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Jim Nantz Gets Ready For One Last Shining Moment At The NCAA Tournament

“There is something comforting turning on the television during March Madness and seeing and hearing Nantz. It’s like, the two go hand in hand.”

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This year, we’ll hear the familiar “hello friends” from the great Jim Nantz for the final time at the Final Four. Back in October it was announced that Nantz would be stepping away from calling the Final Four, a role he’s held since 1991. Ian Eagle will take over starting with next year’s tournament. It will certainly take some getting used to, so it’s that much more important to enjoy this tournament, and Nantz while college basketball fans still can. 

The schedule he kept had to be grueling. Going from the NFL playoffs and maybe a Super Bowl in February, to March Madness and then to the Masters in April. Quite the trifecta huh? The daily double he’s keeping is still quite the endeavor, but now he’ll be able to get in a nice break between his seasons. 

Not to sound cheesy, but this really is the end of an era. Nantz ruled the roost in a way that only a few before him ever did. He means so much to the CBS coverage of the NCAA Tournament that it’s hard to imagine him not being a part of it after this season. 

CBS Sports chairman Sean McManus told the assembled media on a recent Zoom call, that there are mixed emotions when it comes to Nantz’s last tournament. McManus knows what Nantz means to their college hoops coverage. 

“It’s a bittersweet tournament for us,” he said. “This is Jim’s 32nd, if  you can believe it, Final Four and championship game as lead play-by-play announcer. His first was in 1991 with Billy Packer. Jim, as everyone on this call knows, has meant so much to the game of college basketball, to CBS Sports, and to the growth in popularity of this great event.”

For many people, Nantz is the only voice they’ve ever known to call these meaningful March games. There is something comforting turning on the television during March Madness and seeing and hearing Nantz. It’s like, the two go hand in hand. 

Jim Nantz has such a command over the broadcast of the Final Four. He’s so comfortable in that chair and it comes through in the broadcast. He weaves in stories about players and coaches, like a perfectly run offense. Nantz defers to his analysts like a good ‘captain’ of a team would. You can tell how important it is for him to make Grant Hill and Bill Raftery an integral part of the broadcast. It really works.   

On that last point, Hill knows how important a good play-by-play man is to his success and the broadcast’s success. Hill agrees with McManus’ assessment of this being a bittersweet tournament with Nantz’s looming exit. 

“To fast-forward to the last seven to eight years, to work with him, to really get to know him, to consider him a friend…this month, it’s always special.” Hill said on that same conference call. “As Sean alluded to, it’s bittersweet; our friend, our leader, our mortar, the guy I feel kind of keeps this whole thing together and has done it so eloquently and masterfully and respectfully for so long, it’s crazy. It’s still surreal that it’s come to an end.”

Hill can empathize with Nantz on the finality of things. As a former college athlete of note, he tried to adjust his thinking knowing it was his final tournament all those years ago with Duke. 

“I just wanted to enjoy every minute. And I think that’s my approach to his last run, and hopefully Jim and the others will just cherish every minute, every game, every late night watching games, dinners, all of that, all of the magic that exists for us to be able to work with Jim Nantz.” Hill said. “It’s truly something like that moment walking out of Charlotte Coliseum; I’ll have many moments that I’ll cherish, and that will stick with me for the rest of my life.”

This Final Four will be special for many reasons. Because it’s in Houston the storyline pretty much writes itself. Jim Nantz could have the opportunity to call a Final Four or a Championship game that involves his alma mater, the University of Houston. He learned the game from legendary Cougars Coach Guy Lewis. Nantz used to attend practices with the group known as Phi Slamma Jamma, that included Clyde Drexler and Hakeem Olajuwon. As a student, Lewis, served as an early mentor and one of the reasons that Nantz got involved in broadcasting. 

“A lot of people don’t know that the basketball program really was my entrance into the business. I was completely tied to the Houston basketball program, more than anything else, to get me launched.” Nantz said. “Back as a kid, I was the public address announcer, I was the host of the Guy Lewis Show, our Hall of Fame coach, his television show that ran on the NBC affiliate. I was just a kid living in the dorms.”

Nantz said calling his former UH golf teammate and roommate Fred Couples’ 1992 Masters victory was his favorite career memory. He said UH winning a national title in his final game would be “one of the top two moments of my career.”

McManus knows if that scenario played out, Nantz would be a pro and remain objective. He did add, “If the Houston Cougars happened to be in Houston on that weekend, that would be a pretty cool storyline for Jim.”

Getting ready for a moment like this can’t be easy. Even though Nantz will still have a high profile on CBS, this tournament was a big part of his career. Certainly, emotions will be running high. Who could really blame him or anyone else? 

In an exclusive CBS interview, Nantz explained how he might be feeling just before he says, “Goodbye friends.”

“When that one shining moment farewell piece plays on that Monday night, I think it’s the lock of the year that I’ll have tears streaming down my face. But they’ll be tears of gratitude for being able to be entrusted with it for so long and have had a front-row seat to so many special moments.” 

The shining moments in Jim Nantz’s time doing the Final Four are too numerous to count. He enters this his final tournament as a no doubt number one seed. 

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One Question About Stuart Scott’s 30 for 30: What Took So Long?

“Whether it was references or catchphrases or just his general vibe, Stuart Scott was can’t miss TV.”

Demetri Ravanos

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Stuart Scott

There haven’t been many celebrity deaths that have truly left me in tears. I am a Nirvana super fan, and I remember exactly where I was when I found out about Kurt Cobain’s suicide, but I don’t remember breaking down. I can only remember three celebrity deaths that left me feeling true, uncontainable sadness: Robin Williams, Tom Petty and Stuart Scott.

So many documentaries and episodes of television have been made about the life, times, and deaths of Williams and Petty. They are icons. Their respective deaths left millions of fans in mourning. 

Scott’s impact is no less significant, particularly in the sports media world. I am happy to hear that he is finally getting his due with a life and career retrospective as part of ESPN’s 30 for 30 series.

I hated school as a kid. Each morning felt like a march from the courthouse to the bus that would take me to prison. I loved sports and loved to laugh. Scott and Rich Eisen felt like my last little bit of joy before I was dragged to Hell each weekday morning. That’s why he meant so much to me.

His impact can be felt everywhere in our business. Countless black men and women who work in sports media will tell you about the impact they felt seeing someone who looked and talked like them. A generation of broadcasters, regardless of race, will tell you about how they connected to someone who embraced the idea that this is fun and unserious. 

Whether it was references or catchphrases or just his general vibe, Stuart Scott was can’t-miss TV. The fact that he was, revolutionized sports television.

Because of his influence, we were introduced to new faces. The whole style of highlight shows changed. Dan Patrick and Keith Olberman moved it away from a newscast and closer to a watercolor conversation. Scott pushed the genre closer to a block party.

ESPN has been careful about which broadcasters become the subject of a 30 for 30 documentary. Some of that has to do with drawing the line between sports and sports media. Some of it has to do with ESPN not being keen to turn a critical eye on itself. I mean, what other explanation could there be for why we have never gotten a documentary on the aforementioned Patrick and Olberman years

Scott clears whatever bar there is though. His story is one of social impact and industry dominance. On top of that, the way ESPN and its charity partner, The V Foundation, stood behind Scott during his battle with cancer, allows the company to give the story the Disney Princess treatment and erase any flaws or animosity that may have ever existed. That part isn’t necessary, but since ESPN is owned by Disney, it’s a nice bonus.

For a certain generation, this documentary will be a look back at the glory days of ESPN. The cultural dominance the brand enjoyed in the 90s could have come to an end after Keith Olberman’s exit and the end of Sunday night’s “Big Show,” but Scott’s rivalry with Dan Patrick (real or perceived) was an important part of extending that relevance. I mean, you could find boxer shorts in Disney World with “booyah” and “en fuego” scrawled across the ass at that time. 

Rich Eisen will surely figure prominently in the film. How could he not? He and Scott became the SportsCenter’s new gold standard. Their friendship and chemistry were real. They dealt with each other offscreen with no filter and the onscreen product was better for it. To this day, Eisen gets emotional when talking about his friend.

No one who dies at 49 lived a full life. How could they? There is so much left to do and give. But Stuart Scott packed a lot of life and made a lot of impact in his short time on Earth. 

Maybe you need the benefit of time for a 30 for 30 documentary to make a real impact. Scott died in January 2015. By the time the documentary comes out, a decade will have passed. As someone who was 15 years old when I discovered his voice and remained a fan until his dying day, I have one question. Why did we have to wait so long to get this movie? 

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Seller to Seller: Sandy Cohen, Union Broadcasting

“You are putting people together and you are seen as a connector. People love being connected with other people, and we like to do that with local business owners.”

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Graphic for Seller to Seller with Sandy Cohen

In last week’s Seller to Seller feature I had asked several sellers what the hardest part was of selling sports media right now. One of the replies was, “Prospecting, I feel like the number of categories willing to spend what they need to is dwindling.” That response prompted my old foe, Union Broadcasting partner and vice president of sales Sandy Cohen, to reach out to talk further about the topic.

Sandy and Union Broadcasting have been in the game since 1998 in Kansas City where they have Sports Radio 810 WHB and ESPN Kansas City. They also have ESPN Louisville and ESPN Wichita and Cohen oversees sales for all of the properties. I competed against them in Kansas City as the GSM for 610 Sports and learned how well-respected Sandy and his team are in the advertising and business communities as well as how good of a job they do when it comes to servicing clients and building relationships.

Sandy said when he read last week’s piece, a thought kept running through his mind, which was that as an industry, sports media needs more people on the street and a next generation of sellers. He had some great insights on the topic as well as Union Broadcasting had been in a hiring mode recently in Kansas City and he wound up hiring three people with a year or less of experience in the workforce.

When we spoke, I first asked him if we need more or if we need better. As any good salesman would do, he asked for it all. “Yes! We need more, better,” he replied. “I think there’s benefits all the way around. You can increase your sales with more people, and you can energize your existing sales team by hiring brand new salespeople.”

Cohen said they put a full-court-press on recruitment and ran ads on air, on their stream, on their website and all of their social channels. I wondered if people were still excited to work in sports media sales and if they had a solid response.

“We had lots of choices, I was pleased,” Cohen said. He told me they went through a few rounds before inviting some candidates in to make presentations in their conference room. “We looked at how they prepared, how they dressed, did they make eye contact, and did they use props or anything to stand out. Lastly, did they follow up with a thank you and stay in touch throughout the process.”

We talked about what types of things he looks for when screening candidates and he said, “I think they have to have a passion and an interest in sports, be a go-getter with a lot of good energy. I think they need to be money motivated and a self-starter, detail oriented with solid communications skills…If they’re not going to pay attention to the details, they’re not going to make a very good salesperson.”

We agreed that after you go through the difficult process of recruitment and then eventually hiring the new sales talent, the real work begins as now you have to make sure they get trained as best as possible.

As for the training process Cohen uses, he said, “It’s a combination of two things. We have our own in-house training system. We have everything mapped out, what the first two weeks look like, day by day, and then at the end of each day there is a recap. Then it continues, but not as structured as the first two weeks.

“We also use P1 Learning through the Missouri Broadcasters Association which is several weeks and is done in bite-sized pieces. They have homework and video calls and assignments they do to really learn the basics.” Cohen said a couple of the new hires had finished at the top of their P1 Learning class.

“It’s nice because it’s an outside voice, I like the way it is structured, and they go through everything. Beyond that, it is a lot of hands-on attention with new sellers, ongoing training, goal setting, lead distribution, and following up with them on how they are making their contacts. It’s talking to them and seeing what they are experiencing and how we can work on those and that works hand in hand with the formal training.”

I was also curious about the role the other sellers on the team play in training of new hires. Cohen said he is fortunate as he has a lot of senior sellers who are willing to help when called upon.

“We’ve got several veteran sellers who have been with us for 20-plus years,” he said. “So, while they are very busy with their own stuff, they recognize that at some point in their career somebody did that for them as well. They will let the new hires shadow them on calls or spend time with them one on one answering questions.”

Cohen hopes that as an industry, sports media makes a commitment to network with area colleges to form relationships with the professors in business schools or journalism schools to have a chance at some of the top talent coming out of college. “We need to have a presence in these classes and try and be in line when kids are graduating,” he said. “We can bring up the level of interest…it requires a lot of work. But we have to find a way to train new sellers and spend a lot of time with them.”

Of course, once the training wheels are off, at some point the new hires have to perform. We talked about the benchmarks of time as to when you should expect to know what you need to know about a new hire. “In the case of somebody who is fairly new…in six months, are they making progress? One year is definitely a benchmark. I think based on activity, new business, work ethic and habits you have observed you will know…It’s effort and activity and you can teach the nuances of what it means to be a solid individual in our industry.”

As mentioned previously, Sandy and his team are exceptional when it comes to having strong relationships with their clients, built through a quality product but also from the amount of time they spend with their clients and connecting them to one another.

“I just think at its core, what we do is fun,” Cohen said. “Some of the days are going to be long if you’re working all day and then taking someone to a sporting event or whatever it may be. We have always felt like entertainment is what sets us apart and one of the most important aspects of what we do.

“I just think if you’re doing business with someone, why shouldn’t you go and have some fun with them, too? You can certainly just hand them some tickets, but there’s nothing better than experiencing an event or planning a party for a group of clients so that they can all network together. You are putting people together and you are seen as a connector. People love being connected with other people, and we like to do that with local business owners…it becomes almost a club where they all work together because they met at one of our social events.”

Cohen said they try and have at least one significant quarterly entertainment event where they bring large groups of people together in addition to connecting one on one at a sporting event. A couple of recent examples of the larger events included a movie preview where a partnership with a local theater allowed for pre-show fellowship, followed by interaction with a talent who would host the event and then an opportunity for the group to see a movie before it has come out to the public.

Another example was a bus trip to Lawrence, Kansas for a KU-Oklahoma State basketball game which included a behind-the-scenes tour at Allen Fieldhouse. The team broadcasters showed the group the locker rooms and other areas that are not open to the public, followed by a KU chalk-talk and VIP treatment for the game.

In summing it up, Cohen said, “Whenever we can bring groups together like that and have a good time, that’s what we do.”

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Ian Eagle Will Always Remember His First Final Four

“This time is allowing me to exhale a bit and truly appreciate the path.”

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Photo of Ian Eagle
Courtesy: For The Win

Over the course of his career, Ian Eagle has called what seems like a million basketball games.  His approach for all of those games, whether it was the New Jersey/Brooklyn Nets, nationally televised NBA games, or college basketball games, has always been the same.  And when it came to taking over as the new play by play voice for the Final Four last week in Arizona, Eagle remained consistent with that approach.

Eagle subscribes to theory that “if it ain’t broke, don’t fit it”. 

“I recognized that I didn’t want to make sweeping changes to my approach because it was a bigger stage,” said Eagle.  “I wanted to be myself and do the games the way that I’ve done them for a number of years now and I think that comes with experience and maturity and muscle memory.  I do think that having done so many NCAA Tournaments put me in a very advantageous position of knowing what I was walking into.”

One part of that approach was to have fun.  It’s certainly a job that comes with a big responsibility because of the big stage and the number of eyeballs that are on you, but doing play by play is a lot of fun and a really cool job to have, no matter what sport or what level.

In Eagle’s case, he made sure that he was not only prepared for the job at hand, but he also made sure he was having a good time with his crew that included Bill Raftery, Grant Hill and Tracy Wolfson.

“We had a blast,” said Eagle.  “I made a conscious effort to remind myself to enjoy it.  Sometimes in life, we forget that it’s supposed to be fun, and it’s supposed to be joyous.  I had this sense of calm just before going on air for the Final Four.  I didn’t feel nerves.  I didn’t feel stressed.  I felt in the moment and comfortable and excited.”

This was a moment for Eagle that had been in the works for a few years and something that he certainly had been thinking about.  When it was first reported that legendary play by play announcer Jim Nantz would be winding down his long run as the voice of the Final Four, it had been suggested that Eagle was going to be the heir apparent.

In October of 2022, CBS and Turner Sports announced that the 2023 Final Four would be the final one for Nantz and that Eagle would take over in 2024.

For Eagle, it was big shoes to fill succeeding Nantz, but he knew the transition would be smooth and that his job was not to be Jim Nantz but to simply be Ian Eagle.

“I think because it was being discussed over the course of a few years, I never felt that level of enormity,” said Eagle.  “For me, it was recognizing that Jim was synonymous with this event and respecting the run that he was on.  It was incredible.  No one is ever going to match it so why think of it in those terms?  Just go do your job and be you.”

Perhaps this could be viewed as a “passing the baton moment,” but on the day before the national semifinals, a message came up on Eagle’s phone.

It was from Nantz.

“Yeah, he texted me on Friday,” said Eagle.  “We had a really nice exchange.  I think he was being very respectful with the job that I had to do.  There’s a high level of respect between the two of us.”

Even before the Final Four, Eagle had established himself as one of the great play-by-play voices in sports broadcasting.  From his days as a student at Syracuse University to his early days at WFAN in New York, to being the radio and television voice of the Nets and national NBA and NFL games, Eagle had already accomplished so much in this industry.

A premier event like the Final Four seemed like the appropriate next chapter of his career.

“It felt very much like the next step,” said Eagle.  “I think all of your experiences play a role in some way.  Even while you’re experiencing them, you have no idea how that’s going to affect you down the road.”

It has been quite a ride for Eagle, and it was a road that started as a producer at WFAN before that run morphed into an on-air role hosting and ultimately becoming the radio voice of the New York Jets.

The road to the top has to start somewhere and for Eagle it was at the nation’s first sports radio station.

“My time at ‘FAN…I learned so much,” said Eagle.  “I was around some of the most legendary figures in sports radio history and I benefited greatly from osmosis of being in this really unique situation that helped me when I got the next job and then the next job and then the next job.”

From hosting “Bagels and Baseball” on WFAN to doing play-by-play for the Final Four, it’s been quite a ride for Ian Eagle.

“It’s pretty wild if I take a step back and think about it but when you’re in the moment, you don’t necessarily reflect,” said Eagle. “This time is allowing me to exhale a bit and truly appreciate the path.”

And who knows where that path is going to take him next.

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