Last fall, I taught a media studies class based on ESPN at the University of Illinois. The class examined ESPN’s considerable impact on all the touchpoints of media: Broadcasting and journalism; advertising and branding; digital and innovation; documentaries and storytelling and impact on pop culture, to name a few.
The opening lecture focused on the roots of ESPN, and how ludicrous the notion of an all-sports network was back in 1979. The class included a video interview I did with Chris Berman, who at the age of 24 joined ESPN one month into its existence.
Berman recalled when the fledgling network barely was surviving. Another longtime ESPNer told me there always were long lines at the local bank on Thursdays, as employees, knowing the company was hemorrhaging money, rushed to cash their paychecks.
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Berman said if he was 34 with a family to support, he might not have taken the risk of joining up. But barely out of college and leaving a job as a weekend sports anchor in Hartford, where he earned all of $23 per show, made it a rather easy decision.
Turned out to be a pretty good move, right? Yet even Berman admits he couldn’t imagine that ESPN, and his career, would ever turn out the way it did.
“Noooo,” said Berman, throwing his head back with a distinctive growl. “I was a young guy and they wanted me to do the 2:30 a.m. (late SportsCenter). I said, ‘Where do I sign up?’”
Thirty-seven years later, Berman’s ride of a lifetime is mostly coming to an end. The upcoming Super Bowl will be Berman’s last hurrah as host of ESPN’s “Sunday NFL Countdown.” Sunday marked his final show in Bristol, Conn., and in a nice touch, ESPN re-named the studio for him and longtime partner Tom Jackson. Berman will no longer host ESPN’s coverage of the NFL Draft and Baseball’s Home Run Derby at the All-Star Game.
Berman, 61, isn’t retiring, as he still will make appearances on the network. But it definitely feels like a quasi-retirement, as all sorts of tributes are flowing in. ESPN even is airing an hour-long show documenting Berman’s career and impact — “He Did Go All The Way” — Feb. 2 at 10:30 p.m. ET.
Indeed, it is the end of an era. Time for someone else to have their turn.
Yet you can’t tell the story of ESPN without Berman being featured as a major character. Countless people, including ESPN president John Skipper, used the reference of Berman being a fixture on the network’s Mt. Rushmore.
Bob Ley told John Ourand of Street & Smith’s Sports Business Daily: “When they write the cultural history of the 20th century of the United States of America, there’s going to be a chapter in there about sports, and ESPN is going to be right at the top of it. Chris is a huge reason why.”
Berman helped put ESPN on the map in the 1980s as the network’s first breakout star. The young anchor had a big personality that matched his nickname, “Boomer.” He filled the screen with his presence and energy.
Back then, most sports on TV was told in a fairly straight manner. Not quite as serious as Walter Cronkite delivering the evening news, but it was mostly one score after another.
Berman took it in a different direction with a device that outwardly seems silly. He came up with nicknames for players during his reports on SportsCenter. It was “Frank Tanana Daiquiri,” “Tim Purple Raines,” “Bert Be Home Blyleven,” just a name a few.
In our interview, Berman said he needed something fill up 30 minutes on a 2:30 a.m. SportsCenter.
“It’s Tuesday night, and the Seattle Mariners win, and I go, ‘Julio Won’t-You-Let-Me-Take-You-On-A-Sea-Cruz,” said Berman of his nickname for the Seattle infielder. “We were just having fun with it. It’s just sports. It’s OK.”
Berman said nicknames have been a part of baseball long before he came around.
“There’s Babe Ruth,” Berman said. “Actually, a young person once told me that was his favorite nickname that I came up with. I said, ‘I don’t think I can take credit for that one.’”
Looking back, Berman said, “It was never calculated by me that I could be famous by doing the nicknames.”
But Berman did become famous. Soon, viewers didn’t just tune in to get the latest scores on SportsCenter. They watched to see how Berman would deliver the scores.
Berman set the tone for the irreverence that would come to define the evolution of SportsCenter through the 90s. He laid the foundation for others to follow.
He eventually became the anchor for ESPN’s NFL coverage. He and Tom Jackson did an 18-year run as the hosts of NFL Primetime, the wrap-up of Sunday’s games. The show did huge ratings, with Berman delivering the highlights (“He could go all the way”) as only he could.
All told, Berman’s body of work led to him being named a six-time National Sportscaster of the Year (1989, 1990, 1993, 1994, 1996 and 2001). In 2010, he received the Pete Rozelle Radio-Television Award by Pro Football Hall of Fame for his longtime exceptional contributions to radio and television in professional football. And there are countless other honors.
I told my students all about Berman’s impact on ESPN in that first class. He was more of their parents’ time than theirs. Back then, ESPN was just one network, not a massive empire with a myriad of personalities.
“Remember, there was no internet,” Berman said. “You had your local stations. But whenever you traveled, people were able to watch us. Even though we were national, we also became a hometown station for fans.”
And “Boomer” was the guy, with his voice booming throughout the land.