The Ten Best Broadcasters in American Sports

| June 14th, 2013

I watch more sports than just about any human being I know. Working and writing from home means my TV is on some sports-related program pretty much 12-14 hours a day. Aside from the normal stuff I watch a lot of soccer, NASCAR, golf, tennis and even spend some time on rugby and cycling if the mood strikes. (First person to monetize Wiffle ball the way they have darts will make a fortune and have a friend for life in me.)

Because of this rampant experience I believe I’m qualified to write a column like this: the best broadcasters in American sports.

A few notes. (1) Outside of New York & Chicago I am not listening to local sports radio. So only those two cities were considered. (2) I know everybody says Doc Emrick is amazing. I just don’t watch hockey. Ever. So I’m not going to bullshit you and rank him like I do. No hockey announcers were eligible.

#10 Waddle and Silvy (ESPN Radio, Chicago)

About a year ago, after spending a few months consistently listening to Tom Waddle and Marc Silverman on ESPN Radio Chicago, I asked on Twitter why the best radio hosts in the city (by far) were not in the pivotal drive-time market. A year later they are. Silverman’s impassioned Chicago pipes and Waddle’s perfect ex-athlete, emotional counter-balance are the welcomed antidote to a market, due to the horror shows on 670 the Score, which seems to reward uninformed snark and what passes for “guy humor” with lucrative multi-year contracts. Waddle & Silvy are not without their silliness but its tempered by their consideration and understanding that sports, while not as important as low-income health care or the threat of terrorism, are still quite important to a lot of people in the city of Chicago.

#9 Vin Scully (Los Angeles Dodgers)

I don’t need to write about Vin Scully. In his prime he is probably the greatest voice in the history of American sports. Even now at eighty-five years old he is capable of beautiful moments like this one:

#8 Dan Hicks (NBC)

He’s not Jim Nantz so I greet Dan Hicks’ appearances on important golf telecasts with a combination of relief and enthusiasm. But Hicks is not only remarkable for not being Nantz. He’s also the most professional and welcoming voice in modern play-by-play and his versatility is somewhat astounding. He is NBC’s lead Olympic man for speed skating and swimming. He’s done NFL, NBA and the aforementioned golf. And in 2013 he’ll replace Tom Hammond as the voice of Notre Dame football. No matter what he’s calling Hicks gives the viewer the sense that the sport before him is his life. One can only wonder how much preparation the man does.

It is often said the best play-by-play men are the ones so good you don’t notice when they’re there. I think the best ones make you long for them when they’re not. That’s Hicks.

#7 Bill Simmons & Cousin Sal Guessing NFL Lines (Grantland.com)

They get on the phone and guess the point spreads for the coming week, using that structure to dissect the minutiae of both the NFL and the NFL viewing experience. It is a simple concept, sure, but these two achieve the impossible goal of presenting the natural discussion without it feeling inauthentic.

Simmons is wretchedly awkward on TV and his pop-culture related columns bore me into next week. Sal writes for and appears on Jimmy Kimmel Live, a show I don’t think I’ve ever watched. But these conversations capture – better than any I’ve ever heard broadcasted – the tone and sensibility of two educated NFL fans in front of the barroom TV on Sunday.

Here are Simmons and Sal doing Mike & the Mad Dog – the greatest broadcasting team in the history of mankind:

#6 Bob Ley & Mike Tirico (ESPN)

When ESPN brings in the soccer audience for the World Cup or USMNT qualifiers, they turn to Ley. When ESPN airs early hours of The Masters or US Open they turn to Tirico (and let Berman talk once every two hours). Yes they are the class acts of a classless, overexposed, under-talented network but that does not diminish their intelligence and skill.

If sports had a true Meet the Press-style program, Ley would be unanimously selected as host. If fans could select the play-by-play man for every program on the ESPN/ABC they’d be fools to not choose Tirico. These two guys constantly remind us how important and enjoyable a network ESPN used to be.

#5 Dan Patrick (Dan Patrick Show, NBC)

Patrick still has the smug co-host of The Big Show in his bones. On a recent show he positioned Phil Jackson’s new memoir and a book of farts behind him on a shelf so the audience read “Phil Jackson Farts” quite clearly for more than an hour. But he’s also developed, at least on-screen, the kind of mature mind sorely lacking in a sports universe wherein Skip Bayless is part of the mix.

Patrick is fascinated by what happens on the playing surface, of course. That’s his bread and butter. But he never stops asking the bigger questions. He knows people dislike LeBron James but he wants to know why. He knows Jason Collins coming out is a big deal but he questions use of the word “heroic”. He knows player safety in the NFL is important but he wonders why HGH has not become a more central element of that issue.

In my heart I still hope NBC will commit to a true sports news/highlights show in the style of Sky Sports News. I hope when they do their first call is to Patrick.

#4 Mike Francesa (WFAN Radio, New York)

I have been defending Francesa for what seems like my whole life. Here’s the summary. If you are turning to Mike Francesa for sports information and insight you are an insane person and deserve the experience you encounter. You turn to Francesa, the only radio host on earth who does 5 1/2 hours a day, for Francesa. For his abusing idiot callers. For his commentary on sporting events he’s already admitted to not watching. For his needling of Rex Ryan and the New York Jets. Sometimes he screams at producers to break Rangers news. Sometimes he falls asleep on air. Sometimes he just leaves the air dead and reads something quietly to himself. Sometimes he goes year-for-year through a random third basemen’s career and evaluates his Hall of Fame credentials as drivers across the New York metropolitan area pass out and veer off the road.

It’s all great because it’s all Francesa and there’s simply nobody like him. He’s an original. Ask yourself how many of his critics are.

#3 Larry McReynolds (NASCAR on Fox et al.)

Larry Mac taught me about auto racing.

Noah and I decided a few years back to just start watching NASCAR. Not for any particular reason other than, “Hey, all these people watch it. There’s got to be something to it.” Sure enough there was. But for someone who has never owned a car and knows nothing about how cars work, learning to love NASCAR on a bar television was the equivalent of attempting to learn a foreign language in a class being taught by someone only speaking that language. I kept looking around the room with a “huh” type glance, searching for help.

McReynolds, a successful NASCAR crew chief, taught me everything. He taught me about chassis adjustments and why track bars get raised and lowered. He taught me about the importance of fuel mileage on the mid-range tracks. He taught me about communication patterns between driver and spotter. McReynolds does not only comment on what’s taking place on the track but seems to always be a step or two ahead of the action. That’s the mark of a great sports broadcaster and McReynolds is nothing short of that.

#2 David Feherty (CBS, Golf Channel)

Golf can be a stuffy game. As stuffy as a taxidermist’s work space. (I know.) Feherty is the antidote to that stuffiness. He presents golf to the audience with both a sparkling wit and a humbled awe. He knows how hard it is to do what the gentlemen on the PGA Tour do and he makes sure the audience does as well. But he also doesn’t mind having a bit of fun. More than that, he’s been brutally honest about his life of addiction and a recent bicycle accident that could easily have taken his life.

I thought Feherty was wonderful. Then I saw him interview Bill Russell on his Golf Channel program, aptly titled Feherty. Now I know better. Feherty is a wonder, sure, but he may also be the smartest, deepest, most intellectually curious voice in mainstream sports. Edgard Allen Poe famously said, “To look a fool is the act of a wise man.” Feherty is a fool. But his wisdom should never be taken for granted.

#1 Ian Darke and Steve McManaman (ESPN, Premier League)

Funny. Honest. Brilliant. I applaud the new NBC deal with the BPL but not having Darke and McManaman call the best of English football will be terribly sad as August turns to September. Watch this:

Honorable Mention

Pro Football: In a world where women are basically thrust onto sports television because they’re attractive, Stacey Dales & Kim Jones at NFL Network are both attractive and wonderful reporters. They’ve paid their dues and deserve your attention.

Basketball: Two words: back biting. Marv.

College Football: I don’t love his work on the NFL Network but Brad Nessler continues to be one of the most consistent and enjoyable play-by-play men in the college game.

Tennis: It should be no surprise to anyone but I think John McEnroe would be my #11 if I continued the list above. McEnroe tells the truth, even when that entails criticizing the match directly in front of him. He’s got a boatload of integrity.