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Wednesday, April 17, 2024
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Ian Eagle Is Ready to Get March Madness Started

  • Eagle succeeds Jim Nantz as the lead play-by-play announcer for CBS and TBS.
  • He’ll call the Final Four with Bill Raftery, Grant Hill, and Tracy Wolfson.
Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

If you’re wondering why Ian Eagle seems calm about succeeding Jim Nantz as CBS’s and TBS’s lead March Madness announcer, consider that the sportscasting fraternity is a small world.  

Over the course of his career, the 55-year-old Eagle has worked so many games with analysts Bill Raftery and Grant Hill, and sideline reporter Tracy Wolfson that calling March Madness will be like homecoming week for CBS’s new lead NCAA broadcast crew. 

On a conference call previewing coverage, Eagle estimated he’s called more than 600 college and NBA basketball games with Raftery. For his part, Raftery recalls working Eagle’s first NBA telecast back in the 1990s with the then New Jersey Nets, as well as Jim Nantz’s first NCAA game in ’86. Closing the circle, Grant Hill remembers calling his first college basketball game in 2015 with—you guessed it—Eagle and Raftery.

“He thought Jim Nantz was staying at the hotel under a pseudonym, Iron Eagle, like the movie,” recalled Eagle. “Then he realized, no, it was actually Ian Eagle calling the game.”

Adding to his comfort level, Eagle, Raftery, Hill, and Wolfson will make their TV debut together at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center on Friday afternoon, calling Northwestern vs. Florida Atlantic. As the Brooklyn Nets’ play-by-play announcer for decades, that’s practically his living room. 

“To do this with Bill, Grant, and Tracy, it really is going to feel very seamless. In many ways, it will feel like we’ve been doing it together for many years,” says Eagle. “Part of what makes this event so unique and special is there’s somebody out there right now, that we are not talking about today, that will be the focal point of sports in America. And it happens every single year. It’s a guarantee.”

Still, there’s no getting around the fact that Eagle will have big shoes to fill as he succeeds Nantz. The legendary 64-year-old announcer called more Final Fours and championship-game telecasts than anybody in history. Starting in 1986, Nantz called 32 championship games, 64 national semifinals, and 354 tournament games. After Brent Musburger left CBS during a contract dispute in ’90, Nantz slid into the lead play-by-play role with the late Billy Packer in ’91. While he maintains his position as CBS’s top NFL and Masters announcer, Nantz decided to step down after last year’s Final Four, played in his adopted hometown of Houston, to spend more time with his family.

The pressure will be on Eagle & Co. Without superstars like Zion Williamson to draw in casual viewers, it feels like there’s more buzz about the NCAA women’s basketball tournament—with Iowa’s Caitlin Clark—than the men’s tournament this year. Connecticut’s win over San Diego State last year was the least-watched men’s final on record, averaging 14.69 million viewers on CBS. That was down 14% from the 2022 title game between bluebloods North Carolina and Kansas. And this year’s Final Four will be shown on the TBS cable TV network, rather than a broadcast channel like CBS.

Like Eagle, Raftery knows what it’s like to wait his turn. The veteran announcer called the Final Four on radio for 23 years before getting the chance to call his first TV Final Four at age 73 in 2015.

Raftery finally got his shot at CBS’s No. 1 NCAA broadcast team after former lead analyst Greg Anthony was arrested and charged with soliciting a prostitute in 2015. With his trademark phrases like “onions” and “with a kiss,” Raftery earned rave reviews. At age 80, he’s ready to roll again.

During his career, Raftery mentored both Eagle and Nantz as they called their first basketball telecasts. Calling game after game, night after night, for the hapless Nets in the mid-’90s proved to be a school of broadcasting hard knocks for Eagle, says Raftery. 

“There’s a challenge every night of a team that’s underwater, and to tee it up every night with the same enthusiasm and preparation, I had this feeling things were going to happen for him,” says Raftery. “He certainly has worked hard to attain this status. It’s just a thrill to see what he’s been able to do with his career—and I think it’s certainly going to be exciting for the people watching this year.”

Eagle, who joined CBS in 1998, is off to a good start as Nantz’s successor. The Syracuse alumnus earned strong reviews from viewers for his coverage of the Big Ten tournament. He and Raftery communicated the right note of excitement as Wisconsin upset Purdue in the semifinals. “This is what March feels like!” trumpeted Eagle.

Eagle looks like he stepped out of central casting for buttoned-up sportscasters. But inside, he said he’s still the kid who watched Magic Johnson and Larry Bird go mano a mano in the 1979 NCAA title game. He looks forward to calling his first Final Four on TBS from State Farm Stadium in Glendale, Ariz. “I’m just ready to get the Madness started,” Eagle said.

RedZone-Like Show Coming to Olympics

The RedZone-ization of sports coverage continues apace. Now an NFL Network RedZone-like show is coming to NBC’s Olympics coverage.  

Peacock said Wednesday it will roll out the Gold Zone whip-around show for the 2024 Paris Olympics. It’s uniting two longtime competitors, Scott Hanson and Andrew Siciliano, to host the show along with Matt Iseman and Akbar Gbajabiamila. For years, Hanson and Siciliano hosted dueling RedZone shows on NFL and DirecTV. Now they’ll work together at Peacock. The show will stream from July 28 to Aug. 10.

With up to 40 events occurring simultaneously on any given day, Peacock will also offer a Multiview tool enabling fans to follow four events live at the same time for sports such as soccer; track and field; and wrestling. The Live Actions tool will enable fans to add upcoming events to a My Stuff tab to be watched later. As Hanson would say, the “witching hour” is coming to the Olympics.

Michael McCarthy’s “Tuned In” column is at your fingertips every week with the latest insights and ongoings around sports media. If he hears it, you will, too.

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