|ESPN's Chris Berman is praised for his ability to connect with fans off the field and athletes and coaches on the field.
“I hear you’re working on a piece about Boom,” he said, referencing Berman’s nickname, “Boomer.” “Make sure you call me. I want to be part of that.”
Former ESPN Executive Editor John Walsh, who was at the same June event at the Newseum in Washington, D.C., emphatically delivered an identical message. “I really want to help with your story. Call me.”
Berman’s new role will see him:
Appear weekly on “Monday Night Countdown” with taped interviews and historical segments.
■ Host “NFL PrimeTime” after the Super Bowl and after the conference championship games.
■ Do play-by-play for ESPN Radio on MLB League Division Series games.
■ Participate in the ESPYs.
Last week, as Berman announced his departure as ESPN’s main NFL studio host — the face of ESPN’s NFL coverage — after 31 years, the number of bold-faced names standing in line to pay tribute to Berman was long and stood in contrast to the media criticism levied against him over the years. The New York Times has described his act as “clownish.” Sports Illustrated called it “a Vegas vaudeville act that just won’t end.”
But many of the executives who have made the biggest programming decisions in sports television over the past decades were effusive in their praise of Berman and said those media critics did not understand Berman’s unique appeal, especially his uncanny ability to connect with sports fans off the field and the athletes and coaches on the field.
“When you have the bully pulpit, which Chris has had for more than 35 years, it’s natural for people to take shots,” Bornstein said. “When you talk to people in the world of sports, you don’t hear any of that. You talk to coaches and players — you don’t hear anybody taking shots at Chris Berman. They love him.”
Though he stays off social media (he doesn’t even have an email account), Berman has heard the criticism, of course. He’s too loud. He talks too fast. He’s stuck in the 1980s, and has not developed or grown since he first started becoming popular in the 1980s. But Berman says he tries to remember to have fun on the set and hope that fun gets conveyed to the viewers.
“I’m not worried about criticisms. Opinions are great,” he said. “As soon as you open up your mouth, you’re an idiot to some of them. You can’t change that, right? If that changes how I do my job, then it’s time to leave. Fair criticism is good. When you’re on live for all this time, not every sentence is going to be a Rembrandt painting. It’s just not going to be. Go with some finger painting here. It’s OK. It’s football. Relax. Aren’t you having a good time? Jeez.”
Bornstein was one of ESPN’s top executives in the 1980s when Berman first started hosting the network’s NFL studio shows. Bornstein pointed to Berman’s hardworking attitude — he volunteered for as many on-air jobs as he could in the early days — as much as his oversized personality as to why they gave such a big position to such a young talent in his late 20s.
“He certainly wasn’t the only personality at ESPN — I was also there with Keith Olbermann and Dan Patrick,” Bornstein said. “But the NFL was clearly the most important programming relationship we had at ESPN then. It was a conscious effort to put Chris Berman — our No. 1 star — on that most important relationship.”
|Chris Berman on the set with Randy Moss and Trent Dilfer
“He made it into an artwork that lasted for a 30-minute show,” Walsh said. “He created something that didn’t exist before. When I got to ESPN, Chris Berman was the highlight god. He was the guy doing it better, and more inventively and more creatively than anybody had ever done it.”
The theme of Berman’s grit and intelligence is brought up by just about everyone who worked with him over the past three decades. Many reference the fact that he majored in history at Brown, showcasing his intellect. But most talked about his ability to connect with fans.
“He’s about the hardest working talent that I had the pleasure and honor to work with over my tenure,” said WME-IMG executive Mark Shapiro, who ran ESPN’s programming and production group in the early 2000s.
Shapiro relied on focus group research, and said that Berman’s personality broke through more than any other talent at ESPN in those days.
“Despite enormously talented people, there were very few that cut through — that were appointment viewing for sports fans — that they could name by face. I’m talking on one hand,” he said. “That was never the case with Chris Berman or Stuart Scott. Those two really jumped out, where everybody knew who they were. It was appointment viewing for many. And, of course, they were polarizing to some. But that’s good, sticky television.”
Berman recognizes that people react to him. He’s not sure why, but he says he appreciates it.
“I think people feel at ease with me,” he said. “Maybe that’s the biggest thing if you just talk about my career. People feel at ease with me. They feel like they’ve met me. They’ve let me in their house. And they feel like they could talk to this guy if he’s in the living room and not on that box. I don’t take that for granted.”
Bodenheimer became friends with Berman in the early days of the network when Bodenheimer worked the midnight-to-8 a.m. shift and Berman hosted late-night “SportsCenter.” He also highlighted Berman’s everyman persona as one of his best attributes.
“His appeal is based on the fact that he’s truly a sports fan, and it comes across on the air,” Bodenheimer said. “Chris Berman in unfailingly polite and attentive to sports fans. There’s no autograph that goes unsigned; no request for a photograph that goes untaken.”
Or, as Berman jokingly put it, “If you’re on for 37 years and nobody asks for your picture, you must stink.”
Goodell said he valued Berman’s frank opinions on the game, adding that he will remember the times he shared with Berman at the Pro Bowl in Hawaii.
“He’s been incredibly successful in his career and a great partner at ESPN because he embodies the true passion of football fans,” Goodell said. “When you marry that pure love of the game with his broadcast skills and natural wit, you get magic. That is what I think fans appreciate about him. For me, it’s been his willingness to always share his insights into the game and, as a friend, give me a frank perspective on things. He has contributed so much to this sport, well beyond what he has achieved as a broadcaster.”
Bob Ley, who broke in with Berman in the early days of ESPN, said Berman’s personality — complete with the nicknames — is what endeared viewers to him.
“When they write the cultural history of the 20th century of the United States of America, there’s going to be a chapter in there about sports, and ESPN is going to be right at the top of it,” he said. “Chris is a huge reason why.”
Before he landed at ESPN in 1979 Berman was a radio disc jockey for a light rock station in Rhode Island. The last song he played before leaving the station to go to ESPN was The Eagles’ “Take It To The Limit.”
“I have played that song a lot lately,” Berman reflected earlier this summer. “Glenn Frey, who died last January, was my friend. That song has been on my mind all year. Now I realize it’s apropos to my career. I played it at the end of my first year in the business. I’m going to try to do it — take it to the limit one more time.”