like to get back in. I like the business. A lot of people don’t. I do. They said overnights and I said sure. Whatever.

“It’s just getting used to it,” she said.

Her partner at The Fan is Kathy Suzewits, who is 34 and goes by Rollergirl, because what the Babe has taught her, she says, is to “be someone else on the radio.” They went on the air at two. Rollergirl read the updates and scores. The Babe talked about the Rays and the Bucs.

“I am the Fabulous Sports Babe,” she said on the air at 2:22.

“I am the Fabulous Sports Babe,” she said on the air at 3:58.

“I am the Fabulous Sports Babe,” she said on the air at 4:39.

At six, after her show was over, she hobbled stiff-legged out of the studio and down the corridor and into the elevator. “Oh, my aching, aching self,” she said.

Outside, on the sidewalk by the parking lot, I asked the Babe once more about Nanci.

“Just a nice girl trying to make a living. I keep telling you that,” she said, the sky still more dark than light.

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