The sports media industry is currently in the middle of one of the most fascinating periods of the last decade with huge transitions taking place everywhere. Several of the biggest names in the business have either chosen to retire or have worked out a deal to take on a reduced role at their network, giving up their front-facing starring roles.
What’s amazing about this time period is that we’re really seeing a generational shift in sports media. As sports on television has grown exponentially over the last 3o years, many of these national figures have been front and center as the faces of its growth.
Yes, there have been others at the national and local level who have moved on in similar capacities or have changed places because of new contracts and free agency. But when you think about the most prominent sportscasters of our late 1900s to early 2000s generation, it’s worth arguing that those six names are at least part of the Top 20 and maybe even the Top 10 announcers in the industry. And within a period of just about six months, all of them have decided to step down.
Bob Costas is stepping down from his hosting duties for the Summer and Winter Olympics and handing the baton to Mike Tirico. Chris Berman is leaving his role as lead NFL host at ESPN to take on an emeritus role at the network. Brent Musburger abruptly left ESPN in January to fulfill his true destiny and open up a gambling business in Las Vegas. Vin Scully retired from the Dodgers broadcast booth after 67 years. Verne Lundquist said goodbye as the voice of SEC football on CBS, although he’ll remain at the network in other capacities. And Dick Enberg hung up the mic after announcing the last couple seasons with the San Diego Padres, previously retiring from his national duties with CBS.
That’s an unprecedented amount of transition for an industry where stability at the top is one of its defining qualities. In covering sports media, one of the most interesting things about the industry is that the networks value this stability and consistency, especially at the top of the totem pole, perhaps moreso than anything else. I’ve joked before that the job security for the top-of-the-line network jobs is the closest thing you can get to a supreme court life appointment in the private sector. Just look at some of the leading faces at the major networks right now. Some day Jim Nantz might announce 50 Masters golf tournaments. Joe Buck has already been the #1 announcer for Fox Sports for 20 years and could easily make it another 20 more if he so chooses. And with Mike Tirico now officially taking over for Bob Costas (and likely for Al Michaels within the next 5 years), he’ll be the face of NBC Sports coverage for the next two decades.
All totaled, these men that have retired or moved on within the last year have hundreds of combined years in front of the cameras presenting sports to a national television audience. Bob Costas has been hosting the Olympics since 1992. That was back when the Dream Team first became a thing. Chris Berman has been synonymous with ESPN and the NFL since 1979. That was the year the Steelers Beat the Cowboys in Super Bowl XIII. Brent Musburger began hosting the NFL Today in 1975, which was the same year Walter Payton was drafted by the Chicago Bears. Scully, Lundquist, and Enberg have all been on the national scene for even longer than that.
George Jones once asked “Who’s Gonna Fill Their Shoes” and the networks might be asking the same question right now. Who are going to be the voices that provide the soundtrack for the biggest and best sporting events in the world for the next 25 years? Some of these questions have already been answered as it’s clear Tirico is the man to step up at NBC. We also know Brad Nessler will become Verne Lundquist’s successor for the NFL on CBS and ESPN put a plan in place a couple years ago to have Chris Fowler take over from Brent Musburger. But ESPN’s NFL hosting future is still up in the air after Chris Berman has stepped aside and we all know that replacing absolute legends like Scully and Enberg is no easy task.
This is really the first time we’ve seen a total generational shift in the sports media industry. Yes, there were times when legends like Mel Allen and Curt Gowdy and Jim McKay moved on and passed the torch to the likes of Musburger, Costas, etc. but it surely wasn’t on this scale. And given the sports television boom, many more sports announcers are household names than there were 40 or more years ago. Even Chris Berman at ESPN alone has probably been seen by hundreds of millions of people over the years and the same might be true with Costas hosting the Olympics. How many people can say they grew up with Brent Musburger, even if they were an NFL or NBA or college sports fan? Who’s going to be that next generation of sports announcers that will lead the way 20 or 30 years from now that might be calling Saturday afternoon NCAA basketball games or local MLB action?
These figures were the announcers that led us from Wide World of Sports on the weekends to sports being a 24/7/365 enterprise. And with the 24/7/365 news cycle, it’s sometimes tough to stop and pause and see the bigger picture unfolding. And what’s unfolding is an unprecedented time of transition in sports media, both with how we watch sports on mobile and tablet and computers and with the individuals who present them.