Ian Eagle calling the SHEBA Gravy Race. Ian Eagle calling the SHEBA Gravy Race. (SHEBA.)

Famed announcer Ian Eagle has long been known for his versatility, calling everything from the NFL to the NBA to the NCAA Tournament. He’s stepping into the lead play-by-play chair for that men’s college basketball tournament for CBS and TNT Sports this year, but he’s also illustrating his wide-ranging play-by-play abilities on quite a different front. That would be the SHEBA Gravy Race, a new promotion from cat food brand SHEBA around the launch of their Gravy Indulgence entrees.

As part of that, SHEBA is holding a Gravy Race bracket featuring eight top influencer cats. Early videos are available as of Wednesday, with the final set for Sunday night. And Eagle is calling those matchups. He told AA Tuesday in an interview that he never anticipated he’d be doing this, but the play-by-play role here is similar to the work he’s done in more mainstream sports.

“I think if you’re a feline fanatic, this event is for you. I’ve called basketball, football, tennis, golf, track and field, volleyball, there have probably been some other sports that I haven’t even mentioned yet, but I can honestly say that I never imagined I would be calling The Gravy Race. Very cool, very fun, SHEBA put together a list of some of the most famous cats in the world.

“So we’re looking at it from a play-by-play point of view, that’s the job. The job is to help complement the event and bring excitement to it and bring energy. And I think people are going to really enjoy what they see. This has never been done before, and it’s been cool to be a part of.”

And Eagle said he went into it with a similar preparation process to the games he announces.

“The approach, believe it or not, is very similar. You prepare, you make sure you know what you’re talking about, and then you bring your own personal quality to the event. Play-by-play is not an exact science by any stretch, and I think there’s some latitude in there as long as you’re doing the particulars.

“There are certain fundamentals you have to follow. And then there’s a little bit of room for creativity. And I definitely like when something is unique and different, and this certainly qualifies. SHEBA Gravy Indulgence is the top of the cat food chain, so these cats were excited, I can tell you that much.”

Here’s a trailer for the promotion featuring some of Eagle’s calls:

Speaking of the more traditional games he calls, Eagle (who has won many plaudits for his work on those over the years) recently spoke to The Bernstein & Holmes Show on Chicago’s 670 The Score ahead of the NCAA Tournament, and said he still has nerves entering March Madness despite calling it for decades. Asked about that Tuesday, he told AA a large portion of the nerves come from the numbers of teams he has to cover early on and the limited period where the matchups are known.

“It’s the same thing every year, and because it’s set up in a way that you can’t do much work until you get your assignment, that’s where you’re not at ease as you normally would be. When I have events that are on the schedule, I can chip away, I can work on it at my pace. So two weeks leading up to the event, I can put in an hour one day, two hours the next day, look at it for 45 minutes again the day after that.

“The NCAA Tournament, you have no idea where you’re headed, you have no idea which teams you’re getting, so that opening round feels like a fire drill every year no matter how many years you’ve done it. No matter how comfortable you are with the event, you still have to squeeze eight teams into your brain.”

Eagle said even with those constraints on his normal preparation, he still wants to do the best job he can for each of those teams. So that leads to a lot of intense cramming ahead of the first games.

“The goal is to do right by them. That’s how I look at it. There is a responsibility; you want to be able to tell their stories, and do so in a way that is not superficial. And the only way to do that is to truly immerse yourself for the three days leading up to it.”

The big change for Eagle this year is calling the Final Four for CBS and TNT Sports (it will air on TBS and TNT this year) alongside Bill Raftery and Grant Hill, taking Jim Nantz’s place there. But he said he’s not thinking too much about that yet, instead focusing on this coming weekend’s Sweet 16 and Elite Eight games.

“It’s almost the idea of putting the cart before the horse. I still have games, I still have preparation, I still have to travel to Dallas before I can even think about or ponder Phoenix.”

But Eagle said he expects the magnitude of the Final Four role will hit him more as that gets closer.

“I would imagine the few days leading up to the Final Four, the actual car ride over to the stadium…I’m going to try to keep it as normal as possible, that’s how I’ve tried to approach this position for all of these years, but there will be a part of me that absolutely understands the significance of it, and will reflect on it. Not for very long, but I’ll allow myself to take it all in.”

Eagle does have some Final Four experience, including calling the world feed for the 2010 national championship classic between Duke and Butler. He said that will be helpful for him in this transition, although it’s not quite the same.

“I did the world feed for Butler-Duke, incredible, classic game. So I was around it all weekend, I was in the large stadium, I got to see it from a different point of view. It doesn’t mean that it prepares you for all elements of it, it’s still different to move into the big chair.”

He said the larger thing for him is sticking with what’s worked for his play-by-play career.

“Ultimately, the way I’ve viewed it, I’m going to do the game the same way. My style is one that I’ve worked on for literally 30 years of play-by-play. So the idea of changing something or approaching it from a completely different angle would be pretty irrational.”

Eagle said the one approach change he’s contemplating right now is laying out a bit more to let the Final Four images and audio connect to viewers in their own right.

“If anything, I might end up doing a little bit less, and allow the pictures and the sounds to do their respective jobs, and lay back a bit in some instances in an arena setting that I would jump on. In a stadium, I may pause or take a breath.”

The shift from basketball arenas to NFL stadiums for the Final Four is one of the more remarkable aspects of the NCAA Tournament, and a venue change of the sort not seen in many sports events. That’s led to noted effects on the game, including drops in shooting percentage. Eagle said the stadium shift also affects the announcers, especially with their different vantage point.

“I’ve been in those situations several times over the course of my career. It is different! The logical thought process would be ‘It’s a basketball game, just do what you always do.’ But your sightlines are different; you’re doing the tournament looking up at the elevated floor as opposed to having direct views of the play and how it develops.”

Eagle said he thinks there will be some adapting there for him, but that will hopefully only be early on.

“There will be an adjustment period in that first of two national semifinals that I’ll have to get used to. I would like to think I’ve been put in so many different situations calling local games, national games, regular-season games, postseason games, that there’s not a whole lot that can surprise me at this stage of my career. But you do have to be prepared for anything, and part of it is handling your surroundings like a pro.”

Speaking of handling your surroundings like a pro, Eagle took that approach to the SHEBA Gravy Race too. He’s already recorded the calls for the event, and said the bracket should be fun for fans to follow.

“I’ve called the cat races, and I can tell you that there is a lot of intrigue and drama until the finals. You can check out the early-round single elimination format and then follow it all the way to the championship round.”

While cat races are a wildly-different thing from what Eagle normally calls, he said the transition was easy.

“It felt very comfortable. I think if you’re a play-by-play person, you synthesize information in a certain manner. And it doesn’t matter what’s happening in front of you, you still have to convey the emotion, and the fun, and the competition. And with the SHEBA Gravy Race, I just looked at it through that lens.”

The cat races are also interesting in that they might expose Eagle to somewhat of a different audience. The eight cats included have combined Instagram followings of more than 55 million, and some of those people may not be traditional sports fans. Along those lines, Eagle said he wanted to have fun calling the event and produce some calls sports fans would get a kick out of (and he certainly has fun with those calls as well), but also do the event justice for those who don’t know him.

“Even in a veteran career, you have to realize that there are some that have never heard of you, and you’re making what you hope is a good first impression,” he said. “I take the competition seriously, I don’t take myself that seriously. I like to have fun in general; to me, that’s a big part of the presentation. There should be some form of levity when it’s called for. And I think with Waffles the Cat and Pacquito and Coby and Totally Tater, you’re going to feel the fun factor.”

Eagle will be calling the Marquette-NC State and Houston-Duke Sweet 16 games Friday on CBS, with tip times set for 7:09 and 9:39 p.m. respectively. The SHEBA Gravy Race can be followed on the brand’s Instagram. They also have a contest for people to film their own cat gravy races at home.

About Andrew Bucholtz

Andrew Bucholtz has been covering sports media for Awful Announcing since 2012. He is also a staff writer for The Comeback. His previous work includes time at Yahoo! Sports Canada and Black Press.