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NCAA TOURNAMENT: Local announcers not eager to make jump to TV

by RICHARD SANDOMIR The New York Times on March 29, 2014 10:54 AM

Joe D’Ambrosio has called Connecticut men’s basketball games on the radio for 22 years. He knows the team well. He loves speaking directly to a fervent audience of local fans.

If the Huskies reach next weekend’s Final Four, he will be a natural candidate for the so-called teamcasts that will air on TNT and TruTV that weekend, using the colleges’ local men’s basketball announcers for alternative productions to supplement the traditional national broadcasts.

Turner and CBS, which televise the NCAA tournament, want those localized broadcasts to give viewers a visceral, hometown-style experience — the sort that local radio listeners get during the season.

For the early game April 5, TNT will use local announcers for one team, and TruTV will have local voices for the second team.

The format will repeat for the later game. At the same time, TBS will carry the traditional national broadcast, without any hometown bias, with Jim Nantz, Greg Anthony and Steve Kerr calling the game.

Turner and CBS executives started the tournament with a list of about 100 prospective announcers for the teamcasts, culled from the ranks of local radio and television stations as well as regional and conference networks.

Each game has eliminated candidates and narrowed the field. The networks’ preference is that the radio announcers for the Final Four teams call the TNT and TruTV games.

The opportunity sounds like a tantalizing shot at national exposure for a local announcer. But D’Ambrosio does not want it. And a series of interviews with other radio announcers whose teams are still in the tournament, or have recently lost, found that others shared his view.

“It’s a great idea, and I understand what they’re trying to do,” D’Ambrosio said.

“But I’d be hard-pressed to think that other guys who’ve spent all year on their radio broadcasts would be willing to jump ship.”

Matt Lepay, who calls Wisconsin games, will not budge from his radio perch.

Learfield Sports, the marketing company that owns the over-the-air radio rights to Wisconsin games, said no.

“Anytime network television reaches out, your knee-jerk reaction is to say, ‘Where do I sign?” Lepay said. “But we’ve been with Wisconsin on radio all season long. Why change up now?”

The teamcast concept is meeting the reality of team loyalties and corporate ties.

“I don’t want to leave our friends and family for a one-time TV gig,” said Tom Leach, the play-by-play announcer for Kentucky basketball. “Our radio audience is like family.”

As powerful as announcers’ loyalty is, Learfield controls the multimedia rights to 98 colleges, three of which were still playing in the tournament this weekend: Wisconsin, Iowa State and Louisville. So when Turner made its request to use announcers from the three teams, Learfield said no. Joe Ferreira, the chief content officer at Learfield, said, “When we got the request from Turner, we were a little surprised that they were asking them to work for another entity instead of where they’re employed.”

IMG College holds the multimedia rights to 77 colleges, including six still alive after Thursday’s games: Florida, Arizona, Connecticut, Kentucky, Tennessee and Michigan. Although Turner and CBS have not made a formal request to use those teams’ radio announcers, they have begun to contact some of the announcers individually, IMG College said.

Chris Ferris, a vice president at IMG College, wrote in an email that fairness to fans, sponsors and stations meant “having the same talent in place that began taking fans on this incredible ride all season.”

That suggests that Turner and CBS will probably have to give up on radio announcers and shift their sights to the local, regional and conference television announcers who would probably be free of similar encumbrances. Television simulcasts of the radio calls were not seriously considered because of logistical difficulties.

Craig Barry, the senior vice president of production for Turner Sports, said he expected that it might be hard to pry radio announcers from their perches at the Final Four. “But we have to reach out,” he said. “We’d be stupid not to.”

He added that he and his CBS colleagues had announcer depth charts three and four deep for each remaining program, and they were confident that their choices would bring the requisite local, emotional brio. One, Mike Hartsock, who calls Dayton Flyers games on local television, is prepared to call one of the teamcasts.

“The teamcasts are about the fans first and creating an experience where fans see a differential between the national broadcast and a team-biased broadcast,” he said.

The decisions on whom to hire are not expected to be made until Monday. An announcement is planned for Wednesday.

It could be fun for fans to hear local radio announcers scream their passionate hearts out on national television — and maybe there will be one associated with a team that is not linked to IMG College or Learfield. But the exercise in localizing the Final Four has proved instructive about the strength of the ties between loyal fans and college teams.

“I feel an obligation, and I have a certain following,” said Mike Kennedy, the radio voice of Wichita State basketball for 34 years. “When you get involved with a team, you become enthusiastic for a team. I don’t consider myself a homer, but when you listen, you know who I’m for.”

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