On Oct. 1, 1979, at age 24, Chris Berman began hosting the 2:30 a.m. edition of SportsCenter on some brand-new cable network based in Bristol, CT. In 2016, he completed his 31st year as host of ESPN’s Sunday NFL Countdown and his 38th year at the sports channel now owned by The Walt Disney Co.
Berman started out when ESPN was untested and underwhelming and cable itself still seemed to be something of a frill to some consumers. ESPN was the newest team in a league that was far from established.
From the beginning, he played a large part in creating ESPN’s tone. “People made a connection with him,” says Norby Williamson, EVP, production, ESPN. “He, more than anyone who works here, is ESPN. He put ESPN on the map, and, through the decades, he became synonymous with what we are and who we are.”
His wordplay with players’ names (like Bert “Be Home” Blyleven), and his “back-back-back-back-back” home-run calls brought humor to ESPN and sports, which was played pretty straight at that point. Berman pulled off the balancing act between solid information and silly schtick delivered with a mock-urgent style. He also knows sports.
Early on, Technical Director Chuck Pagano (a member of the Sports Broadcasting Hall of Fame Class of 2013) heard Berman’s voice and nicknamed him Boomer, shortened by others to just Boom. It fits.
Berman has been named National Sportscaster of the Year six times. He and shows he has been associated with have won 10 Emmy Awards. He has covered 35 Super Bowls. He hosted the Sunday NFL Countdownshow for an astonishing 31 years, 29 of them with former Denver Bronco Tom Jackson. He jokes that only Johnny Carson and Ed McMahon had a longer tandem act on television.
“It was natural for Boom to be the face of the network because his persona is bigger than life,” Jackson says before ticking off Berman’s qualities: “His passion for the game. His hard work. His ability to look beyond the scenes to find out what’s really happening. And his style, which is unique. And the way he elevated highlights.”
Says ESPN President John Skipper, “Chris is one of a kind, a singular talent who helped make ESPN a destination for sports fans. He wrote the book on how to deliver highlights; there’s nobody who’s ever been better. Whether he was hosting a studio show or calling a game, he brought joy to generations of fans because he made sports what it should be: fun. His place on our Mount Rushmore is assured.”
Berman still has a featured role with ESPN’s NFL coverage, including his “Boomer’s Vault” feature, and he continued with play-by-play duties during the baseball playoffs on ESPN radio. But he’ll admit he doesn’t get around quite as much anymore.
“I miss the people,” he says. “I miss the action. But I don’t miss the grind — although I enjoyed the grind.”
Watching games on television — as he did with the World Series — is a leisurely departure from the past. “You watch the game, see the post[game] interviews, then go get your toothbrush and go to bed. You’re not looking for somewhere to get a hamburger at 2:00 in the morning,” he says. “I’m okay with that.”
ESPN veterans speak with humor and pride about the place, especially remembering the old days, when everybody was rolling the dice.
Berman had been working as a weekend sportscaster at WVIT in nearby Hartford, when he interviewed for the job. “I told them, ‘Why don’t you watch rather than me give you a tape? I’m pretty raw, but let’s see how it goes.’
“They said, ‘You could be our junior member. You could do the late show’ [2:30 a.m. but 11:30 on the West Coast]. We’ll pay you $16,500.’ I said, ‘When can I start? I already live here so you don’t have to move me. See? I’m a bargain.’”
Television hadn’t really seen something like ESPN before; the people who worked there invented it. Berman was amazed. He was being offered a 30-minute nightly television show seen around the country.
“Sports anchors at TV stations wouldn’t get 30 minutes a week!” he exclaims. What a deal. The only problem was figuring out whether anybody wanted it. Programming on ESPN in the early days was esoteric, to say the least — or perhaps the most.
Berman says there was no secret sauce for ESPN when he started. Was there a plan? “At the very beginning? Not a lot. There were so few of us and so much to do,” he recalls. “There was no one telling us what we should be trying to do. We were Lewis and Clark.”
The punning around, he admits, was lingering adolescent silliness combined with a timeslot that seemed to encourage looseness. “We all did these things in college when we were drinking Perrier at the time,” he says. “I can tell you what the first one or two were. Either Frank Tanana Daiquiri or John Mayberry RFD. People said, What the …? It came from those college days.”
Viewers loved it. Apparently, players craved it. Berman says that, in the midst of the pennant race, Kansas City Royals star George Brett confronted Berman at the batting cage mock-complaining that the Yankees had more nicknames than the Royals did. When he found out Berman did not have a nickname himself, Brett took it upon himself to give him one. At the postgame press conference, Brett spotted Berman in the crowd of reporters and stopped, pointed at him, and shouted, “Look, there is Ethel Merman Berman.”
Professionally appalled by the nickname, Berman says he told the star, “You’ve got to be kidding.” He adds, though, that he rarely gave nicknames to stars who were likely headed to the Hall of Fame. “He was already George Brett. What am I gonna do? Wonder Brett? Whole Wheat Brett? Or Johnny Park Bench? Meh.” (Brett is now a “great friend,” Berman adds.)
That little incident shows how seriously stars, teams and leagues pay attention and prosper from coverage on ESPN. Berman thinks that the network helped sports grow but that outsize growth was probably inevitable.
“We certainly were a part of what already was an explosion,” he points out. “We were a different kind of igniter. We’re kind of synonymous with the growth of cable. And cable begat the local cable sports. The thirst level just never got quenched.”
Berman grew along with it and became an audience favorite.
Williamson, who joined ESPN in 1985 and, over the years, has served in producing roles for several programs hosted by Berman, says that one of his fondest yet most frustrating memories of Chris is his singular popularity with fans and his ability to connect with them.
“The U.S. Open was probably the worst because there is no buffer between you and the crowd and where you need to get to: you leave the office trailer to get [to someplace] a half mile away,” he recalls. “People just come up to him. He’s genuine and having a great time signing things and talking. If you’re the producer of the show, it drives you absolutely mad. But that’s the connection to fans that made him the biggest star we’ve had here.”
That connection is largely because he’s the same on-air and off. That’s his mark. “It’s still what I tell young people who want to start in the business,” Berman says. “Do it like you’re talking to yourself. I don’t mean really talking to yourself but what you would like to hear. It really is as simple as that: you and me and the fellas and the ladies in the bar. Not bar talk, but you’re in a room talking. Just be natural.”
These days, though, Berman possibly has to do a little acting. As he drifts into what he begrudgingly acknowledges is a less active role at ESPN, fate has made things tough. His wife of 34 years, Katherine, died in a car crash on May 9.
“This Hall of Fame event is going to be a wonderful day. Unfortunately, my wife won’t be there,” he said in a phone conversation on Oct. 26. “Yesterday would have been her birthday. It was a heavy day. I didn’t talk to anyone. It’s been five months. She shared it all with me and was waiting for my semiretirement. … Never got to live it and never lived to see her son get married three weeks later. A lot of things happened this year. Some good, some bad. She would have been proud of me.”