Here's a look into how a sports broadcast team develops—and sustains—its chemistry and connection on the air.
Sometimes when announcer Kenny Albert prepares for an upcoming NFL assignment by watching a team’s last game, he hears his friend. Albert called 10 years of football with Daryl “Moose” Johnston before FOX reshuffled its broadcast teams in 2017. Still, Albert finds himself transported through time and space watching Johnston’s games, anticipating what Moose will say next.
For two years Stan Verrett developed a routine at ESPN’s L.A. facility. He’d get himself a Blood Orange San Pellegrino—his favorite—and a Limonata San Pellegrino, Neil Everett’s top choice. The tradition only ended when Everett gave up sugar.
Every day Mike Krukow talks with fellow Giants broadcaster Duane Kuiper. On Wednesday, Krukow called around eight to see how Kuiper’s morning show went. Kuiper called later to discuss their plans for Frank Robinson’s upcoming funeral. Krukow’s last call came from Home Depot, where he wanted to know exactly how waterproof duct tape was.
How else would you describe those moments—those habits, that connection—but with the most vacuous word in sports metacommentary: chemistry. Have you ever stopped to wonder what that word means? Or, what it might have meant before it was debased into utter blather? From the frequency it’s used, you might think sports television chemistry means that yes, multiple people are occupying the same place performing related tasks.
Yet despite the term lacking definition, ‘creative force’ Erik Rydholm says it’s essential. “It's the most special element of a show,” said the executive producer for media power couples from PTI’s Tony Kornheiser and Michael Wilbon to Desus and Mero.
Chemistry makes a broadcast feel familiar and fun. In a time dominated by posturing stars and corporatized shtick, chemistry urges talent to tell it how they see it. They call out each other’s B.S. They become real.
“It’s the human element,” Rydholm suggests, putting it better. “I believe that people watch people—viewers crave relationships with the people on the screen. The more electric the characters and chemistry, the surer the connection with viewers.”
Ok. Ok. But what is it?
Don’t expect the dictionary to hold answers. Lacking established formulas, this chemistry clearly isn’t connected to lab science. Instead, consider the root word: alchemy, or unknown sorcery. Magic. Beautifully, alchemy’s etymology is itself a mystery, leading back to hebrew words like kim Yah, “divine science.” MindBlownExplosion.gif
“Sometimes… there’s a chemistry there that you can’t force,” Verrett said. “It’s just like, Why do two people fall in love?”
Those blessed to experience chemistry offer clues though. Actually their stories suggest chemistry is downright simple. Knowledge and care—that’s it. That’s it.
Nobody has more experience creating chemistry than Albert. Over three decades broadcasting all four major sports, he’s has partnered with over—well honestly he’s lost count. “My guess is in the 250 range,” Albert said.
He’s almost certainly the only person to work with Patrick Ewing, Joe Namath, Paul Molitor and Jeremy Roenick on different occasions. So he knew exactly how to handle teaming up with Ronde Barber in 2017. “I tend to over prepare for the games,” Albert said. “I probably do the same the first time I work with an analyst.”
Two years in, he knows Barber is the only player with 40 career interceptions and 25 sacks, that his last pick came against Matt Ryan, that another INT practically shut down Veterans Stadium for good. Those nuggets help Albert tee up his analyst, and he listens to the stories that follow, slowly learning how to spark the best dialogue.
“When you have enough conversations with somebody,” Krukow said, “you know how which buttons to press and how to press them.” He would know, having talked baseball with Kuiper since they were Giants teammates in the 1980s. Krukow’s least favorite commentating style “sounds like an interview.” To avoid that, partners ask questions the right away, subtly provoking each other. “That’s chemistry,” he said, “knowing your partner and what he’s all about.”
Verrett knows which button not to push, too, learning quickly after Everett snapped at him for correcting his co-host’s pronunciation of Tulane on air. “I really shouldn’t have done that,” Verrett says now. “Luckily he doesn’t do a lot that needs correcting.”
Just knowing someone well doesn’t breed chemistry by itself, of course. Or maybe you haven’t seen Hamilton yet. Caring is critical, too.
“Interpersonal chemistry isn't rare,” Rydholm said, “but lasting chemistry is. There's a step-change between enjoying each other's company on well-chosen occasions, the equivalent of dating, and showing up for each other every day—more like marriage.”
Stan and Neil, as they refer to themselves, both got to ESPN in 2000 and occasionally found themselves paired together on ESPNEWS. The result was practically alchemical. Even Chris Berman believed so. He left a voicemail for Stan once saying he hadn’t watched a full Sportscenter in a long time. You guys came on and I watched start to finish. You remind me of the old days: two guys having fun talking about sports. Stan rushed to find Neil, who had just gotten the same message. “I’m saving that forever,” Neil said. But they still weren’t quite the duo they’d become.
In 2009, the pair was sent to Los Angeles to launch a new studio and a daily late-night edition of the franchise. After rehearsals one night, they went to Japanese fusion chain Roy’s. Have you ever had Longboard Lager? Neil asked, having appreciated the beer while working in Hawaii for 15 years early in his career. “I’d never had it, so we each got a Longboard Lager,” Stan said. “Four hours later, the bartender tells us they’re out of Longboard. We’re going to have to switch to something else. That night, the show was born.”
Neil and Stan have developed a litany of rituals since, beyond the San Pellegrinos. They play “anchor chicken” at the end of shows, remaining silent with the camera on them until one can’t handle the awkwardness anymore. “I always lose,” Stan says. They’ve got a set of banned cliches—gridiron, big dance, etc. Say one on TV and you’re buying dinner. Neil refuses to use Twitter, so Stan has become his conduit to viral tweets and notes of appreciation. They’ve both grown used to laughing it off whenever fans confuse their names.
That all makes work fun, Stan said, but underneath, the partnership works thanks to mutual commitment. “That’s one of the big things about this,” he said. “One of us will not be feeling the greatest and we’ll still come to work. The other one will say, ‘Dude, you should have called in sick, you sound terrible.’” The response is always the same: Hey, I wouldn’t do that to you. “So there’s a real commitment there to each other, and it is real,” Stan said. “When you know you can depend on another person, when you know you can rely on that person, when that person is always going to have your best interest at heart, it builds trust and it helps the overall product because there has to be teamwork involved.”
Approaching two decades together, it will still be hard for the pair to match Kruk and Kuip for demonstrated commitment. In 2011, Krukow was diagnosed with inclusion-body myositis, a non-life-threatening disease that causes muscle atrophy. “[Kuiper] watches out for me,” Krukow said. He carries his partners bags off planes, makes sure any path is clear of unforeseen obstacles, and calls ahead to every restaurant requesting an armed chair so that Krukow is able to push himself into a standing position.
Evidently, it’s all nothing to Kuiper. “The only that that has really changed,” Kuiper said, “is he’s doing fewer games, which clearly doesn’t make me happy but those are choices he has to make. The fact he’s doing 110 games, to me, is a bonus. I’ll get to be with him 110 times.”
Each time out, Kuiper marvels at the work Krukow does to get to the park and then get up to the booth with limited strength. “He never complains,” Kuiper said. “We both realize how lucky we are.” Lucky to watch baseball for a living, and lucky to do it with each other.
“Look,” Kuiper said, ready to share the secret recipe, “the only real difference between us was that Mike was a pitcher and I was not.”
But Verrett has come to the opposite conclusion about his partnership. “We have completely different interests,” he says. “Neil is a dog person and I’ve never had a dog in my life. He’s classic rock and I’m R&B…. That’s what makes it work.
Then there’s Albert, who has made situations work with more partners than there are member states of the United Nations. “I can probably count on one hand—maybe one finger—the analysts I did not enjoy working with,” he said.
So clearly chemistry can’t be an issue of casting, at least not solely. It’s about the process. And once chemistry is created, it only builds on itself. “Either one of us can now go to the other one with constructive criticism, knowing it’s coming from a good place,” Verrett added.
In that spirit of trust, let me admit that I oversimplified earlier. Chemistry has one more element that can’t be overlooked.
“It takes time,” Krukow says. “Like any relationship you have in your life—wife, child, friend—you have to work at it. You have to find new ways to fall in love.”