The news that Chris Berman will step down as ESPN NFL studio host was not a surprise. The rumblings had been there at the start of the 2016 NFL regular season. And while Berman has been polarizing over the latter part of his career, there’s no doubt that he belongs on the Worldwide Leader’s Mount Rushmore along with Bob Ley, Tom Mees and Dick Vitale, the men who were with ESPN at the beginning way back in 1979.
When you think back to ESPN’s biggest moments from its infancy to now, Berman has been there. And while ESPN management felt no one was bigger than the brand, Chris Berman was the exception to that rule. Arguably the face of the network, Berman’s presence looms large and will continue to loom large to the day when he finally exits ESPN for good.
When you look at Berman’s canvas of work, one has to break it down into certain categories, the early SportsCenter years, his NFL studio years that included perhaps his best work as host of NFL Primetime, his play-by-play calling MLB, golf and the NFL, and being a commercial pitchman.
Don’t forget at one time, NBC once offered Berman to bolt ESPN in the 1980s, an offer that he turned down.
THE SPORTSCENTER ERA: 1979-1987
This is where Berman gained popularity. When ESPN began, no network or local TV station was doing the amount of highlights that SportsCenter did. In this era, you were lucky if your local station did more than four minutes on a weeknight and seven on a weekend. SportsCenter did a full half-hour! And Chris Berman, Tom Mees, Bob Ley, Greg Gumbel and Gayle Gardner were some of the main standouts who anchored the nightly SportsCenters.
Berman creating nicknames for baseball players made him very popular among fans and even players themselves. Whether it was Frank Tanana Daquiri, Willie “Or Won’t He” Hernandez, Bert “Be Home” Blyeven, Kevin “Small Mouth (originally Large Mouth)” Bass, Berman endeared himself to fans who got that he was having fun, while not being disrepectful. There was even an outcry when word leaked that ESPN management had ordered Berman to stop using the nicknames on the air. Fans protested and the nicknames came back.
In addition, it was during this era where Berman’s love for the NFL became evident. When ESPN obtained the rights to the NFL in 1987, it was only natural that Boomer would become the host of ESPN’s new NFL studio shows “NFL GameDay” and “NFL Primetime.”
Berman would continue to co-anchor SportsCenter in the 1980s, but as he went into the 1990s, he would yield daily anchoring duties to others like Dan Patrick, Keith Olbermann, Charlie Steiner, Bob Ley, Robin Roberts, Rich Eisen, Stuart Scott and others.
Here are some samples of his anchoring in the 1980s: First from 1985, recapping news about various domed stadiums:
Here’s Berman breaking in Dan Patrick on SportsCenter in 1989:
THE NFL PRIMETIME ERA: 1987-2005
This was where Berman did his best work. As host of the Sunday studio shows, Berman became a larger than life personality. Originally teamed with Tom Jackson, John Saunders and Pete Axthelm on Primetime, Berman did the highlights with Jackson while Axthelm would provide commentaries. Saunders would leave the show and be replaced by Robin Roberts, but eventually, the show would be pared down to just Berman and Jackson.
This was the show you watched for NFL highlights. Before Sunday Ticket, before RedZone and Red Zone Channel, if there was a game that wasn’t shown in your area, Primetime was the show which aired the highlights. We have chronicled some of the best features of the program from its way of packaging the highlights to the iconic music, but the man who was front and center was Berman.
When ESPN lost the rights to show NFL highlights on Sunday’s, it not only perturbed Berman, it practically angered him. From Those Guys Have All the Fun: Inside the World of ESPN, written by Jim Miller, see how important hosting NFL Primetime was to Boomer. Some language is NSFW:
The quote where Berman said “He did NFL Primetime” would be on his tombstone is absolutely correct. You can’t measure the impact Primetime had on fans, fantasy and yes, gamblers. Similar to the impact that The NFL Today had in the late 1970s for the pregame show, NFL Primetime had it for wrapping up the day in football. Football Night in America tried to copy some of the formula of Primetime in its earlier years, but now has become more of a hybrid highlights-pregame-promo vehicle.
Take a look at NFL Primetime from 1987, its very first season on the air:
Let’s move to 1990 and check out what happened in Week 14:
And we jump to NFL Primetime‘s final Sunday episode with Berman and Jackson on January 1, 2006:
From 1987 through 2016, Berman was the host for the NFL’s Annual Selection Meeting. From its days in New York to now as a traveling roadshow, Berman was there to anchor coverage first as a weekday event, then moving to the weekend and seeing its popularity rise to the point where it’s an annual ratings winner. For years, Berman and ESPN were alone in airing all of the picks live, but in 2006, it got competition from NFL Network. Yet the Worldwide Leader would remain the network most viewers watched for the selections. And as the Draft went from a two-day event stretching over three days, Berman would only anchor the first round, yielding to Trey Wingo for the later rounds.
But through it all, Berman was there to lead into the picks. Check out highlights from the 2004 Draft, the year Eli Manning was chosen first.
Here he is previewing the 2016 Draft which would be his last and looking back at some of his favorite moments:
While Berman’s strongest attribute was his hosting, perhaps his weakest was his play-by-play. Whether it was calling baseball and the annual Home Run Derby (“That ball was hit to Kalamazoo/Albany/Wichita!”), the U.S. Open (where golf fans roasted him every year) or the second game of the opening week Monday Night Football doubleheader, Berman opened himself up for criticism.
When ESPN got the rights to Major League Baseball in 1990, Berman originally called the Tuesday West Coast game and then Wednesday Night Baseball. It led to him being behind the mic for Cal Ripken’s record-breaking 2,131st consecutive game on September 6, 1995. But while Berman’s play-by-play was not the greatest, he was universally praised for his silence for the entire celebration when the game became official:
Berman was at the US Open between 1986 and 2014. He would be at the mic for “Happy Hour” with Roger “Chocolate” Maltbie following 5 p.m. ET until the end of either the 1st or 2nd round. Militant golf fans complaining about Berman’s presence every year was like clockwork. Granted, he wasn’t a true golf voice like his former colleague Mike Tirico, Jim Nantz, Terry Gannon or Dan Hicks. However, ESPN continued to assign him to be at the 18th tower. He may not have been a wordsmith, but there were fans who enjoyed him and we have actual proof.
Starting in 2012, Chris Berman was the play-by-play man for the second game of the opening week Monday Night Football doubleheader. This is after he succeeded Mike and Mike, and Brad Nessler who called the game before him. Berman didn’t necessarily break ground, but there was this:
Yes, the punt was blocked. That pretty much sums up Chris Berman calling Monday Night Football.
PROMOS AND COMMERCIALS
When you reach a status such as Berman’s, it’s not surprising to see him approached to do commercials and promos. He’s been the commercial pitchman for Applebee’s, Dunkin’ Donuts, Nutrisystem, Toyota and countless others. Let’s take a look at some of his past work;
There’s this rare promo for National Cable Month in May 1987, in which he appeared with Gayle Gardner and John Saunders:
How about this ad for Toyota with a strange cast of characters?
Someone at ESPN approved this promo for Sunday NFL Countdown and thought it was actually good. This boggles the mind:
Here’s Boomer pitching for Applebee’s:
Commercials aside, Berman’s legacy at ESPN is intact. While fans may have grown tired of his act and being on the air constantly from 1979 through 2017 will do that, there’s no doubt that the Worldwide Leader has been as loyal to Berman as he has been to the network. From his time as NFL studio host to his play-by-play assignments, Berman has been a constant.
And as we transition to a new NFL host on ESPN (a story for another time), the network now goes to a new era and there will be plenty of candidates who could replace him. No matter what you think about Berman, he has cast a rather large shadow in Bristol, CT and there won’t be anyone who can match what he has meant to ESPN over his lengthy career.