The 2019 Sports On-Air All-Stars
Paper scraps dotted the streets of New York’s downtown Canyon of Heroes on Wednesday. After the U.S. women’s national team paraded to City Hall, 30 tons of confetti-turned-trash were left for 350 sanitation workers to deal with. Thursday morning’s remnants, the remaining slips of detritus fluttering through Manhattan like modern tumbleweeds, now provide the perfect metaphor.
Call it a hangover. A drought. Doldrums. These next few weeks represent the deadest period in sports. We’ve enjoyed the NBA Finals, the league’s draft, and a frenzied free agency period. Our cups ranneth over with Cups—World, Gold, Stanley, European. And now we pay.
July is the only month without serious college competition. There are no NBA or football games. While Hollywood pumps out summer reboots and sequels, sports puts out its own: Gilbert Arenas playing 3-on-3, Michael Vick playing flag foo—actually scratch that, even the American Flag Football League is off this month.
Facing the dull barren, writers find refuge in the evergreen relief of lists—awards, rankings, and predictions. Since you’re here, evidently so do you. But a midyear sports media reflection serves a slightly different purpose. Sports’ quiet period officially ends in August when college football and the NFL return. Reflecting on the year before that, then, means reviewing a landscape largely devoid of Romomania or any other football-specific programming.
Days after the MLB All-Star Game, here’s my starting nine of broadcasters based off the first six months of the year. These On-Air All-Star picks were made without consideration of any written work, for the sake of simplicity, but also in case I need to put together an All-Writer team later in the month. During a drought, every potential angle must be preserved.
ANCHOR: Scott Van Pelt, ESPN
Reserves: Mike Tirico, Sage Steele
This position has lost two legendary Bobs so far this year with Costas and Ley making their departures official. Leaving NBC and ESPN respectively, they take with them nearly a century of combined experience and a heap of earned gravitas. When the next bit of breaking news or scandal rocks the sports world, the voices owning the story will be different.
Anchoring a midnight SportsCenter, Scott Van Pelt has carved out a different niche, trading hard-hitting segments for zeitgeisty fun. But in a series of personal monologues, starting with one in January about grieving the death of his father, Van Pelt also showed his storytelling power. Audiences have responded, most recently providing encouraging ratings during the NBA Finals, which Van Pelt discussed on the SI Media Podcast. The days of concern over the show’s viability are long gone. Now the question is, how much influence can a late night sports show host accumulate?
STUDIO HOST: Rebecca Lowe, NBC
Reserves: Rachel Nichols, Ernie Johnson
Like SVP, Lowe has shared more with viewers in 2019, as NBC spotlighted her during Lowe Down segments. With Premier League ratings continuing to rise, coupled with Ley’s retirement, Lowe has emerged as one of America’s most trusted voices in the sport (covering a bit of horse racing while she’s at it.)
Meanwhile, Rachel Nichols and Ernie Johnson continue to spoil basketball fans. Nichols has succeeded in translating the NBA’s online culture on her daily The Jump program, and Johnson just keeps doing his thing steering Inside the NBA. He won another Emmy this spring, before enjoying a well-earned hero’s welcome upon his return to Milwaukee during the playoffs.
STUDIO ANALYST: Clark Kellogg, CBS
Reserves: Charles Barkley, Jalen Rose
Before CBS moved Phil Simms from game coverage to the studio, they did the same with Clark Kellogg, back in 2013. “It was a surprise, it clearly was,” Kellogg told the New York Post this March. “I had gotten every indicator that things were going well. I tell people if I hadn’t been sitting down, I would have fallen down.”
Six years on though, it’s hard to imagine Final Four coverage without him at the studio desk. March Madness wouldn’t be the same without the 58-year-old’s (happy belated birthday!) consistent presence. Kellogg’s reliability always allows Barkley to be Barkley during college coverage. And he was particularly thrilling to watch this year, as Auburn made its Final Four run.
PLAY-BY-PLAY CALLER: Jim Nantz, CBS
Reserves: Mike Breen, Chris Fowler
This is by far the most loaded position, with Emmy winner Doc Emrick narrowly missing the cut. But it’s hard to argue with the man atop the list after Nantz craftily covered the AFC Championship Game, the Super Bowl, the Final Four, and the Masters in short succession, responding to Tiger Woods’s historic win with smart silence. “This is unquestionably one of the great cases of serendipity when it comes to scheduling that I’ve ever seen [in] the sports broadcasting world,” Nantz said in May.
And Fowler has earned his spot, going back to his call of the College Football Playoff National Championship Game—and, with Federer v. Nadal XV coming Friday, the best may be on the way.
GAME ANALYST: Aly Wagner, FOX
Reserves: Jay Bilas, Paul Azinger
A year ago, Wagner impressed as the first female analyst calling World Cup games for English-language television. This time around, the 10-year national team member was the perfect analyst for the U.S.’s triumph in France. It’s rare that a first-time lead analyst slides into a role—especially for an event as popular as a World Cup—without attracting at least some level of criticism, and yet Wagner was able to naturally balance impartial criticism with deserved celebration throughout the tournament.
It’s often hard to believe she entered the industry four years ago. Back in 2015, original Fox Sports president David Hill reportedly told Fox Sports vice president of production David Neal, “I don’t even know who that is, but she’s the best color commentator you’ve got.” This year Neal told Richard Deitsch, “She’s been on an absolute rocket ship.”
GAME REPORTER: Ken Rosenthal, FOX
Reserves: Doris Burke, Allie LaForce
Rosenthal does something different than just about every other sideline reporter, delivering scoops for The Athletic between broadcast appearances. “I still get the most satisfaction from writing a good story,” he told the Sports Broadcast Journal last month. That said, a large portion of baseball fans benefit from his insider knowledge strictly through his FOX hits.
FOX benefits too, as Rosenthal helps the broadcast expand beyond whatever’s going on in fair territory. “He has more integrity in this business than anyone I’ve ever met,” Joe Buck said.
NEWS REPORTER: Adrian Wojnarowski, ESPN
Reserves: Jeff Passan, Adam Schefter
Woj’s draft night tweets might not have resonated the way they did in 2018, but no other newsbreaker is as ingrained in their sport’s culture as ESPN’s top NBA reporter. And few others manage to collect scoops while also appearing on shows from dawn past dusk, not including the podcast Wojnarowski has been putting out every other day. The man is a machine.
It’s also worth noting ESPN’s dominance in this category. With the addition of Passan last year, the network netted the only clean sweep on the roster.
FEATURES CREATOR: Adam and Craig Malamut, WarnerMedia
Reserves: Armen Keteyian, Jen Lada
I went a bit off the board here, but I believe it’s well deserved. The Malamut brothers are the creative minds behind Bleacher Report’s Game of Zones animated series. Parodying NBA drama with a medieval vibe, they’ve now racked up nearly 16 million views. No one else has produced eight memorable segments filled with as much humor and insight this year.
Armen Keteyian is already delivering for The Athletic, providing credibility while telling interesting stories like this one on ex-college basketball stars’ visit to Hollywood. As for Lada, her work with Drew Brees this winter and on NBA2K player oLARRY's journey back from tragedy more recently proved again that her abilities extend beyond the anchor’s desk.
DESIGNATED CHATTER: Dan Patrick, AT&T
Reserves: Stephen A. Smith, Rich Eisen
Dan Patrick’s openness about ongoing health problems triggered a wave of support and respect for one of sports media’s GOATs. It was a reminder of the legacy he’s built. It also was hopefully a nudge to continue enjoying possibly the best interviewer in sports as long we can.
ON-AIR FUTURES TEAM
While we’re here, how about a look at nine up-and-comers who have a good shot of joining the above names in the next 10 years, if not sooner.
Stephanie Ready, NBA play-by-play caller (TNT)
Amanda Balionis, Golf reporter (CBS)
Gary Striewski, Snapchat host (ESPN)
Scott Rogowsky, MLB analyst (DAZN)
MJ Acosta, NFL reporter (NFLN)
Malika Andrews, NBA reporter (ESPN)
Kevin Brown, MLB play-by-play caller (Orioles)
Courtney Lyle, College play-by-play caller (ESPN)
Katie George, College reporter/anchor (ACCN)
• ESPN’s Jeff Dickerson detailed his late wife Caitlin’s struggle with cancer before an extremely personal Jimmy V Foundation donation push.
• On the podcast front, Bobby Burack spoke with the aforementioned Dan Patrick about a potential return to ESPN and more. Front Office Sports, meanwhile, has a written Q&A with Norby Williamson, ESPN executive vice president and executive editor, production.
• Sports media’s newest feud is Jay Onrait vs. Chris Broussard.
• Tedy Bruschi is reportedly “recovering well” after suffering another stroke.
• ESPN expanded its Statcast coverage for this year’s Home Run Derby.
• DAZN is being quite open about its desire to add NHL, NBA, and NFL content to its $19.99/month service.
• Richard Deitsch took a lengthy look at the short-term future of women’s soccer broadcasting.
• Merchandise is increasingly key to online publications’ bottom lines, Mark J. Burns writes.
• The Ringer’s Rodger Sherman rounded up (rounduped?) “the bizarre media circus that surrounded Kawhi Leonard’s free agency.”
• Joe Buck talked to John Ourand about the success of FOX’s in-game interviews during the All-Star Game.
• This week’s hallelujah: Adam Silver hinted that changes might be coming to the league’s byzantine draft night trade rules.
THANK YOU, INTERNET…
...for continuing to give Ty Jerome a platform, including, I guess, on golfdigest.com.