Decade in sports broadcasting

Publish date:

So many years, so much noise. Here's our best and worst of the decade in sports broadcasting.

Bob Costas(NBC, HBO, MLB Network). There is no harder job in sports broadcasting than hosting an Olympic Games, a gig that requires equal parts geopolitical expert, historian, traffic cop and journalist. Over the course of the decade, whether manning the action from Sydney, Salt Lake, Athens, Turin or Beijing, hosting his thoughtful HBO shows (Costas Now, On The Record), commenting on baseball for MLB Network or providing host duties at events such as the Kentucky Derby or NHL Winter Classic, Costas has aspired to raise the level of sports discourse to a smarter place.

THE PICK: Dan Shulman(ESPN and ESPN Radio). While he might not have the same cachet as Al Michaels, Jim Nantz or Joe Buck, Shulman is the best national play-by-play announcer today. He is exceptional at multiple sports (NBA and MLB), and he and his baseball partner, Dave Campbell, form as splendid a duo as there is on radio. As ESPN's lead announcer, Shulman has made Dick Vitale palatable (at times) and deserves an award for that alone. The guy is a pro's pro.

RUNNER-UP:Al Michaels (NBC and ABC). The dominant voice during the decade in the nation's most popular sport, Michaels has smoothly partnered with John Madden (on two networks) and Cris Collinsworth. He remains at the top of his craft.

HONORABLE MENTION:• NFL: Ian Eagle (CBS), Greg Gumbel (CBS), Kevin Harlan (Westwood One), Bob Papa (NFL Network), Sam Rosen (Fox), Mike Tirico (ESPN)• MLB: Joe Buck (Fox), Jon Miller (ESPN)• NBA: Marv Albert (TNT), Mike Breen (ESPN), Kevin Harlan (TNT)• College Basketball: Gus Johnson (CBS), Sean McDonough (ESPN), Jim Nantz (CBS)• College Football: Ron Franklin (ESPN), Verne Lundquist (CBS), Brent Musburger (ESPN)• Tennis: Ted Robinson (multiple networks)

THE PICK: Mary Carillo(ESPN, CBS, Tennis Channel, NBC, HBO). Honest, thoughtful and always prepared, Carillo has excelled in a sport that far too often soft-pedals commentary because of the many conflicts of interests and relationships. She provides a reporter's eye in the booth. The trio of Carillo, John McEnroe and Robinson is one of the best teams in any sport.RUNNER-UP: Johnny Miller (NBC). By calling 'em as he saw 'em (whether the players liked it or not -- and they often didn't), Miller brought a fresh gust of candor into what had been an overly clubby atmosphere.


•NFL: Troy Aikman (Fox), Cris Collinsworth (Fox, NBC), Boomer Esiason (Westwood One) Ron Jaworski (ESPN), John Madden (Fox, ABC, NBC)•MLB: Ron Darling (TBS), Tim McCarver (Fox), Orel Hershiser (ESPN)•NBA: Hubie Brown (TNT, ESPN), Doug Collins (TNT), Jack Ramsay (ESPN Radio), Jeff Van Gundy (TNT, ESPN)•College Football: Gary Danielson (CBS), Kirk Herbstreit (ESPN)•College Basketball: Jay Bilas (ESPN, CBS), Len Elmore (ESPN, CBS), Fran Fraschilla (ESPN), Clark Kellogg (CBS), Steve Lavin (ESPN),Bill Raftery (ESPN, CBS)•Tennis: Darren Cahill (ESPN)

THE PICK: James Brown (CBS and Fox). Arguably the most ego-free sports broadcaster on the air, Brown manned Fox's successful NFL pregame show for years before joining CBS in 2005 and making that show more relevant, both in content and the ratings. The broadcaster has a unique ability to defer to talent sitting around him.

RUNNER-UP:Chris Fowler(ESPN). Whether hosting Australian Open coverage or discussing Alabama-Auburn on the CollegeGameDay set, Fowler offers competence and a steady hand for viewers.

HONORABLE MENTION:Rece Davis (ESPN), Bryant Gumbel (HBO), Greg Gumbel (CBS), Ernie Johnson (TNT), Bob Ley (ESPN), Jim Nantz (CBS), Karl Ravech (ESPN), Trey Wingo (ESPN).

THE PICK: Ernie Johnson, Charles BarkleyandKenny Smith (TNT's Inside the NBA).The group redefined the notion that a studio show had to be scripted. Along with terrific chemistry and a steady hand in the uber-professional Johnson, Barkley has been the decade's most provocative studio broadcaster, a man with no filter and enough cash and ego not to worry about offending people.

RUNNER-UP:Chris Fowler, Kirk HerbstreitandLee Corso (College GameDay). Flip a coin with Inside the NBA. This could easily have been the top choice.

HONORABLE MENTION: Fox NFL Sunday with Terry Bradshaw, Cris Collinsworth and Howie Long; Fox NFL Sunday with Bradshaw, Long and Jimmy Johnson;ESPN's Sunday NFL Countdown (Chris Berman, Tom Jackson and Ron Jaworski as the principals); ESPN's Mel Kiper (ESPN) and the network's draft coverage; The NFL Network's Mike Mayock and the network's draft coverage.

THE PICK: Doris Burke(ESPN). Here's what I want from my sideline reporters: 1. Perceptive questions. 2. Reporting I can't get elsewhere. 3. Insight into what I'm watching. 4. General competence. I'd like to thank Burke for providing all of this during the decade.

RUNNER-UP:Pam Oliver(Fox). She refuses to accept b.s. answers from her subjects.

HONORABLE MENTION:Jeannine Edwards (ESPN), Armen Keteyian (CBS), Andrea Kremer (NBC, ESPN), Roger Maltbie (NBC), Chris Myers (Fox), Dottie Pepper (NBC/Golf Channel), Judy Rankin (ABC/Golf Channel), Craig Sager (TNT/TBS), Lisa Salters (ESPN), MichelleTafoya (ESPN).

THE PICK: Bob Kemp, Sporting News Radio. Kemp now works afternoons at The Fan 1060-AM in Phoenix, but at the beginning of the decade he was the overnight host for Sporting News Radio, an informed host who backed opinion with knowledge and a healthy lack of shtick. Bob Valvano does a nice overnight weekend show for ESPN Radio and his colleague Jason Smith seems like a nice guy, but we've been waiting for a national overnight show to replace the juice of Kemp since he left Sporting News in 2002.

RUNNER-UP: Chuck Wilson(ESPN Radio through 2005, XM Radio until November 2008). Still befuddling why ESPN Radio would get rid of a guy universally liked by critics and listeners.

HONORABLE MENTION:Colin Cowherd, SteveCzaban, Mike Greenberg, Dan Patrick, Jeff Rickard, Jim Rome, Scott Van Pelt.

THE PICK: Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel (HBO). Over the past decade Real Sports (full disclosure: it has partnered with Sports Illustrated on certain stories and employs SI's Frank Deford) has produced exceptional sports journalism year after year. An August 2008 episode featuring a Bernard Goldberg-fronted piece on dogfighting's underworld; Gumbel's interview with a not-so-contrite Adam (Pacman) Jones;Kremer's sit-down with then-Broncos receiver Javon Walker on the death of teammate Darrent Williams; and Carillo's compelling behind-the-scenes look at the marriage of Steffi Graf and Andre Agassi was the best hour of sports television in the 2000s.

RUNNER-UP:Outside the Lines (ESPN). The Bob Ley-generaled program consistently produces outstanding television sports journalism.

THE PICK: Perfect Upset: The 1985 Villanova vs. Georgetown NCAA Championship(HBO, 2005).Perfectly told the story of Nova's unlikely run to hoops immortality by setting up the two protagonists against the backdrop of the big-money, cocaine-fueled, Morning-in-America 1980s.

RUNNER-UP:Do You Believe In Miracles? The Story of the 1980 U.S. Hockey Team(HBO, 2001): Particularly great were the interviews with the Russian players 20 years after the Miracle at Lake Placid.

THE PICK: In 2004, HBO's Inside the NFL produced a heartbreaking examination of the late former Dolphins quarterback David Woodley, who died penniless at age 44. He was buried in an unmarked plot in a Shreveport, La. It was riveting television. Full marks to producer Jason Hehir for a remarkable piece of television journalism.

RUNNER-UP: Long-form features have always been an ESPN strength, and two Outside the Lines pieces from 2008 deserve to be revisited here. The first was a terrific piece on Pennsylvania prep baseball player John Challis, a beautifully filmed and written tribute about a young man lost before his time. Then there was a feature on Alimzhan Tokhtakhounov, an alleged Russian mobster under indictment for fixing two skating competitions in the 2002 Olympics, including the pairs figure skating title in which the Russian team of Eelena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze was initially awarded a gold medal over the Canadian duo of Jamie Sale and David Pelletier. Tremendous work.

Phil Simms (CBS) vs. Steve Young (ESPN). After Young, an analyst for ESPN's Sunday NFL Countdown, suggested Bucs quarterback Chris Simms may have grown up soft in a "laissez-faire kind of atmosphere" and didn't have "the mental toughness to deal with the information overload that comes with the NFL," Papa Simms responded. "There's one thing I know my son doesn't lack, it's toughness," Simms said. "He didn't grow up in a laissez-faire atmosphere, far from it. Come to my house, live around with me and let's see how laissez-fare it is. ... You know, Steve, follow football more than one day a week and you might know some of those answers." Young later clarified that his remarks were more about athletes of Chris Simms' generation.

The Berman videos. The sports world owes the editors of Deadspin a debt of gratitude for archiving these.

• Celebrity guests in the Monday Night Football booth (2006-07): We've said this before: The only Slater who should be on Monday Night Football is Jackie,not Christian.

• Fox Sports Net's I-Max (2004): If there was a more self-indulgent show in the history of television (at least one that didn't star Donald Trump) than this ill-fated Max Kellerman vehicle, we haven't seen it.

• Fox's use of the animated Scooter figure on its baseball coverage (2004-2006): An example of how technology does not always help society.

• ESPN's Hu$tle (2004): This biopic of Pete Rose was an unwatchable mess, though as SI wrote back at the time, "The wig on top of actor Tom Sizemore gave a brilliant performance."

•Quite Frankly with Stephen A. Smith (2005-2007): The show made a splash with Allen Iverson as its first guest and quickly sailed off into Slava Medvedenko-esque irrelevancy.

• ESPN's Mohr Sports (2001): The Jay Mohr vehicle lasted about as long as this sentence.

• Chip Caray: No need to pile on at this point.

• Lisa Guerrero, Monday Night Football sideline reporter (2003): See above.

•ESPN Hollywood (2005): Good to see Thea Andrews land at Entertainment Tonight. Not good to see actresses working as sports anchors, as Andrews did for this short-lived melange of sports and celebrity.

•Listen Up! with Charles Barkley (2002): Not many people ended up listening.

• Michael Irvin(2000-present): Never has such a mediocre analyst been given so many network chances.

• ESPN'sPardon the Interruption: "We're old. We're fat. We're bald. And we're white. And one of us is blind." So began the initial ad campaign for Pardon the Interruption in 2001, which pitted Washington Post sportswriters Tony Kornheiser and Michael Wilbon in a fast-moving half hour of intelligent and snarky sports debate. Now known as PTI, the show has sadly spawned about a thousand awful imitators but still continues strong. The show's creator, Erik Rydholm, would be very high on the list of all-decade creative forces in sports.

• The in-game interview: The XFL might have been a bust, but it helped popularize the in-game interview, which has added to the coverage of the NHL and Major League Baseball.

• Poker shows: ESPN's World Series of Poker (and the many poker shows it inspired) became a programming sensation thanks to the hole-card camera.

• RudyMartzke: Love him or hate him, the man defined the sports media beat for decades. USA Today's Martzke penned his last column on April 15, 2005.• March Madness on Demand: A brilliant and lucrative digital initiative by CBS to expand its NCAA basketball audience with an online platform.

• Phelps-palooza: NBC's decision to offer exhausting 2008 Summer Olympics coverage -- as well as to persuade the Beijing organizers to schedule the swimming finals in prime time in the United States -- produced monster ratings for the network. NBC scored a 17-day rating of 16.2 -- it averaged 27.7 million viewers -- to post significant gains over the 2004 Athens Games. The 215 million total viewers made it the most-viewed event of the decade.

• NBC guaranteed sponsors a 16.1 prime-time rating for the 2000 Sydney Olympics, only to owe them free "make-good" ads when the ratings ended up at a miserable (for the Olympics) 13.8.

• The hosts of ESPN's NBA Shootaround channeled their inner John Rambo after the infamous Pacers-Pistons brawl in 2004. Studio host John Saunders, ex-NBA players Tim Legler and Greg Anthony and reporter Stephen A. Smith put the onus squarely on Detroit fans, with the usually reliable Saunders calling the fans "sissies" and "punks." Saunders and Smith later offered mea culpas. But true praise goes to game announcers Mike Breen and Bill Walton, who offered sobering and reasoned commentary as this disgraceful melee unfolded.

• Don Imus, the fossilized broadcaster, took a racist shot at the Rutgers women's basketball team with his now-infamous "that's some nappy-headed hos there." Imus remains on the air today, boosted by high-profile friends such as sportswriter Mike Lupica who continue to guest on his program.

• The always charming Billy Packer told Charlie Rose not to "fag out" on being his assistant at a Final Four. In one of the great PR spins of this or any decade, a CBS spokesperson claimed, "Billy [Packer] used the phrase as defined in the American Heritage Dictionary."

• ESPN's Gary Thorne claimed that then-Red Sox catcher Doug Mirabelli told him that Curt Schilling's bloody sock was painted. Thorne late backtracked, saying, "He said one thing, and I heard something else."

• Golf Channel's Kelly Tilghman was bailed out by Tiger Woods, who let her off the hook for her "lynch him in a back alley" comment. Tilghman was also aided by powerful friends in the media, most notably Wilbon.

• ESPN put the kibosh on a proposed podcast between writer Bill Simmons and presidential candidate Barack Obama. (The president should know he is always welcome on the Inside Sports Illustrated podcast.)

• ESPN added conservative political commentator Rush Limbaugh to Sunday NFL Countdown in 2003. Limbaugh triggered his resignation after four weeks when he declared that the media wanted Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb to succeed because he was black.

• Any segment on ESPN2's First Take featuring Skip Bayless and Rob Parker arguing (2007-present).

• TNT's Charles Barkley, on NBC airing its final NBA telecast in 2002: "If y'all hadn't wasted all that money on the XFL, y'all would still have basketball."• Kansas City Star sports columnist Jason Whitlock, on his departure from ESPN: "To me, being a contract employee for ESPN did not mean I'd surrendered my right to blast the World Wide Leader in Sports for making the awful TV show Playmakers, employing as expert analysts clownish buffoons with drug problems such as Rush Limbaugh and Michael Irvin, and publishing the gangsta-posturing rantings of a poor writer. ESPN is a powerful newsmaker in the sports world. As a sports journalist/columnist, I thought it would be wrong to ignore obvious topics just because I drew an occasional check from ESPN. I'm not stepping on any high horse. It wouldn't hold me."

• Cedric Maxwell, color analyst for the Boston Celtics, on NBA referee Violet Palmer: "Get back in the kitchen and fix me some bacon and eggs!"

•ESPN's Stephen A. Smith, offering advice as a Dream Job judge: "Style without substance doesn't mean a damn thing."

• Barry Melrose, ESPN hockey analyst, on Newark, N.J.: "Don't go outside if you have a wallet or anything else."

• ESPN's Mike Patrick, to a stunned partner Todd Blackledge during overtime of the college football game they were broadcasting: "Britney Spears.What's she doing with her career?"

• NBC's Al Michaels, during an appearance on Costas Now: "ESPN has had a major influence on sports, but there are a lot of shows that I watch now where it's a screaming match. It's who can yell the loudest. It's almost like gasbags on parade."

Steve Cyphers (ESPN), Jay Glazer (Fox, CBS), Mike Emrick (NBC), Chris Mortensen (ESPN), Rachel Nichols (ESPN), Kelli Naqi (ESPN), Dave Revsine (Big Ten Network), TomRinaldi (ESPN), Jeremy Schaap (ESPN). Darrell Waltrip (Fox).