By Steven Douglas Losey
Special to TelevisionWeek
For three years, Fox Sports Net Detroit announcers Mario Impemba and Rod Allen have accompanied their hometown baseball team on a journey from desperation to renown.
In 2003, the Detroit Tigers came within one game of being the worst team in the history of baseball when they lost 119 games. While apathy was at an all-time high, Fox Sports Net Detroit’s 2.5 Nielsen rating was at an all-time low. That was Mr. Impemba and Mr. Allen’s inaugural season broadcasting at FSN Detroit.
“Unfortunately,” said FSN executive producer John Tuohey, “It was their first year together. I think it tested everyone’s resiliency, but the guys still did all the things that you need to build camaraderie and team work.”
This year, a lot more people are watching the Detroit Tigers. Earlier this month the Tigers upended the New York Yankees during the American League Division Series, dispensing with them in four games, proving that good pitching does indeed beat great hitting. With that, the team moved on to Oakland, where they took the first two games from the A’s in the American League Championship Series. The series was scheduled to be decided over the weekend, with the winner of the match going to the World Series.
FSN Detroit, which televised 112 games in the regular season, has ridden on the wave of the Tigers’ success (the team holds one of the top three win-loss records in Major League Baseball). The network has been buzzing with a 7.1 average household rating in metro Detroit, making it the market’s most-watched cable network in prime time from April through September, according to Nielsen Media Research.
With ad rates and sellout percentages jumping, FSN VP and General Manager Greg Hammaren talked by phone in mid-August from his Southfield, Mich., office. He quickly pointed out that the team concept really extends beyond the Tigers’ locker room.
“I have been doing this for 20-plus years and I have never worked with a team as closely, as well and as collaboratively as the Tigers organization,” he said.
With advertising interest increasing, most games have sold out their commercial inventory to sponsors including Dodge, DaimlerChrysler’s Jeep, Chevy, AT&T and AFLAC. Mr. Hammaren feels good delivering a great team to sponsors who supported them when wins were at a minimum.
“It’s always gratifying to exceed people’s expectations. There’s a real benefit to being involved with a team for years at a time,” Mr. Hammaren said. “You build up equity and you become a known quantity to the fans.”
With all the wins, the Tigers’ local ratings on FSN increased 92 percent over last year, when they averaged a 3.7. The celebrations in the broadcast booth have ramped up as well.
“I’ve jumped out of my chair four or five times,” Mr. Impemba said from the booth at the Tigers’ home stadium, Comerica Park. “I’ve never done that in the history of my professional career. There have been so many instances this year where you just say, `Wow!’ ”
Mr. Impemba grew up in Detroit and has been a fan of the team through the leanest of years. He knows what it’s been like for Tiger fans.
“Detroit has been so dormant in terms of baseball for so many years,” he said. “The fans really deserve a winner, now we get big crowds every night, no matter who is in town, and that’s Detroit baseball.”
Mr. Allen was used to winning in Arizona, where he had already announced a World Series with the Arizona Diamondbacks. The 2003 season was hard for him to absorb, but he still feels blessed for the opportunity.
“There are only 30 guys that do my job in baseball. It’s an obligation and an honor to do the best job we can by analyzing the game on the field. We’ve done that during the losing, and thankfully during the winning, too,” Mr. Allen said.
Mr. Impemba agreed. “We had to walk that fine line of keeping people interested in the telecast and giving them a reason to watch,” he said. “We wanted to portray the team in the best light while being truthful and honest. Fans are smart; they could see the product on the field.”
Now, instead of announcing losses in a half-filled Comerica Park, many calls have involved walk-off home runs, 102-mph pitches and team chemistry.
“You always want the team to win, but this is a whole other level,” Mr. Impemba said.
Mr. Allen described the dramatic shift in the tenor on the field, in the announcers’ booth and on television.
“In 2003, there was no energy at all. This year there’s energy with the team, the announcers, FSN Detroit, and everybody associated with this team.”
The Tigers occupied first place the entire season until the Minnesota Twins took the spot on the last day. All the Tigers had to do was win one of their last five games to hold the top spot and win the division. Instead the team lost them all in a sweep by the Kansas City Royals during their last home stand.
That meant the Tigers limped into the playoffs as the wild card instead of the division leaders.
Much like the relationship that FSN shares with their sponsors, making or breaking in the broadcast chair rests in the team concept as well. Mr. Impemba and Mr. Allen both are quick to point out the strengths that each brings to the table.
“Rod’s personality is genuine,” Mr. Impemba said. “He’s not contrived at all. When Rod screams `Aaahhh!’ after a walk-off home run, he really means `Aaahhh!’ and that’s the truth.”
Mr. Allen concurred. “Sometimes I high-five myself cause Mario’s a little bit more in control. I’m more likely to scream things out, but that’s the player in me coming out.”
Mr. Allen knows a big reason he and Mr. Impemba have grown as announcers over the past three years-both have learned to check their egos at the door.
“We realize that neither of us makes the broadcast without the other one,” he said. “It’s never about myself having a great broadcast or Mario doing the same. It’s about doing it together for the good of the team.”
Dewayne Staats broadcasts for FSN Florida for the Devil Rays, a team perennially looking for a Tigers-type season.
“They were great announcers when the Tigers were losing a hundred games,” Mr. Staats said. “It’s now three years later, and they are still great announcers.”
Reflecting back, Mr. Impemba said he still feels the drought the Tigers fans have endured. He’s appreciative that everything has finally come together.
“Now when we hit a walk-off home run, we’re not 20 games out of first. Now I am up out of my seat. For years we’ve been watching the other teams do it. Now it’s our turn.”