If the human element mattered in this surreal, stupefying slog of 2020, the consensus directive would be, “Health first, sports later.’’ Instead, the resumption of games has become a marketing slogan — “YOU CAN’T STOP SPORT’’ — courtesy of Nike, of course, which is trying to spike its stock with yet another campaign portraying athletes as invincible gods who, in this case, are bigger than COVID-19.
“You can’t stop sport,’’ says Russell Wilson, who is in the commercial, “because you can’t stop us.’’
And when any of us challenge that rationale as foolish, dangerous and ass-backward — that one’s life is a bit more important than a bastardized ballgame amid a pandemic — we are subjected to the millennial wisdom of Kyle Brandt, he of the NFL Network, who surely heard an “Attaboy’’ or two from his league bosses when he tweeted, “There’s a segment of the NFL media that seems to be almost rooting for COVID to affect the season. They want it. They see the Marlins news and say, `Yep! Lots of luck, football!’ These are people who make their livings off football. I don’t get it.’’
Well, Kyle, the Marlins’ outbreak news soon became the Cardinals’ outbreak news, inevitably to be followed by another team’s coronavirus spread. And some of us, as professional journalists, are obligated to be honest to the masses and not underplay a global health crisis because we’re beholden to a pay day, as maybe you are, Kyle, along with others I see in sports media. Consider it more jarring proof that this Major League Baseball season never should have been attempted and that Rob Manfred, the so-called commissioner, should be banished to another planet for jeopardizing the lives of players and families and further humiliating the sport. It’s now more evident than a 104-degree fever and relentless diarrhea runs that leagues not playing seasons in restrictive medical environments are doomed to stall, which eventually will include the NFL and college football, once mass outbreaks occur as players spit, breathe, slobber and bleed on each other every play, then gather in confined locker rooms to spread those expectorations, then travel to road hotels or mask-optional campus parties. These are not dominoes, Kyle. These are human beings who might get sick and spread COVID-19 to others, who could get sick themselves or, I don’t know, maybe die.
Yet the ongoing realities of the virus — “We just have to assume the monster is everywhere,’’ said Ohio Governor Mike DeWine, whose state is home to two MLB franchises — has only turned Manfred into his own kind of monster. In a country with 500,000 new infections the past week, a country that Johns Hopkins University says needs a “reset’’ because the U.S. “is not currently on course to get control of this epidemic,’’ Dr. Rob isn’t going down without a fight. Knowing the NBA, NHL and other leagues in Bubbles are functioning well so far and making MLB look typically inept, Manfred responded with his own grand, “You Can’t Stop Sport’’ declaration to ESPN after postponing 17 games in his season’s first 10 days. In the process, he continued to point a long index finger at the players — and their union, as always — for violating health/safety protocols when: (1) Manfred and the owners signed off on those protocols; (2) MLB should have been monitoring the players’ behavior all along and canceled the Miami-Phillies game eight days ago, when the Marlins’ outbreak emerged; and (3) MLB decided not to conduct tests daily, meaning infected players can be exposed to other people for days while awaiting results, which probably is what happened when the Cardinals had their explosion of positive tests.
“We are playing,” said Manfred, who pondered canceling the season — and should have. “The players need to be better, but I am not a quitter in general and there is no reason to quit now. We have had to be fluid, but it is manageable.”
Yeah, just as Howard the Duck thought he could manage Son of Satan. This from the man who refuses to put baseball’s virus catastrophe in “the nightmare category,’’ the very definition of denial if not delusion. “It’s what the public health experts have been saying from the beginning about this, that there is no one big magic fix,” Manfred, who has not held a press conference in months, told the Associated Press. “The protocols are a series of little things that people need to do. We’ve had some problems. In order to be better, it’s a series of little things. I think it’s peer pressure. I think it’s players taking personal responsibility.” When will Manfred realize this is not a fair fight? How many positive tests, team quarantines, game postponements, reconfigured schedules, Yoenis Cespedes blow-offs and seven-inning doubleheaders does he need before he finally gets it — that he’s risking a full-blown tragedy — and starts thinking with common sense instead of feeding his shattered ego? He already has said baseball can’t afford to “not finish this season’’ if others leagues do. But quitting, at this point, would be the noble and sensible option, with epidemiologist Zachary Binney tweeting, “This is veering quickly into `shut all of MLB down’ territory for me.”
Understandably, players are tired of being blamed while Manfred and the owners sit in their bunkers, counting early revenues. Said veteran pitcher Jon Lester: “I don’t know Rob’s situation, and I don’t want to put my foot in my mouth. But I do know we — not only players, but families — are making sacrifices, day in and day out. … I’ll stop there.” This after Cubs teammate Anthony Rizzo, who, as a cancer survivor, is especially vulnerable to the virus, tweeted during a rain delay in Cincinnati: “Player safety? @mlb let’s sit around for 8 plus hours inside the clubhouse.. I’m sure I can find that somewhere in the 113 page safety protocol.’’
Meanwhile, leagues playing inside Bubbles have found a competitive mood and safety vibe antithetical to baseball’s chaos. While realizing any medical or logistical hiccup is possible at any moment, I’d say the NBA’s Bubble is blowing up right now, to paraphrase the kids, with a chance not only to complete a season but even be entertaining and compelling in the process. Seamlessly, and almost miraculously, the coronavirus became an afterthought as we watched: LeBron James hit a game-winner to end an intense Lakers-Clippers game … the Raptors beat down the Lakers with smothering defense and a reminder they could repeat as champions … COVID-19 scapegoat Rudy Gobert hit the first shot and two deciding free throws in the league’s first game back … James Harden go for 49 in a playground romp between the Rockets and Mavericks … Zion Williamson pout while tethered to the bench on a playing-time restriction … Giannis Antetokounmpo make another MVP statement … and the league’s players and coaches beautifully salute Black Lives Matter, whether kneeling, standing or wearing a jersey with no social justice message, as Jimmy Butler tried to no avail.
As Clippers coach Doc Rivers said, relaying his thoughts about George Floyd while kneeling during the national anthem, “The hardest thing that happened to me was, my knee was hurting. In the middle of it, I’m thinking, `In two minutes, my knee is hurting, yet there was a guy that had his knee on someone’s neck for eight minutes.’ Think about that. A national anthem took two minutes. There were guys who needed towels and things to get under their knees, and yet someone kneeled on another human being’s neck for eight minutes.’’
This is what the NBA does. It figures out solutions and keeps eyeballs on basketball, thanks to more cameras, tight angles and technical innovations. Yes, the virtual, big-headed fans are goofy, as are the occasional simulated ventures into NBA 2K mode. But we barely notice because the games are interesting — and the same can be said for the NHL, which followed the NBA’s lead and established two bubbles in virus-dulled Canada, so far with solid reviews in Toronto and Edmonton.
Said James: “We’re in the land of the unknown. Things are happening for the first time. You just take it for what it is. Don’t take the moment for granted. We’re all still living and alive and back to doing what we love to do: playing the game, watching the game. That’s a blessing, because 2020 has been pretty (crappy). We’re all blessed. … No matter what the (situation) is, no matter what the bubble is, no fans, or with fans, basketball is basketball and competitive spirit is competitive spirit, so we’re right back to where we left off.’’
So is baseball, for that matter, still stuck in the same world of hurt and inevitable impasse when the collective bargaining agreement expires next year. Leave it to MLB to clumsily lead the pandemic way for Big Sports in America, only to wobble frantically, with no sadder scene than sending the Marlins back to South Florida in sleeper buses after at least 18 players were infected and quarantined in Philadelphia. Obviously, even a shortened season already has been stripped of its competitive integrity and ability to produce a legitimate champion, which I wrote a week ago while calling for the season to be canceled. Since then, Manfred has directed his ire at Players Association executive director Tony Clark, threatening to shut down the season if players don’t manage the virus better. Rizzo wants to know how that’s possible when, without a Bubble, teams are required to travel to cities, stay in hotels and come into constant contact with virus carriers — and that doesn’t include protocol violators who might be taking risks around town or at a Wisconsin golf course, as some members of the Cardinals have been accused. “It’s one of those things where you can get food delivered to you, and if (the virus) is on there, we don’t know where this thing hides all the time,’’ Rizzo said. “You got to be prudent. You got to have faith, but guys are gonna get it. Tomorrow, we could have someone walking around here asymptomatic and spread it to 10 guys.”
The opt-outs, positive tests and short-season-related injuries continue, an absence of continuity that is robbing fans of whatever enjoyment they can muster. Mike Trout — whose wife delivered their first child, a son named Beckham Aaron — would be wise to stay home and not return, but he’s a good man who wants to help a dying sport. Red Sox pitcher Eduardo Rodriguez, who has a heart issue likely stemming from a recent COVID-19 bout, shut down his season. Milwaukee’s Lorenzo Cain explained his weekend decision to opt out: “With all of the uncertainty and unknowns surrounding our game at this time, I feel that this is the best decision for me, my wife, and our three kids.’’
And Nationals manager Dave Martinez, who has an underlying heart condition, continues to speak about his fears, telling the Washington Post, “You know what? I’m just not going to hold it in anymore. This is different for everyone. This is scary for us, even if our job is to play a game. I feel like that’s something I have to say. … This is weighing on me a lot. It’s not just the players or myself. That’s only the start of it. It’s my coaching staff, the clubbies, the PR staff, the beat writers, everyone’s families. A lot of people could be in danger if we’re not smart and safe. And even then, you really don’t know if that’s enough.’’
Yet, the owners expect these men to keep trudging out there every day and play ballgames, no matter the health fallout. Is Manfred even listening to a man who only directed a team to a championship last autumn?
Just as America was in no mood to hear the owners and players jibber-jabber over money before the season resumed, no one wants to hear the owners blame the players for outbreaks. All the sides want to do is fight, a rift that goes back decades and was exacerbated last spring when Manfred described the World Series trophy as a “piece of metal.’’ Tweeted pitcher Trevor Bauer, referring to the protocol blame Manfred is placing on players: “Take no risk yourself; blame everything on the players; protect TV revenue at all costs.’’ Is Bauer not dead-on right? He didn’t mention that the players weren’t interested in a Bubble, but the prospect turned moot anyway when owners engaged players in a a weeks-long fight over taking a second pay cut. We should ignore the rhetoric. Baseball will not recover from this, nor does it deserve to after the league’s medical director, Gary Green, tried to justify the Marlins’ outbreak thusly last week: “Twenty-nine out of 30 is a pretty good batting average if you’re playing baseball.’’ By my count, six teams and counting have been disrupted so far, which means the batting average is climbing.
Not that anyone in sports is treating COVID-19 with appropriate fear. These multi-billion-dollar industries have exploited America’s divided views on the coronavirus — wearing masks, sending kids back to classrooms, geopolitical madness and who should win an apocalyptic presidential election presumably ahead in just three months — to almost sneak-slide games back into the American consciousness. The media have gleefully responded with mostly Brandt-approved coverage, such as when ESPN led “SportsCenter’’ not with an important Marlins update early last week … but a Pirates-Brewers game. Sometimes, the network reminds me of a drug dealer, slipping coke to fans to feed their “Why We Love Sports’’ fix and make sure they keep watching and gambling.
Coronavirus? What coronavirus?
Yet explain how Charles Barkley and the “Inside The NBA’’ crew can make us not only forget the pandemic, but make us LOL.
The U.S. casualty numbers, which are nearing 200,000 and could reach a half-million without a miracle vaccine, have not deterred sports in the least. The NFL, a $15-billion-a-year enterprise lorded over by a commissioner and team owners who won’t be risking their health on lines of scrimmage, still believes a regular season will start in five weeks; the sizable number of players already opting out, including eight New England Patriots, strongly suggests otherwise, as does the positive test of another head coach, the Eagles’ Doug Pederson. College football hedges its bets, moving schedules back in wishfully thinking the virus will fade, but more outbreaks and opt-outs are inevitable. The almighty Southeastern Conference, still planning a shortened season in a region with less virus-related resistance, allowed players to speak with commissioner Greg Sankey and medical advisers in a conference call last week, the Washington Post reported. The exchange was ominous.
“There are going to be outbreaks,” one SEC official told the players. “We’re going to have positive cases on every single team in the SEC. That’s a given. And we can’t prevent it.”
Added Sankey: “Part of our work is to bring as much certainty in the midst of this really strange time as we can so you can play football in the most healthy way possible, with the understanding there aren’t any guarantees in life.”
The pushback, shall we say, was akin to a goal-line stand. Said Texas A&M linebacker Keeath Magee II: “You guys have answered a lot of questions the best way that you guys could, and we really appreciate it. But as much as you guys don’t know … it’s just kind of not good enough. We want to play. We want to see football. We want to return to normal as much as possible. But it’s just that with all this uncertainty, all this stuff that’s still circulating in the air, y’all know it kind of leaves some of us still scratching my head. I feel like the college campus is the one thing that you can’t control.”
Expect more rebellion in coming days, with a group of Pac-12 players threatening to opt out of games if the conference doesn’t meet their safety demands while, according to a letter published by The Players’ Tribune, addressing concerns about racial injustice and “economic rights and fair compensation.’’
They want to be paid.
Wouldn’t you, if you were age 20 and assuming all the health risks while the leagues, universities and TV networks were making the billions? At least WNBA phenom Sabrina Ionescu was making a salary when she suffered a Grade 3 ankle sprain that could cost her the season — and who’s to say she, like other athletes, wasn’t more susceptible to injury by rushing back to play after a limited preseason?
Somehow, perhaps because this virus also is destroying brain cells, the deadly ramifications of a global pandemic have been lost amid the fury of restarting sports and rushing events onto TV. The games inside Bubbles have scratched the familiar sports itch, and, I admit, I watched the final period of a Blackhawks-Oilers game. Golf has been a surprise hit, with the hulking emergence of Bryson DeChambeau still dominating conversation before the PGA Championship, the season’s first major — yep, major — arrives later this week at Harding Park in San Francisco.
Yet, in the time I took to write this column, more people have died from COVID-19. And a goof like Kyle Brandt won’t pay attention, preferring we ignore and whitewash an epic catastrophe so he doesn’t lose his gig on “Good Morning, Football.’’ Good night, Kyle.
The Nike commercial, too, will continue in heavy rotation. But to say “You Can’t Stop Sport’’ is false advertising. Maybe you can’t stop sports inside Bubbles, at least for now, but baseball and football soon will be added to the mounting death toll.
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.”