Earlier this month, Entercom’s The Team 980 in Washington D.C. announced a revamped weekday lineup, airing Travis Thomas from 9am – noon and Reese Waters from noon – 3pm. In a somewhat groundbreaking move, The Team 980’s weekday schedule now features two solo Black hosts back-to-back, with neither being a retired professional athlete.
The pipeline to full-time sports radio jobs in major markets has traditionally provided roadblocks for Black hosts. Sports radio has acknowledged the problem in recent years, but most stations still fail to offer a diverse lineup reflecting the cultural representation of its community.
Challenging the odds, both hosts arrived at 980 through very different paths. Thomas experienced the more traditional sports media grind, working various jobs behind-the-scenes and behind-the-mic on TV and radio. For Waters, the grunt work began as a comedian. His stand-up led him to provide sports commentary on television and his extensive TV work earned a full-time radio opportunity.
But for both hosts, the opportunity with The Team 980 is a culmination of their own tireless work, and a program director in Chris Kinard who broadened his talent search.
Brandon Contes: When did both of you take an interest in broadcasting?
Reese Waters: Honestly, I didn’t really consider it a potential career until I was in it. I was working as a comedian and I had a lot of sports in my stand-up material, but the first opportunity I had in broadcasting came because the people at Versus found my comedy. They were looking to cast a comedian on The Daily Line and I didn’t even have representation yet, but they found my stand-up on YouTube and my sportscasting career kind of started by happenstance.
Travis Thomas: I played sports my whole life growing up in a small rural town in Maryland and like many kids, I had dreams of going pro one day. I wanted to go to the NBA and I used to tell my mom, ‘I’m going to get drafted and I’m going to buy you a Jaguar.’ That didn’t happen [Laughs], and I would say early teenage years, it became obvious that it wasn’t going to happen. But I knew I wanted to work in sports, I was never shy, I was never nervous to be in front of a class, I thought I could be a broadcaster, I went to school for it and the rest is history.
BC: Travis, since you knew you wanted to make this a career at a younger age, was there anyone you watched and listened to that became an inspiration, or someone you aspired to be?
TT: Just one. When I tell you I grew up in a rural town, I lived in the sticks, literally. So right around the time I realized I wasn’t going pro, my parents finally got cable and I discovered a channel called ESPN. Stuart Scott – not only looked like me, but he talked like me. He was hip-hop. He was cool. It was an eye-opening, life-changing, career-directional event that still inspires me today.
BC: Was Stuart instrumental in shaping your career path? Because we talk a lot about the lack of diversity in sports media, it was significantly less diverse 20-30 years ago, was it important for you to have someone that looked like you that you could look up to?
TT: It was more than that. I definitely would have gone down this career path regardless, but for me personally, Stuart made it OK for me to be myself. Without Stuart, I would have tried to talk like every other broadcaster. I would’ve been cookie-cutter and we have enough of that in this business. I have no idea if I’m liked, loved or hated in this business, but the only thing I can hang my hat on is there’s only one me and Stuart allowed for me to be unapologetic about being myself.
BC: Do you strive to be that person for other young Black Americans who might not be thinking about sports media as a career path, but then they look at The Team 980, they see you and Reese, and it becomes a more realistic option.
TT: I hope so. But I feel like I’m failing young Black, minority, and young women broadcasters because I’m not doing as much as I can be. I can do more. Yes, I represent us, I’m not going to do anything to embarrass us, but they need to know who I am or stumble upon me to find me. I want to go to them and show that you can have a career in this. I will do a better job of reaching out and finding them. I don’t want them to have to find me, that’s my fault.
BC: The sports radio industry talks a lot about its diversity problem, and like you just mentioned, this goes for minorities and for women as well. It would be great if this wasn’t a story. I think progress will be when it is no longer noteworthy that a city adds a Black sports radio host or that a female broadcaster is covering a male sport. But two Black hosts, in weekday lineups on a major market station and neither of them are a former athlete, do both of you recognize that as a big deal?
TT: I do, and you have to give props to CK (Chris Kinard) for having the vision and guts to make it happen. The early returns have been fantastic. I can’t tell you how many people have called me just to say what it means to them to have us in this position. People of color and minorities are used to dealing with discrimination, we’ve done it our whole lives and for me to be in this position, a position I’ve earned, for me it’s just validation for all the hard work and all the racist BS I’ve dealt with in my 39 years on earth.
RW: The non-athlete part resonates with me because a lot of the ways in which places fill their diversity quota is by finding former athletes. For us to be able to ascend to this without being former athletes, it feels legitimate. Because this hasn’t been the prerequisite for many of the people sitting in this chair that looks like us.
BC: Executives used to blame the lack of diversity more on a lack of diverse applicants rather than a hiring issue on their part. I think that’s changed, there’s more accountability, but how important is it for executives to look beyond a pool of applicants for job candidates?
RW: It’s exceptionally important and I think there are a lot of people who can and will thrive in positions that they may not be seeking. People need to have an open mind about a potential pool of applicants and look at it in terms of skill set, because the skill set that applies to this profession, might also be apparent in another profession.
I happen to think stand-up is one of the most underappreciated disciplines we have in America. The idea that I was expected to come into a TV studio initially and have something funny to ad, four or five times in an hour – are you kidding me? That’s easy! I was used to filling a full hour by myself. And now going to radio from TV, it brings me back to comedy. To be able to speak confidently, be funny and engaging for that amount of time, is more like stand-up.
TT: I think smart executives like CK are already doing it and have been doing it for a long time. The issue is bigger than that. Smart executives are doing it, but those don’t grow on trees. I want to continue to ride this broadcasting wave, but my long-term goal is to be an executive. To me, that’s where real change will happen. We need more minority executives, we need more people of color making those decisions, we need more women making those decisions and being part of executive teams. That’s my ultimate goal and that’s when you’ll see change because the majority of executive teams are misrepresented in my opinion.
BC: Have you mentioned that interest to Chris Kinard?
TT: I’ve been very careful to talk to my bosses in radio and TV about that right now. I’ve probably mentioned it in passing, but I don’t make a big deal about it because I don’t want them to think I’m not focused on the task at hand. And I want to be clear, I’m having a blast as a broadcaster, so if I start talking to my bosses about wanting the corner office to run the world, they might think I’m not focused.
BC: What’s interesting is there are a lot of radio executives that didn’t have the ability to be entertaining enough or have the personality to be successful on-air, but they understood the business, they went behind the scenes and worked their way up to become an executive. It’s interesting to see someone who has the personality and creativity to be on-air, but has aspirations to be an executive to better the industry. It would serve executives well to seek your ideas to help the industry grow.
TT: I really appreciate that. My aspirations were always to be a broadcaster and become an all-time great. I never thought of management. It was last summer, 2020 changed my life just like it did for a lot of people. The pandemic, civil unrest, racial injustice. I was laid off due to COVID-19 budget cuts. It was a low point for me just like many Americans.
I was looking at my resume and saw all the behind-the-scenes experience, I saw all my on-air experience, the only thing I never did is something I was born to do. And that’s be a leader. I’ve never led in this business and that’s what really gave me the first inclination that I want to do this. Then you go deeper and see there’s not a lot of representation in leadership roles, it feels like the perfect fit, but it’s just not my time yet. I have more to do on the broadcasting side and I’m going to kick ass doing it, but eventually – I want a seat at the table and I believe I can bring a lot to it.
BC: Reese, what about your other aspiration, are you the type of comedian who has a lot of natural wit and instantly commands a room or are you someone who is more meticulously writing and editing, practicing and perfecting?
RW: I would love to say I’m one of the naturals, but then you see guys like Chappelle where it literally just oozes out of his body. I don’t walk in and command a room the way a lot of other people do in that class, but there are a lot of great comedians in the other class. I’m a little bit more planned and meticulous in how I go about it.
BC: What about building a radio show? Is your show more planned and organized, or is it off the cuff?
RW: I’ve been trying to figure out exactly how much I have to plan. I’m still learning and going through that process because I don’t want to be so scripted for a three-hour show, I want some freedom, but I also want to make sure I have material to work with. Right now we’re in the process of figuring out how it works and that’s probably what occupies most of my time right now, figuring out that formula.
BC: Do you feel extra pressure to add comedy and be funny on your radio show because of your background?
RW: Yea, I would say there is. I also feel extra responsibility to service the sports fans. If I didn’t have this background, I might indulge a tangent longer, but I probably give myself a shorter leash because I don’t want to be perceived as lacking in sports content. I want to get to the point where these are things I’m not thinking about and we’re just doing what is the best radio. But right now, it’s all on my mind during a show.
BC: Do you have a preference, television or radio?
RW: TV is a completely different animal. I can take 15 minutes to talk about something on the radio, but on TV, I get 45 seconds and if I misspeak, that counts in those 45 seconds. You have to hit TV aggressively, and that’s been a challenge for me. Being able to know that really funny minute you did on TV, I can turn that into five or 10 minutes on radio. It’s a completely different animal and I’m just getting used to the freedom radio offers, but I think radio is going to be something that I’m able to have a lot of fun with once I figure out the speed of the content.
BC: You were on Letterman, which has got to be an amazing opportunity for any comedian. How were your nerves for that experience?
RW: The Tonight Show with Johnny is the greatest credit a comedian could have, but I still think Letterman is second. It feels like a badge of honor and I was bummed when the show went away, but now it’s something that nobody else can get.
Ray Romano was the guest that night, so I had not one but two comedians watching me. It was a divine moment, I don’t remember it at all, I blacked out, I’ve watched it, but I don’t remember it. I’m very picky with my work, but I watch that performance and I wouldn’t change anything about it.
BC: What about the aspect of being in DC, the heartbeat of our country’s political scene which is such a divisive issue right now, do either of you have a policy on mixing sports with politics or social issues?
RW: Sports and social issues have been mixing for a very long time. I will try to be as honest and truthful as I can with any injustices I see, whether on the field, off the field or tangential on the field. The reality is, most times, there are very few things that go on off the field that don’t affect what goes on the field in some way and I’ll continue to try and be a light for those situations. It’s been a long time that I’ve had to be a fan while ignoring a lot of injustices I see. It’s been a long time, it’s been long enough quite frankly. But I want to hit a note that’s also inviting for people who don’t agree, to feel like they have an opportunity to weigh in and have their thoughts be heard because if I’m preaching to the choir every day, then I’m not changing anything. The ability to have open dialogue and exchange, that’s the highest aim you can have for any enterprise and hopefully we can be that.
TT: My policy is be honest, open, and allow every voice to be heard. When Colin Kaepernick started taking a knee a few years ago, I was doing weekends on The Fan at 106.7. I opened the phone lines with a generic statement, I acknowledged it was happening and said ‘I’m taking all calls on it, just keep it clean.’ I don’t know if I even gave my stance on it.
I welcomed both sides of the aisle and to be honest, a lot of the conservative views would thank me because they didn’t feel they had a platform to discuss it. People would hang up on them, but I didn’t. I don’t want sports to be divisive, sports should bring us together. As long as we’re being respectful and honest, when social issues or politics crosses into sports, let’s just have an open conversation and learn from one another.
BC: You mentioned doing weekends at The Fan, do you view them as competition now? I know Entercom did this in Miami as well, but it’s kind of strange for one company to own two sports stations in the same market.
TT: I’m a unique hire in that I view both as family because I was doing TV work full-time, radio was freelance until recently, so I was basically a mercenary. I would take work with The Fan and I would take work with The Team 980. Whoever called me, I would say yes. This merger is beautiful for me because now it’s one family and I don’t have to view it as competition, I can like both.
BC: How do you help keep this industry from getting old, stale. Younger generations demand content that moves fast. Can sports radio keep up?
TT: I graduated from college in 2005. I remember professors telling me radio was a dying medium! ‘Put all your eggs in the TV basket, because radio won’t be around.’ That was 2005! And here we are, 2021 and I just got a radio gig!
There’s a lot of content right now and it’s premature to say what’s going to die and what’s going to be the bigger medium, the bottom line is we don’t know. We’re all trying to figure this out. One thing’s for certain, you can get robots to do a lot of jobs in this country, but being opinionated and passionate about sports is not one of them. The demise of radio is a bunch of hogwash. If you’re entertaining and knowledgeable, you’re going to survive anything. That’s a fact.
RW: Digital content and podcasts are obviously doing well, but the advantage radio has is being able to act with immediacy to things. That’s our advantage. And we have the best of both worlds by giving live commentary and reactions, but also have the ability to get into the digital space by offering our shows as podcasts as well.
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.”