My time as a Sports Jeopardy contestant

Ken Sugiura 2-shot #1082

Show host Dan Patrick and I pretend like we’re friends. All contestants get this photo as a keepsake. That is to say, photos of themselves with Patrick, not photos of Patrick and me. (Sony Pictures Studios)

When I considered my invitation to be a contestant on “Sports Jeopardy,” my primary concern could be summed up like this. I had deep fears of my face appearing on a sports blog below the headline: “Sports writer who covers Georgia Tech screws up Final Jeopardy question about Georgia Tech.”

True, I was one of about 150 contestants to be asked to play in the second season of the show, one out of about 30,000 who took an online test and then made it through a regional audition. Losing a sports trivia contest to some of the most knowledgeable sports fans in the country would be no shame. However, those fellow contestants that I would meet at the Sony Pictures Studios in Burbank, Calif., included lawyers, a college professor and a real-estate agent. None of them were people who were paid to have a detailed understanding of sports. Watching earlier episodes, I thought there was a possibility I could get trounced.

And the lurking fear of panicking and answering “What is Georgia?” to “This school’s mascot is the Yellow Jackets” gave me pause.

But, I was pulled in by the lure of a memorable and modestly lucrative opportunity. A sports writer friend of mine, texting with me from the Super Bowl, assured me that it wasn’t breaking any sort of code. My wonderful wife Robyn nudged me to go, telling me that I don’t often do fun things for myself, apparently forgetting the experience of covering Tech’s 2015 football season.

It was enough to overcome my concerns and book my ticket to Los Angeles. As per instructions from show producers not to reveal show outcomes,I can’t tell you whether or not my fears were realized. I can tell you that I appear on the show that went up online on the website Crackle Wednesday (It’s season two, episode 30). (It’s O.K. if you’ve never heard of the show or Crackle. They’re a little on the obscure side.)

To answer a few questions you may not have:

How did I get on the show?

I took an online test last May that I didn’t think was that difficult. To me, it felt like anyone with a decent knowledge of sports could handle it. (If you’re interested, there’s more information here.) After evidently passing, I was invited to an audition held at the Westin Hotel in downtown Atlanta in June. We took a written test – I think to make sure that you weren’t cheating on the online test –and then played a mock game to gauge your personality and ability to play the game.

That was when I first met Maggie Speak, a Jeopardy producer who is hyper-extroverted, amusingly profane and one of the most memorable people I’ve ever met. She told a story about sleeping with Joe Namath (the punch line: She was on a long flight with him) and spoke about show host Dan Patrick in a way that probably shouldn’t be repeated.

I thought I’d have a chance to get picked, for reasons of demographic balance if nothing else. In a room of about 30, let’s just say it was fairly homogenous except for two people, one of them being me. But, I didn’t give them much of a window for when I could travel to Los Angeles and didn’t think much of it. I was going to be content with the Jeopardy pens that I took from the audition.

I kind of forgot about the show until I got an e-mail in January asking me if I could be available for a Feb. 9 taping. After the aforementioned waffling, I flew out to Los Angeles the day prior.

"This Atlanta-based ACC school is proud of its engineering department and has a completely rational fan base." (Sony Pictures Studio)

“This Atlanta-based ACC school is proud of its engineering department and has a completely rational fan base.” (Sony Pictures Studios)

What was it like?

Without going into too great detail or bringing up the actual game-play experience, it was a lot of fun. We were told by show staff that Sports Jeopardy contestants are a bit more collegial than those who appear on the actual Jeopardy. It seemed the case, as we got to know each other and – surprise – talked sports. No one was trying to be a know-it-all, although I was alarmed when one of the contestants casually mentioned the Lakers’ win-loss record in a conversation we were having about Kobe Bryant.

Speak ran a pre-show meeting with the contestants, working in her off-color stories with instructions about how to use the clickers. Among her many gifts is her singular ability to work a group of relative strangers into a froth over answering in the form of a question and dominating the game board.

I imagine part of her method is to be so outrageous as to help draw contestants out to show their personality, all in the holy name of good television (or streaming content, to be more precise). The show has a much looser vibe than regular Jeopardy, and we were encouraged to banter with Patrick and be funny. (I took the bait.)

While I have a little experience with being on television, it was nothing like this, hanging out in the frigid green room, taping promos and chatting with Patrick, to say nothing of the actual experience of competing on a game show in front of a studio audience. I think everyone recognized that this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and was excited for it.

The show staff, whether it’s the makeup artists, producers, stage directors or anyone else, have a way of putting contestants at ease and making them feel important. At one point, I felt a little queasy and asked if I could leave the studio to go back to the green room to get some tea. One of the staffers overheard me and promptly offered me a bottle of water. It’s not treatment I’m used to.

Even the mundane parts, like going to the cafeteria between the four tapings, were novel. We were told – or maybe convinced ourselves – that celebrities sometimes dine there. I didn’t see any, although, with three children under seven and a job that keeps me from watching much, I don’t know if I would have recognized many famous people besides Dora the Explorer or Paul Johnson. (Neither of whom I saw.)

Outside the Jeopardy studio.

Outside the Jeopardy studio.

Did I have an advantage?

I don’t think so, which was one reason I felt better about playing. It’s counterintuitive, but I don’t have a lot of time to follow sports beyond what I cover. I rarely watch ESPN. I think the last full NFL game I watched was the last one I covered, during the Falcons’ playoff run in the 2012 season. For better or worse, I don’t think I could name more than five NBA head coaches.

I keep somewhat current through reading the AJC, Twitter and listening to sports radio, but I don’t think of that as information I gain through my work, rather through a general interest in sports.

Most of my knowledge that I’d consider sports trivia – names, places and such – I learned before I graduated from high school, the result of voraciously consuming Sports Illustrated and my local paper, the Chicago Tribune. I would say my knowledge is probably deeper than most, but I don’t think of it as particularly unusual, particularly among my colleagues.

Still, I acknowledge that some stuff that I remember boggles my mind. In the audition, I nailed a question asking for the identity of the first female Harlem Globetrotter, a topic I hadn’t given a moment’s thought to in 30 years, with almost as much confidence as I would have had giving my Social Security number – Lynette Woodard. (Mind you, this isn’t bragging. It’s more like a cry for help.)

If one of the categories had been “Georgia Tech quarterbacks since Joshua Nesbitt” or “WiFi quality in press boxes across the ACC,” that would have been a little different.

A selfie at the Atlanta audition with the aforementioned Ms. Speak.

A selfie at the Atlanta audition with the aforementioned Ms. Speak.

I hope you’ll get the chance to watch. The show can be streamed anytime, so no need to clear your schedule today (Heaven help you if that’s your plan.) And I think I can say that it was a pretty entertaining game. I faced off with Roy Hollis, a real-estate agent from Michigan who came into our match on a five-game winning streak, and Rick Karl, who if memory serves is a human resources executive from Austin, Texas. If there’s enough interest, I might write more about the actual experience of playing.

Watch here.


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