Thanksgiving week is a big one in the world of college football. It’s rivalry week! The Iron Bowl, The Apple Cup, The Game. These are all names that mean something to college football fans, and they are all the names of games being played this week.
We’re celebrating here at BSM with a series of three articles written by Demetri Ravanos, the company’s resident college football fanatic. These articles highlight some of the interesting, “insider-y” aspects of following the sport.
For the second piece in our series, Demetri looks at the future of the SEC Network. He took a trip to the Charlotte, NC headquarters to talk with talent and executives about how the network has evolved since its inception and what they see as possibilities for its future.
If you don’t live within the geographical footprint or didn’t attend a school that is a member of the Southeastern Conference, chances are you’ve never given the SEC Network much of a look. Maybe you think all the network has to offer is SEC football and replays of SEC football. Look, I get it. That’s the stereotype and stereotypes don’t just come from nowhere, but you’re wrong about what the network is.
Sure, the programming is built around the conference’s sports culture. Live events from every sport, replays of those events, the Paul Finebaum Show, documentaries about the conference’s history. The network has plenty of all of it.
But in 2018 the SEC Network debuted a new show called TrueSouth. It’s a travel show, but it’s a travel show the way Anthony Bourdain used to do travel shows. Host John T. Edge visits some of the conference footprint’s hotbeds of food and culture and asks people to feed him and tell him a story.
I love this show. I am a Greek kid that grew up in Alabama with a chef for a father, so the first episode, which told the story of Birmingham’s Greek community and the restaurants they opened or inherited from their parents, had me in tears. My wife, who could care less about anything involving the University of Alabama, despite it being my alma matter, loves this show. It was something we could watch together every week.
TrueSouth may not have been the beginning of the SEC Network taking a look at the geography it primarily serves and saying “what can we do for these people that goes beyond sports?” but it is the furthest deviation from sports you’ll ever see on a conference network. Even Big Ten Network’s Campus Eats is built around the schools that make up the conference. TrueSouth visits multiple cities that are miles away from an SEC campus in its first season.
What the network is doing, or maybe trying to do, caught my attention, so I went down to Charlotte last month to chat with some of the talent and executives that made the network what it is. I wanted to know what their vision of the future was for the SEC Network. Did any of them see a day where SEC sports was just part of what they do?
Chris Turner, The SEC Network’s Vice President of Programming, and I met in a conference room at the network’s headquarters on a day that a new email system had just been implemented. Amanda Brooks, the network’s head of PR and my guide for the day, along with Turner talked about how hard it has been to receive any office memos on their phones.
I told Chris about the idea behind my article and asked him how far the boundaries can be pushed in terms of what programming is appropriate for the SEC Network. We started at TrueSouth in particular.
“Last year, really as much as anything, after having a few years under our belt, we put a real emphasis on story telling. So (TrueSouth) is an extension of that and taking a look at…you know, you sample other networks. We sample other networks, and what resonates with you when you’re sampling those other networks? What catches your attention? What do you lock in on? Great storytelling,” he says.
I asked him if anything with a good story and a Southern accent would be fair game. Turner’s answer seemed like a long way of saying “maybe.”
“I think at some level you still have to understand what your fan base is, and ultimately that’s how we view it, as how we do anything at ESPN and the SEC Network, is how are we serving our fans? That’s really how we measure everything.
And so whatever it might be, whatever the next big idea might be it’s going to be measured up against that. This is who are fans. This is who we see our fan group to be and how are we serving them.”
When I asked him if that meant we could see reruns of Designing Women or another sitcom set in the Southeast show up in the middle of the day on his network he laughed. “That one’s a new one. I don’t know that we’ve ever had that idea for something that just distinctly fits the Southern Culture like that.”
Turner then looked at Brooks as if to silently say “make a note of that just in case” and then told me that something like that is probably too much of a culture shock to the SEC Network’s most loyal viewers. Reruns will probably always be best left to TV land.
If there is a face of the SEC Network, it is almost certainly Paul Finebaum. The radio host and ringmaster of the circus of college football absurdity that is his radio and TV simulcast was the first person hired to be a part of the SEC Network. He moved from Birmingham to be a part of the network, but not without needing some coaxing. “Well, I really didn’t know what was going to happen when they came to me,” he tells me between sips of his pumpkin spice smoothie. “The reason that I didn’t immediately say yes was because I really wondered if you could move what we have now in Alabama, which was pretty special and try to broaden it and specialize it to so many different schools and interests. I had a lot of people that said that I was making a mistake.”
There is no doubt that Finebaum’s style has changed since making the move to Charlotte. You might not know this if you didn’t live in a particular corner of the Southeast in the early part of this century, but there was a time when no one was hated more intensely by Alabama fans than Paul Finebaum. The version of the show that airs now features Finebaum curating the opinions. Paul isn’t afraid to share what he knows or thinks, but for the most part he is trying to move from one entertaining caller to the next. His own opinions, most of which were about the absolute disarray Alabama football was in the ten years between Gene Stallings left Tuscaloosa and Nick Saban came to town, drove the show when he was based in Birmingham. In hindsight, many of those opinions were more than fair, but try being the guy based in Birmingham telling Alabama fans that their beloved football team wasn’t the be-all-end-all of the college football universe.
“I got death threats early in my career. My phone has been tapped. Probably the scariest wasn’t that long ago, maybe about ten years ago, someone posted on Twitter a Google Earth photo of my house. We were living in Birmingham at the time. Underneath it they wrote ‘You will die Saturday night.’ So I turned it over to the state. Law enforcement got involved and they were able to trace it. They asked if I wanted to press charges and I said no. That’s the last thing I need is to tick this guy off even more and then have the charges not stick.”
He seemed to notice my look of disbelief and simply responded with “I mean, those things happen.” He then quickly followed that up by noting that moving to a national platform has probably made him safer. “As expansive as the show has become I probably think about those things less and less.”
Finebaum has played a roll in the SEC Network branching out beyond sports. In September, the network debuted his interview series Homecoming. The show features captains of industry, the arts, and politics returning to their SEC alma matters to talk about their careers and their future. The first episode featured Auburn alum and Apple CEO Tim Cook. The second episode featured author John Grisham, who has a BS from Mississippi State and a law degree from Ole Miss.
“The concept started with Stephanie Druley, who is a Senior VP at ESPN. She had the idea for the show. Originally it was broader and then we narrowed it to the SEC,” he tells me of Homecoming’s genesis. “She said ‘well, anyone in the world that you could interview, who would it be?’ and I thought ‘probably Pope Francis.’ Then we realized he didn’t go to an SEC school.”
Another of the network’s initial hires was Greg McElroy. The former Alabama quarterback was on the bench in Cincinnati when the network was forming. McElroy, who was 25 at the time, was already thinking about ending his playing career.
“I’m just more fulfilled by discussing [college football] than chasing something that might be unattainable,” he says of his decision to walk away from the NFL and head to the broadcast booth. “I want to do this forever, you know? I wanted this for a long time and I felt like this had more longevity and it was actually a really easy decision for me to make.”
McElroy calls games for ABC and ESPN, but during the week you’ll find him wandering the halls in Charlotte between taping segments of Thinking Out Loud, the show he hosts with former LSU defensive tackle Marcus Spears and SEC Network newcomer Alyssa Lang. The show spun off from McElroy’s and Spears’s appearances on the first year of SEC Now.
“They just they saw the chemistry. Me and Gregg are idiots,” Spears says. “That’s really what it boils down to. We love college football. We know a lot about what we’re talking about. But at the same time, our personalities kind of are so different that it works perfectly.”
Thinking Out Loud is a hard show to describe. There are real hard core breakdowns of the games that happened just 48 hours before taping, but there is also a sense of humor to it. I visited during the week of Halloween and caught the entire cast in costume as KISS – makeup and all. Earlier in the day, Spears and McElroy put on fake mustaches and taped a bit where they played HR directors.
It’s the kind of show that may live in the SEC world for now, but McElroy hopes he and Spears get the chance to spread their wings. He tells me that he is a die hard Dodgers fan and has always loved the NBA and he would love to bring that to the show someday. I asked him if he could ever see Thinking Out Loud becoming a part of the weekday afternoon block on ESPN.
“Well, I don’t think any of us would ever do a show that we didn’t have high hopes for, and you know, I don’t think any of us would ever go halfway into a show,” he says. “We’re all the way in on Thinking Out Loud and the SEC Network is too.” He chooses his words carefully before he realizes that he isn’t saying anything that can get him into trouble. “We are so grateful to everyone at SEC Network for the resources and the platform that they give us and we’ll always be true to our roots. No denying that, but I think we’d all like to see this show grow as high as it can grow.”
Staying true to their roots seems to play an important role for everyone involved with Thinking Out Loud. Marcus Spears didn’t just play football at LSU. He grew up in Baton Rouge. It isn’t lost on him how much having something like the SEC Network means to the kids that make it onto an SEC field or court after years of dreaming about it.
“It gives them their own. It’s like the NFL Network for the Southeast, because before all of these teams had to force coverage, or you had to have a story before ESPN would talk about you day in and day out. Now we do features on Vanderbilt. We do spring tour stops in Kentucky and Tennessee…It’s a reciprocating thing. They provide the games and we tell their stories.”
For Alyssa Lang, an alum of the University of South Carolina, this is a dream job. “I mean, I remember when the network launched and I was just like ‘Wow, there’s a building that you can go work at and talk nothing but SEC football and SEC sports? I absolutely want to be there,'” she tells me. “I mean it’s still kind of surreal to me sometimes when I walk in here.”
I tell Lang about TrueSouth sort of sparking my interest to come down and visit and write about the network. Her eyes light up. I ask her if I have discovered a dream job within a dream job for her. “Oh my God! If they asked me to be on TrueSouth and help with eating food from the South, are you kidding?” she responds.
If you’re looking for a show that may capture what the SEC Network can be in the future, look no further than Marty & McGee. Marty Smith and Ryan McGee are about as Southern as you can get. The set for their show looks like a man cave straight out of the Deep South. They call it The Wilderness Lodge after the hotel in Disney World. The faux wood cabin set was a hit with coaches at SEC Media Days in Atlanta this summer.
Beyond just the decorations, which Smith describes as “a bunch of roosters and American flags,” the show is built around stories from Smith’s and McGee’s travels, jokes about their past covering NASCAR, and their signature bit “Hillbilly Headlines.” The day I am on set, we watch a video of a man falling shirtless through the roof of a Waffle House and looking for someone to fight. Georgia quarterback Jake Fromm is a guest on the show that day.
There’s range there, and McGee tells me it is no mistake. “Maybe you’re watching for Hillbilly Headlines and you learn a little something about Jake Fromm or maybe you’re watching for Jake Fromm and you learn a little something about how to sculpt things out of moose turds.”
Marty & McGee isn’t so much a show as it is a party that plays out in front of cameras. These are two best friends that started out by making each other laugh on the road to NASCAR events. That turned into a podcast, which turned into a radio show, which is now a TV show. The show’s production crew is encouraged to hoot, holler, and shout things out while the show is taping.
As I’m visiting (or “fellowshipping” as Smith calls it) with the duo, they talk about the disappointing state of NASCAR media. These two were motorsports reporters long before SEC football came into their professional lives. Now, they lament the sport’s inability to garner the coverage they feel it deserves. I ask them if given the crossover of fan bases, they could ever see themselves talking NASCAR in a serious way on the SEC Network.
“I think if we wanted to right now you could talk about NASCAR on this show,” Smith says confidently. “And I say that for a couple reasons. Number one, the demo absolutely works and number two, (SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey) is a huge race fan.”
Smith and McGee are huge fans of the direction the SEC Network is moving. Smith calls TrueSouth “a beautiful show.” McGee is clearly in awe of what Finebaum does on Homecoming.
“I love that series that Paul did where he’s doing these kind of Barbara Walters interviews with you know, Tim Cook,” he says as he takes out his iPhone. “I don’t think people understood that the guy that you know is in charge of all of this is War Eagle, right? I don’t think people know Tennessee’s got like a half a dozen astronauts. I like the fact that they’re branching out into the culture of it.”
Smith adds “I think it’s important to do that because it’s an avenue, and this is feedback that (Ryan) and I get everywhere we go now because of this show. It’s an avenue for folks who grew up in the South, and most notably the rural South, to feel like they have a voice. I’m so proud to be someone they consider to be a voice.”
McGee agrees. “And we also have an opportunity to portray those people for what they actually are and they’re not cartoon characters.”
So what is the next step in the evolution of the SEC Network? I told Chris Turner that it seemed like the next TrueSouth should probably tackle the ever changing music scene of the region. After all, three of the most buzzed about music acts around right now – Jason Isbell, The Alabama Shakes, and St. Paul and the Broken Bones are all Alabama fans. One of the biggest country music stars in the world, Kenny Chesney is a Tennessee die hard. Jack White, who is from Detroit originally now lives in Nashville and was a huge fan of Cam Newton while he was at Auburn.
“Music has been an important part of our network from the beginning with our ‘Take it All in’ campaign,” Turner says. “Our marketing team has done a fantastic job day in and day out with the music theme across the board. Every spot we run, every promo has a unique musical footprint to it, so that will continue to be important to us. Can we develop that into a show like TrueSouth? I don’t know. It remains to be seen, but I don’t disagree with you. It seems like the natural extension.”
Marty and McGee joke about the old days of Turner South and TNN and how those networks would go from a morning show produced by Southern Living magazine to professional wrestling to NASCAR in the same day. It doesn’t seem like that kind of extreme variety is on the horizon for the SEC Network, but Turner and his staff are thinking beyond college sports, and in the world of conference networks, that makes them an outlier and a trendsetter.
Radio Partnerships With Offshore Sportsbooks Are Tempting
The rush to get sports betting advertising revenue offers an interesting risk to stations in states where the activity is illegal.
As the wave of sports gambling continues to wash over the United States, marketing budgets soar and advertisements flood radio and television airwaves. Offers of huge sign-on bonuses, “risk-free” wagers, and enhanced parlay odds seem to come from every direction as books like DraftKings, FanDuel, and BetMGM fight over market share and battle one another for every new user they can possibly attract.
For those in states where sports betting is not yet legalized–or may never be–it is frustrating to see these advertisements and know that you cannot get in the action. However, as with any vice, anybody determined to partake will find ways to do so. Offshore sports books are one of the biggest ways. Companies such as Bovada and BetOnline continue to thrive even as more state-based online wagering options become available to Americans.
While five states–Delaware, Maryland, Nevada, New Jersey, and New York–have passed laws making it illegal for offshore books to take action from their residents, using an offshore book is perfectly legal for the rest of the country. While there are hurdles involved with funding for some institutions, there is no law that prevents someone in one of those other 45 states from opening an account with Bovada and wagering on whatever sporting events they offer. The United States government has tried multiple times to go after them, citing the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act (UIGEA) of 2006, and have failed at every step, with the World Trade Organization citing that doing so would violate international trade agreements.
While gambling is becoming more and more accepted every day, and more states look to reap the financial windfall that comes with it, the ethical decisions made take on even more importance. One of the tougher questions involved with the gambling arms race is how to handle offers from offshore books to advertise with radio stations in a state where sports betting is not legalized.
Multiple stations in states without legalized gambling, such as Texas and Florida, have partnerships with BetOnline to advertise their services. Radio stations can take advantage of these relationships in three main ways: commercials, on-air reads, and the station’s websites. For example, Bovada’s affiliate program allows for revenue sharing based on people clicking advertisements on a partner’s website and signing up with a new deposit. This is also the case for podcasts, such as one in Kansas that advertises with Bovada despite sports gambling not being legal there until later in 2022.
People are going to gamble, and it’s legal to do so. In full disclosure, I myself have utilized Bovada’s services for a number of years, even after online sports wagering became legal in my state of Indiana. As such, advertising a service that is legal within the state seems perfectly fine in the business sense, and I totally understand why a media entity would choose to accept an offer from an offshore book. However, there are two major factors that make it an ethical dilemma, neither of which can be ignored.
First, Americans may find it easy to deposit money with a book such as Bovada or BetOnline, but much more difficult to get their money back. While the UIGEA hasn’t been successful in stopping these books from accepting money, it has made it difficult–near impossible, in fact–for American financial institutions to accept funds directly from these companies. Therefore, most payouts have to take place either via a courier service, with a check that can take weeks to arrive, or via a cryptocurrency payout. For those who are either unwilling or not tech-savvy enough to go this route, it means waiting sometimes up to a month to receive that money versus a couple days with a state-licensed service.
The other major concern is the lack of protections involved with gambling in a state where legislation has been passed. For example, the state of Indiana drew up laws and regulations for companies licensed to operate within its borders that included protections for how bets are graded, what changes can be made to lines and when they can take place, and how a “bad line” is handled. They also require a portion of the revenues be put towards resources for those dealing with gambling addiction or compulsion issues.
None of those safeguards exist with an offshore book. While the books have to adhere to certain regulations, it’s much more loosely enforced. I’ve lost track of the number of times a book like Bovada has made somewhat shady decisions on what bets to honor as “wins”, and how they handle wagers on what they deem to be “bad lines” where they posted a mistake and users capitalized on it. Furthermore, not a single dime of the monies received go towards helping those dealing with addiction, and there are few steps taken by the offshore books to look for compulsive or addictive behaviors.
As states look to move sports betting out of the shadows, the decision whether to take advertising dollars from offshore books seems to be an even larger gray area than ever before. Although it is perfectly legal to accept these funds when offered, it feels unethical to do so. There are moral obligations tied to accepting the money involved, especially given the lack of regulations and safeguards for players in addition to the limited resources for those who find themselves stuck in a situation they may struggle to escape. While it’s possible to take steps to educate listeners on these pitfalls, it simply feels irresponsible to encourage people to utilize these services given the risks involved, and the lack of protections in place.
Saban v. Jimbo Is WrestleMania for College Football Fans
Ryan Brown says the Nick Saban versus Jimbo Fisher feud is one made for pay-per-view and we have nearly five months to hype the match.
It was the day after I turned eleven that Hulk Hogan body slammed Andre ‘The Giant’. WrestleMania III filled 90,000 seats at the Pontiac Silverdome and the living room of one of the houses in my neighborhood. Real or fake, we didn’t care. Three decades later, Nick Saban versus Jimbo Fisher is 100% real and it is coming to a living room near you.
I live in the capital city of SEC Country – Birmingham, Alabama. SEC football needs no additional drama here. You get a complete college football obsession at birth. That said, the October 8th Texas A&M visit to Alabama will be among the most anticipated regular season college football games both regionally and nationally.
One would think CBS will use their annual prime time date for that Saturday just as they did for last season’s Alabama at Texas A&M game, you know, when Nick Saban and Jimbo Fisher were on speaking terms. Not knowing how the season will play out, it would be no surprise if ESPN’s College Gameday is in Tuscaloosa as well. While we are at it, let’s just cut to the 2024 chase and schedule a Presidential debate in Tuscaloosa that weekend, as well.
Not one person will be surprised if Alabama is undefeated and the top ranked team in the nation that week. The surprise, based on the rest of the Jimbo Fisher era, will be the Aggies being unbeaten. Their trip to Alabama comes at the end of a five game stretch that includes Appalachian State at home, Miami at home, Arkansas in Dallas and a road game at Mississippi State. Incidentally, the same Texas A&M team that was able to upset Alabama last season also managed to lose to Arkansas and Mississippi State.
Just the prospect of the two teams being unbeaten and highly ranked causes some to say this game would need no extra storylines. Shouldn’t that, and being on CBS in prime time, be enough? The Saban-Fisher Feud already has people discussing this game nationally and Lee Corso hasn’t even donned a body odor-filled mascot head yet.
I would like to project this game to deliver the largest TV audience of the regular season but I can’t, for one reason: I’m not certain it will be close. I think Alabama is that much better than Texas A&M. That’s why the build up will deliver a huge first half audience.
For perspective, in the 2021 regular season, the Alabama at Texas A&M game had the fifth largest TV audience, in a game that went down to the final play. The Ohio State at Michigan game had 15.8 million viewers on as part of FOX’s Big Noon Kickoff, almost double that of Alabama at Texas A&M on CBS in prime time.
That brings me to another misconception: big games have to be in prime time to get a big audience. Of the top ten largest college football audiences in the regular season and conference championship weekend, only half were prime time games. College football fans, and NFL fans for that matter, will find the best games no matter where they are placed.
So, back to Saban v. Fisher; why is it a bad thing? Would SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey prefer it not happen? Of course. Will it bring more attention to a game in the conference he oversees? I say, absolutely. Heck, my daily show is already selling t-shirts for the game. You may say “shameless plug”, I say paying for my kid’s college. Tomato, tomahto.
This is what made “Mean” Gene Okerlund a household name in the 1980’s. He was the far too serious host that interviewed the wrestlers who challenged other wrestlers to a grudge match in exotic places like the Macon Coliseum and the Allen County War Memorial Coliseum and the Dallas Sportatorium. Why did they do that? First, it was entertaining but, primarily, it sucked the viewer into making plans to view those matches.
I mean, if Ricky “The Dragon” Steamboat said he was going to rip the head off “Big” John Studd, was I going to miss that?
That was why a bunch of kids crowded into a living room in Anniston, Alabama in 1987 to watch WrestleMania III, The Main Event. I can’t tell you who was on the undercard that night. The only wrestlers we cared about were Hulk Hogan and Andre “The Giant”.
Actually, my friend’s mom thought the Ultimate Warrior was “cute and had a great body”. He wasn’t on the card and I thought it was odd she told us that but she was footing the bill for the pay-per-view and had mixed the fruit punch Kool-Aid, so who am I to judge one’s wanton desires?
Texas A&M at Alabama will be the SEC’s main event this season and, if the cards fall right, it may be college football’s main event. What happened between the two head coaches might not be the proudest moment in SEC history but it will bring more attention to that game. And, my word, we finally have a nano-second in which two prominent coaches weren’t pre-programmed robots refusing to deviate from the script.
As amazing as WrestleMania III was for my childhood, it was scripted. The Tide and the Aggies will not be. College football remains one of the greatest values in sports. I pay very little to watch unscripted game after unscripted game. Truth is, you couldn’t even script most of what we see on a college football Saturday.
Texas A&M at Alabama is already beyond what the most creative writers could imagine and that is why this fuel to the already smoldering fire adds to this game. Now, if Nick Saban will just try to bodyslam Jimbo Fisher, we’ll have something.
Doc Emrick’s Love Letter is Hockey and… Language
The Hall-of-Fame broadcaster Doc Emrick developed his love for the sport and the art of the call early in life and never let go of either.
LaFontaine, Indiana is a small rural town in the northeastern sector of the state with a population of just under 900 people. Located between the cities of Fort Wayne and Indianapolis, it is similar to the village illustrated in the 1986 movie “Hoosiers,” and its name, rooted in the French language, translates to “The Fountain” in English.
In the summer of 1955, the local Cub Scouts managed an organized softball league, and once children graduated to become a member of the Boy Scouts, they would transition to play baseball. One nine-year-old child in the summer of 1955 had the common realization that he would not likely make the major leagues since he was not considered an elite-level athlete. While he enjoyed playing the game, he enjoyed listening to the game on the radio even more, so much so that he wanted to pursue broadcasting as a career.
There would often be a softball or baseball game being played on a near-nightly basis in LaFontaine, with upwards of 100 people attending. The town ballpark had a public address system; however, it had no steady announcing presence, instead relying on adults to volunteer to provide the play-by-play for the spectators. For this prospective broadcaster with a nascent avidity for baseball, sitting behind the microphone and vivifying the action became something hardly perfunctory, but rather an inspired art form. It afforded him the chance to interact with his community and his friends as a familiar voice, and helped prepare him for what would become a 47-year professional career carrying out this very task, albeit in different settings for different audiences through different mediums, and primarily in an entirely different sport.
Going to a Major League Baseball game from LaFontaine was quite the trek for the young Mike Emrick and his family; therefore, attending was often a once-a-year event that took place in the summer. Driving northwest through the corn fields for approximately 150 miles without the presence of super highways, he and his brother Dan, accompanied by their parents, would eventually reach their “Field of Dreams” in Chicago, Il., where they would take in an afternoon game. From the time he was young though, Emrick cheered on the Pittsburgh Pirates. He grew up listening to Bob Prince and Jim Woods call games of hall-of-fame outfielder Roberto Clemente on the wide-ranging KDKA radio signal.
Emrick had always had an interest in calling baseball games; however, that all changed one day in 1960. At the age of 14, he attended his first hockey game just before Christmas, a matchup between the visiting Muskegon Zephyrs and Fort Wayne Komets in Fort Wayne, Ind. The game ended in a tie, but Emrick was enamored with the game’s nuances, spontaneity and occasional fights nonetheless. While on the way to the car in a snow-filled parking lot to return home, he realized that this fast-paced game on ice would be the outlet through which his voice would be heard and passion for sport expressed.
“When I saw my first hockey game,” Emrick said, “overnight the whole idea changed from baseball to hockey. Then the question was: ‘Well, how do you get to do that?’”
Emrick closely followed the Komets after his realization, learning its players and the game of hockey listening on WOWO radio. While he was a fan of the team and enjoyed watching its hockey games at the Allen County War Memorial Coliseum, he was also there for another purpose in his quest to become a professional broadcaster.
“After I got my driver’s license at age 16, I would drive 40 miles on Wednesday nights to Fort Wayne and sit in corner sections of the old Coliseum… and do games into a tape recorder and try to get better at it,” Emrick recalled. “It was taking those games and using those sort of phony games; I used legitimate names of players because I would get a lineup and learn who they were. Then I would save the tape – and that was eventually my first audition that I sent out.”
Emrick grew up within a pedagogical household where great emphasis was placed on the proper use of the English language. His mother, Florence, was a home economics and physical education teacher while his father, Charles, was a high school principal, and the family owned a music store on the side as well. From the time he was in fifth grade, he received a salient piece of advice from one of his teachers about the inculcation and subsequent expansion of his vocabulary which he carried with him throughout his career.
“Once we used a word five times, it was ours for life,” Emrick recalled. “[My teacher] encouraged us to build our vocabulary, and so that was influential, I think, along the way.”
Emrick landed his first broadcasting job in 1973 as the radio play-by-play announcer in the International Hockey League for the Port Huron Wings (later renamed the Port Huron Flags) on WHLS radio for $160 per week. That job came after a series of rejection letters from a legion of hockey broadcasting outlets, the stationery located in a binder he keeps to this day.
The next season, despite nearly landing the Pittsburgh Penguins radio play-by-play job, Emrick added another job to his résumé by becoming the team’s public relations director and continued broadcasting games. While he had the will and determination to succeed and become an NHL broadcaster, his backup plan of becoming an educator was quite genuine in scope as his time in the minor leagues continued.
Shortly after he graduated from Manchester University in 1968 with a B.Sc in speech, and, one year later, an M.A. in radio and television from Miami University, Emrick’s foray into the world of college instruction began. Prior to working in Port Huron, Emrick resided in Pennsylvania, teaching public speaking classes at Geneva College and managing it’s 15-watt campus radio station. In addition, he volunteered to work as a correspondent for The Beaver Sun Times coverage of the National Hockey League’s Pittsburgh Penguins in exchange for a season press pass so he could further immerse himself in the game of hockey.
One of Emrick’s mentors in broadcasting was Bob Chase, the Fort Wayne Komets’ play-by-play announcer for 63 years, and someone who had a profound influence on his career. Chase called hockey, along with various other sports including basketball and racing amid his time behind the microphone, and while there were many other announcers doing play-by-play professionally, Chase was representative of Emrick’s soundtrack of hockey.
“I was a college guy and befriended him and he was very kind to me and would listen to my work,” said Emrick. “He was the one person that I listened to because at the time there was not a national TV package for the NHL, and so he was about the only guy I had access to.”
Emrick sought after his Ph.D in broadcast communications to ensure he would have a successful teaching career if his broadcasting dreams fell through. While in the doctorate program, Emrick honed his craft and earned his nickname “Doc,” a pseudonym he was called throughout his broadcasting career. In fact, his dissertation was titled “Major League Baseball Principal Play By Play Announcers: Their Occupation Background And Personal Life,” and signed off by Detroit Tigers announcer Ernie Harwell, his nonacademic advisor. Later in his career, he famously used 153 different verbs in a single game to describe the movement of the puck, including “squibbed,” “flagged” and “galloped” – an aspect of his broadcasting style, per se, that demarcated him from others in his profession.
“I always tried to use words that were hopefully interesting, but also I didn’t want to come across as talking down to the audience,” said Emrick. “I just wanted to use something that was creative and maybe amused people a little bit. Once one of those words was used, I tried never to repeat it the rest of that night because you don’t want to hammer people with the same one.”
Prior to the 1976-77 season, Emrick relocated to Portland, Maine to serve as the radio play-by-play voice and public relations director of the brand-new Maine Mariners in the American Hockey League – an affiliate of the National Hockey League’s Philadelphia Flyers. After three more years of hard work in the minor leagues, he finally made it to the pros with the Flyers as its television play-by-play announcer for home games on PRISM cable beginning in the 1980-81 season.
Having worked in both broadcast mediums, Emrick knows that radio requires the announcer to evoke imagery within the mind of the listener, while television is centered on the announcer’s reaction to the already-cultivated picture. While he never broadcast a boxing match, Emrick uses an analogy within that sport to describe the difference between the two broadcast mediums.
“I’ve heard it described before, and it’s probably accurate, [as] the difference between a boxer leading or counterpunching,” said Emrick. “In radio you basically lead, and in TV you counterpunch.”
Regardless of the medium though, what truly makes a broadcast unique is in how effectively it goes beyond the action taking place on the ice. Being able to do that comes in one’s preparation and knowledge of the game, both of which Emrick possessed and continued to grow upon being named the inaugural television play-by-play voice of the New Jersey Devils in 1982 on the MSG Network.
“The legs that get you from one thing to the next are the identity of the players,” said Emrick. “I think that’s still the most important thing of any play-by-play description is… the ‘who’… because it’s the people who are competing that draw the audience, and you need to identify who it is.”
Emrick returned to the Philadelphia Flyers in the 1982-83, first as a spot announcer, and upon his departure from the Devils in 1986, as an studio analyst on UHF telecasts. In the same year, he began his first of many years of national television work as the lead play-by-play announcer for NHL games on ESPN, working alongside former NHL forward Bill Clement.
Before the 1988-89 season, Emrick was promoted by the Flyers to be the team’s lead television play-by-play announcer, working with his analyst Clement for a majority of the time in both his regional and national obligations. Working in both roles simultaneously, he has had to be cognizant of his audience – meaning that the preparation for regional and national games, while similar in methodology, differed from one another in terms of the time devoted to each team.
“Usually with a national telecast, it’s 50-50 on how much you talk about one team or the other,” said Emrick. “With a local broadcast, it’s usually 70-30 or 80-20 because if there’s one team that is supplying all of your viewers or most of them, you go that way.”
Emrick’s presence on regional sports networks continued upon his departure from the Flyers after the 1992-93 season, as he returned to Newark as the play-by-play voice of the Devils on MSG Networks. Broadcasting within the three-team New York-Metropolitan area marketplace for the Devils from 1993 to 2011, Emrick stayed up to date not only on his primary team, along with the Rangers and New York Islanders. As a result, the shift from regional to national television became smoother for Emrick, and with it, the allocation of the time he spent discussing each team more consistent.
“You treated it like a network telecast and I was very comfortable shifting from regional games to network because you had fans of numerous teams living in New York,” said Emrick. “Whereas in Philadelphia, you made the assumption that most of the people that were watching… were Flyers fans.”
Over his years at ESPN, Emrick called two Stanley Cup Finals, something that would render itself into an annual occurrence once he joined Fox in 1995. From there, Emrick called 20 more Stanley Cup Finals with Fox, OLN, Versus and NBC Sports – providing the description throughout the final roadblock standing between one team and a championship. Television, being the visual medium that it is, not only requires an announcer to be aware of their audience, but also of the moment and what will best transmit the atmosphere within the arena to the viewer. Throughout the course of enduring moments that stand the test of time, including game-winning goals, penalty shots and highlight-reel saves, Emrick uses his words judiciously, following a tried-and-true philosophy that requires discipline from the announcer with the potential to put an indelible stamp on the action.
“Less is more. Especially with television, you have a lot of people that have qualified to be in trucks and operating cameras and placing microphones in arenas,” Emrick stated. “Just like you are qualified to be there to describe it, they are the best at their profession… You don’t have to do everything. You have a lot of help.”
Emrick worked his first of seven Olympic Games in 1992 while on CBS, calling the ice hockey championships. While he had to consistently learn names of new players and adjust to the cultural differences of the host country, the quadrennial worldwide showcase built on tradition has induced games that have helped grow the game of hockey on an international scale. One of his most memorable broadcasts emanated from the thrilling conclusion of a gold medal matchup between Canada and the United States from Vancouver, B.C. in February 2010.
The game drew 27.6 million viewers, the largest television hockey audience since Al Michaels was behind the microphone for the “Miracle on Ice” semifinal game between the Soviet Union and the United States aired on tape delay in 1980 from Lake Placid, N.Y.
“Sam Flood, our executive producer at NBC, always told us [for big games] to broaden the brush,” said Emrick. “In other words, never try to talk inside stuff because we were going to have a lot of extra viewers, and you didn’t want to talk [about] inside stuff and have them feel like they were being left out. And so we basically let the game do the talking and did not try to do a lot of strategy or things like that.”
Part of a broadcaster’s job is to recognize their role within the greater production of a live sporting event. Sure, they are often omnipresent throughout the broadcast; however, they are hardly, if ever, supposed to be the main character. The job of the rest of the production crew is to adequately tell the story of the game, whether it be through camerawork, graphics or interviews. While they are not scripting the moments on the ice, the broadcast director coordinates the assorted roles to help the team’s vision of the end product come to life. It is a task that allows for creativity, but also requires evolution to shifting consumer trends – achieved through collaboration.
Down by one goal in the gold medal game, the United States pulled it’s goaltender Ryan Miller for the extra attacker, which led to forward Zach Parise tying the game with 24 seconds remaining in regulation time. Then in overtime, Canada forward Sidney Crosby scored the “Golden Goal,” giving Canada its first gold medal since the 2002 Olympic Games in Salt Lake City, Utah.
“I think I said, ‘…and Crosby scores – the goal to Canada,’ and then I said nothing for almost two minutes,” Emrick recollected. “I didn’t need to say anything because what we showed and what the people in our truck and the people operating cameras provided was the sound of the crowd and the microphones on cameras”
Over the years, Emrick has worked with numerous analysts, including Bill Clement, John Davidson, Bobby Taylor, Chico Resch, Doug Sulliman, Sal Messina and Eddie Olczyk. As a play-by-play announcer, Emrick ensured that his analyst would be implemented into the game, usually when he felt they could contribute to the broadcast or when he needed to take a breath. By including them in the broadcast, a greater ethos is established with the viewing audience and multiple perspectives are acknowledged.
“I think our business is analyst-driven,” said Emrick. “Those of us in play-by-play are there to enhance the game but not get in the way of it. It is when the play stops that you really learn about what has happened or what could happen in the future. Those of us who are describing the game don’t have time to throw that in, and if we did, our credibility is not nearly that of people who have actually experienced it, and that’s why analysts are there.”
Following the 2010-11 season, Emrick relinquished his role as the play-by-play announcer for the New Jersey Devils and continued to work as the national play-by-play voice of the NHL on NBC for the next decade. His final season as an announcer was halted because of the COVID-19 pandemic, and once professional hockey made its return, Emrick found himself calling games remotely – something he had never done in his illustrious career.
Emrick officially announced his retirement from broadcasting in October 2020 after 47 years behind the mic calling over 3,750 hockey contests, including 22 Stanley Cup Finals, 45 playoff Game 7s and 19 outdoor games. Prior to his retirement, Emrick won the Foster Hewitt Award for “outstanding contributions as a hockey broadcaster” presented by the Hockey Hall of Fame, and was inducted into the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame in 2011.
Today, the NHL is in the first of new seven-year contracts with both ESPN and Turner Sports worth a reported $1 billion. For Emrick, the specific networks carrying the games do not mean as much to him as the continued worldwide dissemination of the game of hockey itself.
“I cheer for everybody who winds up being on the air doing games… because this is a game that is wonderful and needs to be continually promoted by whoever winds up with the rights,” said Emrick. “I’m not a businessman; I don’t have billions of dollars in my pocket.”
Following the conclusion of the 2010 gold medal game, sideline reporter Pierre McGuire interviewed Miller and Crosby, and the two athletes, despite being on opposite ends of the outcome, spoke about the significance of competing in the Olympics and how special it was to play the game on an international stage. Reflecting on that broadcast sequence, Emrick affirms that he had never been more proud to be associated with the game of hockey because of the eloquence, class and humility with which they spoke. Therefore, as ESPN and Turner Sports are in the midst of presenting the 2022 Stanley Cup Playoffs to millions of hockey fans around the world, Emrick hopes that they focus on telling the stories of the athletes – the primary reason for which people tune in to the games.
“The athletes are wonderful, and they have been all the way back through the first years that I started going to IHL games and getting to meet them for the first time,” said Emrick. “The number one thing that we have to sell is not only the speed of the sport, but more importantly, the guys who play it because they’re really good people.”
Whatever the future of hockey broadcasting holds, Emrick has undoubtedly become an integral figure in the history of the sport – all while never donning skates on an ice rink in his life. The half-a-century he covered hockey would not have been possible without his steadfastness towards becoming a professional broadcaster, avidity for the game of hockey and the group of people who allowed him to expatiate on the proceedings situated on a 200-foot sheet of ice. Emrick continues to watch hockey to this day and listens to the next generation of broadcasters be themselves while calling the action, the very advice Bob Chase conferred to him early in his career.
“It was the realization of a lifelong dream to get to do hockey games anywhere to anybody, but to be chosen to do national games was a great honor and responsibility,” Emrick stated. “I never took it lightly, and I always appreciated those who gave me a chance.”