Neil Best Newsday columnist Neil Best

Neil Best first worked at Newsday in 1982, then returned in 1985. His SportsWatch column debuted in 2005.

Things were relatively quiet Monday on Radio Row, the Tower of Babble that has become a Super Bowl tradition during the past two decades.

But just wait: By midweek the repurposed ballroom at the Sheraton Hotel in midtown will be overrun with (mostly) football-related celebrities and the talk show hosts (and producers) desperate to talk to them.

Or, as WFAN's Craig Carton eloquently put it after doing his morning show yesterday:

"It's like if you let the animals in a zoo all come out of their cages at the same time and videotaped it and there was one dead yak that they all had to go after to eat. That's what Radio Row is like."

Carton spoke from the relative calm of M & M's World several blocks away, part of a deal the station struck with the candy company to originate its three most prominent shows from there all week.

In addition to the financial benefits, the hope is that whatever guests are lost to not being in the center of the action, others will appreciate the solitude. (Bonus: free M & Ms!)

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"It's good for the guests that come by; it's a sense of normalcy," Carton said. "They're not being attacked by 17 or 18 radio producers. It's special and we're special, so we should be broadcasting from a special place."

For most stations, though, Radio Row is the place to be to corral stars who make the rounds primarily in the service of corporate sponsors but also to talk football to every nook and cranny of America.

Like everything else about this year's Super Bowl Media Center, Radio Row is more cramped than usual, as floor space in the Center of the Universe is not as easy to come by as in convention centers in the hinterlands.

Hence unlike recent years, the NFL is not permitting fans to have access to the circus, and it capped the number of stations at 90, in addition to the NFL Network set that dominates the middle of the room.

Even though the spectacle is less sprawling than usual, its scale still amazes those who were there at the beginning.

"It's unbelievable," said WFAN's Mike Francesa, who with former partner Chris Russo was a Radio Row pioneer. "It shows you the enormity of the event, and also shows you just how much the sports business continues to explode."

Said Russo: "At first we didn't have anybody walking around selling their products . . . It's pretty shocking what's happened."

WFAN's Super Bowl roots date to 1988 in San Diego -- seven months after the station's inception and the first of two years that Pete Franklin hosted shows from the site of the big game.

"Pete loved San Diego," said Bob Gelb, who produced the shows that year and the next in Miami. "He used to say, 'I'm going to retire and handicap the seagulls in La Jolla.' "

In 1990, Francesa and Russo took their show to the Hyatt in New Orleans, where they were joined by one other station, but gained more traction in Tampa in '91 before the Giants defeated the Bills.

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Gelb recalled an interview with Giants GM George Young that Friday as a key moment. So did Francesa: "You had the general manager holding court at 5 in the hotel when his team is going to play in the Super Bowl that weekend."

The modern version of Radio Row began to form a couple of years after that, and by the mid-1990s, it started to look something like its 21st-century version -- minus the NFL Network, TV simulcasts and social media.

"It has become an enormous part of the week," Francesa said. "It has become basically a football trade show for the week and then a football game on the weekend."