Sports Media Watch presents the ten worst personnel moves of the 2000s.
#10: Al Michaels as lead NBA play-by-play voice (2004-05, ABC)
This seemed like a good idea at the time. After all, Michaels added credibility to ABC’s NBA telecasts, and was an instant upgrade over predecessor Brad Nessler.
So what was the problem? For one, lack of commitment. During his two season tenure as ABC’s lead NBA analyst, Michaels called just 13 of a possible 26 regular season games, with all but two games taking place from either Los Angeles (where he resides) or Sacramento.
More important was the fact that Michaels, to quote the Dallas Morning News’ Barry Horn, was simply “not a basketball guy” (Sports Business Daily, 6/27/05). He put in a decent performance during each of the games he called, but he lacked the kind of enthusiasm and confidence expected of a #1 play-by-play voice.
On occasion, he seemed unsure of himself. For example, when Amare Stoudemire famously blocked Tim Duncan during the ’05 playoffs, Michaels was hesitant to call it a block at first, instead calling it a “great, great contested shot.” He had a lackluster performance towards the end of the one of the great playoff games of the decade (Game 5 of the ’05 Finals), culminating with a mediocre call on Robert Horry’s game winning shot.
Overall, it was clear that basketball was not his area of expertise. And it was easy to get the feeling – as Bill Simmons did during the ’05 Finals – that Michaels “shows up for these games, does his job, then drives home thinking, ‘Only five weeks to the [NFL] Hall of Fame Game, I’m almost there!’” (SBD, 6/23/05).
#9: Brad Nessler as lead NBA play-by-play voice (2002-03, ESPN/ABC)
Marv Albert is a tough act to follow. Just ask Brad Nessler, who served a one-year stint as the voice of the NBA.
ESPN/ABC tapped Nessler in ’03 to be the lead play-by-play voice for NBA games, pairing him with Bill Walton (and adding Tom Tolbert later on). Nessler was a veteran announcer, having called college football and basketball games, but lacked experience broadcasting the NBA.
It showed. Nessler was not horrifically bad, but merely out-of-place. Maybe he would have been a better fit as a #3 or #4 broadcaster for NBA games, but as the lead he was woefully inadequate. He stammered often (welcome to the “ABA… the, uh, NBA on ABC”), and – like his replacement, Al Michaels – seemed somewhat unsure of himself at times.
As the New York Times’ Richard Sandomir said during the ’03 playoffs, Nessler “does not know game strategy well, lacks rhythm and enthusiasm in his game call, does not bring out the best in his partners, Bill Walton and Tom Tolbert, and too often ignores the score” (SBD, 5/2/03).
After the ’03 NBA Finals were the lowest rated in history, ABC decided to clean house — replacing Nessler with Michaels.
#8: Lisa Guerrero on Monday Night Football (2003, ABC)
Though she was “replacing Melissa Stark, not Sam Donaldson,” as Barry Horn pointed out (SBD, 6/30/03), Lisa Guerrero’s presence on the Monday Night Football sidelines became a lightning rod for the media. From the very beginning, the decision was viewed as another example of looks taking precedence over talent, and that was exacerbated by an FHM shoot that came out just before her debut.
“Guerrero is offensive to any female with brains,” the Denver Post’s Mark Kiszla wrote shortly after her first regular season game, “Guerrero insults any male who not only loves the game, but respects it in the morning” (SBD, 9/9/03). Another writer said Guerrero was “there strictly as eye candy for the predominantly-male audience, and to pretend otherwise is to even further insult whatever intelligence that audience may have” (SBD, 9/17/03).
Those reviews may be harsh, but Guerrero did not exactly acquit herself well. In her very first regular season game, she asked Washington QB Patrick Ramsey “about his pregame conversation with former teammate Laveranues Coles” — a perfectly harmless question, except for the fact that Ramsey and Coles had just become teammates, and the conversation in question had taken place between Coles and Jets’ QB Chad Pennington (sportscentral.org, 8/19/06). The error was later mocked on SportsCenter by John Anderson and Stuart Scott.
Fairly or unfairly, the gaffe only bolstered the perception that she was hired solely for her looks — competence notwithstanding. Guerrero lasted only one year before being replaced by Michele Tafoya.
#7: Tim Hardaway on NBA Shootaround (2002-03, ESPN)
Don’t you have to audition for these jobs?
Hardaway was ESPN’s lead NBA studio analyst during the first half of the 2002-03 season. But as he showed later in the decade with his less-than-eloquent comments about homosexuality, he did not have a way with words. As Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel writer Bob Wolfley noted, English was Hardaway’s “second language. Maybe third. … Even if you allow for some measure of informal street dialect, Hardaway’s lexicon is way beyond the line. Beyond that, his analysis is barely ordinary.” (Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, 11/15/02).
In another article, The Sporting News deemed Hardaway ESPN’s “hip-hop equivalent to [Monday Night Football reporter] Eric Dickerson,” noting that Dickerson at least “tried to speak English” (The Sporting News, 12/9/02). The Miami Herald called Hardaway “perhaps the worst network commentator in history” (Miami Herald, 4/11/03).
ESPN replaced him with Greg Anthony in late December, moving him to a lower profile role. Hardaway returned to the NBA in ’03.
#6: Bryant Gumbel calls NFL games (2006-08, NFL Network)
Bryant Gumbel seemed about as suited to call NFL telecasts as fictional characters Frasier and Niles Crane.
Gumbel, the first play-by-play voice for NFL telecasts on NFL Network, was horribly miscast. Often, he appeared unfamiliar with some aspects of the NFL, making it hard to imagine him even choosing to watch games in his spare time. Take this summary of his performance during an ’06 game: “He mispronounced Terrell Owens’ first name, referred to Falcons WR Michael Jenkins as “Mike Jennings,” [and] called the 30-second play clock the “shot clock” (SBD, 12/18/06).
Those mistakes did not go away with time; during a game in ’07, he called Cowboys’ QB Tony Romo “Rick Romo” (SBD, 12/3/07), and during another game, he “violated an announcer rule when he didn’t wait for the referee to signal the result of a field goal” (SBD, 12/7/07).
Worst of all, Gumbel lacked enthusiasm, appearing — even if unintentionally — to not really care about the games he was calling. Newsday’s Neil Best in ’07: “[Gumbel] seemed barely awake at times [on Saturday]. … His worst trait is being understated to the point of missing the story and drama” (SBD, 1/3/07).
#5: Dave O’Brien calls the World Cup (2006, ESPN)
As seen earlier in this list, it is not often a good idea to have an announcer call a sport with which he is unfamiliar – or is perceived to be unfamiliar.
Dave O’Brien was an outsider on arguably the biggest stage in sports – the World Cup. While he was not terrible, and received praise from some critics, he was never accepted by soccer purists – and that is putting it lightly. He was “eviscerated by [soccer] diehards” to the point that a petition protesting his presence on World Cup telecasts “drew more than 5,000 signatures” (Sports Illustrated, 7/20/06).
He did not help his cause when he lashed out at said purists: “I’m a baseball guy. And that’s a dirty word among soccer enthusiasts. … There’s kind of a petulant little clique of soccer fans. There’s not many of them, but they’re mean-spirited” (SBD, 6/14/06).
Though several media critics said that he improved as the World Cup went on, soccer fans were not too pleased with having to deal with a work in progress on the sport’s biggest stage. As then-ESPN ombudsman George Solomon noted: “the selection of someone with so little soccer experience to cover the world’s biggest soccer event was a mistake” (ESPN.com, 8/1/06).
#4: Chip Caray on MLB/TBS (2007-09, TBS)
What was it about Chip Caray that made him so hated by the critics? Was it his “frequently (and ridiculously) loud” voice, as Richard Sandomir suggested in ’07? His mistakes, like when he famously referred to a lineout as a base hit in an extra inning one-game playoff? Perhaps it was his love of the cliché, almost to the point of seeming like a parody of a sports broadcaster.
No matter what the reason, Caray was one of the most critiqued broadcasters in recent memory — especially during years when the Yankees were in the playoffs, opening him up to the ire of the New York sports media critics.
Criticism of Caray reached a fever pitch during the 2009 postseason. Caray had a “horrendous, error-prone postseason” (Wall Street Journal, 12/2/09), during which his “mistake-laden, wait-is-he-actually-watching-these-games? work … humiliated both him and the network” (New York Magazine, 12/2/09). How bad was it? Consider these comments after TBS ended its playoff coverage: “We survived Chip Caray,” and “Our long national nightmare is over” (SBD, 10/22/09).
Weeks after the end of the ’09 postseason, Turner and Caray parted ways.
#3: Tony Kornheiser on Monday Night Football (2006-08, ESPN)
Everybody lined up to take their swings at Tony Kornheiser during his tenure on Monday Night Football.
From former MNF producer Fred Gaudelli to onetime colleague Joe Theismann – and all the sports media critics in between – Kornheiser was an obvious target for criticism. After all, Kornheiser, the Washington Post writer and Pardon the Interruption co-host, had no place in the booth.
More conditioned to discussing storylines than X-and-Os, Kornheiser’s very presence turned Monday Night Football into something resembling what Theismann would later call an “issue oriented” broadcast. In the studio, he may have been a better fit. But on games, he was a distraction.
Perhaps that would have been okay if Kornheiser was at least as entertaining on games as he was on Pardon the Interruption. But during his three season tenure on Monday Night Football, Kornheiser seemed aimless, pointless, and occasionally awkward, growing more comfortable only after Theismann was replaced by Ron Jaworski.
#2: Dennis Miller on Monday Night Football (2000-02, ABC)
Monday Night Football has been obsessed with stunt casting during this decade – from Guerrero and Kornheiser to John Madden. But the boldest move of all came at the start of the decade, when comedian Dennis Miller was added to the broadcast booth.
If the move was made to generate buzz, it certainly succeeded. Miller’s hiring was a huge story at the time, even making the cover of Sports Illustrated. If the move was made to attract viewers, it was a flop. Viewership for Monday Night Football declined in both of the years Miller served as an analyst, rising the season after he left.
The general consensus in the media was that Miller would either rejuvenate Monday Night Football or be a gigantic failure. As Ed Sherman noted, “Miller will either be a terrific hit, or he will turn the broadcasts into awkward flaps. There will be no middle ground” (SBD, 6/23/00). Except, there was indeed middle ground. Miller wasn’t necessarily bad. He wasn’t necessarily good, either. Despite all the buzz and the hype, Miller was neither a savior nor a villain.
In fact, that may have been the biggest problem for Miller. He was supposed to be at least reminiscent of Howard Cosell, inspiring intense love or intense hatred. However, instead of being a major cultural icon, he turned into just another guy in the booth. “[H]is presence added nothing,” one reviewer noted (SBD, 1/9/01). By the end of his tenure, Miller had “toned down the act that made him radioactive in 2000,” contributing more “cogent football talk” than expected (New York Times, 1/15/02). Why get cogent football talk from a comedian when you can get it from someone with actual expertise?
ABC was prepared to bring Miller back for a third season in ’02, until John Madden became available. Then they unceremoniously dumped him (and fellow analyst Dan Fouts).
#1: Rush Limbaugh on Sunday NFL Countdown (2003, ESPN)
Political beliefs will no doubt shape how people view this move.
Limbaugh, the conservative talk radio host, was a literal sideshow. During his brief tenure on Sunday NFL Countdown, his set was segregated from the main cast (one writer referred to it as “ESPN’s version of the kiddie table”). He would “deliver a short commentary each week, and then … have three chances to ‘challenge’ something that someone else is saying” (Salon.com, 7/15/03).
Limbaugh received mixed reviews. Some did not find him to be particularly noteworthy, despite the hype. He “didn’t really add much,” one reviewer said of his debut (SBD, 9/5/03). Others approved of the move, including the Times’ Sandomir, who called it “by far the most significant and successful change to the NFL studio programs” (SBD, 9/9/03).
Where did it all go wrong? In late September ’03, Limbaugh trashed Donovan McNabb, saying that he didn’t think the Eagles’ QB had been “good from the get-go,” and attributing his success to the media being “desirous that a black quarterback do well” (SBD, 9/30/03). The comments resulted in a major media firestorm and Limbaugh’s resignation.
But while Limbaugh was roundly criticized, he was merely doing the job for which he had been hired. As ESPN’s Mark Shapiro noted after Limbaugh’s comments about McNabb, “We brought Rush in for no-holds-barred opinion. Early on, he has delivered” (SBD, 10/1/03). Limbaugh later said that ESPN “told him to crank up the volume on his football-show essays,” and that there were “some people who said, ‘Your essays aren’t edgy enough’” (SBD, 10/7/03).
The mistake here lies not with Limbaugh, but with ESPN. Keep in mind the Limbaugh hiring came during the same period as Playmakers, Dream Job and other frantic attention grabs. Hideously bad decisions were a hallmark of ESPN in the early 2000s. The decision makers behind the Limbaugh hiring knew what they were getting into.