Following a tumultuous offseason in sports media that resulted in the movement of several established National Football League broadcasters, Mike Tirico found himself promoted to become the lead play-by-play announcer for Sunday Night Football on NBC.
Tirico entered this role following Al Michaels, who called Sunday Night Football for 16 seasons with Cris Collinsworth and the late-John Madden before signing with Amazon Prime Video this offseason. The broadcast, which also features Collinsworth as a color commentator and Melissa Stark reporting from the sidelines, has been the number one show in primetime television for a record 11 consecutive seasons.
As a native of Queens, N.Y., Tirico attended Bayside High School where he realized that his dream of playing sports professionally was impractical and began thinking of ways to remain involved in the industry. Tirico considers himself to have been an avid sports fan when he was younger and always enjoyed listening to game broadcasts. He identified that by announcing the games, he would be able to build a viable career for himself and remain involved in sports as a media member.
Consequently, he began conducting research on how to achieve his goal of becoming a professional in a highly-competitive field.
“[I] found out at the time that some of my favorites – Bob Costas, Marv Albert, Len Berman – very popular and widely-respected broadcasters in New York were all Syracuse alums,” Tirico said. “I did some more digging and found out that Dick Stockton and Marty Glickman – and even Dick Clark in the American Bandstand-days and Ted Koppel are all Syracuse alums. I got very focused on trying to [go] to school there and was lucky enough to do that.”
While attending Syracuse University, Tirico made it a point to gain as much experience as he could, starting by broadcasting basketball, football, lacrosse, volleyball and other sports on WAER, the university’s student-run radio station. It was important for Tirico to attend a university with prominent alumni and a history of success – but sports broadcasting is not the only thing he studied as a student.
In addition to his broadcast journalism major within the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications, Tirico also studied political science at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs. Although he has a penchant for sports broadcasting, having previous experience and an understanding of news and current events serves to make media professionals more versatile.
“I think the collection of talented people there at the station gave you a good idea of who the best in your generation or class were going to be because a lot of the best were right there with you,” Tirico said. “I think we all made each other better along the way. That was a real influence for me – and a lot of the individuals there were an influence [on] me.”
At the end of his junior year, Tirico was hired by WTVH-5, a local CBS-affiliated television station in Syracuse, to deliver the weekend 6:00 p.m. and 11:00 p.m. sportscasts, effectively beginning his television career. Once he graduated Syracuse University in 1988, he remained in the area with WTVH-5 and was subsequently promoted as the outlet’s sports director, giving him early professional management experience outside the walls of the university.
“The experience and peers at Syracuse gave me the opportunity to test myself early on amongst the best in the industry,” Tirico said. “At that point, [it also] allowed me a chance to get on-air far earlier than I would have if I had gone to school somewhere else.”
In 1991, Tirico joined ESPN as a studio anchor where he contributed across its coverage of professional and collegiate sports. Additionally, he hosted an edition of SportsCenter with Jimmy Roberts where the duo updated viewers on the latest scores and news around the world of sports.
ESPN was the first national television station Tirico was ever employed by, and making the jump from working at a local station in Syracuse was initially challenging and brought him awareness of what skills he needed to improve on to ensure he would last and make a name for himself in the industry.
“There’s a lot of getting yourself up to speed for that and fortunately it was a great time at ESPN where we had the rights to so many different sports,” Tirico said. “[During the time I was there, SportsCenter] went from three half-hour shows a day to a constant presence [being] almost the wallpaper of the network; it was always around. That, I’m sure, was a big onus for me to be around that time of growth for ESPN and the SportsCenter franchise specifically.”
Two years later, Tirico hosted NFL Prime Monday, a new pregame show leading up to the network’s broadcast of Monday Night Football. Due to space limitations at ESPN’s studios, the show was broadcast out of a garage yet it transformed studio coverage of professional sports.
By introducing elements such as interviews with star players (conducted by former MTV VJ and SiriusXM DJ “Downtown” Julie Brown), utilizing an on-site field reporter for live stadium coverage and implementing debates between on-air talent and guests regarding the game, the way studio coverage leading up to live game broadcasts was forever changed. Additionally, the show had regular analysts including Craig James, Phil Simms and Joe Theissman, along with writers Mitch Albom, Skip Bayless and Michael Wilbon, all of whom would contribute their opinion and expertise to viewers.
The show led to the development of Monday Night Countdown which still airs on the network before Monday Night Football broadcasts featuring Buck and Troy Aikman, along with Peyton and Eli Manning in select weeks.
“We had in that show – 30 years ago – a variety of elements that were not in all the other pregame shows,” Tirico said. “….I’m really proud of the way that show got on the air. That was kind of a template for where pregame shows have evolved today.”
The evolution of technology and media consumption have engendered changes to the ways in which sports broadcasters prepare for a typical day at work. For example, when Mike Tirico and Sunday Night Football are covering the Green Bay Packers, Tirico recognizes the value in watching Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers’ weekly appearance on The Pat McAfee Show.
Additionally when Tirico covered the Kansas City Chiefs and Philadelphia Eagles matchup in late October, Tirico listened to New Heights, a podcast featuring Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce and his brother, Eagles center Jason Kelce.
“There’s so much out there right now that by the time you get to Sunday – really that hour before the games [during] those pregame shows, I want to know, ‘What have you learned from the broadcasters who are on-site there?,’” Tirico said.
“What are the opinions from the guys in the studio who over the years you’ve come to appreciate their views on what’s going to happen. It’s really become a preview [of] the games that are about to come up as opposed to, ‘Here are some stories from around the league from during the week.’”
As a host at ESPN, Tirico was given various opportunities to display his versatility as a play-by-play announcer across multiple sports calling games on both the professional and, when applicable, collegiate level on various platforms of dissemination. This included working as a play-by-play announcer for the NBA Finals on ESPN Radio with color commentators Hubie Brown and Dr. Jack Ramsey; hosting professional golf coverage on ABC Sports with analyst Curtis Strange; and anchoring College Football Scoreboard starting in 1993.
“The only things I really call now are football and golf,” Tirico said. “I miss the days when I called a variety of sports. I loved jumping into new sports and getting a chance to do them.”
Whether it be the U.S. Open Tennis Tournament, FIFA World Cup, Daytona 500, Rose Bowl, NCAA Final Four, or U.S. Open Golf Championship, Tirico has had the chance to anchor coverage of long-established and historic sports traditions. Having worked in many different areas of professional sports demonstrates the chance he has been afforded to reach new audiences and bring viewers insightful and fascinating converge of these and other heralded realms of competition.
“Tiger Woods winning the career Grand Slam at St. Andrews,” Tirico said when asked of one of his most memorable moments working in sports media. “That had not happened but once before on live television and hasn’t happened since 2000. That was a remarkable moment to be there and see the fifth golfer win all four golf majors and to do it at the home of golf.”
In 2006 when Monday Night Football moved from being broadcast to ABC to being exclusively on ESPN, he became the fourth person to serve as the voice of the weekly program. Just as Tirico did leading up to this football season, he succeeded Al Michaels in the play-by-play role, as Michaels joined NBC Sports to call the inaugural season Sunday Night Football with Madden.
From the first Monday night broadcast on ESPN, Tirico was joined by Jon Gruden for live primetime NFL games and broke cable television viewership records in the process. It was during this time when Tirico experienced a powerful moment on the football field that transformed his view on sports broadcasting and remains carved in his memory.
“Our third regular season game was the New Orleans Saints against the Atlanta Falcons,” Tirico recalled. “That was the return to the Superdome post-Hurricane Katrina for the Saints and it was the day that reminds me forever that sports is not just a game; it’s not just a toy shop. It has incredible meaning and connection to the cities that host these teams over the years.”
After he anchored the 2016 UEFA European Football Championship, Tirico made the decision to leave ESPN and join NBC Sports. He first appeared on the NBC Golf Channel calling play-by-play during the 2016 U.S. Open Golf Championship and concluded the tournament by hosting studio coverage.
A few months later, he was behind the desk working as a daytime host for coverage of the 2016 Summer Olympic Games from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, a worldwide sporting tournament and cultural phenomenon that takes place once every four years.
Tirico always looked up to NBC primetime Olympics host Bob Costas throughout his journey in sports broadcasting. As a venerable graduate of Syracuse University, Costas worked with NBC Sports beginning in 1980 as a host and play-by-play announcer for football, basketball and baseball coverage.
In 1988, he was selected as the primetime host for the broadcast of the Olympic Games, a job he performed for 12 iterations of the event before retiring from the role in 2017. Tirico was chosen to step into the position – something he affirms is one of the most significant roles in his career.
Ironically enough, he had previously received the inaugural “Bob Costas Scholarship” at Syracuse University in 1987 which continues to be awarded annually to one of its acclaimed broadcast journalism students.
“There are a lot of people who host shows; there are a lot of people who do… play-by-play. There’s only been one person that has hosted the Olympics in primetime since the 90s and it’s Bob,” Tirico said. “I’ve had plenty of experience in this and I think it becomes easier as you go along because I have an established style.”
Hosting the Olympics expands upon the traditional role of a sports broadcaster since it involves many of the countries across the globe. Tirico’s previous experience at WTVH-5 in Syracuse in addition to his steady consumption of news media and college major of political science keeps him prepared for the event and able to cover it on a global scale for the viewing audience, primarily based in the United States.
“It’s far closer in the host role to news than sports because there’s so much geopolitics involved in the entire process of the Olympics no matter how much we continue to hope that it’s about competition,” Tirico said. “That’s the root and that’s the foundation, but politics always seems to find a way to come into play with the different organizing committees, national governing bodies and, of course, each nation’s delegation.”
Tirico is grateful for the leadership of both NBC Olympics Executive Producer and President Molly Solomon and Primetime Producer Rob Hyland in how they have elevated the coverage of the event. Moreover, he is excited to cover the games taking place in Paris, France starting in July 2024 and continue being part of the evolution of the broadcast in the years to follow.
“There’s not a better studio hosting job in our industry than being able to host the Olympics in primetime,” Tirico expressed. “It requires a lot of talented people behind the scenes [and] a lot of help in preparation, but that opening ceremony when more nations and delegations come [in]… than you have when the U.N. General Assembly gathers every fall shows you that nothing, nothing, nothing brings the world together like the Olympic games.
“To be the person who has this unique role of 17 straight nights hosting multiple hours of primetime TV to present the competition of the athletes of the world – it’s pretty cool.”
In the latter half of 2016, NBC announced that Tirico had been added as a play-by-play announcer for some of its professional football broadcasts, including three Sunday Night Football games and one Thursday Night Football game when the network had the rights.
One year later, Tirico was named the play-by-play voice of the Thursday Night Football franchise where he worked with analyst Cris Collinsworth on live game broadcasts. Now working regularly with Collinsworth on a week-by-week basis doing Sunday Night Football, the familiarity has lent itself to a broadcast where the commentators play off of each other’s strengths to bring viewers the best coverage possible.
“The good part was there was no real adjustment,” Tirico said on acclimating himself to the broadcasts this season. “….We were lucky enough to do about 20 games together – preseason and regular season… from Thursday nights to Sundays; different games along the way. Getting to know Cris and his family and all of that made it so easy to start from the beginning here this year.”
While the network lost the Thursday night rights to Fox the following season, Tirico was still busy as the play-by-play announcer for Notre Dame college football games, host of Triple Crown horse racing coverage along with the Indianapolis 500, a brief stint doing play-by-play for National Hockey League games, and the studio host for Football Night in America, which is the most-watched studio show in sports.
In an era where studio coverage is changing amid consumers being afforded more control over the content with which they engage, progression with the dynamism of the current time is fundamental for sustained growth. In some cases, the coverage is being eliminated entirely due to a lack of consumer interest concerning those working in that environment.
“I think there’s always going to be a future for shoulder programming before and after a game,” Tirico expressed. “I personally would like to see more of an emphasis on quality postgame programming. I think we spend so much time talking about what’s going to happen in a game and not an equal amount of time talking about why things happen within a game.”
Following Al Michaels as the full-time play-by-play announcer on Sunday Night Football was always the plan since he joined NBC Sports, according to a statement made to Deadline by NBC Sports Chairman Pete Bevacqua.
Developing his own style on the show was not something he was preoccupied with though, as his previous experience in other play-by-play roles had already given him the chance he needed to hone his craft.
While he respects the previous work Michaels did on the broadcasts, he seeks to make it his own and bring his own style to the broadcast. An example of such is the elimination of the infamous “Collinsworth Slide” at the start of broadcasts, which resulted from an opening visual containing solely then-play-by-play announcer Michaels talking to the audience about the game and the shot zooming out shortly thereafter when it was time to include the analyst.
Now, the broadcast begins with both the play-by-play announcer and color commentator on-screen, resulting in more air time for Collinsworth and the ability to quickly have a back-and-forth discussion.
“I’m not thinking, ‘Okay, I have to do this [in] this way because the person who was here before did it,’” Tirico said. “I don’t know why NBC hired me but I do know that they hired me for my skill set, not to mimic the person who came before me in any of the other jobs. Once you’re authentic in how you do a job, I think that’s the best way to approach following some of the great people in the history of our business no matter what their roles were.”
The program continues to put up stellar ratings with the new broadcast production team in place, posting season-high numbers in last week’s matchup between the Green Bay Packers and Buffalo Bills. In fact, it was the most watched Week 8 edition of the show since 2015 with a 10.6 rating and viewership of 19.62 million people, according to Nielsen.
Additionally, Tirico made history earlier in the season when he called his 200th NFL game, a notable career milestone and a testament to his hard work and alacrity towards taking chances fostered from the moment he first recalled becoming interested in sports media.
Overall, the entirety of the NFL broadcast landscape is doing well under new media rights agreements and commentary teams, an ideal time for the industry to meet and exceed expectations as football continues to sustain its popularity.
“The industry has never been better,” Tirico said. “There are so many good production people working behind the scenes. The quality of the broadcasts in terms of information has never been higher – I don’t think many broadcasts overindulge in analytics and stats but find the key ones. I think the fans are served pretty well in terms of entertainment and options too, things like a Manningcast or something like that. Those things are good.”
As time progresses, it remains imperative for sports media to remain at the forefront of innovation and continually possess a willingness and ability to change when necessary. In anticipating shifts in media notwithstanding their impact, the industry figures to more effectively serve the fan; that is, rather than reacting to changes after they occur.
“I would say that we continue to all use information technology to push the envelope and I think the result has been some really good television production,” Tirico said. “If you look back 15 years ago and look now, the depth and quality of what you see is really, really good. I think the state of covering football is in great shape and as another generation of announcers and producers and executives and leaders come in here, they’ve grown up around people pushing the envelope for better football broadcasts. I think you’re going to continue to see that going forward.”
In the days leading up to February 13, 2022 – which was dubbed by NBC as “Super Gold Sunday” since the network was broadcasting both the Olympics and the Super Bowl on the same day – Tirico pulled off an unprecedented broadcast feat.
For the two weeks leading up to “The Big Game,” he woke up in Beijing, China where he hosted primetime Winter Olympics coverage. Later in the week, he took a flight from Beijing to Los Angeles to host pregame and postgame coverage of Super Bowl LVI between the Cincinnati Bengals and Los Angeles Rams.
On that same day, he hosted primetime Olympics coverage from outside of SoFi Stadium, giving him the feat of contributing to coverage of both major sporting events within the same 24-hour period. Once the Rams hoisted the Vince Lombardi Trophy, Tirico was on the way to the NBC Sports studios in Stamford, CT to complete his primetime Olympics hosting – meaning he traveled over 12,000 miles in a week and adjusted to a 13-hour time difference.
“That’s never happened before because there’s never been that confluence in the calendar with the Super Bowl and the Olympics on the same network on the same day,” Tirico said. “I don’t know how often it’s going to happen again but the chance to be the host for both of those was [a] once-in-a-lifetime day that I’ll cherish forever.”
As Tirico embarks on the second half of his 17th consecutive season calling primetime NFL games – now as the lead play-by-play announcer for Sunday Night Football – he looks back on his journey throughout sports media, grateful for the opportunities he has had and excited for what to come. One of those future endeavors, he hopes, is another chance to call basketball, the sport he originally began broadcasting while attending Syracuse University.
“I miss doing hoops games and basketball is the one I’ve never done that I’d love to do at some point,” Tirico expressed. “You’re at the point now where my career is so complete… and just to dabble in those and have the opportunity to do them would be cool for me.”
For aspiring professionals looking to work in sports media, Tirico advises them to be well-rounded and find niches in the industry that they are able to grow in and have a passion towards. Throughout his journey, Tirico was flexible and did not limit himself in what he was or was not able to do – a contributing reason as to why he has covered most professional sports in some capacity.
The reason broadcasters are ultimately chosen to be on-air not only pertains to their individual ability behind a microphone, but also in how they collaborate with their colleagues and work as a member of a team. Mastering those latter skills are just as essential to genuinely stand out from others vying for opportunities that can only be bestowed on one person.
“I think one of the most important things is being a good listener,” Tirico articulated. “I think our job is based on talking, but I think some of the most valuable things we need to do are listen. Listen to other broadcasts and hear what works; hear what you deem to be entertaining and informative…. If you’re lucky enough to not just like sports but love it, then this is as great a business as you could ever ask to be a part of.”
Derek Futterman is a contributing editor and sports media reporter for Barrett Sports Media. Additionally, he has worked in a broad array of roles in multimedia production – including on live game broadcasts and audiovisual platforms – and in digital content development and management. He previously interned for Paramount within Showtime Networks, wrote for the Long Island Herald and served as lead sports producer at NY2C. To get in touch, find him on Twitter @derekfutterman.
Julian Edelman Has Been FOX’s NFL Breakout Star
Edelman has an easy-going and free-wheeling nature about him. He’s a joy to watch, and he seldom wastes airtime with cliches and empty comments.
He was a key member of the NFL’s last true dynasty, a children’s book author, a regular talking head on NFL Network’s America’s Game anthology, an actor in the film 80 for Brady, and a multimedia favorite. And oh yeah, he is third all-time in the NFL for postseason receptions and was the MVP of Super Bowl LIII. He is Julian Edelman.
These days he answers to a new calling – a rising star on FOX’s excellent NFL commentator roster. Edelman, who retired in 2020 after 12 seasons as a wide receiver with the New England Patriots, has logged impressive recent stints on FS1’s The Herd with Colin Cowherd.
Edelman has been an unexpected jewel in FOX’s football crown, providing behind-the-scenes, players-only insight in a casual and humorous style. On a recent edition of The Herd, Edelman’s talent was on full display.
In a discussion about Patriots’ signal caller Mac Jones, Cowherd implied that it would have been easier for the Alabama QB if he had gone to a less intense environment with an offensive-minded head coach.
Edelman countered by referencing Josh Dobbs, who played great in his first start for the Vikings after being with the team for just a couple of days. Edelman stated, “If you’re a guy, you’re a guy,” meaning that good players adapt to any situation. He added, “This is the National Football League. If you don’t win, the quarterback and the head coach get the blame. This is a production business.”
One of the refreshing aspects of Edelman’s TV game is his candor. He was deeply rooted in the Patriot Way and benefitted from all it offered him, but he pulls no punches in talking about his former team.
He does not buy into the excuse that Mac Jones has had three different offensive coordinators in his three NFL seasons. Edelman stated that ex-Offensive Coordinator Josh McDaniels’ and current OC Bill O’Brien’s offensive schemes are essentially identical.
Edelman has an easy-going and free-wheeling nature about him. He’s a joy to watch, and he seldom wastes airtime with cliches and empty comments. He uses his strong connections to Tom Brady and other members of the NFL’s glitterati to his advantage, but he is not violating these friendships with kiss-and-tell BS.
In his young broadcasting career, Edelman has also embraced a rare quality among media personalities, namely, the courage to admit when he is wrong. He recently stated that he thought Texans’ quarterback CJ Stroud was going to be just another failed Ohio State quarterback joining the likes of Cardale Jones, Terrell Pryor, Troy Smith, and the late Dwayne Haskins.
Julian Edelman acknowledged his error and lauded Stroud for his performance and the Houston offensive staff for keeping it simple and allowing Stroud to flourish. He then made an accurate comparison between Stroud and Dak Prescott who had a similarly amazing rookie season in 2016. He also revealed that he and Tom Brady would sit and watch Prescott play during that season and marveled at his performance.
Such neat revelations have become commonplace for Edelman who also told Cowherd that Bill Belichick had different rules for different players. This goes against the accepted theory that Belichick coached all his players the same.
When asked about good and bad locker rooms, Edelman revealed that the 2009 Patriots had some “a-holes” on the team, “guys who had a lot of money and acted like they had a lot of money.”
He also regaled Cowherd with a funny story about former teammate and current ESPN analyst Tedy Bruschi. During his rookie season, Edelman made repeated contact with Bruschi during a team drill. After the play, Bruschi got in Edelman’s face and said, “If you ever touch me again, I’ll cut your arm off, Rook!”
In a subsequent discussion, Edelman was asked about how NFL players view Thursday night games. He said that the goal for players is to just get through the game and try to get the win. He called having a Thursday night game a “baby bye week” because of the extra prep time gained for the next week. Baby bye week – new lingo from a new age analyst.
Speaking of language, Julian Edelman may have created another new football term. He called the NFL games after Thanksgiving “cream season,” when the cream rises to the top and when football season truly starts. Edelman told Cowherd that this is when coaches raise the intensity in the building.
A week later, Edelman was a panelist on FOX’s NFL Kickoff. It was clear that the show’s producers and host Charissa Thompson were tuned into Edelman’s Herd appearance as they made his cream season line a theme of discussion.
Edelman picked the Ravens and Niners as his current cream teams and entertained Thompson and his fellow panelists with a few dairy-related puns. He was funny, saying that both these teams could end up becoming butter teams – even better than cream.
Edelman is unafraid to ruffle feathers, even if those feathers reside in Foxboro, MA. In discussing last week’s Patriots-Giants game, he boldly tweeted and stated on NFL Kickoff that the Patriots would be better off losing that game in order to get a better 2024 draft position.
If Julian Edelman has any flaws, it is that at times his analysis RPMs run into the red. In his discussion of last week’s crucial Jaguars-Texans game, he was visibly pumped up and spoke far too quickly even stumbling on some commentary. He recovered well and simply needs to slow down, trust his knowledge, and calculate his pace.
Edelman has made such an immediate impact that NFL Kickoff has even given him his own segment. It is called “The Nest” and his based on his children’s book Flying High, the story of Jules, a football-playing squirrel who is small in stature but big on heart and enthusiasm. Sound familiar?
Julian Edelman was joined in the nest by panelists Charles Woodson and Peter Schrager and provided a pretty cool analysis of current NFL wide receivers. He based his opinions on four attributes: sociability, aggressiveness, activity level, and boldness. Along the way, Edelman provide some unique commentary on the likes of Davante Adams, Travis Kelce, A.J. Brown and Stefon Diggs.
There is a rhythm to Edelman’s conversation. He is comfortable with his career, comfortable with himself, and comfortable on air. As a player, Julian Edelman was an unexpected star, a guy who parlayed personality, hard work, and hustle into a fantastic career. He is doing the same in media dishing out knowledge his way – brash, all-out, and with total abandon.
John Molori is a weekly columnist for Barrett Sports Media. He has previously contributed to ESPNW, Patriots Football Weekly, Golf Content Network, Methuen Life Magazine, and wrote a syndicated Media Blitz column in the New England region, which was published by numerous outlets including The Boston Metro, Providence Journal, Lowell Sun, and the Eagle-Tribune. His career also includes fourteen years in television as a News and Sports Reporter, Host, Producer working for Continental Cablevision, MediaOne, and AT&T. He can be reached on Twitter @MoloriMedia.
Mike Breen is Ready For Whatever The NBA Season Brings
“I’ve had an amazing set of teammates my entire life.”
Every time a new basketball season is on the precipice, there is a certain kind of enigma that permeates the landscape. Although he has been on basketball broadcasts for nearly three decades, Mike Breen still feels added nerves before donning the headset to call the NBA Finals. Last season, ESPN’s lead play-by-play voice called the 100th NBA Finals game of his broadcast career. In doing so, Breen became just the third basketball announcer on radio or television to attain such a feat.
When he first joined the broadcasts on ABC in 2006, Breen was stepping into the play-by-play role previously held by Al Michaels, working alongside color commentator Hubie Brown. He never could have imagined that the conclusion of the 2023-24 season would mark his 19th time calling the best-of-seven championship series and attributes his success to the people around him.
“There’s not a stage anywhere in the world big enough to hold that many people because that’s how many people have really been there for me and supported me and guided me and at times chastised me because you need people to always tell you the truth,” Breen said. “I’ve had an amazing set of teammates my entire life.”
For the last 18 NBA Finals broadcasts, Breen has worked alongside color commentator Jeff Van Gundy, a former head coach of the New York Knicks. Mark Jackson served as a color commentator as well for 15 of these series, taking a three-year detour to work as head coach of the Golden State Warriors. The broadcast trio was widely regarded as one of the best in basketball and frequently lauded for the strong chemistry they possessed on the air. Over the offseason though, Van Gundy and Jackson were laid off by ESPN as a part of cost-cutting measures by The Walt Disney Company. The decision disappointed Breen because of the bond he and his colleagues fostered and shared.
“We spent so much time together and we felt we had something special, and we were hoping that it was going to last longer, but nothing in this business lasts forever and that’s part of the business, and you have to figure that out and you move on,” Breen said. “Now the way I look at it is I’m just so grateful and honored that I had all that time sitting next to those two for so many big games over the years, but it’s hard when it ends.”
Breen is currently working with Doris Burke and Doc Rivers on ESPN’s lead NBA broadcast team. Broadcasting the NBA Finals, let alone sporting events as a whole, was never in his mind though; that is, until he was told by family friend and former New York Tech radio staffer Tony Minecola to consider going into the industry as a sportscaster.
Recognizing that he would not succeed as a professional athlete because of a lack of skill or as a doctor because of a lack of passion, Breen chose to major in broadcast journalism at Fordham University, immediately joining the campus radio station. Over his four years matriculating at the institution, he prioritized versatility and contributed to sports, news, talk and music programming.
“When you leave college and you have tape résumés and experience of being on the air on a live 50,000-watt station, it really gives you a great perspective of what it’s like to be in the business,” Breen said. “It’s kind of a great way to figure out, ‘Okay, is this something you like? Is this something you have a chance to be good at?’”
Ed Ingles, the former sports director of WCBS 880, helped instantiate that mindset for Breen when he interned with him during his days in college. Aside from his delivery, Breen took notice of how he interacted with his colleagues and other people in the industry, always demonstrating professionalism and kindness. Ingles advised Breen to get out of his comfort zone, which proved to be invaluable when Breen started his first job out of school in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. at WEOK-AM/WPDH-FM.
In his first year with the outlet, he would frequently attend school board meetings and county legislative sessions in order to collect 45 seconds of sound for the morning anchor to use on their program. Whereas at a sporting event, the game is oftentimes the primary story, Breen had to review the agenda and listen to the meeting to have an understanding of what is essential to the story.
“If you can cover a school board meeting that you know nothing about and do a good job on it, then you can certainly cover an NBA basketball game and figure out the storylines and the narratives and all those types of things,” Breen said. “It really made me a better sportscaster. I wasn’t just a sportscaster; I was a broadcaster.”
Breen eventually began calling Dutchess County High School basketball games and serving as an analyst on Marist College basketball broadcasts, all while working as the morning news anchor for the radio outlet. In balancing various different roles at once, Breen found himself on the air for six days a week for an entire year. The strenuous workload allowed him to enhance his skillset and ingenuity and have the confidence that he could make a career in the profession.
Through a connection he had with a classmate at Fordham University, Breen landed a part-time producing job on Jack Spector’s sports talk program, SportsNight, on WNBC. The commitment was initially for one day per week, but as Breen’s workload at the outlet increased, he was able to leave Poughkeepsie and focus on working in New York City. There was a dearth of sports talk programming at the time; that is until the summer of 1987 when WFAN launched on 1050 AM and introduced a new format to the medium.
“We were all sitting around the radio at WNBC thinking, ‘Okay, here comes our competition on the air,’” Breen remembered. “We were laughing, saying, ‘Oh, this is never going to make it. There’s no way this is going to make it,’ and it turns out that it was just the start of something that would completely change the radio industry.”
Ironically enough, WFAN moved to WNBC’s 660 AM frequency when General Electric sold several of its stations to Emmis Communications as part of a multi-station deal. Even though the station had transitioned to a new format, Don Imus kept his morning show on the airwaves, which Breen had been a part of starting a year earlier. His segments were filled with sound effects and jokes, giving him exposure within the marketplace and allowing him to penetrate beyond his comfort zone of traditional sports broadcasting and reporting.
“It wasn’t just your normal sports update,” Breen said. “It was something where you had to use your personality; you had to use your sense of humor [and] you had to use your writing skills, and it showed a little versatility and that was important.”
MSG Networks hired Breen in 1992 as the New York Knicks radio play-by-play announcer, and he assimilated into the role while keeping his spot on Imus in the Morning. In addition to adjusting to the pace of the NBA, he also refined his approach to calling games on the radio as opposed to television. Throughout this process, Breen thought about Marist play-by-play announcer Dean Darling and how he had called the games when they worked together.
“There are very few people – and there certainly are exceptions – but there are very few people who are instantly really good on the air,” Breen said. “It takes a while to hone your skills to figure out how you want to broadcast things if you have a certain style, and that’s the No. 1 thing is to get repetitions.”
When Marv Albert pleaded guilty to assault and battery in 1997, Breen was suddenly promoted to fill the role as the television play-by-play announcer for the team. Having listened to Albert call games for many years growing up, Breen knew the importance of appealing to the local audience in the New York metropolitan area. Many of the local play-by-play announcers in the locale grew up around the city, and he affirms that the knowledge and passion is discernible to consumers. Breen met New York Yankees television play-by-play announcer and ESPN New York radio host Michael Kay, who was a fellow student at Fordham University at the time, and discussed sports and broadcasting with him.
“He would tell me, ‘Oh, I’d love to be the Yankees announcer,’ and I’d say, ‘I’d love to be the Knicks announcer,’ and we would laugh at each other [like] two fools,” Breen said. “But I think because we were both New Yorkers and we both understood the New York fan because we were and still are New York fans, I think perhaps it gave us an edge because we knew what it’s like to live in New York and root for the teams in New York, and I think, or at least I hope, the fans can feel that.”
Albert returned to the Knicks telecast in 2000, prompting Breen to move back to radio broadcasts and work with John Andariese. At the same time, he began doing work for NBC Sports, including calling NBA games with Bill Walton and announcing ski jumping at the Olympic Games. When Albert was removed from the television broadcasts for being too critical of the team, Breen returned to the position and has held the role ever since.
“I tend to be old-school in that my job is to accurately describe what’s going on and also set up my partners and give them space and the lead-ins to make them excel,” Breen said. “The personality stuff, I think that comes – I hate to use the cliché – but it comes organically in terms of you’re doing the game. If something calls for you to react that involves more personality than actually broadcasting, then you do it and you have to find that balance.”
Every time Breen takes the air, he hopes that the consumers are able to see that he is prepared, enamored with the sport and enjoys working alongside his colleagues. From his days on the Knicks’ radio broadcasts, Breen has been paired with Walt “Clyde” Frazier for 25 seasons and understands how venerated the two-time NBA champion is within the city.
As the only member of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame as a player and a broadcaster, Frazier strikes a chord with basketball fans and brings his credibility and proficiency to the airwaves every season. In addition, he always arrives in his signature flamboyant outfits and intersperses astute rhymes to the cadence on the hardwood.
“He’s managed to stay true to who he is, yet develop this unique on-air style that very few people have had, but the bottom line is yeah, there’s style, but there’s so much substance to what he says,” Breen explained,” and I think Knick fans love him because he tells it like it is, but at the same time, you can feel his love for the franchise.”
Since joining the NBA on ESPN broadcast team in 2003, Breen has balanced his local responsibilities with calling games at the national level. Throughout the season, he logs a considerable number of traveling miles and always puts his family first when he is not working. In fact, the reason he stopped calling other sports was not only to recharge over the summer, but also to spend time with his children.
By being absorbed in the NBA during the year, the preparation for the different types of broadcasts often overlaps. One thing he cannot prepare for, however, is the occurrence of a buzzer-beater or game-saving block.
“For me, I’ve always felt at a big moment, less is more for a broadcaster because your voice is not made [for] those high-intensity calls to go for 20 seconds,” Breen said. “Your voice can crack; who knows what else could happen, but when you make a good, strong concise call at a big moment and then let the crowd take over, I think that’s always been, for me, the best way to go.”
Although he derived his signature three-point call of “Bang!” while sitting in the stands at Fordham Rams games as a student, he did not think it worked on the air. But by the time he was calling a weekly high school basketball game for SportsChannel America, he noticed that the maelstrom of amplified sound within the gyms drowned out his voice during consequential moments. As a result, he resorted back to the monosyllabic exclamation and has stuck with it ever since.
“I’ve just been very careful about not overusing it,” Breen said. “I try to save it for big moments because if I was yelling, ‘Bang!,’ on every three-pointer, it would lose its luster, I believe.”
Breen will call NBA games from a new venue next week in Las Vegas, Nevada – T-Mobile Arena – when the league’s inaugural In-Season Tournament reaches its conclusion and a champion is crowned. The Association introduced the single-elimination endeavor this year in an effort to further incentivize regular-season play and establish a new tradition.
“There’s no doubt in my mind that these In-Season Tournament games bring out a little extra in the players [and] in the fans, and we’re not even at the knockout round yet and this is only the first year,” Breen said. “….To have this kind of excitement in November and then early December, it’s a win-win for everybody.”
Despite the NBA still being in its first half of the season, Breen feels encouraged by the broadcasts he has participated in thus far with Doris Burke and Doc Rivers. After all, he had worked with Burke on the first NBA game she ever broadcast and could tell how talented she was. Moreover, he has been friends with Rivers for over 30 years and speculated that he would be a broadcaster when he was finished playing and coaching.
The network’s lead broadcasting team will embark on a new challenge ahead of their first NBA Playoffs working together next Saturday, Dec. 9 when they broadcast the championship game of the NBA In-Season Tournament on ABC at 8:30 p.m. EST/5:30 p.m. PST.
“It takes a while to get the on-air chemistry, and the three-person booth is not easy for the analyst because they have to figure out a way to still get all their points across with less time, and same thing for me and that’s part of it,” Breen said. “Everybody has to just find their niche, and so far they’ve been great. They’re not only great friends; they’re really talented broadcasters, and I’m really excited about the potential.”
Breen recently signed a four-year contract extension with ESPN that will keep him on the airwaves past the expiration of the network’s current media rights deal with the National Basketball Association. The rationale behind staying with the network had to do with the people at the company, avouching that it is a great place to work and how he is thrilled he will be allowed to stay longer.
“Clearly I’m hoping that they work out a deal and I’m fairly confident they will,” Breen said. “ESPN loves the NBA; the relationship between the league and ESPN has always been wonderful. So I’m rooting hard for them to say ‘Yes’ and sign on the dotted line.”
In 2021, Breen was honored as the recipient of the Curt Gowdy Media Electronic Media Award from the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame for his excellence as a broadcaster, one of the highest honors that can be bestowed upon a basketball announcer. Even with various accolades to his name though, Breen’s mission each year is to get better with every broadcast. Complacency and apathy are out of bounds as he lives out a lifelong dream and strives for an outstanding performance no matter the situation.
“You have days where you’re not feeling well; you’ve had a tough travel day; you’ve got issues going on in your life, but then you sit down at half court and they throw the ball up the opening tip,” Breen illustrated. “There’s an adrenaline there that has never gone away.”
Derek Futterman is a contributing editor and sports media reporter for Barrett Sports Media. Additionally, he has worked in a broad array of roles in multimedia production – including on live game broadcasts and audiovisual platforms – and in digital content development and management. He previously interned for Paramount within Showtime Networks, wrote for the Long Island Herald and served as lead sports producer at NY2C. To get in touch, find him on Twitter @derekfutterman.
How Radio Sellers Can Beat the ‘What’s In It For Me’ Question
We often get caught up in showcasing the bells and whistles of our stations—the audience reach, the sophisticated technology, and the awards we’ve earned — that we don’t answer essential questions.
It’s easy to fall into the trap of talking about technical features and company achievements with radio advertising prospects without considering the essential question: “What’s in it for me?” (WIFM) from the client’s perspective.
We often get caught up in showcasing the bells and whistles of our stations—the audience reach, the sophisticated technology, and the awards we’ve earned.
However, the heartbeat of successful sales isn’t just about these features, it’s about translating them into tangible benefits that directly address the needs and challenges of our potential clients. Here are some common pitfalls in our sales approaches and strategies to get prospects to listen to “WIFM”.
Focusing Solely on Product Features
We all sometimes get caught up in detailing our radio stations’ technical specs and features without translating those features into tangible benefits for the prospect. We love to point out that our all-sports station is on AM and simulcast on digital FM.
We need to connect them directly to the prospect’s needs or problems, which might result in a disconnect.
Instead, we could say that we reach two audiences for the price of one. 45-65-year-olds are on AM, and 25-44-year-olds are on FM. More bang for your buck!
Talking About Company Achievements
While our station won the “Best radio station in XYZ town” award from the local media, which might be impressive, prospects are often more concerned about how these accolades directly benefit them.
We need to bridge the gap between our survey win and how our listeners are proud of listening to the station and will trust the recommendations we give our listeners when it comes to buying from our prospect.
Not tailoring the pitch to suit the prospect’s specific needs or pain points is a huge miss. When we use generic, one-size-fits-all approaches, we miss the opportunity to highlight how their product or service addresses the prospect’s unique challenges or goals.
Don’t tell a car dealer he needs to sell more new cars when he wants more used sales and service business.
Failure to Listen Actively
Sometimes, we focus too much on delivering our deck without actively listening to the prospect’s concerns or desires.
Pay attention to the prospect’s feedback or cues, and maybe even ask them if anything has changed before you start the presentation.
Forget About “Across the Street”
Constantly highlighting how your station is superior to competitors without explaining how it benefits the prospect is counterproductive.
For example, if your station does a limited number of endorsements, tell the prospect they will stand out amongst the other advertisers better cause they are part of a select few live endorsements.
Prospects want to know why your idea is right for them, not just that it’s better than your competition.
What’s the ROI?
A sales pitch that doesn’t explicitly outline the return on investment (ROI) or demonstrate the value the prospect stands to gain falls short.
Running spots can outrun ‘turtle-like’ positive word of mouth or Google reviews, like the Roadrunner. Tell them that.
Too Much TSL or CPM talk
Using industry jargon without explaining its relevance to the prospect’s situation can create confusion or disinterest. Don’t pitch TSL. Tell them they can run fewer spots that have more impact. Your efficient CPM demonstrates that radio can compete with any ad medium and won’t waste money.
Communicate in a language that resonates with the prospect, making the benefits clear and understandable.
No Hit and Run
Our engagement doesn’t end with the initial pitch. Don’t forget to follow up and give them ongoing support and assistance to address any concerns or questions post-sale. By showing them you are in it for them, they will feel valued.
In the sports radio ad sales game, it’s not just about announcing your stats and shoutouts; it’s about hitting a home run with benefits that score with our clients. If our pitch doesn’t answer “What’s in it for me?” (WIFM), we might end up with the L.
So, dive into our clients’ playbook, check their needs, and deliver a play that makes them cheer for you and your station. Tackle the “WIFM” challenge head-on, and don’t worry about targeting so much.
Jeff Caves is a sales columnist for BSM working in radio, digital, hyper-local magazine, and sports sponsorship sales in DFW. He is credited with helping launch, build, and develop SPORTS RADIO The Ticket in Boise, Idaho, into the market’s top sports radio station. During his 26 year stay at KTIK, Caves hosted drive time, programmed the station, and excelled as a top seller. You can reach him by email at [email protected] or find him on Twitter @jeffcaves.