By Lee Alan Hill
Special to TelevisionWeek
“We were lucky from the beginning, getting really top sportscasters,” said Bill Rasmussen, ESPN’s founder. “But that Chris Berman, yeah, he really gave us flavor. He had a style all his own, and he showed what we wanted to do-make watching sports fun.”
Chris Berman, who has been with ESPN since about a month after it began-most recently as announcer for NFL games and commentator for Major League Baseball championship series, among other duties-has blended wit with enthusiasm for athletic competition to transcend sports coverage and make it as a personality. If anyone has grown up with ESPN, it’s Mr. Berman.
“I was 24 when I joined ESPN,” Mr. Berman said. “I was just hoping for an opportunity, and here was this new network, all sports, in Connecticut. I was working in Hartford, and I was from Greenwich. What could be better than that?
Mr. Berman might possibly be ESPN’s most recognizable on-air talent, but he said he never consciously aimed to stand out. “I didn’t try to offer a new style to sportscasting,” he said. “I was just trying to be me.
“Sometimes sportscasters were former players, and they took it all so seriously,” he said. “I thought the audience wants to relax and have a good time. It was like when I was involved with sports as a camp counselor or in college: Be enthusiastic. Get the energy flowing.”
Lore has it that as a youngster Mr. Berman called the play-by-play at neighborhood games. While attending Brown University he was sports director of the college radio station, a commentator for the school’s games and a stringer for NBC Sports, assisting in the network’s telecasts in New England.
‘We Had No Road Map’
His first chance for TV exposure came in 1979 when he joined WVIT-TV, the NBC affiliate in Hartford. Bristol, Conn., home base for ESPN, is in Hartford’s market, so it was not long before Mr. Berman showed up on the new sports network’s radar.
“When we did `SportsCenter’ at the beginning we had highlights from maybe three NCAA games and 30 minutes to fill,” Mr. Berman said. “You had to say something. I guess that’s where the nicknames for the athletes came from-to fill out the time.” (See separate story.)
“We had no road map,” he said, “but sports should be inclusive for everyone. I think from the beginning, the idea was to find a way to communicate as if you were talking to a friend who is a sports fan. That’s what I did. That’s what all of us did.”
Mr. Berman has been honored for doing it well. He has been selected Sportscaster of the Year by the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Association six times: in 1989, 1990, 1993, 1994, 1996 and 2001. Additionally, Mr. Berman and his various shows have won nine Emmy Awards.
Some critics believe one of his shining moments was in 1995, when Mr. Berman was calling ESPN’s coverage of Cal Ripken’s 2,131st consecutive baseball game, breaking the record long held by Lou Gehrig. Mr. Berman and analyst Buck Martinez received much praise for allowing the celebration for the Baltimore Oriole shortstop to run for 22 minutes without commentary. They figured the events on the field were self-explanatory, he said.
Sundays again this fall, Mr. Berman will host “NFL Prime Time,” one of cable’s highest-rated studio shows. He’ll be ESPN’s studio host for the NFL game telecasts for the 19th consecutive year, and he’ll also man a spot on ABC’s “Monday Night Football” team.
“Car engines still have to run on the same fuel as in 1979,” Mr. Berman said, “and that’s true of ESPN-we still run on sports. The technology has advanced by leaps and bounds from 1979 to 2004, but it’s still sports.
“I guess I’ll still want to be doing this 25 years from now wherever the games are,” he said. “If there’s a game on the moon, I’m there, as long as John Glenn is my color guy.”