Adam Amin is an ESPN play-by-play announcer and has worked in various sports broadcasting settings. He gives us some insight on what it’s like to be working in his field and his experience with college sports specifically in the SEC Conference.
Q: How did you get started in sports journalism?
A: There are a lot of reporters, broadcasters, etc. who seem like they knew they wanted to do this from the time they were young. I wasn’t one of them. My first foray into any time of sports journalism was as a junior in high school when the public access station needed a play-by-play announcer for a high school football game and I just did it for fun. I did it maybe twice more when I started to think, “Hmm…this is kind of cool.” A friend of mine who was a few years older was attending college (Valparaiso) and suggested that if I wanted to try broadcasting and journalism, I’ll get a lot of opportunities at Valpo. With no real idea of what I wanted to pursue in college (I was a jack of all trades, master of none), I said sure. When I got to Valpo, I dove in head first, working at the radio station for the sports and news departments as an announcer, a reporter, and a host. And picking up work at the student newspaper as a reporter and sometimes-columnist. That was my initial exposure to journalism.
Q: What led you to your career with ESPN?
A: A lot of things, actually. Things seem to fall into place at the right time for me. I had been out of school for about 15 months, was working in New Jersey as a minor league baseball announcer on radio, and met Ian Eagle. Ian is one of CBS Sports’ top play-by-play announcers, he lives in New Jersey, and was at our ballpark. He was the head of a sportscasting camp for younger kids and asked me to speak to his camp. Of course, I jumped at the chance to do it and for whatever reason, he and I hit it off and he took a liking and an interest in me. He would critique my tapes, we’d speak for a couple of hours once a month and he’d let me ask him questions and probe for advice. When I returned home to Illinois after the baseball season, I began freelancing for several companies doing radio and TV play-by-play and eventually I built up a decent enough resume tape. I’m glad I did because in January of 2011, Ian’s agent contacted me and essentially said, “Ian won’t shut up about you, he says you have an extremely bright future and I want to know if he’s right. Do you have a tape to send me?” I sent him a tape, he loved it, asked to meet with me in Indianapolis in March and again in New York in May after I had moved back to New Jersey for a second baseball season. I decided to take a chance with Ian’s agent, he then became my agent, and after shopping me around to a couple of TV executives, ESPN called me in July of last year and hired me for a full-time TV schedule at 24 years old.
I was good enough at this to catch someone’s eye, I was nice enough to make a good impression, and two guys who had some decent pull went to bat for me when they absolutely had no reason to. Timing, circumstance, and making a good impression as a broadcaster and a person: those things got me to ESPN.
Q: How does having a passion for sports help you as a reporter? How is it different as a television broadcaster from a writer?
A: Having a passion for sports, at the very least, will give you an understanding as to why people invest so much into something that, in the long run, really doesn’t matter. Sports is an escape for the fan. It’s an opportunity for the athlete. It’s a business for those involved. If you were to take sports away, the world wouldn’t come crashing down. But try to explain that to the football fan who just saw their undefeated season come to an end. They won’t listen to you. The passion that fans feel is rooted deep in their psyche and you won’t be able to change that. Once you understand that, it allows you to build stories, give context and perspective to those tales, and deliver them to people in a way that makes them understand WHY sports are important to so many, even if in the very large scope of things, they’re not.
As a TV broadcaster, it’s a bit different than being a writer. A writer needs to dive into context of that passion. On TV, I can tell you that the rivalry between Alabama and Tennessee football goes back to 1901, it has developed into a fierce rivalry, and then our director can show you photos and videos of Tide and Vol fans fighting after one particular game in 1974. I don’t need to explain much of that. I have support on TV with graphics, photos, videos, the game itself and the crowd surrounding it. Writers are so impressive to me when they can dive into that 111 year history and concisely explain to you why it means so much.
Great broadcasters are good writers because they can tell a story well. Writing is a skill that ANYONE who wants to be in journalism needs. Just because you’re on TV, doesn’t mean you’re not writing. It’s just a different medium with less column inches.
Q: How is covering sports when you were in college different than your experience as a hired professional?
A: I’ll start by saying that it’s similar because credibility is so important regardless of your experience level. When I was in college, I built credibility with coaches by being there. Being at practice, being at games, asking for time in the office to chat. Building up comfort and credibility, I was able to become a better reporter because those coaches (and players, for that matter) knew that I was trying to do a good job by being honest, yet still being fair.
When I called minor league baseball, a sport that requires a fair amount of storytelling, I had to build credibility with the players and coaches so that eventually, they trusted me enough to tell me things I would use properly and also to tell me things they knew I was smart enough not to say. But it took a while for those guys to trust me. Once they saw that I was there every day (at batting practice, in the clubhouse) and that I was only trying to do the best job I possibly could, the respect and trust was there.
Now, how is it different these days compared to college? Those four big letters: E. S. P. N. That’s INSTANT credibility. ESPN, as much as some people may love or hate it (or just certain aspects of it), is the biggest name in sports. It’s one of the most successful business in the United States and it is synonymous with sports. When I walk into a coaches office, I have credibility immediately because of who I work for. Coaches (for the most part) trust that I’m not an idiot because I’m working for ESPN. So immediately, they know that I’m there to get info and try to put together the best broadcast possible.
But just like in college, credibility is fragile. One mistake, one mispronunciation, one inaccurate piece of information, suddenly your credibility is up in the air. It’s one of the most important things (if not THE most important) a journalist needs to maintain. That will never change.
Q: What are your favorite events to broadcast? Why?
A: I get asked this question a lot. “What is your favorite sport to call? Is there a certain event you love?” And I say this with pure sincerity: if people care, then I care. My favorite events to call are the ones in which people have a vested interest. I’m a crowd noise junkie. I live for screaming fans, I live for booing the road team, I live for a game-winning touchdown in overtime or a buzzer-beater or a walk-off homer. And I’ve called all of those. And I can’t even try to compare or contrast which one is better or cooler or more fun. They’re all a blast. I like a good game and a good atmosphere. Doesn’t matter who the teams are or who’s watching.
Q: How does SEC football culture differ from other conferences in your opinion?
A: We talked about passion earlier. And not to say that those other conferences don’t have that passion. I’ve covered the Big 12, the Pac 12, the ACC, the Big East…nothing comes close to the SEC. Football in those cities is a religion, a cult, a devotion that I sincerely cannot comprehend. Tailgating is great all over (I’m from the Midwest. Madison, WI is pretty legit, you guys) because you can get some beer and some decent ribs just about anywhere. But there’s something that is embedded in the DNA of the folks from those towns that won’t let them take a step back from fandom and look at the big picture. It’s about the build-up, the reaction, the camaraderie, the hate for the other school. And it starts from the womb. You just don’t see it in any other conference or in any other sport. I mentioned Alabama/Tennessee earlier, a rivalry known simply as the “Third Saturday in October.” The late, great Beano Cook once said: “If you are a fan of Tennessee or Alabama football there are two rules to live by: Don’t get married on the third Saturday in October and try not to die – because in either case, the preacher may not show.” That’s the type of devotion we’re talking about in the SEC.
Q: How is covering SEC football different from other schools? Do you think these teams are favored by the media?
A: I don’t think, for me as a play-by-play announcer, it’s too different from covering other schools. I’m there for the game, I’m there for the result of the game and the context of how it affects the scope of the season. But reporters, pundits, talk show hosts, THEY cover the SEC much differently than other conferences. And they should. Why? BECAUSE THE SEC WINS. There’s no denying that. And winners get the praise. Right now, in today’s college football landscape, the SEC is the king of the club. If the Big 12 had won the last six BCS titles, then people would be complaining about Oklahoma the same way they complain about Alabama getting more coverage than someone like Iowa State. I’ll steal something from a wonderful colleague of mine, Dari Nowkhah, because he can explain this very well: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CNdn12oDBpE
Now, to step to the other side for a moment, Colin Cowherd, another ESPN colleague, said that ESPN is a business. A very successful one. So when Notre Dame is winning, that’s good. Why? Because there are A LOT OF NOTRE DAME FANS WHO WILL WATCH ESPN WHEN THEY’RE ON. What does that translate to? Money. ESPN isn’t rooting for anyone because they’re going to put the games on TV regardless of who is playing. But when ND is in the title game, the execs are doing a bit of a happy dance because ND = ratings = money. Simply put. And you know what? That’s how they SHOULD feel. That’s good for your business. You want things that are good for your business. I don’t think there is a media bias. I just think there’s a bias towards winners. It’s been that way since the standings were printed in the newspaper.
Q: What do you like about SEC football? What do you dislike?
A: Likes: quality of football, quality of coaching, the intense passion of the fans, the context of great rivalries.
Dislikes: The intense passion of the fans. I’ll explain: it’s a love/hate relationship I have with SEC football fans. I think it’s an absolute blast to be in an SEC stadium with 80,000 to 100,000 people going nuts for every play. But outside of the games, I have a problem with fans posting photos of AJ McCarron’s mother on Twitter. I have a problem with vandalizing property at the rival school and being showered with praise by the home fans for it. I have issues with how coaches are treated as Gods when they win and compost when they lose. I don’t like it. And I know I’m speaking in generalities here and they certainly don’t speak for EVERY school or EVERY town or EVERY fan. Maybe I’m too much of an idealist to think that the rivalry is great for the 3 to 3.5 hours on the field, and then you shake hands, share a beer, and say “see you next year”. But I feel that way about sports and sports media in general. I love games, I love calling them, I love going to them. And then you know what I love? Going home. I don’t want to dive into the post-game analysis and debate. I like good stories, telling good stories, I like games, and calling good games. After that, send me on my next flight home or to my next game.
Q: What are some great memories you have of covering college sports, or particularly in the SEC conference?
A: I could talk for days about some great memories, great games, etc. Calling a thrilling Kentucky/Tennessee volleyball match that went five sets with a packed house in Lexington; 85,000 in Norman for the Bedlam Series when Oklahoma beat their rival Oklahoma State in overtime after the Sooners tied the game with four seconds left on a touchdown; Georgetown & Marquette swinging back and forth in our nation’s capital before Hollis Thompson sent 17,000 people to their feet with a game-winning three in the final seconds; watching Western Kentucky, a team that had no business in the postseason, a team that had fired its head coach three months earlier, win four games in four nights to secure a bid to the NCAA tournament; a walk-off bloop by Jimmy Rider to send Kent State to its first ever College World Series (sorry, Ducks…)…
For the moment, those are just some of the things that stick out. But my favorite SEC moment goes back to Alabama/Tennessee. I had never really called a big-time football game until this year. I had Tide/Vols on national radio and I just remember driving up to Neyland Stadium and seeing thousands of people already waiting outside the gates for the tradition known as “The Vol Walk””. All the things I mentioned about culture and passion and intensity manifest itself in an eerie silence outside of Neyland when all those fans are waiting for a bunch of 18-23 year olds whom they’ll treat like their own children for the next four hours. The first time I experienced that, it gave me chills.
Q: What advice can you give to young reporters who hope to someday cover college football or sports in general?
A: If I knew the formula on how to make it in this business, I’d sell it and retire. But it’s an inexact science, this sports media business. I think the most important thing in being a great reporter is credibility. Be honest, be fair, search for the story, get the facts, and be right. Be prepared. For whatever it is you’re doing. Calling a game, reporting on a game, interviewing someone. Know your subjects. I was told preparation is the backbone of greatness. Sounds hokey but it’s right.
Be ready to start small. I lived in the Siberia of the United States, Spirit Lake, IA for 8 months for my first job out of college. I learned so much in that job and it gave me a ton of perspective on what I wanted to do. I rode buses in the minor leagues for three years. I drove myself to more events than I can count and got paid JUST enough to cover gas and some food at times. But it was experience. It got me ready for what I’m doing today. I cut my teeth in those small jobs so when I got to ESPN, I knew how not to make those same mistakes (although, we all still make mistakes).
Be ready to never say no. As I type this, I’m in the midst of a stretch of eight days where I’m calling six games in four sports. But when someone called me and asked if I can cover a college football game on radio in between a game on TV and an NFL game, I said absolutely. Maybe I’m just a crazy person but someone has to do all this work, it might as well be you or me.
Be ready to sacrifice. I was seeing a woman last year who broke if off with me because I was working on Valentine’s Day. I missed out on a few birthdays. I had to skip out on parties in college and weddings of friends this year because I was calling a game. But I know where my priorities are for the time being. Will they change? Of course. And a big reason I COULD sacrifice so much was because I had a loving and supportive family and very understanding friends. But I sacrificed early so I could set myself up for what I’m doing now. I live in Chicago now and get to see my family and friends more often. And it’s all worth it in the end to do something you love, and then have your friends be jealous because your job is cooler than theirs.
And last but most importantly, be a good person. You have to go out of your way to be a jerk to people. But kindness in this business is a true commodity and it goes much further than being a jerk. Give people a reason to want to help you out. I make it a point to stop by our production truck before and after our games to say hello to all the great people who work on our broadcasts because they’re the real stars of the business. We just get the glory because our faces are on screen. They’re the ones who bust their butts to make you look good. And showing them appreciation, showing the people you work for and with appreciation, and just being a good person will take you much further than being a prima donna ever will.