In the golden age of sports studio hosts, here's an attempt to draft 30 of the best
- From Ernie Johnson to Michelle Beadle to Mike Tirico, there are plenty of excellent sports studio hosts out there. But who would get drafted first? Richard Deitsch, Jimmy Traina and John Ourand make their picks.
A couple of Thursdays ago I attended a thoughtful 60-minute ceremony hosted by NBC Sports where the company both formally introduced Mike Tirico as the new primetime host of the Olympic Games and celebrated the long career of Bob Costas as he now moves into what NBC Sports execs called the “Brokaw Role,” which refers to Tom Brokaw’s current role at NBC News following his long career at the network.
As I watched Costas and Tirico together on a dais prior to one-on-ones featuring limited handling by NBC Sports public relations officials (well done), I started thinking about all the quality sports studio hosts working today. As I made a list on a paper just for my own amusement, it struck me that 2017 is truly the golden age for the position. Part of that is the immense amount of live programming airing on ESPN’s networks that requires hosts, as well as all the cable networks that have sprouted up over the past two decades. Do the exercise off the top of your head and you’ll get 30 quality sports hosts very quickly.
With that in mind—and because February is a slow month for content—I paneled two regulars on the SI Media Podcast (Sports Business Daily media writer John Ourand and Awful Announcing/The Comeback writer Jimmy Traina) to participate in a sports studio host draft. The only requirements were the on-air talent had to be either currently working in the position, or have significant experience in the past as a studio host while currently working in another broadcasting capacity (e.g. Chris Fowler or Brent Musburger). We did not consider sports-talk hosts for this exercise unless the host was a traditional studio host elsewhere. Some other caveats: The final order does not represent how any of us would pick our Top 30 given we did it in Draft form. Personally, I looked at this as people who have sport-specific hosting roles as opposed to SportsCenter host. Ourand and Traina obviously defined it how they did.
My Top 30 would be look different than the results below (and one of Traina’s picks would not make my Top 1000) but I think it will be enjoyable for you to read.
1. Ourand: Ernie Johnson (Turner Sports) Inside the NBA is the best studio show out there, and Johnson is superb at the balancing act between being a traffic cop and just getting out of the way.
2. Deitsch: Rebecca Lowe (NBC Sports) There are no harder graders than soccer viewers among sports fans (aside from maybe SEC college football watchers) and Lowe has won over that crowd with her preparation and smarts. She's also versatile enough to host the Olympics and would be exceptional at any gig NBC Sports assigned her. She or Johnson would be my top pick.
3. Traina: Scott Van Pelt (ESPN) SVP is universally liked, which is basically unheard of in this day and age. He also has a great personality and is genuine. Oh, and he has shown excellent versatility throughout his career, whether it's been hosting a radio show, doing SportsCenter or anchoring golf coverage.
4. Traina: Kevin Burkhardt (Fox Sports) Basically, everything I said about Van Pelt applies to Burkhardt. He's very popular and can handle any role. His studio work on Fox's MLB coverage just gets better and better.
5. Deitsch: Rece Davis (ESPN) Chris Fowler would be in my personal Top 5 but I’ll go Davis here because of 1.) How seamless he fit into College GameDay in the post-Fowler era; 2.) His professionalism no matter the sport he is assigned.
6. Ourand: Chris Fowler (ESPN) Take this guy off play-by-play already! Fowler essentially created the studio host role on the second best studio show on sports TV. His vision allowed Davis to slide into that role seamlessly. Davis is a good pick. But I’ll go with the guy who built it.
7. Ourand: Mike Tirico (NBC Sports) Likability? Check. Versatility? Check. Great pipes? Check. There’s a reason Tirico is the heir apparent to Jim McKay and Bob Costas.
8. Deitsch: Bob Costas (NBC Sports and MLB Network) It’s become easy for sports internet influencers like Traina to knock Costas over the years. Sure, he can occasionally come off as too smug in his commentary but focusing on that overlooks the larger takeaways from his career: He’s the best and most well-versed interviewer in the history of sports broadcasting, and he’s hosted the biggest events in sports television, from the Olympics to the Super Bowl to the World Series to the Kentucky Derby. And he’s done so while bringing intelligence and journalistic chops to the screen.
9. Traina: Charissa Thompson (Fox Sports) Typical Deitsch and Ourand going with the same old, same old (Costas? Barf!). My network will feature excellent hosts who also have personalities and know how to have fun. Enter Thompson, who is excellent on Fox's NFL pre-pregame show.
10. Traina: Cassidy Hubbarth (ESPN) Like I said, I prefer new blood over those who have been around forever (except in special cases). Hubbarth is a rising star at ESPN, and rightfully so thanks to her outstanding work on NBA coverage. Expect her to get more and more work hosting the network's NBA Countdown show.
11. Deitsch: Rich Eisen (NFL Network) I thought about going Dan Patrick here given both host quality radio shows but opted for Eisen given how impressed I’ve been with his work on the NFL Network, and particularly how high his standard is during the three days of live NFL Draft coverage.
12. Ourand: Dan Patrick (NBC Sports and DirecTV) I will happily pick up Patrick who proves his versatility on his free-wheeling radio show and his hosting chops on the pregame show for U.S. TV’s highest-rated primetime program.
13. Ourand: Adnan Virk (ESPN): I’m still upset that Traina scooped up my Maryland classmate, SVP, before I could, so I’m going to steal one of Deitsch’s choices. Virk knows how to connect with fans, as evidenced by the huge podcast numbers he produced for RD.
14. Deitsch: Trey Wingo (ESPN) I can’t believe Ourand stole Virk, my late-round gem, but I’m more than happy to take the host of NFL Live who will usher in ESPN’s NFL draft coverage in the post-Berman era. Wingo was also an excellent and ego-free women’s basketball host, knowing full well that his analysts, such as Kara Lawson, were the people viewers wanted to hear from.
15. Traina: Brent Musburger (Vegas Stats & Information Network) Yes, I've said my network will feature more new-school people than the old standbys, but we're making an exception here for an all-time great. Prior to Brent calling the No. 1 college football game for ESPN and long before ESPN disrespected him by dumping him on the SEC Network, Brent was known for his legendary work as host of CBS' The NFL Today. We'll still let Brent work on his new gambling venture, but we'd lure him out of retirement to work big events.
16. Traina: Kay Adams (NFL Network) Back to the new school here with another up-and-comer who has a lot of personality. The NFL Network's daily Good Morning Football show is the best morning show on sports television and Adams navigates the three hours, which also features Peter Schrager, Nate Burleson and Kyle Brandt, with the ease of a 20-year vet.
17. Deitsch: Suzy Kolber (ESPN) Kolber, in my opinion, is perennially underrated as a host because when it comes to ESPN's NFL studio work, so much of the attention has centered around Chris Berman and that crew. But week after week, Kolber consistently offers salient points while setting up those around her. She has also had to work with some analysts on Monday Night Countdown who offered absolutely nothing insightful.
18. Ourand: Michelle Beadle (ESPN) Have you seen the job she’s done on ESPN’s NBA pregame show? She’s been really good. She has an Ernie Johnson-like sense of when to let conversation flow and when to jump in.
19. Ourand: Matt Vasgersian (MLB Network) Smart and funny. I interviewed Vasgersian while doing an XFL story a couple of years ago, and he made me belly laugh. Anyone who can share a booth with Jesse the Body can work on my network.
20. Deitsch: Rachel Nichols (ESPN) You think of her as a reporter—and understandably so—but she’s developed into an excellent host on The Jump, which is a thinking person’s basketball show.
21 & 22. Traina: Jay Onrait and Dan O'Toole (FS1): Jay and Dan may very well be the two funniest people on sports television. Unfortunately for them, after experiencing massive popularity in Canada, the duo is currently in the witness protection program—FS1 late night. It's time to get them away from a network filled with awful debate shows and onto a place where they can shine.
23. Deitsch: Mike Hill (FS1): There are a lot of people I considered for this spot, including James Brown, Scott Hanson, Hannah Storm, Stan Verrett and Matt Winer, but I’m going with Hill, who has basically been rendered invisible by FS1 management. Last September, as some will remember, Hill and his colleague Bruce Feldman had to fill around 90 minutes when the Ohio State-Oklahoma game was delayed on Saturday night. You saw all of Hill’s hosting abilities on display that night. The fact that FS1 management has still not provided this guy a forum while it's spending millions marketing LeBron James haters is depressing as hell.
24. Ourand: James Brown (CBS) A legend. I can’t believe he’s still on the board.
25. Ourand: Karl Ravech (ESPN): Ravech has hosted MLB’s best studio show since the mid-1990s and his act doesn’t seem old or tired. A pro’s pro.
26. Deitsch: Bob Ley (ESPN) Sure, you think of Ley as the conscience of ESPN, but let’s not forget his work hosting the World Cup for ESPN. Few people in the business could seamlessly host the Olympics. He’s one of them.
27. Traina: Andrew Siciliano (DirecTV) Is there anybody better at doing highlights these days than the host of the NFL's Red Zone channel? On top of his skill set, Siciliano has become a cult hero to the legions of NFL fans who rely on him to bring them the highlights that matter in real time.
28. Traina: Chris Russo (MLB Network) Since we want our hosts to be about personality, who better than the host of the MLB Channel's daily High Heat show? Russo can often be over the top, but unlike debate show hosts, Russo's act is genuine. Sure, he can't pronounce half the names correctly, and his arms flail about wildly, and he completely butchers the English language, but that's why we love him. He's a nut (and we offer that as a compliment), which means one thing—entertainment. Don't believe me? Just watch this.
29. Deitsch: Matt Winer (NBA TV and Turner Sports) To amplify the premise of the column, think of how many quality studio hosts remain on the board: Kate Abdo, David Amber, Tim Brando, John Buccigross, James Duthie, Scott Hanson, Chris McKendry, Curt Menefee, Liam McHugh, Chris Myers, Kevin Negandhi, Dari Nowkhah, Dave Revsine, Sage Steele, Rob Stone, Joe Tessitore, and Verrett just to name a few. (It makes Traina’s pick above preposterous, but he’s long past help.) I was going to choose Ron MacLean here—the terrific host of Hockey Night in Canada—but opted instead for Winer, who always does quality on-air work. He’s particularly good at the NBA Finals, setting up his analysts so viewers have a better alternative to ESPN’s post-game Finals coverage.
30. Ourand: Johnny Holliday (MASN): There are still so many top quality hosts out there from which to choose— Menefee, Sam Ponder, Maria Taylor, Dan Hellie. But it’s my network, and I’m going with a personal favorite in the longtime voice of the Maryland Terrapins who also hosts pre- and post-game shows for the Washington Nationals. Anyone who can share the same stage with Ray Knight is someone I want on my team.
The Noise Report
(SI.com examines some of the week’s most notable sports media stories)
1. On Saturday night, longtime Dallas Stars radio and television play by play voice Dave Strader returned to the booth after missing the first 59 games of the 2016-17 season while battling through different forms of treatment for his bile duct cancer. He was away from hockey for 283 days. In a very cool scene, Dallas players on the ice honored Strader after the game by raising their sticks toward the booth.
I emailed Strader on Sunday to get a sense of what the night was like for him. “It's hard to put last night into words but as I've already tweeted, it felt for four hours like I wasn't sick,” Strader said. “It also seemed like the last nine months didn't really happen...that I was never sick. The crowd ovation in the first period was magical and the stick salute at the end by the players was totally unexpected. But I also know the reality is that I still have a long fight ahead of me. I have another treatment scheduled in early March and a procedure at Mass General in late March. And I'm waiting to hear from Sloan-Kettering in NYC about genetic testing on my tumor that may lead to an immunotherapy drug—that's where the most hope lies for me at this point.”
I asked Strader if he wanted to pass along anything to those who have heard him outside of Dallas.
“For anyone beyond Dallas fans, I can say that Craig Sager and Stuart Scott and Jim Valvano have been tremendous inspirations for me,” he said. “I carry quotes from each of them on my phone. If I can be an inspiration to even one person battling cancer, especially a rare one like bile duct cancer, this will all have been worth it.”
Strader is scheduled to call NBC's NHL Game of the Week next Sunday (Bruins at Stars) at 12:30 p.m. ET on NBC.
1a. FS1 producer Rick Thomas shepherded a really thoughtful piece on the all the losses the Butler basketball program has endured over the past three years.
2. Turner Sports said its coverage of All-Star Saturday Night drew 5,627,000 viewers, up 1% over 2016. The broadcast on TNT peaked with 6.8 million viewers from 9:45-10 p.m. ET.
2a. The Warriors’ win over the Thunder on Feb. 11 drew 6,036,000 viewers on ABC, the most-watched and highest-rated, non-Christmas NBA regular-season game on any network in four years (since Feb. 10, 2013 for the Lakers-Heat on ABC).
2b. UConn’s milestone 100th-consecutive victory (over South Carolina) last Monday drew an 0.9 overnight rating, the highest-rated women’s college basketball regular season game since 2010. The game drew 69,000 unique viewers with a total of 1,700,000 minutes watched, the most streamed women’s college basketball regular-season game to date televised by ESPN.
2bc Showtime announced that it will do a documentary on the 1976 Indiana University basketball team that finished 32–0. The doc, Perfect in ’76, will be produced by Ross Greenburg and narrated by John Mellencamp. Showtime said the film will premiere on Friday, March 10 at 9 p.m. ET/PT.
3. Episode 104 of the Sports Illustrated Media Podcast features ESPN NBA Insider and senior writer Ramona Shelburne. You can find her work on multiple ESPN platforms.
In this podcast, Shelburne discusses how she approaches long-form sports reporting for ESPN; what her writing process is; her professional relationship with Ronda Rousey and her profile work on the MMA fighter; how she navigates being critical of athletes and longform reporting on subjects; her reporting on Lamar Odom’s spiral, including traveling in the middle of the night to interview workers at a Nevada brothel; being recruited to work at The Vertical but opting to stay at ESPN; playing softball at Stanford with now-ESPN colleague Jessica Mendoza; the future of the Lakers; and the transition from writing to appearing on television and how insecurity can weigh on being judged by appearance; and more.
You can subscribe to the podcast on iTunes, Google Play and Stitcher.
3a. Episode 105 of the Sports Illustrated Media Podcast, which debuts on Monday, will feature Conrad Thompson, the host of Something to Wrestle (with Bruce Prichard) and What Happened When (with Tony Schiavone), two of the most popular podcasts in the sports and recreation space.
In this podcast, Thompson discusses how a mortgage company owner (Thompson) in Huntsville, Alabama ended up hosting two of the most popular wrestling podcasts; how he came up with the concept of doing a long-form examination of a singular topic in pro wrestling; what his preparation is for each show; how each show is produced; how much he relies on the reporting of Dave Meltzer and what he thinks of Meltzer’s work; the reaction to the podcast from both WWE management and the wrestlers; his relationships with Ric Flair and Bruce Prichard; the future of potential live shows; whether it’s fair to compare the Schiavone show to the Prichard show; if one can make a living as a podcaster; the potential for Hulk Hogan to return to the WWE; why John Cena is likely the person he’d most want to do a series of podcasts with; whether Paul Heyman would ever host a podcast series; and much more.
You can subscribe to the podcast on iTunes, Google Play and Stitcher.
4. Sports pieces of note:
• For The Players' Tribune: My greatest loss, by Tommie Harris.
• Poignant piece by Michael Gehlken of the San Diego Union Tribune on why the longtime Chargers PR director will not move with the team.
• From SI’s Michael McCann and Jon Wertheim: Examining whether O.J. will get paroled.
• From ESPN the Magazine’s Tommy Tomlinson: Why Dale Earnhardt Jr. can’t quit racing.
• Highly recommend Peter King’s two-part podcast with Tom Brady, who doesn’t often sit down for long-form.
• Also, from The Players' Tribune: Former NHL goalie Corey Hirsch’s descent into darkness.
• The Oklahoman columnist Jenni Carlson on Russell Westbrook's biggest fan.
• Washington Post writer Kent Babb on how Gregg Popovich has waded into political and social commentary against Donald Trump.
• The Undefeated’s Jesse Washington examined the first Sports Illustrated cover for LeBron James (when he was 17) and how he was put on.
• The MMQB’s Tim Rohan embedded with an Uber driver in Houston prior to Super Bowl 51. Great idea.
• Very cool interactive here from Bret McCormick of the Rock Hill Herald featuring how Winthrop men’s basketball play by play announcer Dave Friedman does his job.
• Via John Branch of The New York Times: The Ultimate Pursuit in Hunting: Sheep.
• Great reporting from Kansas City Star writers Vahe Gregorian and Maria Torres: Yordano Ventura’s final year was filled with family turmoil and emotional distress.
Non sports pieces of note:
• An amazing story from Mary Ormsby of the Toronto Star: How a frozen man came back to life.
• Straight out of The Americans from Shaun Walker of The Guardian: The KGB illegal from East Germany who lived a double life as an American for a decade.
• From New York Times Magazine: My Trip To The DMZ.
• From The Economist: Why so many artists do their most interesting work in their final years.
• The Ringer’s Lindsay Zoladz on why Amy Heckerling, the woman behind Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Look Who’s Talking, and Clueless, has had such trouble getting another movie made.
• An examination by writer Dale Beran on some of Donald Trump’s youth base.
• Via Buzzfeed’s Helen Peterson: Neo-Nazis Came for This Small Town. Can You Keep Them From Coming for Yours?
• From The Wall Street Journal: The Rise and Fall of a K-Street Renegade.
• From Buzzfeed’s Ali Watkins: The Strange Case of the Russian Diplomat Who Got His Head Smashed In On Election Day.
• Poignant writing from Courtney Harris-Bond on depression.
5. ESPN re-signed play-by-play commentator Mark Jones to a multi-year agreement. Jones has been with ESPN for 27 years and is the voice of the NBA Sunday Showcase series on ABC as well as additional NBA games, NBA’s Summer League, college football and men’s college basketball.
5b. HBO Real Sports correspondent Andrea Kremer has an extended interview with Robert Kraft airing on Tuesday at 10PM ET/PT.
5c. The Washington Post’s Rick Maese reported that Donald Trump has opted not to fill out a bracket this year for ESPN.
5d. Fox announced it has hired Nick Swisher as an MLB studio analyst for the 2017 season. He’ll appear on FS1’s MLB Whiparound in April and regularly as a studio analyst during Fox’s pregame coverage on Saturdays during the regular season. In a statement more amusing than the usual canned quotes from sports TV executives that appear in press releases, Fox Sports president of production and executive producer John Entz said, “Swish was impressive as an analyst for us during the 2014 World Series and we knew we wanted to engage with him once he made the decision to retire. His positivity and clear love for the game comes through on screen and we love that about him. We also just found out that he likes to go shark diving which is always a plus.”
5e. Craig Sager and Harvey Araton were honored this week by the Basketball Hall of Fame.