Evidently, the gods were fed up. So they punked us, turning 2020 into an American comeuppance, making us reassess who we are and where we’re going in the trials of hatred, wellness and the Trumpian condition. Amid crisis, the strong are separated from the feeble, the astute from the foolish, the honest from the corrupt and — sorry, I must — the authentic leaders from the reality TV fatheads.
Sports is no different. Extraordinary events have brought defining days for the country’s three major leagues, and in each case, we already can see where the future is headed. A triple whammy of racial injustice, a pandemic and economic upheaval requires uncommon guidance in an industry that often can’t get out of its way in normal times, much less when many are asking what’s possibly next — anyone checked on Bigfoot lately? — in our unending year from hell. The operative questions: Which leagues will pivot, survive the storms and carry on? And which will crash?
Put it this way: If sports can be compared to a cartoon show right now, Roger Goodell is Sheriff Woody, Adam Silver is Hercules and Rob Manfred is Elmer Fudd.
In a turbulent week of dangerous racial backlash, the NFL might have been saved from years of mayhem by its pullstring toy of a commissioner. In a remarkable but essential change of heart, Goodell endorsed peaceful kneeling protests with the help — I could not make this up — of a league media employee “embarrassed’’ by his bosses’ silence all week. Goodell found himself at another existential crossroads in what has been his most glaring weakness: relations with African-American players who comprise 70 percent of league rosters. In one corner was one of football’s most prominent white figures, Drew Brees, who quickly apologized after infuriating black America with pro-flag, pro-military, anti-Kaepernick views regarding kneeling during “The Star-Spangled Banner.’’ In another corner were Patrick Mahomes and more than a dozen black players, demanding in a powerful video montage — as secretly masterminded by Bryndon Minter, an NFL social media creator — that the league “condemn racism and the systemic oppression of black people’’ and “admit wrong in silencing players from peacefully protesting.’’ And in yet another corner, President Trump was exacerbating the raging fire as only he can, weighing in more demonstratively on Brees and the flag than he has on the horrific police-brutality killing of George Floyd.
“I am a big fan of Drew Brees. I think he’s truly one of the greatest quarterbacks, but he should not have taken back his original stance on honoring our magnificent American Flag. OLD GLORY is to be revered, cherished, and flown high…,’’ Trump tweeted before reiterating his view on pre-game sideline protocol: “…We should be standing up straight and tall, ideally with a salute, or a hand on heart. There are other things you can protest, but not our Great American Flag – NO KNEELING!’’
What Trump was doing was challenging Goodell and the league’s most powerful owners, white billionaires such as Robert Kraft and Jerry Jones, as he did three years ago, when he “instructed’’ the league on how to deal with kneelers inspired by Colin Kaepernick’s stance: “Get that son of a bitch off the field right now. He’s fired.’’ It didn’t take long for the NFL and its broadcast partners, pressured by advertisers, to stop airing the protests and allow the demonstrations to fizzle out. But after the eight-minute, 46-second knee-choke of Floyd by a twisted Minneapolis police officer, the players wanted new answers to the same questions. Would Goodell side as usual with his money partners, knowing the league has a fresh collective bargaining agreement with the Players Association that extends through the decade? Or would he finally say something smart and avoid potential a mass walkout by players who still think Kaepernick, last gainfully employed in the league four years ago, has been blackballed?
The string was pulled on the talking doll. Shockingly, Goodell sided with the players, delivering a blow to Trump and showing how a policy flip-flop is more sensible in a chaotic moment than stubbornness. “We, the National Football League, condemn racism and the systematic oppression of black people,” he said. “We, the National Football League, admit we were wrong for not listening to NFL players earlier and encourage all players to speak out and peacefully protest. We, the National Football League, believe that black lives matter. … Without black players, there would be no National Football League, and the protests around the country are emblematic of the centuries of silence, inequality and oppression of black players, coaches, fans and staff.”
Yet before we nominate Goodell for a Nobel Prize, consider none of this would have happened without the work of Minter. In a project that should have come from the mind of Goodell, Minter reached out to New Orleans receiver Michael Thomas, who had been strongly critical of Brees, the man who throws him passes. “Want to help you create content to be heard around the league,’’ Minter wrote via direct message, as first reported by Yahoo Sports. “Want to help you create content to be heard around the league. I’m a NFL social employee and am embarrassed by how the league has been silent this week. The NFL hasn’t condemned racism. The NFL hasn’t said that Black Lives Matter. I want (to) help you put the pressure on. And arm you with a video that expresses YOUR voice and (what) you want from the League. Give me a holler if you’re interested in working together, thanks bro!”
Thomas hollered. The rest is history, a video titled, “I am George Floyd.’’ Should we nominate Minter for the Nobel Prize? Or maybe make him commissioner?
If this was the NFL’s zero hour, the resulting vibe is hope, a feeling further bolstered by Brees. He didn’t have to say another word. Instead, he answered Trump’s tweet by doubling down on his apology. “Through my ongoing conversations with friends, teammates, and leaders in the black community, I realize this is not an issue about the American flag. It has never been,” Brees wrote on Instagram. “We can no longer use the flag to turn people away or distract them from the real issues that face our black communities. We did this back in 2017, and regretfully I brought it back with my comments this week. We must stop talking about the flag and shift our attention to the real issues of systemic racial injustice, economic oppression, police brutality, and judicial & prison reform. We are at a critical juncture in our nation’s history! If not now, then when?’’
Trump isn’t succumbing easily, tweeting, “”Could it be even remotely possible that in Roger Goodell’s rather interesting statement of peace and reconciliation, he was intimating that it would now be O.K. for the players to KNEEL, or not to stand, for the National Anthem, thereby disrespecting our Country & our Flag?” Thus, this will be a test of Goodell’s sincerity and will. Has a sports commissioner ever been wedged in a more sensitive position, having to choose between a president or Black Lives Matter?
A cynic — and I can be one — might smirk at the wishy-washiness of it all, how suddenly Goodell and Brees changed their minds in the face of social-media outrage. And let’s see, if and when the coronavirus allows the NFL to start a season, how the protests play out. Will the league and networks be respectful, stick to Goodell’s apology and televise kneeling scenes if dozens of players choose to do so all season — and for seasons to come, as long as they so desire? Or will the league, with backlash from owners, coaches and players not supporting the protests, incrementally push the movement from view again? The kneeling sessions, Goodell must realize now, will be ramped up to maximum, relentless levels.
“Years ago seeing Kaepernick taking a knee, now we’re all ready to take a knee together going into this season without a doubt,’’ said NFL veteran Adrian Peterson, a former teammate of Brees. If not, Peterson says he won’t play, adding, “Are they going to try to punish us all? If not playing football is going to help us save lives and change things, then that’s just what it has to be.’’
If only college football could strive for better awareness. Racism charges are flying across the landscape, starting with the great Dabo Swinney down yonder at Clemson. A white assistant coach, Danny Pearman, apologized for using the N-word in a 2017 practice. Swinney’s statement didn’t exactly condemn the incident: “We have to all accept the challenge and bring about positive change and growth.’’ Over the weekend, a photo surfaced of what appears to be Swinney wearing the phrase FOOTBALL MATTERS on a t-shirt. His quarterback, Trevor Lawrence, had to play defense attorney, tweeting, “Coach Swinney’s shirt, in any way, is not mocking the Black Lives Matter movement. He has been wearing the shirt for months in meetings.” Memo to Dabo: Ditch the shirt.
The NBA has no such racial issues. An unlikely leadership triumvirate — boss Silver, Walt Disney Company executive chairman Bob Iger and an NBA star mentored by Iger, Chris Paul — found Kumbaya as the first U.S. power league to announce a resumption of play. Their common ground wasn’t American pluck or any such self-serving nonsense other than, of course, money: the $1 billion-plus the league will lose if it doesn’t stage a remaining piece of the regular season and entire postseason for its TV partners, including Disney-owned ESPN, which would lose $500 million in ad revenue if the season isn’t completed. The players also want to be paid, so here we go, coronavirus be damned, a 22-team rollout scheduled to begin training on July 9 and real games on July 31 in the Disney-owned sports complex at DIsney-owned Walt Disney World. Some are referring to Silver, Iger and Paul as trailblazers. And the commissioner, I must say, is going balls-out like Hercules.
But I would wait on all hosannas until we see what the almighty virus thinks. Because, for all anyone knows, Silver and his braintrust might be reckless superspreaders who enable outbreaks that send players fleeing, shut down the season and tarnish the league forever. Hey, what could go wrong inside a bubble of 1,600 people, including three family members per player after the first postseason round? And testing every person in the bubble once a day, as people come and go while the season progresses — that’s supposed to make us feel comfortable? I don’t need to remind you that basketball, as a close-contact indoor sport, is particularly vulnerable to spread of an infectious disease. And I don’t understand why Silver is so bullish on teams continuing to play games when a player tests positive for the virus — when, not if — whereupon the player is quarantined for at least seven days while everyone else keeps running and sweating and posting up. Is this not a health gamble of epic proportion? At least the league doesn’t want anyone to leave the bubble, but these are men in their 20s and 30s who think they’re immune from the virus and don’t take no for an answer. If LeBron James wants to go out one night with his guys, the league is going to say no? If Paul wants to play golf with Iger, the league is going to say no?
And what if James and/or Paul contracts the coronavirus somewhere in Florida and spreads it among their teammates and other teams? Not to pick on those two — it could be any player — but transmission remains high in the U.S., if not currently in the Orlando area. Hundreds of people will be arriving from all points of a country ravaged by COVID-19. Even Silver admitted, on TNT’s “Inside The NBA, that he is “choosing among multiple bad alternatives given the pandemic that we’re dealing with.’’ So when I say the odds of completing the season are as good as the Phoenix Suns winning the asterisked title, or Conor McGregor’s UFC “retirement’’ sticking, tell me:
Why, again, are we doing this?
Wealth trumps health, pun intended.
“The belief is we would not have to shut down if a single player tested positive,’’ Silver said. “”We’ve been dealing with a group of experts plus public health authorities in Florida, and the view is if we’re testing every day and we’re able to trace in essence the contacts that a player has had, we are able to contain that player and separate him from the team. We have learned a lot more about the virus since we shut down in March. The data is demonstrating that for the most part — there are exceptions — that healthy young people are the least vulnerable.”
What about older coaches and officials? “There are people involved in this league who are more vulnerable,’’ Silver said, “so we’re going to have to work through protocols.’’ In other words, so what if 69-year-old Mike D’Antoni and 65-year-old Alvin Gentry are sacrificed, as long as James Harden and Zion Williamson can be showcased on TV?
Though fraught with peril, the NBA’s return is symbolic as the most woke league on Earth, much too evolved from the top down to encounter the NFL’s racial dilemmas. Gregg Popovich is 71 and subject to age protocols, but with the San Antonio Spurs considered non-factors in Orlando, he will make his presence known via activism. He posted a video on the team website firing on his favorite target, Trump, saying he’s “embarrassed as a white person’’ about the manner of Floyd’s death and that “the country is in trouble, and the basic reason is race.’’ Said Popovich, also the U.S. Olympic men’s coach: “It’s got to be (white people) to speak truth to power, that call it out no matter the consequence. … To actually watch a lynching. We’ve all seen books, and you look in the books and you see black people hanging off of trees. And you are amazed. But we just saw it again. I never thought I’d see that, with my own eyes, in real time.”
Even when not playing games, the NBA is socially relevant. Michael Jordan could have donated $1 million to organizations “dedicated to ensuring racial equality’’ and earned universal praise. He and his Jordan Brand gave $100 million.
Major League Baseball, meanwhile, is just dead. Ignoring dire warnings that it faces irreparable damage if the season is canceled, owners and players continue to wage a hideous labor war. At this point, taking a side is unnecessary because the general public has stopped caring. Apathy is a lethal concern. To not play a game for more than 17 months, from the last pitch of 2019 to the presumed first pitch of 2021, is suicidal for a sport that has been fading for years in importance and TV ratings. Manfred is either Eimer Fudd, Goofy or Dopey, preferring to have his deputy engage in letter-writing crossfire with the union’s top negotiator, who accused MLB of “a cynical tactic of depriving America of baseball games.’’
Yep, the union thinks the owners don’t want a season and are trying to deflect blame onto the players. All of which is disgraceful, as if ignoring George Floyd, a deadly pandemic and the 40 million who’ve filed jobless claims in this country. Baseball deserves to go away and never return.
I stand by my conclusion in March: Sports in America should shut down until 2021 and reboot toward a new way of life. If you disagree, consider what happened last week when Alabama, Ole Miss, Oklahoma State, Iowa State and Marshall welcomed athletes back to campus for training.
All had multiple players test positive for COVID-19.
It’s only June.
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.”