God help me. I don’t get it.
We are in what Sports Twitter has dubbed “Jim Nantz Season.” It’s when CBS flows perfectly from the NCAA Tournament right into coverage of The Masters. With apologies to the NFL, this is the stretch of 30 days on the sports calendar most synonymous with Nantz and his pseudo-folksy broadcast style.
There are plenty of people, both amongst fans and our colleagues, that live for this time. To them, Jim Nantz’s voice is synonymous with big moments in sports. His style is pure class and everything “that sports should be.”
I’m not one of those people. To me, Jim Nantz’s voice and persona are so schmaltzy that I have taken to referring to him as the human embodiment of any nondescript item or brand. He’s a human Entenmann’s crumb cake, a human Vinyard Vines belt, a human Thomas Kinkade painting, a human This is Us episode. If it’s a soulless and mass-produced version of “high brow,” it is a perfect description for Nantz in my mind.
Do I hate Jim Nantz? No, that would require Jim Nantz make me feel something.
I don’t fault Jim Nantz for his success. I am positive the guy works hard and is available for any task his producers ask him to handle. I am sure he listens to feedback and has thoughts of his own about what can be improved when he rewatches games and rounds he has called. There is no doubt in my mind that he puts in the work necessary to be assigned to call Super Bowls and Final Fours.
I fault the people that have created a cult of personality for a guy, who the most interesting thing about is that he carries a photo of burnt toast in his wallet like it is a beloved grandchild.
He’s got a few anecdotes here and there. His catchphrase, “Hello Friends,” has an origin story that I am sure makes you weep if you’re close to your dad. But really, he’s just some old rich guy that goes places old rich guys go (a private golf club in Augusta) and does things old rich guys do (buy a vineyard, marry a much younger lady, build a replica of Pebble Beach’s signature hole in his backyard). Is it a crime? No, but it isn’t exactly interesting.
I remember around 2010 there was a growing movement for CBS to replace Nantz on the Final Four with Gus Johnson. To me, it made all the sense in the world. Johnson is the life of the broadcast party. Truly, the only play-by-play guy that I can tell apart from any other. His is a style meant for basketball.
The reaction from many in my circle of Southern, white college sports lifers was that it would be sacrilege. “Why, Jim Nantz makes the Final Four special!” they would protest.
Does he though?
Let’s say you are a Virginia or Texas Tech fan and CBS has decided to replace Jim Nantz with the voice of one of those old Speak n’ Spells calling the game. Would that really have kept you from watching the 2019 NCAA Tournament Final? If the answer is yes, you don’t really love your team as much as you think you do.
It’s what makes me laugh when I read that Nantz wants an eight-figure annual salary or that Tony Romo has one. It’s what leaves me scratching my head any time ESPN panics and decides that it must have Al Michaels or Peyton Manning or someone else that commands a $10 million paycheck in the Monday Night Football booth. You could put two college professors in the booth and tell them to discuss The Canterbury Tales instead of the actual game. It’s Monday Night Football. Just don’t give us the Jaguars every week and we’ll probably watch.
Game announcers just don’t matter. It doesn’t mean they don’t have talent or they don’t have to work hard. They do, but this is another example of our industry thinking too much about executives’ and critics’ opinions and not enough about what fans actually prioritize. Even if the argument is “Well Demetri, we aren’t thinking about the fans of Virginia and Texas Tech. We want the casual sports fan to stick around and watch the game,” I would tell you that no amount of Jim Nantz saying “Hello Friends” or Bill Raftery shouting “Onions!” is going to do that.
Over the weekend, I listened to two episodes of the podcast Behind the Bastards that were about Rush Limbaugh’s life and career. Now, I loathe Rush Limbaugh, but the host of the podcast read a quote from him that was brilliant – so brilliant in fact that I don’t remember the quote itself, just the gist of it!
Limbaugh’s reason for doing the style of show that he did was that he wanted to be what listeners cared about. He thought that if what attracted people to his show was the news of the day or their political identity, he would be interchangeable with anyone else, and the day he became too expensive would be the day that his employer told him not to bump his ass on the way out the door. By making his opinion and personality the center of his show, Limbaugh ensured that he was all his listeners cared about. That guaranteed he would be a commodity, something no news anchor or commentator before him ever could be.
If what matters is the game or the round, why does Jim Nantz matter? He doesn’t make anything more fun. He doesn’t make any moment mean something different than anyone else could. The people that like him like him because for 32 years CBS has been telling its audience that Jim Nantz matters. That’s branding, not a fact.
Look, having play-by-play is important. Remember when NBC Sports had been reduced to just the Olympics and the Triple Crown? Yeeesh! Having good play-by-play guys and analysts is important. I know being in this business we’re supposed to look at legends like Nantz or Vin Scully or Marv Albert and say “no one can do it like them,” but I mean, come on.
Really? No one? Pat Sumerall retired and the NFL didn’t suffer. Keith Jackson retired and college football carried on just fine. We have to stop being so precious about the voices we are used to hearing and remember that while fans may like them, the sport itself is really what keeps them coming back.
Phrases like “media is changing” and “this generation doesn’t consume sports like their parents do” are thrown around a lot and often interpreted as if they are unique to the 2020’s. The fact is media has been constantly changing since media was invented and generations never consume anything the same way their parents do. Is Nantz a legend? Sure, and he has plenty of contemporaries that are as well, but does paying them or propping them up to an audience in that way do anything but tickle a certain segment of the population’s nostalgia bone? Or worse, does it just tickle our industry’s nostalgia bone?
Jim Nantz is fine at what he does. I am sure he is a nice guy. But the cult of personality CBS has created around him is the epitome of the sports media industry wearing blinders and high-fiving itself instead of asking what really matters to its audience.