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Meet The Market Managers: Dan Bennett, Cumulus Dallas

“If you want a big job, you better be able to handle the big responsibility. And it’s not just me. It’s all of my department heads. A ton is expected of us. That’s just the way it is.”

Demetri Ravanos

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I think most people in radio wish their career could look at least a little bit like Dan Bennett’s. The man has worked in the same city and same cluster, working his way up for the past 37 years.

Since 1999, he has served as the vice president and market manager for Cumulus Dallas. His cluster includes some of the company’s most valuable brands including three music stations, two news talkers, and the well known Sports Radio 1310/96.7 The Ticket, a sports radio station every bit as important to the history of the sports talk format as WFAN, WIP or any other station in the Northeast.

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The well respected Dallas leader cleared some time from his schedule to connect with me to discuss the challenges of building a bench behind legendary talent, the pressures that come with being a company’s top revenue generator, and why you’ll never hear a host on The Ticket talk about a third string running back at SMU. With nearly four decades of success under his belt, when this man speaks, industry people are wise to listen.


Demetri Ravanos: You’ve been involved with The Ticket for a long time and I’ll get into the specifics of that brand, your talent, and lineup later, but I want to start by focusing on program directors. Not just at The Ticket, but all of your stations. You have six brands to look after. When it comes to filling a key role and determining who to place your faith in to lead a brand forward, what do you look for? Does the desire to be in Dallas for the long haul factor into your decision making? 

Dan Bennett: I think that’s really important, and I realize sometimes that people have other opportunities they may want to go and pursue. I think one of the advantages we have is that this is a top five market. Just the other day, they released new market sizes. We’re now number four. Once you get to a top 10 market, you don’t run into the same issues with people wanting to move up and up the way you might in some other places.           

I originally came from the programing side. So I tell all of our PDs up front that I listen to all of our stations a lot. I talk to the PDs all the time about product and content and everything else, because it’s real simple, we’re the company’s biggest market for revenue and the only way we’re going to get there is if we get ratings. You can only do so much with mediocre ratings.          

I meet with our PD’s every week. I also oversee Houston, KRBE there. I mean, I’m really in tune. When I hear outdated promos or outdated commercials or whatever, I’m texting them. When PD’s come here they know and understand that they’re working for a guy who came from the programing side. And you know, I’m really lucky because my team embraces it. I’d imagine that maybe some people out there wouldn’t like that situation, because most market managers come from sales. I’m fortunate in my career that I’ve been involved in both.

We’re here to win and I’m here to help them do that. I always tell them that I just have one rule. That is when I hear a mistake or something that isn’t right, I’ll let you know about it and don’t ever say it came from me. I don’t want the PD to call somebody and say, “Hey, Dan heard you mispronounce this guy’s name” or “Dan heard you with the date of the promotion being wrong”. What I try to do with the PD’s is I try to empower them. 

DR: So is that the way you feel you need to run the building so that you’re comfortable doing the best job that you can? Or if you had a talented programmer at any station who said, “Dan, this is one of the reasons I’m looking for something different is I need to be able to do this on my own”. Is that something you’re open to pulling back on at all? 

DB: Look, every department head, including me, has to be accountable to somebody. What you’re describing is “I don’t want to be accountable to anybody”. And that wouldn’t work. 

DR: That’s fair. 

DB: Even the best PD’s in the country cannot listen to their station 24/7. What I’m here to do is maybe catch something that you didn’t know about and then you can pick up the phone and deal with it. Again, I’m here to be your wingman, not to play a game of gotcha. 

DR: So going back to the idea that people stay with your stations for a long time, let’s talk specifically about The Ticket. I’m sure you saw not just in your city, but across the sports broadcasting landscape the emotional reaction towards Mike Rhyner deciding to call it a career. I believe we’re coming up on two years, right? 

DB: Yeah. You know, when Mike told me he wanted to hang it up, it was right around Christmas. I told him to take two weeks and think about it because I didn’t want him to have a knee jerk reaction. Rhyner is such character that he came into my office, and in that gruff voice of his, he started out by saying “Dan, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking. I’ve lost my fastball.” That was his way of telling me it’s time to hang it up.              

Mike Rhyner, co-founder of 'The Ticket' and a Dallas radio fixture since  the 1970s, is off the air

I believe we’re fair to the air talent. We’ll pay you a good salary, but you’ve got to show up and put points on the board. You know, there’s a lot of people out there that want to go to a big station and make big money. And that’s fine. But you have to do your part and deliver ratings. 

DR: Some of those guys that have delivered ratings for you, The Musers, Norm Hitzges, are going to reach a point sometime down the road where they too knock on your office door and say, “Dan, I think it’s time”. You’ve grown with these guys for so long at the radio station, does that make it harder to think about that day or do you sort of fall back on the old college athletic director stereotype of always having a list of five names available because you never know when you’re going to need to pull it out? 

DB: This is why we’re always developing people, whether that be a producer that gets to pop on the air every once in a while and next thing you know, they’re on the air or more and more and more. I mean, Corby Davidson came up that way. Danny Balis came up that way. 

Shoot, Donovan Lewis, who does the noon show with Norm, he was a board operator who worked for me on KLIF. I’ll tell you how that happened, how we put him on the air. Donovan is one of the best guys in the world and he’s funny. One day I was in the kitchen in the break room and he had about five people around him. He was telling stories and had everybody laughing hysterically. I just sat there and watched this guy who’s a board op, and I remember going to Bruce Gilbert, who didn’t want to do it at the time, and when Bruce left and Jeff Catlin came in as PD, I said “We ought to try this guy, because I think he’s got something. He does stand up in the company kitchen. Plus, he really knows and loves sports. We ought to start just putting him in”. He’s the greatest guy in the world. Everybody loves him. He’s funny and he’s smart about sports.

So we’re constantly looking, whether it is in the break room or in a producer booth or a part time guy on the weekend. Who are we developing for that day when these long term guys decide they don’t want to do it anymore? 

DR: I want to circle back on something you said earlier about being the primary market for revenue generation within the company. Last year, every company, every business went through the challenges of the pandemic. When you have the company’s spotlight on your performance, is there added pressure when the whole industry is facing challenges and everyone is trying to figure this thing out on the fly? 

DB: Well, I mean we’re the company’s number one market for revenue and cash flow. Yeah, it becomes a lot of responsibility. I’ve been the market manager since 1999. I have been here since 1984. That’s 37 years. I mean, I’m used to the pressure. If you want a big job, then you better be able to handle the big responsibility. And it’s not just me. It’s all of my department heads. A ton is expected of us. That’s just the way it is.

I think this is a really good recent example. I needed another sales manager and felt that I needed to make a change on the music side for reasons I won’t go into. I hired Dawn Girocco, she was our market manager in Los Angeles. When we sold KLOS to the Meruelo group, they didn’t keep her. My belief is when you hire department heads, do not hire beneath you. Hire at your level or somebody who is good at something that you’re not.

Dawn had been a market manager in Los Angeles and I hired her to be the director of music sales. I think that that’s how you deal with the pressure, by having really incredible department heads all around you. People fail at this when they hire beneath themselves. That’s absolutely a fact. 

DR: Do you have a vision or blueprint in your mind of what works for an advertising partner in 2021? Do you have a set of trends you can point to, whether it’s Ticket clients or clients at any of your other stations, that you can say “This is what our most successful advertisers are doing. So I know it works across the board”? 

DB: Yeah, I do. It’s the association with our talent who have been there many, many years. I mean,  the average person on The Ticket has been there for like 22, 23 years.

Getting an endorsement now is way more than a live spot on the air. Now it’s social media and many times it’s a video. It’s a pre-roll video. It’s all these other things that your business can align itself to thru a personality. It isn’t any different than a GEICO ad. Look at all the different famous people that do GEICO ads. We have really well known local people. I will tell you, our music stations have more endorsements by the talent than any music station in town.

Geico commerical is play on 1993 hit song Whoomp There It Is - Learn more  about the ad

I think our talent is the number one asset that we can offer our clients, whether it be through an endorsement, an appearance, or due to the ratings they generate on the radio station. Even if you don’t have a Norm or Donovan doing your endorsement, the fact that your spot is on during our show gives you a better shot at making sure that the commercial works. I just think our best asset is our on-air talent. I really do. 

DR: So you talked in there about the idea of an endorsement not just being the live read anymore. And that sort of dovetails into something that I’ve been thinking about a lot across the board, not just with The Ticket or your cluster. Is there any sort of consistency that has developed in terms of trying to get a new client on air? Before it was very much about the personal approach. But now I wonder how much of it is just selling the idea of radio as opposed to all digital or any sort of other new media that there are always deals and plenty of options to get in on? 

DB: Well, we sell the concept of radio, your base buy and why. It really is involved in selling it in combination with digital. We try every time we go out to combine the two. Some people buy it on that. Some people don’t. When you can take two different mediums like digital and radio and even some of the podcasts that our guys do and combine them all together, then you have a consistent message, which is important. Then you can make it all work in concert with one another, and have a better chance of being successful. I think radio is doing a better job of embracing this thing called digital, but not by selling it and abandoning radio, but by making them run in concert with one another. 

DR: Let me ask you about the social side for a minute, because part of my job with Barrett Sports Media is studying brands all over the country. I would say, looking at social, The Ticket is a little less active than most major market stations. I wonder, is that something you want to see improve or is that a strategic choice on your part? 

DB: Do you mean in terms of the advertiser and being incorporated into our social media? 

DR: Not just that. I mean just the amount of content you guys put out on social. 

DB: Well, yeah. Quite frankly, Jeff Catlin and I have talked a lot about this. I think we need to do more of it. 

We’ve got a guy that we hired on The Wolf, Jason Pulman, to do afternoon drive. It’s a heavy personality show. The guy is just entrenched in social and the amount of ratings he’s been able to generate in four months has been unbelievable. So I think that’s probably an area that we can improve and do more of. I think you’re going to see that elevated over the next three to six months.

We’re always looking at ourselves and asking, “if you were a competitor to us, how would you come at us?”. You know, we can’t get so full of ourselves that we think we can’t get beat. Everybody can get beat somehow.

DR: Honestly, that’s why the question was, is it a strategic choice? Because I’m not even sure that it is incorrect necessarily, because one of the things that I’ve been thinking about a lot over the last year is that not everybody in the industry has had success selling digital products. Maybe they’ve had success selling it as part of a package with on air. But I’ve often found myself wondering if, as an industry radio has put more focus on digital than it is ready to at this point. 

DB: You’ve got to be careful. I’ll give you a perfect start. Believe me, we are focused on digital. We’re focused on selling it. However, in the last Miller Kaplan in the market, this is the whole market, 83 percent of all the revenue was still spot revenue. So, the careful thing there is don’t take your eye off 83 percent chasing some other shiny object.

That’s why any sales presentation really needs to incorporate both. Look, social and all that, that’s great. Whatever the air talent do, that’s great, but if the content that comes through the speakers isn’t good, I mean, you can promote on social media crappy content and they’re not going to listen to it. That’s why you’ve got to watch all of it, because it’s not just one thing. It never is.

DR: I’d love your insights on the growth of Dallas as a sports radio market. You guys have remained this behemoth even as challengers have arisen. 105.3 The Fan has tightened the race, but you’re no stranger to local sports radio competition. There’s never been a moment where another sports/talk station could say ‘we’ve firmly put The Ticket in the rearview mirror’. What do you attribute that to? 

DB: One of the most important things is to always keep your feet firmly on the ground and not get full of yourself. We’ve all had bad books or books where there was a hiccup or whatever.

I do think one of the things that is dramatically changing, and I think Covid had a big effect on this, is the way people consume radio and sports radio. Many times you are listening through your phone. Most guys nowadays don’t have a clock radio on their nightstand. They get up in the morning and they stream The Ticket. The last book, 50 percent of The Ticket’s ratings were coming from streaming. A contact of mine at Nielsen said that there is no radio station in America that comes close to that.

So many of these men that listen to us had to work from home. And here we are a year later and still 50 percent is being consumed on stream. I mean, that’s changed dramatically. That’s why a station like The Ticket is total line reporting. We did that in October and it’s been a big help. 

DR: What’s funny is you talked about most guys not having a clock radio in their house anymore. I’ve got an 11 year old daughter and we have just sort of gone through the fight of you cannot sleep with your iPad and phone in your room anymore. We went out to buy her a clock radio and found very few clocks include a radio anymore. I mean, it’s so crazy that alarm clocks, it seems, are very much embracing the idea that this is not where people listen anymore. 

DB: You’re right. That’s why we’ve got to be accessible. Any of the platforms like Alexa that we’re available on, we have to be sure that we’re able to count those ratings. Before we went to total line reporting, we weren’t able to do that.             

How to Add Skills to Alexa in 3 Different Ways

Here we had a whole bunch of listening sitting over on our stream, but we weren’t able to count any of it. Of course, when you go to do that, you know Nielsen is going to charge more money. But we made that decision and it was the right one for us. 

DR: We recently ran this piece on the strategy of selling news stations and sports stations as a combo, and received a lot of feedback from all over the country that it’s now harder than ever before because there are so many advertisers that view news talk radio as the the shining example of the divide in this country. Some feel being associated with it, whether you mean to or not, means that you’re choosing sides. Are you seeing that in Dallas? 

DB: Yeah. The thing is when we had Rush Limbaugh, we would have certain, mainly national advertisers that wouldn’t want to run on his show. We have two teams. We have a news, talk and sports team, and we have a music team on our sales staff. However, if a music seller has somebody that wants The Ticket and there’s nobody calling on that account on the news/talk/sports side, they can go over and sell it.

There is a bit of that with conservative talk radio. There’s always going to be, but I think it was more of a national issue and more about Rush Limbaugh than anybody else. 

DR: Really? I’ve been critical of of news talk because I think one of the format’s failings is that for so long, programmers were just looking for the next Rush. Even though he’s no longer with us, there are still plenty of clones doing a similar show. It’s interesting to hear that for the most part, what you saw was specifically with Limbaugh. 

DB: Most of the pushback that we have gotten is from national accounts. Now, I am not going to tell you who, but we have a car dealer in this town. It’s a big one. They won’t advertise on The Ticket because of the content. 

DR: Interesting. 

DB: Yeah, they think there’s too much innuendo and guy talk and discussion about the sophomoric things that oftentimes get brought up on a sports station. They just won’t do it, and they’re a big advertiser. So, it can happen on the sports side, too, when somebody doesn’t want to be associated with something that they deem not appropriate.

I think on the news talk side, and boy, we’ve really worked at this, the biggest problem is that so many of the talent want to get on the air and jam their agenda down your throat rather than playing the hits. We had to have some pretty intense meetings with a couple of people on the air on our news talk stations. I said, “you’re jamming your agenda down people’s throats and you’re trying to change their minds”. When people are 40 or 45 or 50 or 55 years old, you’re not going to change their political sway in one way or the other. The best thing you can do to attract a bigger audience is play the hits.

Just like in sports radio, when Dak Prescott blew out his leg, that was the story. If you’re on the air in this town and you aren’t talking about what happened in yesterday’s game to Dak, you’re not playing the hits. I think a lot of these news talk shows just totally quit playing the hits, and they wanted every day to jam a political agenda, that’s part of why I think news talk struggled.

We had to make some real fundamental changes with a few of our talent to start playing the hits or this wasn’t going to work anymore. Fortunately, we’ve made a lot of progress.  

DR: You brought up the advertiser that objects to what you called the sophomore nature of The Ticket. I do feel like I need to ask you, you’ve got this great bit on The Musers of the Fake Jerry Jones that sometimes performs better than the real Jerry Jones calling into the competition. You have been with the station through its whole run. There has to be a moment that you can point to and say “that is when I knew our approach to sports radio was perfect for this market”. 

DB: I was at Susquehanna. We bought The Ticket in 1996. I’ll just say somebody in the company said, “well, we need to change those guys and talk about real sports”. And I said, “no, no, no, no, no. You don’t understand. They’re on to something, and what we’ve got to do is we have to champion it, encourage it, support it”.

Look, if you’ve ever gone to a game with a group of guys, just think back in your life. One time we took a group of clients to a Mavericks game in San Antonio. And at the time, I was probably in my mid 40s. You know, it’s a bunch of guys and everybody’s married and we’re on this trip and it was just clients. It was everything from a discussion about the game, to who’s going to go get the next beer, to “Oh my God, look at what just walked right outside of the arena!” and they’re pointing at some attractive woman.

Guys don’t sit around and just talk about sports statistics all day. They talk about every aspect of sports, which includes the camaraderie, the game, the crazy people in the stands, the next beer. I think what The Ticket tapped into is the mindset of the ideal listener. They’re not so myopic in their view about sports. The people who fail at this or the people that, get on the air and want to talk about the third team running back for SMU. Well, I’m sorry, but nobody cares. I think what our guys have done is they’ve tapped into what men really talk about.

Kind of an interesting example is my wife. She grew up with four brothers. She was the only girl. She loves The Ticket, is a P1, listens every morning. Okay, so why is that? Well, because she grew up with four brothers and understands brother humor and gets it. You know what’s interesting? When I run into women who don’t like it, many times they are women didn’t grow up with brothers.

Hosts from The Ticket's start reflect on its origins 20 years later

The Ticket tapped into how guys think, how guys act, what guys want to talk about, and they’re just really in tune with the demo. That’s why The Ticket has been a success. We aren’t so myopic that all we do is talk about serious sports, but a lot of these sports stations, that’s what they do. They don’t get it. 

What they do is they go out and hire a sports writer. Well, I can tell you, I’ve tried that. I’ll tell you, most of the time it doesn’t work. You’d be better off hiring a guy at the end of the bar who holds court every night and and talks sports. Hire somebody like that. 

BSM Writers

What Tom Brady Needs To Know Before His First Fox Broadcast

“Our panel includes a fellow player-turned-analyst, a legendary play-by-play man, and a broadcasting coach.”

Demetri Ravanos

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Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. Tom Brady announced he is retiring from the NFL today. It happened literally a year to the day since the last time he retired.

The last retirement lasted just 40 days. Before the end of March of last year, Tom Brady had decided he was done pretending to be happy about embracing life off of the field and announced he was returning to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for a third season.

I guess we cannot rule out that that will happen again. The difference this time around, at least for Tom Brady’s professional life, is that he has a plan for his future. Now that his playing days are over, it is time for him to start his ten-year deal with FOX to be the analyst in the network’s top NFL booth.

Audiences do not know what to expect. No one can deny that Brady brings star power. He is the GOAT after all, but we cannot say for sure if he will be any good.

The pressure is tremendous too. Not only is Tom Brady embarking on a new career, but football fans seem to have taken a liking to the guy he is about to unseat. Whether Greg Olsen gets kicked back down to the number two booth or he is forced to share the spotlight in a three-man booth, plenty of people will look at Brady as the reason we hear less from the guy regarded by many as the best analyst on TV right now.

Brady does not have much room for error here. Since that is the case, I thought I would get some perspectives from people that can help him out. I asked three people to give me their best advice for Tom Brady.

Our panel includes a fellow player-turned-analyst, a legendary play-by-play man, and a broadcasting coach.

THE PLAYER TURNED ANALYST: ANTHONY BECHT

In 2000, the New York Jets used the 27th pick of the NFL Draft to select Anthony Becht. He played for five different teams during his twelve NFL seasons.

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Courtesy USA Today

His broadcasting career began in 2013. Becht worked on ESPN for eight years as an analyst on the network’s college football games. He has since abandoned the booth to return to the sidelines. He will be the head coach of the St. Louis Battlehawks when the XFL starts its third first season this month.

I texted and asked him to look back on his broadcasting career. What does he wish he knew before he started? Here are the three pieces of advice that he had for Tom Brady.

1. Less is more. Folks want to watch the game and just know the “why”. Providing tangible information in a five or six second window is key.

2. Fans want to know about your personal experiences as a player – information and stories they can’t get or wouldn’t even know about because they never did it at the level we did. Share those when the time comes in a game.

3. Have a strong opinion about what you agree or disagree with, but be able to voice it without being demeaning towards players and coaches. It’s an art form and takes time to articulate that in a way that’s done right. I never bash any player or coach because a lot of work goes into be a professional athlete and coach. That needs to be respected but critiqued appropriately.

Anthony Becht via text message

THE PLAY-BY-PLAY LEGEND: TIM BRANDO

Tim Brando has worked with a lot of people. That happens when you have been calling football and basketball action on TV for as long as he has. When I called him on Wednesday to discuss what is ahead for Tom Brady, he drew on his experience with another Brady.

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Courtesy FOX Sports

Brando was working with Jole Klatt in his early days at FOX, but he and Klatt were not going to be an exclusive team. He remembers Brady Quinn coming in to their booth shortly after his NFL career had eneded. Quinn was about to make his debut for FOX. Before they were ready to turn him loose, the network wanted the former quarterback to get a feel for the pace and atmosphere of a broadcast booth.

I do think it’s important that you have a new talent understand what that workplace is like in the booth – the choreography that takes place, because there is choreography. If the ball is deflected, your spotter’s hands are coming together like a bad clap. If there’s a hit, who caused the hit? Who stripped it? So there’s a hand signal for stripping the ball and then recovering the ball with the arms closing together. So who got the recovery? Who caused the fumble? Those things are always helpful.

There are things that are going on frantically in the booth, but you as a broadcaster have to remain calm, understand it, and sound succinct and confident. That just takes time and it takes reps. 

That’s one of the great things I think that Greg (Olsen) probably had an advantage in, as do a lot of analysts that get better over time. They do games of lesser importance that maybe the whole world is not watching. 

Tim Brando via Telephone

Tom Brady won’t have the luxury of time or of reps under the radar. He may get to do a few practice games, but the first time he will be calling a game on live television, it will be one of the biggest of the week.

Brando says in that case, it is really important that Brady use his instincts to his advantage in the booth the way he did on the field.

I don’t know Tom well, but I know him well enough to know that he prides himself on preparation. I don’t doubt for one minute that he will be prepared. He’s obviously an incredible competitor. You know, this is a this is a business of competition too. 

If you’re a great player, just like a coach, you love the ecstasy of victory. You don’t want to admit it, but you love the agony of the defeat as well. That feeling of defeat is something we feed on to motivate you for your next performance. In television and sports television, you don’t get that in terms of winning and losing, but you do get it if you look at it as a great performance, 

I believe that all great broadcasters are performers at heart. It takes a certain level of of a theater. It’s live. It’s not scripted. 

I think some players that get in the booth that are looking to have that same, you know, euphoria that they have after playing and winning a game. Some of them get that and understand that in broadcasting and get out of that the same thing and others don’t.

Tim Brando via Telephone

THE BROADCASTING COACH: GUS RAMSEY

Plenty of broadcasters turn to Gus Ramsey for critiques and advice. The Program Director for the Dan Patrick School of Sportscasting at Full Sail University is also a broadcasting coach working with clients at all levels of the business. They trust his opinion because of his professional experience.

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Courtesy Full Sail University

In a prior life, Ramsey was the producer of SportsCenter on ESPN. He has worked with a number of incredibly talented people and been tasked with taking newbies to new heights, so I asked him what he would be thinking if it were his job to get Tom Brady ready for his first FOX broadcast.

Sometimes great athletes forget that most humans don’t know what the athletes know. Things that are basic or simple or even mundane to the athlete are incredible pieces of wisdom or insight to the average fan.

When I was at ESPN we had Tony Gwynn in for an episode of Baseball Tonight. In our show meeting, Tony was explaining why a hitter was slumping because we was cupping his wrist. He went on explaining it for 30 seconds or so. The room was in total silence, eating up every word. The greatest hitter of our generation was doing a deep-dive on hitting. It was amazing.

Tony suddenly got a little self-conscious, stopped explaining and apologized for “going on too long” and we were all like “No!! Keep going!” Tony thought is was boring. It was just the opposite.

Athletes can think things they’ve learned and repeated their whole lives are common knowledge so sometimes they don’t share that info because they think “everyone knows this.”

I want to walk away from a broadcast feeling like I learned something. Sometimes the ex-athlete doesn’t realize how much educating they can do in a broadcast.

The other thing I always encourage former athletes or coaches to do is to take the viewer where they’ve never been; on the field, in the locker room, in a contract negotiation, etc. If you can get that viewer to fully appreciate the feelings and emotions of what goes on in those places, you enhance the experience for us.

Terrell Davis was an analyst on NFL Network for a bit after his career. He once described Champ Bailey running back an interception 100 yards by saying as Bailey got to the 50 yard line “right here it feels like someone put sandbags on your ankles.” I’ve never run 100 yards in a football uniform in Denver’s altitude, but Terrell’s line helped me better understand what it feels like.

Gus ramsey via text message

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BSM Writers

Mark Packer Loves Reading Your Memories & Tributes to Billy Packer

“I’ve heard from all kinds of coaches. I’ve been blown away. It’s just another reminder of the impact Billy had on so many different people, not just the world of sports.”

Tyler McComas

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It still stands today as one of the most iconic moments in the storied history of Arizona basketball. Three simple words said it all as the Wildcats celebrated an overtime win over Duke to win the 1997 national championship. “Simon says championship.” Those were the words of legendary broadcaster Billy Packer as Miles Simon fell to the floor with the ball in his hands. It’s one of many lines his son, Mark Packer, has been reminded of recently.

It was the perfect three words after the country just watched Simon carry Arizona to college basketball glory. Packer captured the moment perfectly, just like he did during every Final Four for 34 years.

Packer passed away last Thursday at the age of 82 but his legacy and impact in sports broadcasting will never perish. He was heard during every NCAA Tournament from 1975 to 2008 and was on the call for some of college basketball’s most iconic moments, including Michael Jordan’s shot to win the 1982 National Championship, Bird vs Magic in 1979, and even Kansas completing an improbable comeback to win the 2008 championship in his last broadcast. And the best part of it all was that Packer did it his own way, with his own unique style.

“It has really been remarkable,” said Mark Packer. “When Billy passed Thursday night we put it out on Twitter and it took off but I didn’t really know what to expect on Friday and Saturday as far as reaction. But the tributes have been fantastic and our family has loved it.

“I have heard from just about everybody and their brother. Folks I never thought I’d hear from, I’ve heard from them, such as commissioners, whether it be the NBA, whether it be other Power 5 leagues, I’ve heard from all kinds of coaches. I’ve been blown away. It’s just another reminder of the impact Billy had on so many different people, not just the world of sports. To me, that’s been comforting to all of us. It just reinforced all the stuff we knew he was about and brings back special memories.”

Packer’s style of broadcasting has been well-documented over the years. He was honest about what he saw and always spoke his mind. Granted, that didn’t always sit well with college basketball fans, but Packer wasn’t concerned about that. He was honest because he cared. 

“He wanted the game of college basketball to be the best it possibly could be,” said Mark.  “When he saw things he did not like, the one thing he always did was speak his mind. He ruffled feathers and he didn’t care. His intent was to make the game the No. 1 priority. You realize now he didn’t have it out for your team, he was just speaking his mind.”

That style meant fans would often yell at games, ‘You hate Duke! You hate North Carolina!’ Packer’s honesty was often taken by fans as he hated their favorite team. He used to laugh at that, just as Mark does know when he thinks about those moments. That’s because Mark can remember feeling the same way as other fanbases as a kid growing up rooting for NC State. 

“When he was calling an NC State game I thought he was always out to get my team,” laughed Mark. “He’d be doing a game in Raleigh — we grew up in Winston-Salem — and the next morning after the game I would be eating breakfast before school and I would say ‘Man, Billy, you really got on so-and-so last night, what’s your problem with NC State?’

“He used to just laugh, because I thought he had an agenda against my team. Of course the funny thing is, we’d go on trips with him to other games and you’d hear fans say, ‘Billy Packer hates my team!’ It almost became a laughing joke, even amongst the family members, that Billy Packer was out to ruin your team’s day when he does a ballgame.”

Mark has always referred to his dad the same his television partners did. That goes for his two other siblings, as well. “Dad” was rarely, if ever, said in the Packer household. Instead, the legendary broadcaster was called by his first name.

“The fact they called him Billy on television, we never called him dad,” said Mark. “We just called him Billy.”

As you can imagine, ‘Billy’ had a lot of stories. That’s normally the case when you’re around the game’s greatest players and broadcast the legendary games we still talk about today. Packer was always quick to share those stories with his family, which made for an entertaining childhood.

Out of the hundreds of messages Mark has received since his dad’s passing, he says he hasn’t heard any stories he’s never heard before. But that doesn’t mean people haven’t been telling him stories about his father.

“We’ve heard them all, quite frankly,” laughed Mark. “Maybe the thing that was so funny about it was that it reinforced some that we thought were total BS when we heard them the first time.”

Packer will always be synonymous with college basketball and the NCAA Tournament. He was the voice of the sport during its golden era and helped bring the magic to TV sets across the world. If Mark had to guess what his dad is most proud of regarding his broadcasting career, he says it would be just that. 

“From a broadcasting standpoint, probably the Final Fours,” said Mark. “When you, I think the number was 34 I heard, and he did so many of them, for us, we kind of took it for granted. It was just something he did. It was March and Billy is about to go do March Madness. It was just fabric for not only him personally, but also the family. He just loved the sport and wanted it to be good.”

Mark has carved out an incredible broadcasting career of his own. He’s hosted both radio and TV shows with outlets such as the ACC Network, WFNZ in Charlotte, and ESPNU. Having a front row seat to one of the most iconic careers in broadcasting, undoubtedly helped shape his career. Mark is very forthcoming as to what lesson he took from his dad the most. 

“Oh, that’s easy,” Mark said. “That’s prep. He always studied. He was always coming up with notes and angles and facts. I have always done that with the radio and TV shows, that you constantly prep, you constantly read and make notes. You may not use but 10 percent of whatever you’ve been studying, but somewhere down the road you’ll use it again.

“When we were cleaning out his closet I ran into an entire box of old notes that he had from games from yesteryear. I kept every one of them and I can’t wait to look at them and relive those games and see his prep work and point of detail for all those games.”

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Anatomy of a Broadcaster

Anatomy of an Analyst: Doris Burke

“Doris Burke has an ease about her. A quiet confidence if you will.”

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Basketball and Doris Burke have been synonymous for many years. At the age of 7, she started to play the game that would eventually get her to the top of her profession. Along the way she’s recorded many firsts for women in this field which I’ll detail later. Burke has also become an inspiration to other women already in broadcasting and those thinking about a career in media. Pretty impressive. 

Burke was raised in Manasquan, New Jersey. She was the youngest of eight children, and started playing basketball in the second grade. She starred at Providence, where she was the team’s point guard all four of her years there and made an impact immediately. 

During her freshman year, Doris Burke led the Big East in assists. She was a second-team All-Big East player once and twice made the all-tourney team of the Big East Women’s basketball tournament. Burke held seven records upon graduation, including finishing her career as the school and conference’s all-time assists leader, a record that has since been broken. She served as an assistant coach for her alma mater for two years from 1988-90.

From there it was time to embark on a Hall of Fame career.

ROAD TO ESPN/ABC

Burke began her broadcasting career in 1990 as an analyst for women’s games for Providence on radio. That same year, she began working in the same role on Big East Women’s games on television, and in 1996 she began working Big East men’s games. 

Doris Burke has been working for ESPN covering basketball in different roles since 1991. It has also allowed her to do other things along the way that were unchartered for women in the business. In 2000, Burke became the first woman to be a commentator for a New York Knicks game on radio and on television; she is also the first woman to be a commentator for a Big East men’s game, and the first woman to be the primary commentator on a men’s college basketball conference package.  In 2017, Burke became a regular NBA game analyst for ESPN, becoming the first woman at the national level to be assigned a full regular-season role. 

If that wasn’t enough, from 2009 to 2019 she served as the sideline reporter for the NBA Finals on ABC. I mentioned it was a Hall of Fame career and it was officially deemed as such in 2018. Burke was selected to enter the Basketball Hall of Fame as the Curt Gowdy Media Award winner.

AS AN ANALYST

“Doris Burke has an ease about her. A quiet confidence if you will.” Relying on her past experiences in the game as a player and coach, the information she brings her audience is relatable. Some analysts struggle to bring home a point in a way that a casual fan will understand. Burke has no trouble with this. Her ability to spell it out, concisely and conversationally sets her apart from most analysts, male or female. 

Burke attacks her job, knowing that some will question her authority when it comes to commentary on the NBA. She doesn’t mind steering into the skid.

“I am mindful of the fact that I have not played or coached in the NBA,” Burke said to Sportscasting.com last year. “It doesn’t mean that I can’t do a very competent job. I think I try to do that every single night, and I’m never afraid to ask questions.” 

It’s all about the information to Burke, and has nothing to do with the fact she’s a woman covering the NBA.

“If you enhance a viewer’s experience, it doesn’t matter what your gender is,” she said. “As long as you are competent and put in the work … you’re going to be accepted.”

Doris Burke learned the ropes so to speak from several women that came before her. In an NBA.com piece from January of last year, she outlined how much she enjoyed watching former ESPN SportsCenter anchor Gayle Gardner. Early on in her career at ESPN, Burke got to work with Robin Roberts on WNBA and women’s college basketball broadcasts along with Ann Meyers Drysdale and Nancy Lieberman. Roberts was Burke’s inspiration as she started her career path. She admired the professionalism that each displayed. 

“Working alongside Robin Roberts … the one thing I would tell you is the most powerful means to change or impact somebody is by your actions,” Burke said. “She was the epitome of professionalism and competency and garnered the respect of the people around her because of the work habits she had. Watching Robin early on let me know that the basis for everything is the work you put into something.”

While Roberts may have been influential to Burke, Burke has been a beacon for other woman that are getting opportunities in broadcasting.  When asked about their role model, YES Network analyst Sarah Kustok, 76ers play-by-play broadcaster Kate Scott and former WNBA player and current Miami Heat studio analyst Ruth Riley Hunter all mentioned Burke by name.

“Burke is the best example for anyone — male or female,” Hunter told NBA.com. “I love the way she describes the game. She adds so much to every broadcast, and when I was playing in the WNBA I was always really inspired by her work.”

Burke is popular amongst her colleagues at ESPN/ABC, thanks to a tireless work ethic an ability to adapt to whichever sport she may be calling that day. Count Jeff Van Gundy among her biggest fans.

“She’s the best, most-versatile analyst and commentator at ESPN,” Van Gundy said of Doris Burke in 2017 via Deadspin. “She does it all—great interviewer, commentator, studio analyst—everything. And she is an expert at it all—women’s and men’s college basketball, the NBA and the WNBA. She’s the LeBron James of sportscasters. There’s no better broadcaster out there right now.”

Burke is equally a big fan of Van Gundy and the top broadcast crew for ESPN/ABC’s NBA coverage. That includes Mike Breen and Mark Jackson as well. 

“We are talking about three of the best to ever do it. Mark, Jeff and Mike have held down the NBA Finals for over a decade with commentary that is the best of the best. Hubie Brown is a living legend. All of those men have been nothing but gracious and supportive of me,” Burke told the Athletic. 

Doris Burke is considered one of the best NBA analysts around.  Her bosses at ESPN made sure to re-sign her to a multi-year deal and promised she will be involved in “high profile” NBA games in both the regular season and playoffs. Burke will also call finals games on ESPN Radio and appear on the NBA Sunday Showcase program on ABC.

Good for her and good for fans of the NBA on ESPN/ABC.

DID YOU KNOW?

In 2010, she was featured as the new sideline reporter for 2K Sports ‘NBA 2K11’ video game. She has appeared in every version since, including the latest ‘NBA 2K23’.   

As a senior at Providence in 1987 she was the school’s Co-Female Athlete of the Year.  

Her basketball idols growing up were Kyle Macy, Kelly Tripucka and Tom Heinsohn.  

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