This week Fox Sports announced the signing of Bill Raftery away from ESPN to work Big East games with Gus Johnson. Raftery will continue to work the NCAA Tournament for CBS, where he's been a fixture for years. Bill Raftery is one of the most beloved announcers in sports because of his energy, enthusiasm, and fun in the booth. His ties to the Big East go back to his coaching career at Seton Hall and it's somewhat fitting that he'll still be affiliated with the conference in its new incarnation. Also, his partnership with Gus Johnson (on basketball and not soccer) will likely turn into an internet favorite.
However, with Raftery leaving ESPN, it breaks up what may have been the best broadcast booth in sports over the last few years.
You wouldn't see many headlines about the trio of Bill Raftery, Jay Bilas, and Sean McDonough, but they were the epitome of what a three man booth is supposed to be. A great play by play man who was equally adept at calling the action and getting out of the way to let his analysts converse. And those analysts who not only complimented each other with their styles, but genually enjoyed working with each other. Bilas is fantastic at breaking down the game whether it be in the booth or the studio, and does so succinctly and without pretense. Furthermore, his sense of humor really came alive with Raftery beside him. He and Raftery could have a short conversation about the action on the court or the issues in college basketball and mix in equal doses of insight, perspective, and humor. If you follow Jay Bilas on Twitter, you'll know the fun he likes to have at Bill Raftery's expense.
Understandably, Bill Raftery is outraged. pic.twitter.com/8My1FIR8
— Jay Bilas (@JayBilas) February 20, 2013
But when news broke of Raftery's departure, Bilas paid tribute to his broadacst partner:
Congratulations to Bill Raftery on his new deal! Thrilled for him, sad for us. Nobody has ever had a better friend. Raft is the best.
— Jay Bilas (@JayBilas) June 27, 2013
The trio of McDonough, Bilas, and Raftery shows what can happen when you combine three smart, engaging, authentic personalities. It also shows the importance of chemistry to a broadcast. Wedging big personalities and big names together doesn't always work. You don't need analysts to always disagree with each other (ahem, ESPN) and you don't need analysts to always be laughing like it's the Blue Collar Comedy Tour (ahem, every NFL pregame show). The best television always comes naturally, and that was the key ingredient to this trio.
They were never ESPN's #1 broadcast booth and they never received much press coverage, but they were certainly among the best we've seen in recent years. Raftery and Gus Johnson will do big things for Fox Sports 1's college basketball coverage and McDonough and Bilas will continue to thrive. But for just a brief moment in time we should recognize the quality of Raftery's work at ESPN and especially with McDonough and Bilas. Hopefully networks see the ingredients that made their partnership a success and look to follow that blueprint elsewhere.