Sports Marketing: Joe Buck: Top Utility Player for Fox Sports

Sep 25, 2006  •  Post A Comment

Joe Buck is the voice of Fox Sports broadcasting. The four-time Emmy winner is Fox’s top play-by-play announcer for Major League Baseball, on the first team for broadcasting National Football League games, and this year, he has also been handed the reins as the anchorman for Fox’s NFL pre-game show. More than just a distinctive voice, though, Mr. Buck has emerged as one of the most genial personalities in TV sports, as comfortable calling games as he is representing Fox Sports. With the new NFL season just under way and the baseball playoffs and World Series about to start in October, Mr. Buck has a lot to do. Nevertheless, he took some time to share his views on Fox Sports with TVWeek correspondent Allison J. Waldman. Here is an edited transcript of that interview.

TelevisionWeek: How does it feel to be the main man for Fox Sports, the lead voice in both baseball and football?

Joe Buck: It feels great. There’s a side of it that’s intimidating, there’s a side of it that’s exciting, there’s a side of it that I don’t really know what’s around the corner. So when I look at it, when I accepted the roles a couple of months ago, I did it knowing that I would be well fortified, with a lot of great people working around me. I’ll be leaning on them and, hopefully, they can lean on me. To me it’s just an extension of what I’m already doing. I’m not dropping out of the sky from Mars doing this work. I’ve been a part of Fox Sports since 1994, and I’ve been doing a lot at the network since the start-and this is just another piece of the puzzle. I’m very excited about it.

TVWeek: I’ve read that your first love is baseball, but you’re a football fan, too. As a broadcaster, do you have a preference?

Mr. Buck: People ask me that, but they’re so different. You know, with baseball there isn’t as much importance attached during the regular-season games like there is in the NFL. Still, there’s nothing like October baseball. There’s nothing like the playoffs, going through each round, getting to the World Series. You hope to get a seven-game series, where you can have six months poured into one pitch in the ninth inning of Game Seven, and there’s nothing like that in any other sport. That’s what I love about it. With the NFL, I did a game the other day, Dallas against Jacksonville, that was thrilling. It was the first game of the year, but you only have 16 games in a schedule and every game takes on importance. You don’t get that in baseball. So the postseason in baseball is thrilling, and the regular season in football is intense. I like both.

TVWeek: As someone who does play-by-play for both sports, do you bring different skills to different games?

Mr. Buck: Absolutely. Baseball is just a very different pace by virtue of how the game is played-you have a pitch, then a delay, and then a pitch, then a delay. The NFL to me is more rat-a-tat action. The majority of my work in baseball is filling the dead time. It’s filling that in-between time with something humorous or pertinent or statistically driven that makes the broadcast entertaining. Football is different in that it’s a rhythm thing. I set up the play, give the down and distance, report what happened on the play, Troy Aikman, the analyst, explains what happened, then I set up the down and distance for the next play. The role of a play-by-play guy is sometimes to get out of the way. The crowd is going crazy in the NFL and we have great audio on the field where you can hear the quarterback making the call at the line of scrimmage. There’s nothing I’m going to say that’s more entertaining than that. I think you have to get out of the way a little more. Those moments rarely come in baseball. You have to do more in baseball and keep the action moving with your voice. There’s a lot of down time in baseball.

TVWeek: One of your new jobs is anchoring the NFL pre-game show with Terry Bradshaw, Howie Long and Jimmy Johnson. That’s one more hat for you to wear.

Mr. Buck: Fortunately, I have a big head.

TVWeek: What kind of a challenge is it corralling those three big personalities?

Mr. Buck: I’m figuring it out as we speak. We did a couple of rehearsals and then we did it on the air last Sunday. But you can’t get a feel for what that show is all about until you’re under fire and you do it when it counts. We’ve got one now under our belts, but it’ll take some adjusting. I have to figure out where I fit in and what I need to do to be entertaining, to get out of the way, sometimes to cut off the conversation and go to a commercial. I don’t think I have to be totally a straight man in that regard, but I have to be entertaining in my own way. But that’s not my show; that’s their show. I’m there to further the conversation, maybe introduce something that they’re not thinking about, take them on a different path than they were anticipating-basically, keeping everyone on their toes. Of all the things I can say about what I figured out after the first week, it’s that I need to keep everybody jumping a little bit, keeping everybody on the edge of their seat on the set, and hopefully make it entertaining for people who are watching back at home.

TVWeek: Fox is doing that show differently this year. It’s now live and on location, right?

Mr. Buck: We’re doing it live at the game site, and that really brings in an entirely new dimension to the show. It’s good and tough. It’s not a controlled environment like a studio. This past week I probably lost five pounds of water weight just by sweating in Jacksonville, Fla. Outside of that, you have crowds and bands and cheerleaders; it’s like a circus. Because of all that, it takes on a different feel than the version of the show we’ve been doing for 20 years.

TVWeek: How do you think Fox has developed as a sports entity, both in football and in baseball, including how the network markets the games?

Mr. Buck: I’m obviously biased, but I know this: When we jumped into football-and I say “we” because I was one of the batch of people they hired back then-there were people who thought the world was coming to an end because Fox had football. They said we’d put Bart Simpson in the booth and what are they going to do to the Grand Old Game. What I think Fox did was revolutionize the way the game is carried on television by putting the Fox box, which it’s now known as, in the upper corner of the screen with the score and the clock. If it’s not there it doesn’t feel right, no matter what network you’re watching. Everyone does it now. Dick Ebersol [NBC Sports president] said at the time, “That’s just going to drive people away because they’re going to know the score and that’s going to turn people off.” Like you’re supposed to keep it a secret until you decide when the people should know about it. He was wrong; it didn’t work out that way. It’s now the standard in the industry. The marketing of these sports is important, trying to bring a hipper feel with some of these younger athletes-baseball in particular. Fox is, in my opinion, the leader in the industry network-wise.

TVWeek: What about how Fox covers baseball in particular?

Mr. Buck: Baseball, I think, needs a little more handholding. Not in a bad way, but I think we would all agree that the NFL now, with the ratings and the numbers and the money that’s being thrown around from networks to the NFL to cover their sport, is staggering. It’s that way for a reason. I personally believe that baseball is on a huge upswing and is on the beginning of a big uptick for the sport, but I think you need to go above and beyond to try to make sure people hang in there with you for a three-, sometimes four-hour broadcast. It’s a long telecast and it’s a long season. There are 162 games; there’s a lot there that you have to overcome to get people to hang in there with you. I think our ratings have proven that people are hanging with us. It’s been the one sport other than the NFL where the ratings haven’t eroded over time on our game of the week. It is what it is. When we cover bas
eball, we try to make it as exciting as we can and have fun with it and still be deferential to the history of it when we can. We want to be true to it and how networks have covered it in the past, but we like to spice it up whenever we can.

TVWeek: Do you think baseball lends itself to developing personalities more than other sports because you can focus on faces and close-ups?

Mr. Buck: There’s no doubt. That’s exactly something that we’ve talked about the last three years when we get together at Fox to discuss how we’re going to cover baseball. We want people to realize the great things that are going on with a lot of these players, not just on the field but off the field, too. And you can develop their personalities. With the NFL, time gets away from you. But they have so many other ways to market themselves away from the game. Guys have local TV shows … [former NFL player] Jerome Bettis, for instance. I’m sure NBC fell in love with him when they saw his show in Pittsburgh. But during the telecast itself, I don’t think there’s any doubt that you have more of a chance to talk about who these people are during the game of baseball than the NFL.

TVWeek: Is that why celebrations are more prevalent in football-the touchdown productions that Chad Johnson of the Cincinnati Bengals has come up with, for instance? Is it a way for the players to create personalities that sets them apart from the rest because the game doesn’t lend itself to that?

Mr. Buck: I think that’s fair. Things like that and sack dances, they don’t bother me. I mean, everything has its limits, but I wish there was some of that stuff in baseball, to be honest with you. I think baseball, the players themselves, are starting to get it a little more. In the past, it’s always been keep the camera out of our clubhouse, keep it out of our dugout. Now Fox is interviewing managers during games. We’re putting microphones on players. That’s the kind of stuff that doesn’t go on in the NFL. There’s a big difference. We can put a microphone on Derek Jeter if we want and have him play with a microphone recording his every word and then go to it during the game. In the NFL, once the game starts we’re on our own and have to wait till the end.

TVWeek: Speaking of personalities, aside from being the voice of Fox, you’ve ventured into commercials now. How does it feel when people want to touch your throat?

Mr. Buck: I realize that it doesn’t matter how many World Series I’ve done, or big moments that I’ve called-if you’re in a Holiday Inn commercial where guys are touching your throat, that’s all anybody wants to talk about. That and the “Rama-Lama-Ding-Dong” commercial I did with Anheuser-Busch are remembered. I love doing that stuff because it shows another side of me; it shows more personality from me. It’s not that much different from what we were talking about with the NFL and Major League Baseball. For the most part, people have seen me doing ball one, strike two, home run, and I’d like to think I have more to offer. I try to get that out there sometimes through commercials. I’ve been lucky to be with companies like Anheuser-Busch and Holiday Inn who wanted to do it in a funny way. I love trying to be funny. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t, but I love giving it a shot.

TVWeek: Your Dad, Jack Buck, was a Hall of Fame broadcaster and did St. Louis Cardinals baseball games for nearly 50 years. What did he think about personalities in the broadcast booth?

Mr. Buck: One thing my Dad told me, and I totally believe it more every year, nobody has ever tuned in a broadcast to listen to the announcers. They tune in to watch these teams play. If you don’t show up, not a lot of people will miss you. I think you have to pick your spots, and on television you have to accent the action-you are not the action. I realized that from the beginning, and I saw that firsthand from watching my father, who treated his whole career that way. Believe me, I realize that and definitely try to keep that in mind every time I walk into a booth.

TVWeek: When was the first time you realized that your Dad was something special?

Mr. Buck: I was 3 and my Mom says I went up to the TV and started screaming because I thought my Dad was stuck inside the television. I was not a very smart kid. I think growing up it’s almost like you don’t know any different. People couldn’t wait to talk to him, and I was like, “Yeah, that’s my Dad.” They all wanted to know what kind of a guy he was. Was he a jerk or a nice guy? I think I realized what a nice guy he was when I saw how much people wanted to be around him, and not just because he was a great announcer but because he was a great guy. That was the most important lesson my dad ever taught me. It was a great way to grow up.

TVWeek: Do you still broadcast baseball games for the Cardinals?

Mr. Buck: I’m down to 10 games a year, all TV games.

TVWeek: How do you balance it all-baseball, the Cardinals, football, your family life?

Mr. Buck: It starts with that: my family. For the most part I work on the weekends. I’m gone Friday and Saturday for baseball and Saturday and Sunday for football. And, like it was for me as a kid, we don’t know any different. It’s been this way from the beginning. I was working when I got married. People around the country and around the world work a lot more hours than I do, doing a lot more difficult things than I do. I start with my family life, driving carpool to and from school, and I’m doing homework and I’m home all week. I get my stuff done at night, then I’m gone on the weekends. And if it’s been too long, where I’ve missed my kids and wife, then I grab them and take them with me.

TVWeek: Is there something you’re not doing now that you wish you were doing?

Mr. Buck: No, I’m really very content. If the whole thing stopped right now, I would still be the luckiest guy in the business. It’s been a charmed existence and I realize that. I don’t take it for granted. I was around it as a kid, on the other end of it. I know what it’s like when Dad’s gone all the time, so I try to make sure that my children know that they’re the most important things in my life. So I’m not sitting at home yearning to do more. It’s great the way it is.

TVWeek: What does Fox intend to do for the baseball playoffs and World Series; are you sticking with what’s worked before?

Mr. Buck: I think we’re staying with what’s working. I think we’ve slowly whittled away at baseball’s reserve-with their help-to be able to talk with managers during the game. It was never like that when we started in 1996. To be able to have more access to players is great. I love the fact that people think that we’re going to keep adding tricks, make things glow, but I think when it comes to postseason, it really gets back to how good are the games, how tight are the games, and how many games do you get to build the excitement. But more than anything, we’re just going to be covering baseball.

TVWeek: Are you psyched about the fact that it looks as though some new teams will be in the playoffs this year?

Mr. Buck: I love that. Minnesota is an exciting team. Oakland may finally get there. The Yankees are kind of our old standard, but they’re a different-looking team in 2006. In the National League, the Dodgers are back on top, and the Mets may be the only lock in the postseason going to the World Series because they’re so far ahead that they can line it up just the way they want. They can rest up and get ready. I’m excited to see some of these new teams with new blood and get a chance to highlight a lot of new guys.

TVWeek: Any predictions?

Mr. Buck: I would say the odds are stacked for the Mets in the National League, and in the American League, the Yankees right now, the way they’re playing and getting through all the injuries they’ve had and now getting everybody back. I’d say it’s the Yankees and the Mets. The dark horse would be Minnesota
with the way they’re playing right now. They’re scary to anybody.