The October-to-April stretch is the prime rib on the sports menu. On the schedule for those seven months: the World Series, the Super Bowl, March Madness, and the Masters. This year, the titans of sports broadcasting who will bring us all of these choice events are Fox's Joe Buck and Jim Nantz of CBS. Is that really the best we can do?
Buck, the voice of Fox baseball and football, is the definition of occupational mediocrity. He's also, sadly, the more compelling figure of the two. The son of legendary St. Louis Cardinals broadcaster Jack Buck, Joe is a charter member of the sportscasting legacy society, at the mike more because of his last name than his overwhelming talent. Like another beneficiary of nepotism whose last name is four letters long and starts with "B," Joe evinces smugness in the face of extraordinarily low approval ratings. Check out this Holiday Inn commercial in which a bunch of worshipful dudes corner him at the hotel bar. These are the sportscaster equivalent of Bush campaign rallies, where only supporters were allowed in, and anyone wearing an opposition T-shirt got kicked out.
Buck's broadcasts typically descend into awkward attempts to hug it out with his younger audience members. One classic example of Buck's cloying sense of humor came after Pam Oliver teasingly threw to "the cool Chris Myers." Buck then went berserk: "You are cool. … You are the epitome of cool. … Pam Oliver is right. … You are cool, Chris Myers!" But the Buckism that sticks with me most is his infamous announcement after Fox re-upped its contract with Major League Baseball: "You're stuck with us!"
The masters of biting wit, the Kornheisers and Cosells, use sarcasm to puncture the sports power structure. Buck's Simpsons quotes and sarcastic digs, though, serve to separate him from the average viewer. People have a pretty good sense of who brings a populist streak to a telecast (think John Madden), and who brings the kind of sneering condescension that screams "obey authority."
Buck's worst moment, his over-the-top scolding of Randy Moss' faux moon during a 2005 playoff game, is best understood by looking at its corporate context. The Moss moon came the season after the infamous "wardrobe malfunction" at Super Bowl XXXVIII, and the networks were scared to death about getting fined by the FCC. Buck wasn't outraged by Moss' harmless taunting—he was afraid of the potential criticism and penalties against his employers. Note Buck's silence after Reggie Bush's display of poor sportsmanship in the NFC championship game, which was ugly but not indecent. That change of tone makes you wonder if he has any opinions that don't serve the interests of the suits upstairs.
Buck's time in the national broadcast booth is mostly done until baseball cranks up again. That leaves the next few months to Jim Nantz. CBS's main man will have an extraordinary run of big events starting Sunday. After the Super Bowl, he will be courtside at the Final Four in Atlanta, then pivot east to call the Masters in Augusta, Ga.
Nantz is probably best known for his golf work. That's fitting, for no one projects an image of country-club piety and blandness quite like him. While technically sound, he is one of the few in the business capable of turning a rousing AFC championship game into a round at Torrey Pines. Nantz is the opposite of screamers like Gus Johnson and Kevin Harlan —he has an internal governor that pulls him back at moments when he should get excited.
When there is an obvious big story line, like the Colts' final drive against New England two weeks ago, he ably sets the stage. But Nantz usually prefers to fade into the background, biding his time until he can unfurl a cornball capper. My favorite is this coda to the 2005 NCAA tournament: "It started in March, ended in April, and belonged to [Sean] May!" Oof. I prefer my play-by-play man to call the game, then let the celebration speak for itself.
Nantz's wallflower behavior is a result of swallowing the CBS mantra that the analyst—Billy Packer for hoops, Phil Simms for the NFL—is the star. Nantz is the epitome of the company man, the Man in the Gray Flannel Network Blazer. One gets the strong feeling that he's in the booth because he plays golf with the right people at CBS, because he can be counted on to get the promos in on time, and because he isn't the type to embarrass the network with racial gaffes. Is he good at his craft? Sure, but he won't make you tilt forward in your seat like Marv Albert or Bob Costas or Al Michaels.
Sunday's extravaganza in Miami will surprisingly be the first time Nantz dons the Super Headset. He's off to a typical start, gushing that he's happy it's the 41st edition of the Big Game, due to his close friendship with George H.W. Bush. Naturally, Papa Bush is a golf buddy. During the game, expect Nantz to jam the preordained story lines (Peyton vs. Rex, dueling African-American coaches, etc.) down our throats, while ignoring personnel shifts and formation tendencies. That will be the purview of Phil Simms, who's a smart analyst but tends to over talk, an excusable trait since his partner seldom leads him to the nuts and bolts analysis.
What's the common bond between Buck and Nantz? They both offer the calming reassurance of a corporate promotional video. Buck's self-serving geekiness and Nantz's vanilla extract convey that all is well, that the brand names (CBS, Fox, Budweiser, the NFL, the Masters) still run the sports world. Buck and Nantz aren't play-by-play men so much as vice presidents in charge of communications. They just happen to sit in the broadcast booth, not the luxury box.