SBJ/20091123/Top 25 Football Broadcasters

Game changers

Back in 1980, for one NFL game, television took away football’s voice.

When the Jets and the Dolphins took the field in Miami for a meaningless late-season game, NBC let the pictures do the talking, with help from the on-field audio and some on-screen graphics. No play-by-play announcer getting names wrong, no analyst obsessing over the obvious. No bias, no banal banter, no nothing.

Fans yawned, and nearly 30 years later the “silent game” is a quiet blip in the history of televised football.

We football fans may like to criticize announcers, but we prefer listening to them to doing all the work ourselves. We also prefer listening to some of them more than others. But who’s the best, and what makes the best really the best?

Danielson (left, No. 1) and Lundquist (No. 8)
provide a unique view of SEC games.

With that in mind, 12 staff members and dedicated football watchers at SportsBusiness Journal, sister publication SportsBusiness Daily and fellow American City Business Journals publication Sporting News sat down to identify the top announcers and what they bring to the booth.

One point our group of reporters and editors struggled with: When a game is over, should you remember the announcers?

Some people want broadcasters to be like good officials, who may as well be invisible. Others want them to complement the game-viewing experience, as long as they don’t overwhelm the action.

The one thing we all agreed on is that this is not an objective process. Maybe there’s a complicated statistical process we could have used, but there’s already one BCS ranking; we don’t need another one. Plus, that’s not how most people decide their favorite announcers. It’s not how we do it, either.

Here are qualities we considered:

ACCURACY

Everybody makes mistakes, but for all our other demands of announcers, this was the baseline for professionalism.

GROUND RULES
We considered individuals rather than announcing teams. Announcers are not monogamous; for every Michaels-Madden pairing that lasts for years, many others are put together and pulled apart in a season or two.
We considered both pro and college announcers, but only if they were still working. That sent two fellows who were long thought to be tops in college and the NFL — Keith Jackson and (bam!) John Madden — rumblin’, bumblin’, stumblin’ out of the running.
We considered play-by-play announcers and analysts but left studio hosts and sideline reporters for another day. Those who fall into multiple categories (ESPN’s Chris Fowler, for example) were judged on their work in the booth.
We threw everybody into one big list. It’s all for fun, and this seemed like it would be the most fun to do.

Said SBJ/SBD’s John Ourand: “The only thing that really disqualified people universally are analysts and play-by-play guys who make mistakes. That was the one thing that nobody had any tolerance for.”

Names, teams, positions, down and distance, game clock: These are the meat and potatoes of sports announcing, and we get angry when we miss a meal.

The accuracy test applies to both positions in the booth, but the brunt falls on the play-by-play announcer, who communicates to the audience what is going on as it happens.

“As much as I would like a play-by-play guy who’s distinctive, and that’s my preference, get it right,” said SBJ’s Bill King.

“Al Michaels gets it right. Jim Nantz gets it right.”

SIDE DISCUSSION: What about the “Big Gaffe,” an error made at a crucial point in a big game or a comment that creates a public uproar? It came up in our discussions, including Joe Buck’s take on Randy Moss’ “mooning” of Green Bay fans in 2005 and Ron Franklin calling sideline reporter Holly Rowe “sweetheart” the same year, but these generally didn’t detract from opinions about those announcers.

A more recent one by Mike Patrick, whose out-of-left-field reference to Britney Spears late in a dramatic game in 2007 blindsided nearly everyone watching, still bothers some of us. (Both Bob Griese and Gus Johnson made remarks in recent weeks for which they apologized, but those happened after we had completed our list.)

The take-away: Consistent small errors are a deal-killer. The big one can be forgiven, but you have to give us some time.

BIAS

Fans regularly accuse announcers of bias, especially in the college game, but none of us felt strongly that anybody on our list played favorites to the detriment of the broadcast. In some cases, it’s the opposite. SBD’s Rick Ellington said of former Ohio State quarterback Kirk Herbstreit: “I actually think he goes too far the other way to prove that he’s not.”

VOICE

Collinsworth (right, No. 2) has quickly
settled in next to Michaels (No. 3) on
Sunday nights.

This is the quality over which an announcer has the least control, but it’s no less important, and it’s something that all the other good attributes in the world can’t overcome. Even if Barney Frank or Elmo from “Sesame Street” could explain all the nuances of the spread offense in a three-hour game, the crisis hotlines would be maxed out before the second half kicked off.

Our discussions came down to the crooners — Nantz, Mike Tirico and others with a super-smooth delivery — versus those with a stronger or rougher quality to their voices. The consensus was that too smooth a tone wasn’t necessarily a good thing in calling a violent contact sport.

Said SBD’s Paul Sanford of Nantz: “I’m just so used to seeing him on golf. Subdued, calm, the whole golf atmosphere. … Sometimes you want just a little edge.”

SIDE DISCUSSION: There was also an argument along the lines of “You know it’s a big game when you hear his voice,” often used in association with Brent Musburger and Michaels, but that had less to do with tone and timbre than longevity and the sheer number of big games that some on the list have worked.

PREPARATION

The announcers who know the most about their teams and have the most related subjects and statistics to talk about will succeed even when the drama on the field fades.

“That 3-0 Oregon State-Pittsburgh Sun Bowl last year, I sat through it simply because of Verne [Lundquist] and Gary [Danielson]. ’Cause I knew I was going to have a good time watching it,” Ellington said. “The football wasn’t good. The broadcast was.”

On the flip side, there are times to throw the script away. Football is not the Rose Parade, where you always know what’s coming up the street next. Stars get hurt, unknowns rise up and the game on the field doesn’t always look like the one that the broadcasters may have prepared for, so we took note of guys who can think on the fly. Cris Collinsworth, Phil Simms and Ron Jaworski were among those mentioned for their ability to analyze the game as it happens, not the one they may have anticipated.

INSIGHT AND COMMUNICATION

This may as well be called the John Madden category. Madden was an expert at packaging his football knowledge in a way that everyone from armchair experts to casual fans could appreciate.

There isn’t a true heir to the throne, but Danielson’s name came up often as someone who provides insightful, approachable analysis, quickly picking up changes in strategy and execution before they ever start to affect the game. Collinsworth and Troy Aikman also were mentioned a lot.

Fox’s Buck (left, No. 9), Aikman (No. 6)
Your call
Here’s a peek at the broadcaster section of our annual SBJ/SBD Reader Survey, which will appear in next week’s issue. Only football broadcasters are included here, and only those who got more than 1 percent of the total vote are listed.
Who is your favorite TV play-by-play personality?
  Response %
Al Michaels 11.82%
Jim Nantz 11.82%
Joe Buck 9.61%
Mike Tirico 6.70%
Brent Musburger 4.14%
Dick Enberg 3.44%
Verne Lundquist 2.73%
Sean McDonough 2.03%
Bob Papa 1.41%
Brad Nessler 1.23%
Mike Patrick 1.23%
Greg Gumbel 1.06%
Responses: 1,134
Who is your favorite TV game broadcast analyst?
  Response %
Kirk Herbstreit 13.15%
Cris Collinsworth 9.91%
Troy Aikman 7.84%
Phil Simms 5.68%
Jon Gruden 5.50%
Ron Jaworski 4.14%
Gary Danielson 1.17%
Todd Blackledge 1.08%
Responses: 1,110

Our group is always ready for broadcasters to delve into the intricacies of the game. “Don’t give me Football 101,” Sanford said. “Treat the viewers like they’re intelligent.”

But we also have moms, wives and kids who like to watch games and don’t need to be overwhelmed by, as Ellington calls it, the “Sam comes up through the A gap” jargon that can clutter up a broadcast.

OUTSPOKENNESS

We liked analysts who are willing to call players out within the context of the game. Collinsworth was one who got high marks. “He’s not afraid to criticize at all. He doesn’t back down one iota, so I like that about him,” said SportingNews.com’s Marcus DiNitto. Aikman also got points for being critical but fair (his relatively low-key manner helps), as did Daryl Johnston.

There’s a limit, though. “You don’t want the guy to be super-negative, either,” Sanford said.

We were divided on how outspoken play-by-play announcers should be. Some threw their support behind Michaels, Sean McDonough and others who are willing to sprinkle their opinions in with their play-by-play calls, while others wanted to let the analysts handle the opinions.

“Nantz … sets somebody like Phil Simms up for that comment instead of taking that comment and making it himself,” Ourand said. “I think that there is a different line about calling people out between the play-by-play announcer and the analyst.”

PERSONALITY

Broadcasting goes beyond words and delivery and extends to the connection that an announcer makes with a viewer. Do you like this person?

Of all the areas we looked at, this was the most subjective. Some want an announcer to stick to business; some want him to have a sense of humor, “guys who also know that this isn’t life or death,” Ellington said. Some want an announcer to show more energy; some want him to calm down.

And thus were born the arguments over some of the more polarizing figures on our list. Is Musburger an endearing throwback or is it too much of a schtick? Does Buck project confidence or arrogance? Is Johnson enthusiastic or out of control? You get the picture.

Our general conclusion: It’s good to be distinctive — but not too distinctive.

SIDE DISCUSSION: As we talked about the personalities, we found ourselves talking about their catchphrases and how most of the familiar ones belonged to the more veteran announcers on the list. Catchphrases are on the way out? As Dick Enberg might say, “Oh, my!”

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