Group Created with Sketch.
Volume 21 No. 13
  • Created with Sketch.
  • Created with Sketch.
  • Created with Sketch.

Enberg a giant on air, but shied from sports marketing

T

he grace, professionalism and authenticity with which Dick Enberg performed over 40-plus years broadcasting Super Bowls, NCAA basketball championships, NBA Finals, World Series, Wimbledon Championships and Olympics for NBC, CBS, ESPN and others has been well-documented elsewhere. Frankly, since we work at the intersection of commerce and sports, what we found most compelling was how commercially underexposed Enberg was, relative to his not inconsiderable fame.

You don’t have to look hard to find dozens of Enberg appearances in films or TV shows. He portrayed either himself or a generic sportscaster in a variety of cheesy movies, including the 1976 Super Bowl-assassination drama “Two-Minute Warning” (“91,000 people, 33 exit gates, one sniper!”), an absolute box-office dud; “Rollerball”; and the Leslie Nielsen vehicle “Naked Gun.”

Many fans recall Enberg’s “Sports Challenge” quiz show. Forgotten are his other game shows: “Baffle” and “Three for the Money.” Enberg’s dramatic TV credits included stints on “CSI,” the made-for-TV movie “Murder at the World Series” and more recently “Pitch.”

Enberg also lent his familiar voice to two cartoons: “Where’s Huddles?” in 1970 and two “Robbie The Reindeer” shorts.

Said one former representative, “He had no interest at all in TV commercials.”
GETTY IMAGES
Few, if any, of these efforts won critical acclaim. But as someone whose reputation grew and blossomed with the UCLA basketball dynasty of the 1960s and ’70s, he was a name Hollywood knew.

We’re admittedly jaundiced by working in an age where commercial exploitation of sports figures is a given. Still, given his fame and apparent availability to producers, we were surprised to find no national Enberg campaigns for Coke or Pepsi, Bud or Miller. No “Oh My — What a Sale!” pitch for Chevy’s latest models.

Surely, one assumes Enberg did some local endorsements on behalf of top sponsors for teams he was most associated with, like UCLA, the San Diego Padres and California Angels. But nationally, we could find only one Enberg campaign — over 12 years in the 1980s and ’90s when he was the face and voice of the GTE-sponsored Academic All-America program, for which he did ads and hosted an annual hall of fame gala. It was an endorsement perfectly suited to Enberg, who taught at Cal State Northridge after earning both a master’s degree and a doctorate at Indiana University.

Said NBC Sports Group Programing President Jon Miller: “Dick was kind of academic at heart, just really smart and always inquisitive.”

“He was a professor — forever preparing and forever taking notes,” said Dennis Coleman, a Ropes & Gray attorney who represented Enberg for more than a decade. “He never appeared in a TV commercial while we were together,” added Coleman, recalling one occasion when he had to tell a restaurant chain to stop using Enberg’s “Oh My” catchphrase in ads. “He had no interest at all in TV commercials.”

The exception was the Academic All-American program.

“One of the reasons GTE liked [Enberg] for that role was that he wasn’t overexposed at all,” said Jim Millman, founder of Millsport, who signed Enberg to the deal for GTE. “Dick’s passion for academics meant he talked about it on air a lot.”

Millsport was impressed enough with Enberg that the sportscaster served on the agency’s board of advisors for some years. Agency partner Bob Basche recalled bringing Enberg along as a surprise guest on at least one client pitch. “We didn’t win the business,” Basche said with a laugh. “As a professor, he just loved the educational element of college sports.”

Added former Millsport Managing Director John Von Stade, “Dick was painfully aware of where college athletics was heading, from a commercialization standpoint. But he had this vision of what college athletics should be, which was shared by the people that the program was honoring.”

At a time when we’ve come to expect anyone with a modicum of talent and renown to grab for the green, that made Enberg a model, one we probably won’t see again. “Dick was always prepared, always meticulous, always a gentleman, and that made us all better people,” said former NBC Sports Executive Producer Mike Weisman, who received on-air wedding greetings from Enberg and Merlin Olsen after they had worked an NFL game that day in December 1978. “Back then, there were only three networks. It wasn’t easy to get there as talent, and so he never took it for granted.”

Terry Lefton can be reached at tlefton@sportsbusinessjournal.com.