written by R.L. Bynum
As TV industry changed, Armstrong decided he was ready for a change
When Mark Armstrong finished an in-studio WTVD sportscast in March 2020, he had no idea that it would be his last.
Because of the pandemic, the station moved all sportscasts out of the studio. His sportscasts first shifted to the home of venerable photojournalist “Game Day” Charlie Mickens and then to the porch of Armstrong’s north Raleigh home.
“The first time I left, and they said, ‘All right, we want you working remotely now,’ it never would have ever occurred to me that I would never return to the studio and never do another in-studio sportscast,” said Armstrong, who left WTVD last month after nearly 17 years. “No. Absolutely not. I never would have had that thought that I would never return and never do another sportscast in there. But it’s crazy that it unfurled itself that way.”
The reason that he’ll never anchor another in-studio sportscast, though, is because he didn’t like the direction of the television industry as it related to sports and began looking for another career direction.
Even before the pandemic, he was already wondering about possible careers outside of sportscasting.
“As much as I would have liked to have just worked another 15 years and hung up my spurs, I just knew that wasn’t in all likelihood going to be a reality,” Armstrong said.
Going into public relations or marketing didn’t appeal to him. But an hourlong Zoom conversation in January with a childhood friend in Toronto who had a WOW 1 Day Painting franchise business piqued his interest. His friend’s business was doing well. Could that work for him?
Armstrong began the months-long process of securing a franchise with the same company. By the middle of April, he told WTVD that he was leaving, even though he had a contract through October, and his last day at the station was May 24. He’s in training now and expects to officially open his WOW 1 Day Painting business in August.
What skill sets from his years in TV will help?
“I think where it transfers is that I’m going to be very comfortable speaking to customers, and just striking up a rapport,” Armstrong said. “Talking is a very easy thing for me to do. Any nerves about showing up to a stranger’s house and coming in and doing the estimate and building a rapport with them and all that? I think that stuff will come very naturally to me.”
His will be the third WOW franchise in the Triangle, with his territory including areas including Wake Forest, Rolesville, Youngsville, Knightdale, Garner and Holly Springs.
Armstrong had lots of what he calls “affirming conversations” with people who have enjoyed life after television, including with Penn Holderness, a former WNCN news anchor.
“I think the pandemic may have hastened my decision, I think I could fairly say,” Armstrong said. “But I think I would have wound up in the same place eventually anyway.”
Growing up in Canada, he was enamored with the idea of being a sports writer after getting a Sports Illustrated subscription for his 10th birthday. That changed when he interned with a sports radio station and then a television station.
Being a franchise owner was never a dream, though. But he also never dreamed working as a sportscaster would change so much. Priorities are different and financial decisions have led to unimaginable changes, such as legendary hockey play-by-play voice John Forslund leaving his Carolina Hurricanes job rather than take a ridiculous pay cut.
“I have a lament for the direction of the business, in general,” Armstrong said. “I don’t have any laments for me because I got to live the life that I dreamed of as a kid. The stuff I experienced here I could never top in the future. There’s nothing I could cover going forward that is anywhere near as cool as what I already have covered, so I got to live the life I wanted to live. But I lament young sportscasters coming up where there won’t be the opportunities.”
There may be a diverse set of options for sportscasters these days. But Armstrong’s view is that they aren’t as rewarding.
“It’s not the same as being a local sportscaster and getting to cover the stuff I covered here,” he said. “That’s a whole different job than a lot of the sportscasting jobs available now. Being a local sportscaster is a super-cool thing and just having that bond with the community and those specific teams.”
He started his dream job in the hotbed of ACC sports in 2004 when his agent told him that WTVD had seen his tapes and wanted to hire him.
“I didn’t know anything about it,” Armstrong said. “I didn’t even know there was a vacancy or anything down here. I knew the teams that were down here. I didn’t know anything about the area. I joked at the initial interview that I would have run down but I was happy they flew me down instead from Baltimore, which is where I was working at the time.”
Armstrong’s love of the profession may have waned but his love of the area hasn’t. That’s why he and his wife wanted to continue to raise their three sons — 11-year-old twins and a six-year-old — in the Triangle.
“I wasn’t going to move my family all over the map trying to find sportscasting jobs. I wasn’t going to do that,” he said. “I’d already kind of started sniffing around but I wasn’t really looking with great intention. But once we got into the pandemic, then that process really kind of picked up speed.”
He tweeted a photo of himself wearing the Carolina Hurricanes sweater he got when he played in an alumni game and says that going from covering games to simply watching them has been easy. Now, when the game is over, there’s no work to do.
“It’s fun to just act like a fan now,” said Armstrong, who will likely never again miss a game involving his beloved Utah Utes. Even while he was at WTVD, considering there was no professional conflict to do so, his Utes fandom was routinely on display on Twitter.
“You raise your family around these teams and so I’ve got three little boys who like their Hurricanes,” he said. “So, of course, you end up having an affinity for the teams that you cover to a certain degree. And when you’re not covering them as a professional anymore, then it’s very easy to transition into this watching the games for fun.”
The big difference for his wife will come in March when Armstrong will no longer travel to ACC tournament and NCAA tournament venues around the country for most of the month. She’ll no longer be, as he says, “the classic March widow,” looking after their boys by herself.
Armstrong says he wasn’t emotionally torn when his long WTVD run ended.
“I don’t have any melancholy about that. I’m just so ready to move into what I’m doing next,” said Armstrong, who remembers covering his last Carolina Hurricanes games with former colleague Bridget Condon. “Bridget, at a couple of my last Hurricanes games, she’s like, ‘Do you want to cry?’ and I’m like no, I don’t feel any of that. I’m ready to turn the page. I’m gonna miss elements of the job, of course. But I’m just so ready. I’ve already mentally moved on.”
Armstrong felt that it was time to move on and said that he was never told he’d be out of a job.
“That was never expressed to me. I wasn’t told that I wasn’t going to be re-signed or anything like that. But what was expressed to me was that this sports department was going to be changing,” Armstrong said. “I took that to mean downsized. We weren’t going to be putting the resources into sports. We weren’t going to be having three on-air people. I was told that fairly directly, that the sports department certainly wasn’t gonna be the same size it was.
“And I had no interest in being on a two-person on-air sports department where if one person is on vacation, the other person has to work,” he said. “And you just spend your time forever chasing your tail accruing comp days and vacation days that you never use. So, I didn’t have any desire to go down that road.”
Armstrong watched the exit of Jeff Gravley, now working at N.C. State, after 30 total years at WRAL.
“I could definitely envision that not being out of the realm of possibility for me, too, in the near future,” Armstrong said. “My estimation is I probably could have ground out a couple more years. But then they might have said to me, ‘thanks, but no thanks. We don’t need a guy who’s been there 20 years and making that kind of money and stuff like that anymore because we don’t place that much budgetary value on sports anymore.’ ”
Condon and Joe Mazur are the remaining WTVD sports reporters/anchors, making it the only Triangle station with only two. WRAL has Jared Fialko, Kacy Hintz and Chris Lea and WNCN has Chris Clark, Todd Gibson and Alyssa Rae.
“I’m not at odds with them in any way,” Armstrong said. “I’m forever grateful to ABC 11 because I lived the dream. I’ve got no hard feelings toward ABC 11.”
The sportscasting landscape has changed dramatically since he first arrived in the Triangle. Sportscasters who preceded him at WTVD, including Don Shea, Rich Brenner and Drew Smith — and others in the market such as Tom Suiter, Nick Pond and Ray Reeve — had a bigger spotlight and more gravitas in a time before ESPN became a dominant TV sports force and online options became ubiquitous.
“None of us in sports media can overstate the impact of the internet on how it changed the very nature of the business, not only in terms of how people are ingesting their information but also the type of information they want,” Armstrong said. “It’s much more tabloidy now. Rather than sports guys like Don Shea at ABC 11 back in the day literally giving people the news of the day that they wouldn’t know, you’re giving people fresh information where they’re probably sitting there on pins and needles trying to learn what the headlines of the day are.
“Whereas the challenge nowadays is — if people already know the headlines of the day — how are you going to give them some kind of content that they don’t already know,” he said. “Or, how are you going to package stuff they already know in a way that they want to see you deliver it anyway.”
These days, sportscasters make themselves stand out with innovative approaches and by breaking news, and he did both. Armstrong broke his share of news, including being the first to report in 2017 that N.C. State was firing men’s basketball coach Mark Gottfried.
Over the years, the amount of time allotted to sportscasts at nearly every station has been trimmed, which makes the challenges even greater.
“Sports is always being pressured to prove why they should exist,” Armstrong said. “Why should we be putting money toward this? That gets tiring after a while and it gets frustrating. And then it’s just everything that everybody else is dealing with, too, like schools having their own media departments and stuff. Just the way the whole ground is shifting where the athletes and the teams, less and less, feel any compulsion to reach out to local media and utilize local media when they’ve got their whole apparatus already themselves.”
The way that WTVD has handled the exits of longtime meteorologist Chris Hohmann (whose last day was May 28) and anchor Tisha Powell (whose last day is June 30) compared to Armstrong (shown in below photo with Powell and Woody Durham) is perhaps more evidence of how stations view sports reporters these days.
While there was a story on the station’s website about the departures of Hohmann and Powell and elaborate on-air celebrations planned for both, there was no story on its website about Armstrong’s decision even though he informed the station more than a month before his last day.
Instead, The News & Observer broke the news of Armstrong’s departure. Maybe it wasn’t about sports, though, because something similar played out with the announcement of meteorologist Brittany Bell’s move to ABC flagship station WABC in New York (her last day was June 11). No story appeared on the station’s website. A story ran in The N&O, however, it came after Bell shared the news on social media.
Armstrong said his goodbyes to viewers on the 6 p.m., 10 p.m. (on WLFL) and 11 p.m. on his last night.
“I have no negative feelings at all about ABC 11 and how everything went down with me leaving,” Armstrong said.
Plenty of people have asked Armstrong why the station handled his departure differently but he’s not worried about it.
“Tisha and Chris have a much higher profile than I do and Chris, deservedly after 30 years, I think he deserved a huge send-off. And Tisha is a much more front-facing, widely known personality, so she deserved that as well,” said Armstrong, pointing out that while he joined the station the same year as Powell, she had many more Facebook fans. “Tisha’s place in the hierarchy of the station was much higher up than me. And the circumstances of why everybody’s leaving are slightly different. I totally get it. I wasn’t expecting some grand send-off. There are no hard feelings about that. We had a nice going-away party. All my friends from the station were there and that’s the only part that’s important to me.”
Covering the Super Bowls, Final Fours and all of the big games was a huge thrill but telling stories that might not otherwise be reported was rewarding to Armstrong. There was a recent story on the N.C. State sailing team, for example.
He chronicled a blind boy who overcame being mauled by a pet tiger to wrestle on his high school team.
“It all blends into one kind of amalgamation of just having met so many wonderful people and just feeling honored to have been allowed to tell stories all these years,” Armstrong said. “The most fun part of the job is being at the big events and all that kind of stuff where you feel like you’re at the center of the sporting universe. The most rewarding stuff is the little stories you tell and just seeing how much it means to the people whose story you’re telling. That’s the best part I’ll really miss.”
Triangle viewers, and colleagues in the press corps–especially those who enjoyed some late nights after covering games–will miss Armstrong as well.
Charlotte Observer mourns deaths of two beloved journalists
It’s been a sad and difficult spring for The Charlotte Observer with the deaths of photojournalist David T. Foster III and Charlotte Hornets beat writer Rick Bonnell. Both were loved by their colleagues, competitors and readers and had distinguished careers.
Foster, better known as “Frosty,” died May 24 at age 52. The award-winning photographer and videographer shot photos for many different stories, including numerous Carolina Panthers games and other sports events. A 1990 political science graduate of UNC, he began at the Observer in 1993 after three years at The Sun News of Myrtle Beach.
Bonnell, a Syracuse graduate who wrote for the Observer for 33 years, died June 1 at age 63. He had been the Hornets/Bobcats beat writer since the Hornets’ inaugural season in 1988–89. Before coming to the Observer, Bonnell wrote for the Syracuse Herald-Journal, where he covered the Orange’s 1984 football upset of No. 1 Nebraska and Syracuse’s run to the 1987 NCAA championship game.
When the NBA announced that the Hornets’ LaMelo Ball had been named Rookie of the Year, the Observer ran Bonnell’s final story posthumously. Always on top of his beat, Bonnell had anticipated Ball winning, even after missing a chunk of the season due to injury.
— Mick Mixon announced earlier this month that his upcoming 17th season as the radio voice of the Carolina Panthers will be his last. A three-time National Sports Media Association N.C. sportscaster of the year (1999, 2004 and shared with Woody Durham in 2009), Mixon, 62, was the color analyst on the Tar Heel Sports Network from 1989 until 2005. Mixon grew up in Chapel Hill and is a 1980 UNC graduate.
— Former Triangle radio host Taylor Zarzour will be on the play-by-play call, former Panthers star Steve Smith Sr. will be the analyst and Kristen Balboni will be the sideline reporter for the TV broadcasts of Carolina’s three exhibition games. When Zarzour was a host on Charlotte’s WFNZ, Smith made frequent appearances. Zarzour, a host for Triangle Sports Talk 1490/1090 in the mid-2000s, calls college football and baseball games on ESPN and the SEC Network and is a host on the PGA Tour Radio channel on Sirius XM Radio. Smith is an NFL Network analyst and Balboni is a team reporter for the Panthers.
— For the first time since early 2020, NFL reporters will be allowed to conduct in-person interviews if they are fully vaccinated, according to an NFL memo released Wednesday (media guidelines are on page 7). There will still be physical distancing. Fully vaccinated reporters will have access to team facilities, press boxes, fields, sidelines and locker rooms. Unvaccinated reporters won’t have any of that access.
— In a precursor to what should be a back-to-normal season for ACC football reporters, the ACC Kickoff press conference will be back to an in-person gathering on July 21 and 22 in Charlotte.
— Patrick Kinas, the radio voice of the Durham Bulls and N.C. State women’s basketball, among many other duties, will call early races in the swimming competition at the Tokyo Olympics for NBC, with Mike Tirico calling the competition after that. Kinas called swimming for Westwood One radio for previous Olympics, but the network isn’t broadcasting the competition this year. Daron Vaught has been filling in this season on Bulls broadcasts when Kinas has been away.
— Former UNC and NBA star Vince Carter and Duke women’s basketball coach and former Tennessee and WNBA star Kara Lawson, who also is a coach of the women’s 3-on-3 team, will be analysts on NBC’s Olympic basketball coverage.
— Jennifer Lynne Williams, a former reporter for the Tar Heel Sports Network and production assistant for Fox Sports South who is athletics director at Alabama State, was named chief development officer for the USA Basketball Foundation. Williams played basketball at UNC, earned a journalism degree from Carolina and a master’s in athletic administration from N.C. Central.
— Who says the Triangle isn’t a good soccer market? The Raleigh-Durham market was tied with Miami-Fort Lauderdale for the best ratings in the country for Euro 2020 coverage on ESPN and ABC during the opening weekend. Tied for third were Philadelphia, San Diego and Washington, D.C. Charlotte, which has Charlotte FC beginning MLS team play in 2022, didn’t make the top 10.
— A reminder of why you don’t see night or even mid-to-late afternoon sports in some cases in McClatchy print editions — the deadlines for the last pages are 9:30 p.m. for The Charlotte Observer, 7 p.m. for The N&O and 5:45 p.m. for The Herald-Sun. Those Durham pages are now designed by Express KCS personnel in India and they will begin producing Charlotte and Raleigh pages by Aug. 15.
— Mike Hogewood, who died in 2018, will be one of 10 inductees in the 2021 class of the Guilford County Sports Hall of Fame. Hogewood was a sportscaster for years at WGHP and WFMY in the Triad and worked on ACC football and basketball coverage for Jefferson Pilot/Raycom Sports. The induction ceremony will be Sept. 20.
— Jourdan Rodrigue, the Los Angeles Rams beat writer for the Athletic who formerly covered the Carolina Panthers for that site and for The Charlotte Observer, has earned the Professional Football Writers of America’s Terez A. Paylor Emerging Writer Award.
— Gregory Hall, a 2020 UNC graduate, has become a full-time staff writer for Inside Carolina after completing a two-year internship and working part time during the last school year for the UNC-focused 247 Sports website.
— Joey Chandler, who previously covered East Carolina for the Wilmington StarNews, has joined NJ Advanced Media and The Star-Ledger to cover the New York Jets.
— Justin Fitzgerald has joined the Cherokee Scout of Murphy as a sports reporter.
North Carolina-related sports stories of note
On Awful Announcing, Andrew Bucholtz talked to Stadium’s Jeff Goodman about how he broke the news that Mike Krzyzewski was going to retire as Duke coach after next season and be replaced by Jon Scheyer. He had a good Duke source and, after getting two other sources, Goodman tweeted the news.
In The N&O, Jonas Pope IV wrote about the comeback story of N.C. State safety Khalid Martin after suffering a spinal injury.
In The Athletic, Sara Civian wrote about the path from top prospect to waivers to rookie breakout season for Carolina Hurricanes goalie Alex Nedeljkovic.
On ESPN.com, David Hale wrote about turnovers in football and wondered if they are a product of more than luck. He noted that Wake Forest coach Dave Clawson puts a great deal of emphasis on avoiding them.
In a guest column in the News & Record of Greensboro, Ed Hardin wrote after Mike Krzyzewski’s retirement announcement that basketball in our state will never be the same.
In The N&O, Steve Wiseman wrote about Krzyzewski’s impending life transition.
On The Players Tribune, Kinston’s Reggie Bullock, a former UNC star and current New York Knick, wrote about the anguish of losing his two sisters because of violence in Baltimore — one was stabbed and the other was shot.
In the Chicago Tribune, Phil Thompson wrote that gregarious Chicago Bears wide receiver Dazz Newsome out of UNC isn’t your typical quiet rookie. He’s always talking.
For Barrett Sports Media, former Triangle sports talk show host Demetri Ravanos did an interesting Q&A about Triangle sports radio with Brian Maloney, the vice president of radio at Capitol Broadcasting Company.
In The Undefeated, Justin Tinsley remembered the epic 2001 Eastern Conference semifinals series between Allen Iverson and the Philadelphia 76ers and the Toronto Raptors and Carter.
On ESPN.com, Ryan McGee wrote about one of the greatest college baseball games in history between Yale, featuring Ron Darling, and St. John’s, featuring Frank Viola, now in his second season as the pitching coach for the High Point Rockers.