TV’s most influential sportscasters

Forbes Magazine


(January 29, 2008) Televised sports have never been bigger. There are more games on the air. More pre-game previews. More post-game highlights. More everything.

Presiding over this sprawling domain? TV sportscasters. And John Madden is the most influential of the bunch, according to’s first-ever look at who’s tops in TV sports. When Madden talks, people listen.

His many extracurricular activities outside the broadcast booth are a direct reflection of the fact that the former Oakland Raiders head coach remains the most widely recognized and followed sportscaster working today.

“He can explain the most complicated NFL strategies in layman’s terms–everyone can understand ‘boom,”’ says Jon Chelesnik, a former ESPN Radio host who provides coaching and consulting services to sportscasters at his Sportscasters Talent Agency of America in Mission Viejo, Calif., referring to Madden’s trademark exclamation. “It just makes him likeable to everyone.”

Why care? Because the business of sports is massive in the United States, with television rights for the NFL alone topping an average of $3.7 billion a year and Major League Baseball generating in excess of $750 million annually. These guys–and yes, the top-10 list is all guys–are the public face of those multi-billion dollar investments.

By dint of their experience, insight and personal style, sportscasters shape the way fans see the action. They shape the conversation and bring fans closer to the game.

“It’s one thing to be able to explain a cover-two defense to someone who’s played football,” Chelesnik says. “But if you can explain it so my wife can understand it, you will appeal to a lot more people.

To find which sportscasters wield the most influence, we first compiled a list of the leading TV sportscasters working for a national audience, with the assistance of Chelesnik and Sports Media Challenge, a Charlotte, N.C., sports marketing and consulting firm.

To winnow our list to the 10 most influential, we turned to Omnicom subsidiary The Marketing Arm’s Davie-Brown Index, which uses survey data to gauge the appeal and marketability of public figures. In particular, we examined our candidates’ DBI scores for influence, trust, appeal and notice.

We also asked Nielsen BuzzMetrics to gauge the amount of chatter our candidates generated on the Web last year, with most of its search concentrated on sports blogs. Finally, we counted up press clippings from 2007, as measured by Factiva, factoring out as much as possible unrelated mentions of, say, a former athlete-turned-sportscaster’s previous playing career.

Just behind Madden is Chris Berman, a five-time winner of the National Sportscaster of the Year award. Berman, who has been with Disney’s (nyse: DIS – news – people ) ESPN almost since its inception, doesn’t seem to have met a pun or a nickname he didn’t like. That can be great fun during the fast-paced game recaps he specializes in. For a while, anyway.

If Madden and Berman’s on-air personas suggest a buddy you’d enjoy having a beer with, other influential sportscasters come across as more strictly “professional,” but with a finely honed style that resonates with viewers. Prime examples of this approach are Jim Nantz, Bob Costas, and, at 73, the oldest sportscaster on our list, Dick Enberg.

Nantz, Costas and Enberg are smooth operators in front of the camera, but retain a palpable enthusiasm for the event at hand. Moreover, all three are jacks-of-all-trades who have applied their polished professionalism to a wide variety of sports with equal aplomb.

Of course, former pro athletes have long been fixtures in broadcast booths as well. But while their playing experience endows them with invaluable first-hand knowledge of their respective sports, the ability to deliver pithy, to-the-point commentary on the fly is not something that just any former linebacker, shortstop or forward can provide.

One of the best ex-athletes to man a microphone today is former Dallas Cowboys quarterback Troy Aikman. As a color commentator for News Corp.-owned (nyse: NWS – news – people ) Fox Sports’ coverage of the NFL, Aikman exhibits zero interest in flash or fooling around. Instead, he simply breaks down plays and a team’s strengths and weaknesses with the precision of a surgeon–but in language a grade-school kid can comprehend.

Respected veteran broadcaster Al Michaels narrowly missed the cut, hurt by relatively modest buzz online and in the press. Meanwhile, the profile of pro basketball announcer Marv Albert, who’s still considered, by many, the best play-by-play man in any sport, still appears to be affected by his 1997 plea bargain on misdemeanor assault and battery charges.

In some ways, the continued prominence of sportscasters might seem a bit paradoxical. After all, the Internet gives sports fans access to a blizzard of information, statistics and up-to-the-minute news updates. Because the fan base is so much better informed than it used to be, aren’t sportscasters becoming less relevant?

Not a chance, says Rob Vogel, president and chief operating officer of the Bonham Group, a Greenwood Village, Colo., sports and entertainment marketing consultancy.

Just as fans have benefited from the Web, so have sportscasters, Vogel says. Thanks to the plethora of available information, he argues that storytelling has improved in TV sports journalism, as has the ability of announcers to provide instant context to what’s happening on the field.

“I think it just feeds the whole interest level out there,” Vogel says. “More information in sports has added to the marketability and interest in sports broadcasting.”