Influential YES Network Producer John Filippelli Celebrates 40 Years in Sports TV
“Anything for Flip.”
Ask anyone at the YES Network for something and tell them that John Filippelli, the network’s president of production and programming, sent you, and that’s the response you’re likely to get. He’s the type of boss that employees will run through a wall for (and there’s no proof that there aren’t a few who actually have).
It also doesn’t hurt that he’s a genius at what he does. This summer marks the iconic producer’s 40th year in sports television, a career loaded with accomplishments, accolades, and a knack for building television magic from scratch.
With more than 100 national Emmy nominations and more than 100 New York Emmy nominations, Filippelli has established himself as the go-to producer for major national and international sports events. He’s also one of the industry’s few pillars who have worked their way up from senior positions in the truck to upper management.
“The thing that really jumps out at me about him is that most bosses I have come across are all about negatives,” says Michael Kay, the lead play-by-play man on Yankees telecasts on YES Network since its launch. “You only hear from them when things are bad. Flip is hardly like that at all. Flip will call you and tell you, Great game, What a great call. [With] a boss [who calls] and tells you something good, when he tells you something is bad, you really do take notice. It doesn’t become white noise. I think it’s really special when you have a boss that tells you when things are going well. He has that run-through-a-wall ability with his workers.”
Filippelli understands the tremendous power of a sports-television producer and his or her crew in telling the story of games that matter so much to the viewer at home. He regularly tells those who work for him that “the way that we cover a game is almost as important as the game itself, because the imagery and commentary we provide become lasting memories for our viewers.”
He’s a professional aided by perspective.
“It’s exhilarating, but it can also be daunting,” Filippelli says. “You try not to think about it, but you do understand the overview. When you have a moment that is great, you have a responsibility to underscore that moment, not to overproduce or overdirect that moment. You have a responsibility to shape that memory. The pictures, the audio, and the commentary that you send out is going to define that moment and how that moment is remembered.”
Fox Sports EVP of Operations Ed Delaney, a longtime colleague at The Baseball Network and YES Network, notes that Filippelli is “very creative from the production side. He has attention to detail. He’s a tremendous leader. He knows how to motivate people. He knows how to pull back on the reins when he needs to, and he’s clear and concise with his direction.”
An All-American Story
Filippellli’s story is as Americana as it gets. He was born in Brooklyn, where his father owned a bar across the street from Ebbetts Field. Young Flip’s first job, at age 16, was as a vendor at, where else, Yankee Stadium.
Throughout his television career, Filippelli has produced a high-profile catalog of events: the Olympic Games, Super Bowls, Monday Night Football, the Indianapolis 500, Wimbledon, the NHL, the PGA Tour, British Open golf, the BCS College Football Championship Series, and ABC’s Wide World of Sports. But his true passion was baseball.
During his time at NBC Sports in the ’70s and ’80s, he was a lead producer for numerous MLB Game of the Week, League Championship Series, All-Star Game, and World Series telecasts. His more notable productions included Game 1 of the 1988 World Series (the famous Kirk Gibson game) and, for Fox Sports, the 1998 game where Mark McGwire slugged his record-breaking 62nd home run.
Filippelli also played a key role in The Baseball Network, a short-lived (yet pioneering) broadcasting venture in 1994 that called for the league to produce its own games and make them available to its broadcasting partners at NBC and ABC.
He coordinated every aspect of the production of 14 simultaneous MLB game telecasts on any given night, a concept that seems commonplace in today’s world of league and national cable networks but was wildly radical in the early ’90s.
“When it comes to baseball, he knows the sport better than anybody,” says Delaney. “His knowledge of baseball and production is top-notch.”
A Baseball Breakthrough
To baseball fans, the 1996 World Series — for better or worse — represents the birth of a modern-day New York Yankees dynasty. That Fall Classic, however, was also a pivotal moment in the history of sports television. It marked the first World Series carried by the young, upstart Fox Sports. The industry watched that World Series with a highly critical eye. Thanks in part to Filippelli, Fox’s productions stepped up in a big way.
“There was such a focus on us at Fox and if we could do baseball,” he recalls. “The answer was, we really could. Not only could we, we did, and we redefined how baseball coverage was.”
He also put an innovative stamp on his career and on the industry during that Series on one of its most decisive plays. In the third inning of Game 6, Joe Girardi smacked an RBI hit over the head of Braves centerfielder Marquis Grissom that the Yankee catcher legged out for a triple. In a medium where so much emphasis is placed on the slow-motion instant replay, Filippelli instead chose to show Girardi chugging around the bases in full speed. Of course, it wasn’t the first full-speed replay ever shown, but it was rare, and it certainly made many a producer and director take notice.
“Why would you show speed in slow motion?” he reflects. “You had guys like Mookie Wilson and Dave Winfield, [whose] going from first to third was a thing of beauty. If you want to show it in slow motion to show their strides, I get it, but the story is going from first to third. Why would you want to show that in slow motion? If a centerfielder chases down a fly ball, it’s the fact that he had the speed to catch up to that ball that matters. Speed is important in a game.”
For a man with such deep roots in the industry, you wouldn’t fault Filippelli for being a little old school in his approach. Instead, he has been one of the business’ most innovative production heads. YES Network was the first television network to produce 3D and interactive MLB telecasts and the first to put the pitch count on the screen for the entirety of the game. YES was also at the forefront of regional sports networks when it moved to a standalone HD channel in 2007. And he continues to innovate, experimenting with the 360-degree replay system called freeD in 2013.
“Anything that enhances the telecast is something that you should embrace,” says Filippelli. “You have to pick the right technology and see what works for you from an editorial sense. Don’t do technology just to do technology. A lot of people do that, and I don’t know what that accomplishes.”
Perhaps it was his eye for both innovation and talent — on screen and in the truck — that made him the man to help guide the launch of the groundbreaking YES Network in 2002. Then-Yankees owner George Steinbrenner gets much-deserved credit for having the vision and the audacity to believe that a 24/7 television network dedicated to one sports franchise was possible. But, when it came to executing that vision, it was Filippelli and folks like Delaney who made it happen, building everything from the ground up in just one baseball offseason.
“It was a great challenge, there’s no question,” says Filippelli. “The truth is, it wasn’t so much meeting the mandate of quality. I knew that we could do that. I knew that we could put this on the air. I knew that we could do baseball games. The real challenge was the ticking clock. We had only four months to put this thing together from soup to nuts: [besides] all of the things that are endemic to a network, such as putting games on the air and what that takes — which is enough — but all the programming that a 24/7 network [requires]. What’s it going to look like? Who is going to design the graphics? Who is in charge of the audio? How do you get a picture from point A to point B? Who is going to handle all of the network operations? Who are the on-air talent going to be? Who are the producers and directors? The list of questions was endless; the list of answers was finite.”
In the 13 years since that first day on the air, YES Network has thrived, regularly setting the ratings standard for a regional sports network and setting a level of quality that has earned the network 92 New York Emmy Awards out of a staggering 346 nominations. He has literally run out of shelf and desk space for the statues in his Upper East Side office. And yet he remains exceptionally easy to root for; his feet very much on the ground.
“He was somebody that wanted to know you just as much as a person as he wanted to know you as a talent,” says Kay. “The first couple of weeks after I agreed to take the job, I might have talked with him every night for over two hours. I had never been a full-time TV guy, so I just assumed this is the way the business is. We talked about everything. We talked about life, baseball, but didn’t talk that much about working on TV. He just wanted to get to know me, and, through that process, not only did he become my boss, but we became very close friends.”
Further up the Road
If you’re wondering, Filippelli is not thinking about retirement. At least not until he stops loving waking up each morning, reading up on the storylines, and coordinating with his on-air and behind-the-scenes talent.
“As long as I enjoy this thing and I’m excited about tonight’s telecast and I enjoy the people that I work with, I will do this for as long as this is important to me. I don’t see any reason to stop. As long as someone is giving the forum to allow me to do this and appreciates what I can do and the product that we are putting on the air, then my career will continue to be worthwhile and satisfying.”
Those he works with don’t see that passionate fire flickering out any time soon.
“I think he still loves it as much as he probably did the first day,” says Kay. “He still has the energy and the emotion. Every broadcast is so important to him, and we do 150 broadcasts. He used to do the major one a week, and each and every one of the 150 is just as important to him as Game 7 of the World Series.”