The top 50 network TV announcers of all time
History will be made on Sunday when John Madden and Al Michaels call Super Bowl XLIII for NBC, as Madden will be completing a career cycle of sorts by working a Super Bowl for his fourth of the four major networks: CBS, Fox, ABC and NBC.
Madden has been slowing down some of late, taking a game off in 2008 with plans to do so again in 2009. NBC Sports chairman Dick Ebersol named Cris Collinsworth to be Madden’s successor-in-waiting, but so far Madden has refuted talk of retirement.
It’s hard to imagine pro football without Madden. His popularity and the NFL’s have been intertwined for 30 years, and any reference to the sport’s rise to dominance over that time has to credit the man who has sold the league with joy to generations of fans.
But where does Madden (and, for that matter, Michaels) place among the top sports broadcasters of all time? We attempted to answer that question by ranking the top 50 network broadcasters ever, based on several factors:
• Their contributions, trendsetting and pioneering.
• The measure, impact and length of their visibility.
• Their legacy and historical relevance.
• Their distinction in their on-air role.
• Whether they had national reach.
The broadcasters on our list are living and dead, come from eras past and present and have varying styles, but they all have one thing in common: They are as much a part of the way we experience sports as the events themselves.
Developing the rankings was an art, not a science, and it is meant more as a starting point than a finish line. But whether you prefer the bombast of Howard Cosell, the reserved dignity of Jim McKay or the warm sensitivity of Dick Enberg, it’s clear that televised sports have come a long way in the 62 years since the World Series first was aired on a network.
Boxing and baseball were the first sports to benefit from networks going national, and in the 1960s, networks began expanding their programming and beefing up on-air staffs. With the innovative and aggressive Roone Arledge in the boss’s chair at ABC Sports, the network created “Wide World of Sports” in 1961. It then capitalized on the burgeoning popularity of the NFL by launching “Monday Night Football” in 1970, which allowed Howard Cosell to trade barbs with his down-home sidekick Don Meredith, a breezy ex-Cowboys quarterback.
But it was the 1970s when sports exploded on TV. Because NBC had most of the top attractions, Curt Gowdy was the top play-by-play voice in America. At ABC, Cosell transformed sports television, using it as a forum to explore a variety of social and political issues. He developed a bond with Muhammad Ali, engaging the verbose young fighter in good-natured ribbing that made for compelling television.
Cosell defended Ali when conservative Americans were appalled by the fighter’s refusal to join the military as the Vietnam War raged. It was an issue that caused polarizing debates throughout the country. Regardless, the union of Cosell and Ali glistened, and the public responded.
In the 1980s, as Cosell’s welcome faded, Madden exploded onto the scene with CBS. Where Cosell was caustic, Madden was charming. Where Cosell’s tone was stern, Madden’s was jovial. He grabbed viewers’ attention with a football nomenclature not heard before by blending an infusion of coaches on the practice field, interacting tailgaters and bellowing fans. “Whap!” “Bang!” “Doink!” It was novel television.
But Madden, who won a Super Bowl as coach of the Oakland Raiders, also had the football credentials to connect with his audience. His popularity surged, and he would find a new market with the next generation as the namesake of a popular line of football video games.
While Madden was the right personality at the right time for a burgeoning league, TV talent can thank three developments for the rapid growth in job opportunities in the 1980s and 1990s: the birth of ESPN in 1979, the breakup of the NCAA football monopoly in 1984, which opened up scores of telecasts each Saturday, and the creation of sports talk radio in 1987.
During the 1980s and 1990s, ESPN dramatically increased its rights holdings, eventually landing a piece of the NFL, the NBA and Major League Baseball, thereby eroding the dominance of the networks. It added one studio show after another, and soon there would be ESPN2, ESPN Classic, ESPNews and ESPNU.
ESPN became what arguably is the biggest brand in sports, and its personalities became as big as the self-proclaimed “Worldwide Leader in Sports” itself. Chris Berman mixed inanities with substance. Dick Vitale passionately extolled the virtues of college basketball, helping propel the sport to great heights. Dan Patrick made “SportsCenter” must-see television every night, while Mike Tirico became as ubiquitous as the ESPN logo.
On ESPN and elsewhere, there have been announcers we imitate and those we mute. There have been the folks who graced our sets and others who polluted it. There have been those who have captured the drama and others who’ve spoiled it.
And in the end, we are left with 50 greats who were there for the indelible sporting moments that defined our times, and who shaped our memories of those moments with their magic behind the microphone.
David J. Halberstam is a broadcast sports historian and sales and media consultant. He is the author of “Sports on New York Radio: A Play-by-Play History” (1999; Masters Press/McGraw Hill).