I typically leave myself out of these Q&A interviews for Barrett Sports Media. It’s not about me; it’s about the people I’m interviewing. Well, I need to violate my own rule to make a point. I grew up in South Bend, Indiana. Because the signal was strong enough to reach my hometown, it allowed me to hear a lot of Chicago sports radio over the years.
One of the hosts I always enjoyed (and still enjoy) listening to is Laurence Holmes. I appreciate his approach and conversational style. He doesn’t sound like your parent giving you “the talk.” He sounds like your cool uncle telling you about sex in a way that never makes you uncomfortable.
Laurence has been at The Score for 23 years now. That’s right; the year he started in Chicago began with a 19, not a 20. When a smart dude — which Laurence certainly is — has that much experience, best believe he’s acquired plenty of knowledge along the way. Come to think of it, one of the smartest things Laurence does is avoid sounding like he believes he’s the smartest person in the room. In our interview below, Laurence explains how his strategic approach to podcasting can differ from sports radio. He talks about teaching young broadcasters while learning from them as well. Laurence also touches on a lesson he teaches students at DePaul that he had to learn on his own. Enjoy.
Brian Noe: I’ll start a little broad; what do you enjoy most about being a sports talk host?
Laurence Holmes: It’s funny, I was having a conversation with someone last week where I was talking about how I still, as much as I love podcasting, and I do, there’s still something to the live aspect of it. There’s nothing like a Monday after a Bears game, or going on the air after Giolito’s no-hitter. Being there for the listener in that moment, there’s a real juice to it. It’s so much fun. The interaction and the connectivity of it is pretty terrific.
BN: On the flip side, what annoys you or is the biggest drawback of being a sports radio host?
LH: I still think that the amount of time that we have to break — and I get it, I understand it because I worked in sales, it’s important to make sure that we have advertisers — but sometimes it breaks up conversation. That’s why I think you’re seeing a lot of hosts being drawn to the world of podcasting because it’s uninterrupted. You could have the best intentions sometimes of trying to carve out a topic for your listener, and then it gets interrupted. You’re like I’m going to do this great tease, and people are going to listen to it, and then you come back and you’ve lost your place. I still think that’s one of the challenges is the balance between making sure that the station is paid for, which is super important, and the content not being interrupted as frequently.
BN: The approach to podcasting and sports radio is interesting to me. For example, sometimes I’ll record a game that I mean to watch later, and normally I’m like, ehh it’s old, and I won’t feel like watching it. Some podcasts can burn quickly. Do you approach podcasting strategically where your pod is still going to appeal to people even though it might be old?
LH: Yeah, I’ve been debating how much of the daily stuff that I do on the radio, would I, or should I do as a podcaster? I tend to lean towards trying to do more evergreen topics on the podcast because you lose something as you get farther away from it. The listening is different. I’ll tell you right now, I’m three weeks behind on Le Batard’s show. If they were doing well let’s react to the biggest games of the week, if they were doing that type of content, I would just delete that episode and move on to the next one. Luckily for me they don’t really do that. It’s their own type of thing that they’re doing, so I’m cognizant of it when I’m doing podcasting.
That’s why I prefer to do a longer-form interview with someone when I’m doing podcasts because it can live longer and people can come back to it. I have episodes of the podcast from almost three years ago that people are still downloading because that type of content is evergreen. I also know there’s going to be a difference in the amount of downloads that happen and when they happen.
If I break down the Bears-Saints playoff game, yeah 4,000 people are going to listen to that in 72 hours, but then they’re never going to listen to it again. But if I sit down and do an interview with Mina Kimes — I had Mina Kimes on my podcast — people will go back and listen to that episode to hear us interact, to hear us not talking about a breakdown of a particular game.
Yeah, I think you have to be very cognizant of how you’re programming your podcast and what your listeners respond to. I don’t regret doing a podcast after the Bears-Saints playoff game, that’s great and people want that content, but you have to know that you can’t do that unless that’s your goal.
BN: Do you think that’s the main reason podcasts lend themselves to interviews so much?
LH: Yeah, I do. I went back, I love [Marc] Maron’s podcast because of some of the people that he’s able to get on and interview. He interviewed Rhea Seehorn from Better Call Saul. I’m a huge fan of that show and it just was like one of those things where it got by me.
I think this interview was in November. I listened to it last weekend. I found out all sorts of great stuff about her and about the show and about Bob Odenkirk. If I’m behind, and I’m really behind on Maron, I will scroll through. But what happened was I ended up listening to two more episodes because they were evergreen. Maron reacts to what’s going on in his life and the world, but the interviews themselves will hold up no matter how long they’re available.
BN: How about as a listener, not so much as a performer, but listening to either sports radio or podcasts, what do you find yourself doing more?
LH: I don’t sample live shows around the country as much as I used to. I do if they are people that I like. I will check out what they’re doing from a podcast standpoint. What I’m looking for as a consumer, for the teams that I talk about and I cover, I’m looking for people who know something that I don’t know. I’m a big fan in Chicago of the Bulls Talk Podcast. I’ve never really covered the Bulls even though I’m around it. They have a really smart crew.
Jason Goff, I think is one of the most talented people in America. He’s my favorite host. Having him along with K.C. Johnson, who’s been covering the NBA for 30 years, and hearing who they’re talking to, and what they think about what happens, that’s more valuable to me. Big picture stuff that can then be broken down granularly is more important to me than, alright guys let’s talk about what happened with the Bulls in the third quarter. Like that’s my job as a host to do some of that from day to day.
Haberstroh’s podcast is dope. He goes in all sorts of different directions. He did an episode that got me to get him on the radio show. He was breaking down the GameStop thing. He did this incredibly layered, nuanced breakdown that could not have been done on radio. He ended up doing it for me on radio, but that was after he had done 50 minutes on the subject and I knew what kind of questions to ask him to get a 10-minute version of that conversation.
To have the space to spread out and really dissect something sports wise, those are the type of sports podcasts that I find myself drawn to. Tell me something that I don’t know. Take me inside of it. Those are the things that’ll get me more so than just react pods.
BN: I saw some of your comments following George Floyd’s death. I’m just curious what your thoughts and feelings are as that police officer is preparing to go to trial.
LH: I don’t want to talk about it as far as my own personal feelings on the subject. I’ll talk about it from an industry standpoint. I was happy that we saw a loosening of some of the restrictive nature of sports radio over that stretch of time last summer. Whether we’re talking about ESPN on a national stage or locally what we were doing, I was happy to see that program directors around the country — and there were a couple who pushed back. I know there were some people in Cleveland, actually I think it’s one of my old associate program directors Matt Fishman, it was one of his places where they had gotten to a point where they said okay we’re only going to focus in on sports.
What I’ve always thought about radio and sports radio is look, we know that the marquis is the teams that we cover. That’s the star of what it is we do. But the connection that people have with the hosts of their station is significant. Strangely enough, they do care about what you think on some of these subjects.
What’s bothered me is that a lot of programmers across the country have reacted to a vocal minority that have decided that they’re going to determine whether or not I can talk about subjects that matter to me, that are sometimes a bit uncomfortable. In situations where it might not make someone uncomfortable, like if I’m talking about Avengers: Endgame, it’s totally fine for me to go off script and do some of that stuff, or to talk about donuts because I love talking about donuts. I can do some of that stuff.
I’m glad that we were in a space for the summer that allowed us — and I think that a big part of it was there wasn’t a lot of sports that was going on — I thought that as an industry I was very proud of what we were accomplishing, that we were doing that as well as any talk show hosts in any other genre. We were talking about it from the perspective of athletes in the NBA, NFL, MLB, NHL, NASCAR, we were talking about it in those ways. But we were also given some license to talk about how we were affected. I don’t know how anyone — and I’m pretty good at compartmentalizing, leave your own problems at the door when the light comes on — I don’t know how anyone during that time, how you weren’t affected. It’s disingenuous to act like you’re not. It’s disingenuous to treat the audience like they’re stupid and that they don’t know all of the stuff is going on.
That’s where I go back to the idea of programmers are always trying to sell the personality of the people that are doing their shows. Like hey you should listen to this guy or this woman because they do this, this, this, and this, and they’re your friend in the afternoon. Well, now your friend needs to talk to you about some real shit. Now your friend needs to tell you why they’re bothered.
I thought that we, as an industry, did a good job of really allowing people to be themselves on the air. I know I’m grateful to my PD. There was never once, not once, that he told me to pull back, that he told me that what I wasn’t doing was compelling. He went out of his way to say we support you talking about these things. We know that you know how to program your show and it’s okay for you to open a vein for your listener.
I think my favorite thing that happened this summer outside of us talking about some of these really big picture issues, is more of my listeners learning what Juneteenth was. I had a bunch of them that said to me, why do I have this day off? They had never had this day off and I did a whole segment on the history of Juneteenth, on The Score, in Chicago. I got text messages from listeners saying thank you, I didn’t know that that’s what this was. I was explaining how I think it should be an American holiday. The support that I got behind it was really awesome. It was cool that in a moment where you don’t think you can go outside of the regular sports radio discussions, it was cool to have that moment and then have the validation of people saying, oh cool, Laurence taught me something today, and it wasn’t about playing Cover 2 defense.
BN: In terms of teaching, why is it important to you to teach young broadcasters about the business?
LH: I’ve been teaching media at DePaul since 2012. I love it. I love it because one, I’m probably a better talk show host in the quarters when I teach because I’m going over some of the fundamental stuff with my students. The other part that’s great for me is I’m seeing how younger people approach media. What is their consumption like? How does it differ from what I watch? How are they looking at baseball? They think it’s boring but they’re still consuming at least from a digital standpoint and I’m seeing that. I’m seeing what they think is important in reporting, and where their ears and eyes gravitate towards. I think that there’s value in that, in trying to understand younger people and their habits. It’s something that our industry is desperate to figure out; how to grab those listeners and never let them go. That’s a big part of this. Being able to sit in a room with them — when you could sit in a room — and discuss some of these things with them, I find it fascinating.
BN: Is there anything that you teach the young broadcasters that you had to learn on your own?
LH: Wow, that’s a really wonderful question. I guess I had to learn this on my own, but it’s more of an observational thing. With social media being what it is now and the emphasis on social media, teaching them about the First Amendment is really important. To me the part that I enjoy teaching them is that it’s not a catch-all. It doesn’t protect you from consequences; it protects you from the government. It’s interesting to see the light come on for students when you explain that to them; that the First Amendment doesn’t necessarily protect your right to keep a job.
If you say something that’s out of pocket, your employer has the right to pull your contract, to take you off the air, to fire you. That is an important moment for them, because I think there are so many people that take the First Amendment and misuse it horribly as a way to, “Well I can say what I want, I have First Amendment rights.”
You’re damn right. You can say whatever you want, but as far as the private sector goes, you are not protected from the consequences. I try to explain to them — I’ve allowed them to see portions of my contract. Make sure that you read your contract thoroughly so that you understand where your employer, what rights they have to terminate your employment.
It can definitely be a difficult thing to understand. It’s a target that keeps moving on some of these subjects, but students need to understand that they can’t hold the First Amendment up as a shield against their employer. They can try to do it against the government, but they can’t do it against a private employer. I think that’s probably the most important thing where you have to learn about that from watching the way that your entity where you work, how they handle some of these things, and knowing your rights. I think that that’s a really important aspect of the job.
BN: As far as goals go; you’ve got the Chicago gig, the podcast, you’re now doing Sunday mornings on CBS. Is there anything you want to accomplish down the road that you haven’t yet?”
LH: Yeah, getting a chance to do a national show is a big deal for me because I always wanted to be able to talk about a bunch of different topics. I still love doing the local show, but doing it nationally has been a real blast. It’s been so much fun and I’ve gotten to interact with listeners from around the country, which is cool. I find that I’m really starting to love content creation podcast wise, building my podcast, House of L, and working with people.
I actually am digging the consulting aspect of my job now where people will come to me and say, hey I’m thinking about doing the podcast, what do you think I should do? Sitting down and helping — I’ve helped launch four or five podcasts this year. To know that I have peers that respect me in that way is really gratifying. I guess it’s an offshoot of teaching, where I’m taking my experience and I’m lending it to someone else, and they’re adding their unique abilities to the advice and coming up with something incredible.
BN: Do you see a future in the teaching/consulting area?
LH: I think there’s a chance that could happen. I still love performing. I still get something out of performing, but as I age out of the demo — I’m 45 now, so I’ve got some time — I do think that that’s probably where I end up. Kind of creating a business on content creation where I’m helping people do their thing instead of me doing mine. I’ve been working at The Score since 1998. I’m 23 years into the game at this point. I still have a lot that I want to do on air, but I’m fascinated with people who are coming up now and how they can creatively tell stories. I want to be able to help them do it.
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.”