by John Furgele (Your 228)
ESPN announced last week that Chris Berman will no longer be their main NFL guy. Berman (along with Bob Ley) is an ESPN original; he has been with the network since its inception in 1979. In summation, Berman—love him or hate him—will be missed.
Berman was quick to point out that he is not retiring; he will still work for ESPN and will not be riding off into the sunset. Berman’s longevity represents a lot when it comes to broadcasting. The more one stays in the business, the more polarizing they become. His supporters loved the shtick, the nicknames, the exasperated, running-out-of-breath end to sentences along with his natural enthusiasm. His detractors, which seemed to grow with each passing year, will point to his notice me style, his calling himself The Swami and his constant need to be noticed and validated.
When ESPN began, it needed to be different. Most thought there was no way that a 24-hour sports network could make it. What would they show? Where would they get their highlights from? How many sports could they show? In the 1970s, sports were confined to the weekends. If you liked baseball, you had the Saturday Game of the Week on NBC and Monday Night Baseball on ABC. If you were lucky to live near a major league team, there was a chance that a game might be shown on a Wednesday night, but other than that, you watched what you were given.
I grew up in the Buffalo/Niagara Falls area. In the 1970s, we had the above mentioned baseball games to watch. We also got see Montreal Expos games broadcasted on the CBC, and in 1977, the Toronto Blue Jays aired on CBC and then the CTV network. The NHLs Buffalo Sabres aired on Channel 2, the local NBC affiliate and back in the day, Channel 2 would show anywhere from 30 to 40 games. We also had the NBA Buffalo Braves that aired on Channel 4, the local CBS affiliate. The rest of the time, you had your radio and believe it or not, life was pretty good if you were a sports fan. On the weekends, you could catch college football, college basketball, bowling, skiing and even some hockey and ABCs Wide World of Sports was a must watch.
Cable TV began making noise in the mid-1970s, and by 1979, ESPN debuted. They didn’t have access or the rights to the “Big Four,” sports, so we got to see a lot of Canadian football, Australian Rules football and other bizarre events. College basketball is what put ESPN on the map with help from the then bespectacled Dick Vitale. ESPN helped grow college basketball to the point where filling out one’s bracket has become a staple in just about every office in America.
Berman was the charismatic one. His nicknames for baseball players were funny and legendary. Butch “Oil and Wynegar, Jerry “Rolls” Reuss, Steve “Alto” Sax and Jim “Two Silhouettes on” Deshaises pop into mind. My favorite remains Ernest “I can see for riles and” Riles. Critics pointed out that Berman was more clown and less “serious journalist,” so eventually, the nicknames faded away. For me, it was an example of taking sports too seriously, but part of sports being taken as such is because of ESPN. Now, you can’t just watch the game, you have to dissect it to the point of nausea.
Berman and Tom Jackson were Sunday night staples. They showed highlights of every single game and it was something that many fans looked forward to. It isn’t easy watching football from 1 pm to 7:30 pm each Sunday, but finding those 60 minutes to see Boomer and Jackson—from Louisville—was easy and a fun thing to do. In 2006, the NFL forbade ESPN to show highlights and for the last ten years, Berman—and ESPN—have become less relevant. The NFL Network has contributed to this as has Sunday Night Football on NBC. They have the rights and because of this, ESPN’s role—and Berman’s—has diminished. But, the highlight shows have not matched the quality that they were when ESPN carried them.
ESPN is struggling as more and more people continue to cut cable. ESPN receives about $7.25 of everybody’s cable or satellite bill, by far the most of any network. The second most expensive network gets about $1.65. If you love sports, ESPN is a bargain, but if you don’t it can help justify ditching cable for a cheaper alternative. Because of this, ESPN decided that it might be the right time to cut some expensive talent. In addition to reducing Berman’s role—and salary—they have seen Colin Cowherd and Skip Bayless leave for Fox and have cut tons of staff in recent months. The day is going to come where the right fees bubble will burst. ESPN pays $2 billion per year to show Monday Night Football; $2 billion! They pay Jon Gruden $6.5 million per year to broadcast one game per week, so there is no wonder why Gruden won’t take another coaching job is there? Armageddon is not yet here as ESPN recently extended the Monday Night Football deal through 2021 for $15.2 billion. But, when ESPN takes $10 or $11 from your bill, what will happen? The diehards will pay $144 per year for sports, but will the spouses? The non-sports fan? The young people living on their own for the first time? And, as more people cut cable, what will ESPN do to re-invent itself?
They are trying to improve streaming in the hopes that they can hook and more importantly retain young people, but you can’t watch Monday Night Football on your phone as ESPN won’t allow it. Even though they produce all the sports that air on ABC, they won’t put the major bowl games there as they try to force one’s hand into a cable subscription. The Rose Bowl, the 5 pm New Year’s Day staple that aired for decades on NBC and then ABC is now exclusively on ESPN, along with the College Football Playoff semifinals and championship game.
Berman will still be a presence going forward at ESPN. The one bad move announced is that Berman will call a MLB Division Series for ESPN Radio. Berman has lots of qualities, but play-by-play is not one of them. Once a staple on baseball, he really does nothing with the sport all year and then jet-sets in for the playoffs. And, saying he is terrible is being kind. Why ESPN allowed this to be in his next contract is beyond puzzling.
Berman is one of the last giants in broadcasting. The days of Howard Cosell are over, the bombastic “notice-me,” personalities are just about done. Today’s network voices are much more subdued with Jim Nantz (CBS), Joe Buck (Fox), Al Michaels and Bob Costas (NBC). Berman no longer fit the modern day profile and it was that and his age that is doing him in. Could Berman have promised to tone things down for a three-year contract? Perhaps, but it would not have been the same and we would have been sad to see a tamer Chris Berman. He has aged before our eyes, his hair thinner, his waistline bigger, but his on-air personality has remained; for some that’s good, others bad. For me, a good thing.
John Skipper heads ESPN and he has made it clear that it is his goal to cut costs and offer a great product. The network has taken on many political issues and some accuse it of leaning too much to the left. The sports fan hates this, he/she watches sports to escape real life, but the fact remains that there aren’t enough sports fans to drive huge ratings. When Skipper let Mike Tirico leave for NBC, his motives were clear. Replacing Berman was on Skipper’s agenda before he accepted the position.
There is no need to feel sad or bad for Berman. In an era of job switching, Berman lasted at one company for 38 years—and he is not done yet—and that is commendable.