His is a story of a Kentucky boy made good. Growing up in the small town of Eastern, Kenny Rice’s career has taken him around the world and back, covering horseracing, mixed martial arts and a myriad of other professional sports for ESPN, NBC and others, yet he’s never forgotten his roots.
Growing up in Eastern, Rice was quick to develop an interest in athletics, but where most kids his age dreamed of being the star quarterback or home run hitter, Rice had his eyes set on a different goal: broadcasting.
“I was blessed to have parents who instilled a good work ethic in me,” said Rice. “I knew what I wanted my career to be as a teenager and I took any opportunity I could to help me get there.”
Throughout high school, Rice provided play-by-play commentary for his school’s football and basketball teams and honed his skills as a disc jockey at WDOC in Prestonsburg. After four years at the University of Kentucky, Rice landed what he then thought was his dream job in 1980; Sports Director at Lexington’s WTVQ.
“I covered everything but horseracing when I came to WTVQ,” said Rice. “Eventually I branched out and started to cover a farm or auction sales story here and there.”
Rice was in his element. He was covering UK athletics with some high school and professional sports peppered in for good measure and expanded into horseracing when the Keeneland meets or Kentucky Derby rolled around.
Getting Called Up to the Big Leagues
It was just two years later that Rice’s career would take a dramatic turn. Keeneland’s now-defunct July Select Yearling Sale was in session and a $4.25 million colt lit up the board, setting a then-new world record as the most expensive horse ever sold.
Rice was working for WTVQ and was contacted by ESPN about getting coverage of the horse’s monumental sale.
“They asked for two versions of the story, one with me fronting it and the other with just the raw footage,” said Rice. “They liked what I did enough to ask me to do a wrap-up story about the same a few days later.”
It was a different era in the world of media in 1982. The luxuries of the internet and instantaneous transmission of video files was nonexistent.
“It was just such a different time. I’d drive to Bluegrass Airport with a tape and put it on a plane to get it to ESPN’s offices,” said Rice.
Rice began getting regular requests from ESPN for horseracing coverage and was routinely contributing stories for Sports Center: within months, he was a correspondent for Down the Stretch and Wire to Wire.
Rice began being called upon to help with live coverage, reporting at the Breeders’ Cup and Triple Crown races for the network and eventually to host Today at the Races. He also began branching out for the network, covering Midnight Madness for the debut of ESPNU, the brand’s collegiate network.
ESPN wasn’t the only network with its eye on Rice.
“NBC was looking for a reporter in 1999 to help with their coverage of that year’s Breeders’ Cup. It was almost a tryout,” said Rice. “Thank goodness they liked me. I’ve been with them ever since and have gotten to cover everything from Olympics to NFL to bull riding.”
More recently, however, Rice has been making a name for himself covering mixed martial arts on Shark Tank star Mark Cuban’s digital cable network, HDNet.
“My friend and colleague Darrell Ewalt made the move from NBC to HDNet to become their executive producer of sports. He knew I had experience with a variety of sports, including boxing, and Mark Cuban was a big believer in MMA being on the cusp of something big.”
Rice joined HDNet in 2003 and, in 2007, teamed up with MMA champion Bas Rutten to host the popular Inside MMA. Rice has been a regular host and commentator for some of the biggest MMA matches, as well as numerous other sports, including basketball, football, horseracing and more since coming to the network.
In March of this year, it was announced that Rice would be handing hosting duties for Inside MMA over to MMA legend Mauro Ranallo. Rice will still be a regular contributor to the show as a special correspondent.
Asking the Right Questions
For Rice, it’s not just about the competition at hand. It’s about the athletes, their stories, and what has shaped them in to the person and competitor they are today.
“Everyone has a story to tell. They have something unique that shaped them…that motivates them. Most successful people have a quirk that helped to get them there. It’s my job to tell those stories,” said Rice.
Rice is meticulous when it comes to researching his subjects. It’s the studying he does before an event or interview that makes the actual coverage and commentary come across so effortlessly.
“I very much prepare myself and do my homework. When covering [sports], hopefully you’re working with a good analyst. It’s my job to paint the broad picture and the analyst fills in the dots,” said Rice.
Rice says that approach helps him to be versatile. Regardless of the sport he is covering, he helps to tell the stories that shaped the players who are competing on the field, in the ring, around the racing oval or wherever else his career takes him.
This year, Rice will once again join NBC’s team to bring coverage of the Olympics to the masses – the third time he has been tapped to do so. In the past, he has covered boxing and the equestrian competition; this year he will once again focus on boxing.
Racing fans can also count on Rice to be involved once again with this year’s Triple Crown coverage, telling the stories that draw us in.
“Doug O’Neill is back with an I’ll Have Another-type of situation in Nyquist, Pletcher is back with tons of talent,” said Rice. “Racing can have four or five stories around one horse. You don’t get that situation in other sports.”
Asked constantly by students and young processionals about how they can work to build a career like his, Rice’s answer is surprisingly simple.
“It’s about telling the stories below the surface, asking the right questions,” said Rice. “You have to work hard to put yourself in the position that when you get a lucky break, you can take advantage.”•