Sports fans of a certain age – 30s and everybody north of that – likely have spent more time listening to Brent Musburger and Chris Berman than they’ve spent listening to many of their friends and relatives.
Musburger, 77, said goodbye to ESPN viewers this week, signing off after a distinguished career that spanned six decades. Berman’s appearance on ESPN’s pre- and postgame Super Bowl programming on Sunday will mark his final day as the network’s NFL host, after 31 years, before he assumes a much lower profile in his new contract.
Both, at times, were overexposed. Both were polarizing because they possess healthy egos (hardly unusual for the business) and injected themselves into their work. But both also were broadcast heavyweights who left an indelible imprint on their industry.
For Musburger, the decision appears to be entirely his. ESPN said Musburger informed the network in December that he was considering stepping away and that the network tried unsuccessfully to change his mind.
Musburger is leaving to host a two-hour show, Thursday through Monday, on the Vegas Stats and Information Network, a new channel dedicated to sports gambling information. It will be available on Sirius XM Radio and through live streaming.
“I’m going to give this a couple of years and see what it is like,” Musburger told SI.com’s Richard Deitsch. “In two years I’ll be 79 having finished a couple of years of this. Maybe I’ll become a fulltime executive. Or maybe I will just want to put my feet up in Montana and say, ‘Man, what a ride that was.’”
Musburger, signing off ESPN for the final time Tuesday (after a Kentucky-Georgia basketball game), said: “Thanks so much to you for sharing your time with me. What great memories we’ve had over the last 50 years. Now it’s time for me to turn over the play by play duties to those fine young announcers who are growing up at ESPN.
“Make no mistake: I’m going to miss games like this. I’m going to miss all the great analysts I’ve worked with all these years. Maybe you’ll pay me a visit out in my new place in Las Vegas. Why not? We can share a cold one and maybe a win or two. Anyway, thank you so very much for all the appreciation and all the great moments that we’ve experienced together. God bless.”
ESPN has declined to explain why it wanted to replace Berman, 61, as its NFL host, but he said he’s “OK” with a reduced role.
“Let’s say we live healthy to 80,” Berman said by phone. “From 20 to 60, I’m in this business. This May will be 38 years at ESPN and 40 in the business. 60 to 80 is the fourth quarter, and I want to be able to do some things. I will have plenty to do sports wise and get to meet different folks, get to relearn the piano.
“I am a pretty good musician. I have 10 years of books I want to read. My career is not incomplete because I didn’t do it to 65. I don’t feel like you are leaving the chapter out. I am at peace with it. I’m thrilled that I’m still here, that I am still going to be part of the fabric on air and representing the company.”
Is he melancholy?
“Very much,” he said.
Both Musburger’s and Berman’s legacies are complex and multi-layered.
Having joined ESPN a month after launch, Berman will be remembered as one of the network’s first SportsCenter anchors, with Bob Ley, the late Tom Mees, George Grande, Greg Gumbel, among others.
He will forever be associated with his baseball nicknames, which he began spewing for his own amusement on late-night editions of SportsCenter. (He said the first was either John Mayberry RFD or Frank Tanana Daiquiri).
And he will be remembered for his dynamic and demonstrative narration of highlights on NFL PrimeTime, the signature NFL highlights show of the past 30 years.
“I’d like my legacy to be: ‘The guy we saw in his 20s and the guy we saw at 61 was the same guy. He was excited and tried to get it right. He spoke with me, not at me or to me. He was genuine about it.’
“I met this guy once at an airport and he said you are the same guy you are on TV. He said he could count on [me] being accurate, upbeat, genuine and brought me to the game a little bit. And that never changed.”
Berman being a target from some media writers and fans on social media in recent years, amid criticism that his shtick had grown stale.
So why did he continue with the nicknames and his signature phrases such as “back-back-back”?
Berman said he knew there were fans that still enjoyed them and also said some viewers were hearing them for the first time.
“You might have heard them but somebody else might be hearing them for the first time,” he said. “I am still making fans now by doing it the only way I know. [People say], ‘Oh my God, he kept saying back-back-back.’ It’s the only way I know how to do it. And it’s genuine.”
After Sunday’s pre-game show, Berman’s next appearance will be at the ESPYs. He will contribute segments with interviews and historical perspective on ESPN’s Monday NFL Countdown.
Musburger, meanwhile, will forever be remembered for hosting The NFL Today, the groundbreaking and highly-rated NFL pregame show during the late 1970s and 80s, for announcing nearly all of the biggest events in sports, and for bringing a sense of significance to any event he covered.
But he also injected his opinion into his call more than most play-by-play announcers and was criticized for a few cringe-worthy moments in recent years, including over-the-top gushing about then-Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron’s “beautiful” girlfriend, Katherine Webb, during the 2013 BCS championship telecast, and oddly sympathetic comments during this month’s Sugar Bowl regarding Oklahoma running back Joe Mixon, who in 2014 plead guilty to assault when a confrontation with a woman left her with multiple injuries, including a broken jaw and cheekbone.
Musburger was castigated on social media for what he said early in the Sugar Bowl: “Let’s hope this young man makes the most of his (second) chance and goes on to have a career in National Football League.”
Those moments were regrettable, especially the tone-deaf Mixon comments, but should not overshadow a sterling career.
Musburger handled a wider range of bigger assignments (play by play or hosting) than virtually anyone of his generation -- Super Bowl, College Football Championship, Final Four, Masters, Rose Bowl, Little League World Series, FIFA World Cup, Indianapolis 500, NBA Finals, MLB Playoffs, US Open tennis, Belmont Stakes and much more.
He moved to ABC and ESPN in 1990 after being dismissed by CBS on April Fool’s Day that year, hours before he called the Duke-UNLV NCAA championship. Musburger was the lead football voice on ESPN-owned SEC Network the past two years.
ESPN president John Skipper said “Brent's presence and delivery have come to symbolize big time sports for multiple generations of fans. When he opens with his signature ‘You are looking live,’ you sit up straight in your chair because you know something important is about to happen.
“Brent's catalog of big events is unmatched, and he has skillfully guided us through some of the most dramatic and memorable moments in sports with his authentic and distinctive style. He is one of the best story-tellers to ever grace a sports booth. We and the fans will miss him.”
AROUND THE DIAL
Fox’s four-hour pregame show at 2 p.m. Sunday includes Jimmy Johnson’s interview with Bill Belichick, Howie Long’s conversation with son Chris (who plays for the Patriots), a look at the history of football in Houston and lots of other things.
Joe Buck and Troy Aikman call the game.
• Rex Ryan will be a pregame analyst on ESPN’s NFL Countdown with Berman.
• CBS and Entercom, the national parent companies of South Florida’s most prominent sports stations (WQAM and 790 The Ticket), announced a merger of their radio divisions on Thursday, which could result in a shakeup of sports-talk radio in this market and others. It’s too early to tell whether both stations could change programming or formats, though it wouldn’t be realistic to fit all of the local teams (except the Marlins, which are on WINZ) on one signal. The merger is expected to take effect in the second half of 2017.
• Magic Johnson will remain on ABC’s NBA Countdown despite taking a job today as an advisor to Lakers management.