They say the only constant is change, but that’s not usually the case in sports broadcasting. Especially when it comes to the top play by play announcers in sports, there comes a certain expectation of longevity in the broadcast booth.
Look at the major broadcast networks where you can immediately name the key faces of network sports coverage for multiple decades. Joe Buck has been the lead voice for Fox’s MLB coverage since the mid-90’s. Jim Nantz has been doing the NCAA Tournament and the Masters for CBS for about 30 years each. Bob Costas has been the face of NBC Sports since before most of our readers were born. And of course Al Michaels has been ever-present on NBC and ABC calling some of the biggest games and events in sports going all the way back to the Miracle on Ice in 1980 and beyond.
This longevity amongst the elite play by play voices makes the situation at ESPN all the more unique. The network has seen (and continues to see) a remarkable amount of turnover at the play by play position for the biggest sports they cover. Here’s a sampling:
This week ESPN released their lineup of college football announcers. Just take a look at the list of commentators from 2013 and you’ll see just how different it is. In fact, you could argue that the top four play by play announcers calling college football for ESPN are no longer doing so. Brent Musburger retired, Brad Nessler moved to CBS to take over for Verne Lundquist calling the SEC, Sean McDonough went to Monday Night Football (more on that in a minute), and Rece Davis replaced Chris Fowler on College GameDay a year after Fowler replaced Musburger.
It’s been almost a generational shift for ESPN’s college football coverage. And what it’s done is create opportunities for the next wave of play by play announcers to become household names. Dave Pasch and Joe Tessitore are two names that come to mind as moving up the ladder at ESPN and calling big games every week. Tessitore even drew a Gus Johnson-like reputation for calling close games and has earned a spot calling one of the playoff semifinals.
Even further down the list though, there are names like Adam Amin, Anish Shroff, Bob Wischusen, Jason Benetti, and Dave Flemming who have taken on roles of increased significance in the last couple years and could definitely be names to watch for the future.
NBA/NFL (The Tirico Effect)
One of the most surprising moves in recent years was Mike Tirico leaving ESPN after over 20 years of service in Bristol to move to NBC Sports and become the heir apparent for Al Michaels and Bob Costas. Tirico was not only the lead announcer for Monday Night Football, but also the network’s #2 voice for the NBA. As mentioned previously, Sean McDonough moved up from the network’s NCAA coverage to become their lead NFL voice and partner with Jon Gruden. On the NBA side, Mark Jones, Dave Pasch, and Ryan Ruocco have all seen increased visibility at the play by play slot.
Tirico had been announcing MNF on ESPN for so long that he was there way back in the Tony Kornheiser days. (Yes, that was a thing that happened for all you younger readers out there.) And although it’s only one game a year, ESPN also made the high-profile move to replace Chris Berman with Beth Mowins for the season opening MNF doubleheader.
On the NBA side, Mike Breen has adeptly handled the lead announcing role for the NBA on ESPN for several years, but Tirico’s departure definitely opened the door for others at the network in varying phases of their careers like the longtime veteran Jones and newcomer Ruocco.
The turnover isn’t over yet. After this season, Dan Shulman will exit the Sunday Night Baseball broadcast booth and leave ESPN in search of a new voice for their premier MLB weekly series. Shulman will still do a full season of NCAA basketball coverage where he’s also the network’s lead announcer alongside Jay Bilas. Who replaces Shulman on ESPN’s MLB coverage will be one of the major questions for ESPN heading into 2018 and it will be another great opportunity for someone new. Perhaps it’ll be someone who has called MLB games on ESPN and has a track record with fans, or maybe it will be someone completely unexpected making a transition at the network. Just as long as it’s not Stephen A. Smith we’ll be ok.
Looking at all these moves, it’s usually the case that a network has a major decision like this to make maybe once every few years where a top announcer has to be replaced. And yet, in what is arguably the four biggest properties that ESPN broadcasts, they’ve had to make changes thanks to retirements and announcers leaving for greener pastures. Which names will we put alongside Musburger, Tirico, Nessler, Shulman, and others in 10 years as this new generation of ESPN play by play announcers comes to the forefront?