This week at The Ringer, in honor of the release of Woodstock 99: Peace, Love, and Rage, we will explore events that changed the world as we knew it—specifically ones that marked the ends of established eras and triggered the beginnings of then-unknown futures. Some will be overt and well established. Others will be less trodden and perhaps more speculative. But all will entertain an immovable idea that when things die, there is someone or something that pulled the trigger. Welcome to This Is the End Week.
The best thing about Dale Hansen stories is that they’re usually true. Take the Louie’s bar story. It took place in 1988. Hansen, Dallas’s top local sportscaster, did the 6 p.m. news broadcast. Then he went to Louie’s bar to await the 10 p.m. news, his second assignment of the evening.
In the ’80s, few people raised an eyebrow when a sportscaster repaired to a bar between newscasts. The story is what happened next. That night, WFAA Channel 8, Dallas’s ABC affiliate, was carrying the roll-call vote from the Republican National Convention for the party’s presidential nomination. The local news would be pushed back. Hansen figured he could relax.
At one point, Hansen looked up at the bar’s TV. The Alabama delegation was speaking. A few minutes later, he looked up again. Nebraska. Plenty of time. A few minutes later, Hansen looked up and saw Channel 8’s anchors. His show had started. He had no idea how long it’d been on the air.
Hansen ran out of the bar. He found his car was blocked in. He ran back inside. “Whoever’s driving the burgundy Jaguar has like five seconds to move it or I drive right through it!” he shouted.
Hansen sped to the Channel 8 studios. He walked in during the commercials right before the sportscast. At that moment, Hansen had no idea who’d won the night’s games. He’d drank a lot of beer. He did the sports.
“I nail it,” Hansen told me last week, with evident satisfaction. “I mean, I nail it. I go back to Louie’s, like the idiot that I was. Of course, I get a standing ovation.” That was local sportscasting in the ’80s.
On September 2, Hansen will retire after 41 years on Dallas television. “There’s a part of me that’s going to die,” he said. Something else is dying, too. Hansen’s retirement is the end of the Anchorman Era of local sports.
Hansen is one of the last active specimens of a type of sportscaster that emerged in the ’80s. He’s unapologetically local. “Do you want to die in Dallas?” Hansen asked his future wife, Chris, upon arriving in town in 1980. “Because I’m going to die in Dallas.” Hansen doesn’t care much about tweaking LeBron James. He cares deeply about tweaking the Cowboys, Rangers, and Mavericks. (Asked why he never left Dallas, Hansen told me, “I’m a big believer in the Peter principle.”)
Hansen’s localness allows him to look into a Channel 8 camera and seem like he’s talking directly to you. He wears a barely suppressed grin. His head bounces around the frame. Hansen ends some of his more pointed commentaries by saying, “Enjoy your day.”
Nobody watches Hansen’s two sportscasts a night to hear him analyze what happened on a particular play. Hansen’s unrivaled skill is figuring out that something has gone wrong (with the Cowboys or, perhaps, humanity in general) and concluding that he, Hansen, is the only person who can make it right.
“People invest their time in staring at a box,” said Hansen. “I can’t go up there and apologize for taking their time. I can’t be that guy that goes, ‘Hey, I hope I’ve got something here for you …’ No! I’ve got to get that thing running. Hey, lucky you. I’m here tonight. And I’ve got some good shit coming.”
In the Anchorman Era, a lot of sportscasters were stiffs. (Hansen calls basic sportscasters “mechanics.”) A small number were rebels. San Diego’s Ted Leitner and Detroit’s “Acid Al” Ackerman turned the screws on coaches and owners. In 1986, Hansen produced an incriminating envelope during the SMU recruiting scandals and created a great piece of TV theater. In 1994, Cowboys coach Barry Switzer punched Hansen’s arm while accusing him of delivering fake news. Two years later, Jerry Jones fired Hansen from his job as the Cowboys radio color analyst.
Over the past few years, Hansen has gone further. He delivered unabashedly liberal commentaries about everything from the January 6 insurrection at the Capitol to Michael Sam. When the commentaries took off, it was like the analog world of the ’80s had conquered Twitter, and Ron Burgundy had subscribed to Ramparts. Hansen became America’s local sportscaster.
“On September 2, a part of me dies,” said Hansen, returning to the thought. The part of local sports that could be ball-busting and quasi-noble—that dies, too.
If you didn’t watch local news in the ’80s, it’s worth sharing a few particulars about its stars. “They had the wide ties,” said Adam McKay, who directed Anchorman and helped create the vainglorious Burgundy. “They had the crazy suits. Always the way-too-important theme music.” A local newscaster sounded like Walter Cronkite announcing JFK’s assassination … if the newscaster were at that same moment trying to sell you a used car.
Long before Twitter, local newscasters were out there, having public, largely one-way conversations about their hair, their weight, their contracts, their egos. As Hansen likes to joke, “I’m so arrogant and egotistical that I don’t think I am.”
The local news lineup was always the same: two anchors, a meteorologist, a sportscaster. Sports was last in the pecking order. “What happens is local news does surveys,” said Len Berman, who did sports for three decades in New York City. “And the surveys always come back that people want the weather.”
The ’80s local sportscaster may have lacked gravitas. But he had creative freedom. He (it was nearly always a he) could be wacky. He could use props. The news anchors, fresh off describing a murder or a traffic pileup, seemed to look at him with a mixture of tolerance and envy.
In 1980, Hansen arrived in Dallas fresh off being fired from a sportscasting job in Omaha. Management showed him a tape of Verne Lundquist, then the top Dallas sportscaster and soon to leave town for a long career at CBS. Can you do this? they asked.
Hansen said he wouldn’t. It would be a mistake to try to be as smooth and soothing as Lundquist. Hansen knew he had to be outrageous. “There can’t be a better drug than somebody laughing at my jokes,” he said. Hansen did his sportscast from a comedy roast. When promoters wouldn’t let Hansen show footage of a Sugar Ray Leonard–Thomas Hearns fight, he recreated it with Rock ’Em Sock ’Em Robots. For a time, Hansen wore a black cowboy hat off the air.
At first, people were thrown by Hansen’s manner, how comfortable he seemed to be on TV. As Hansen likes to say, he doesn’t know what the word nervous means. When Cowboys radio announcer Brad Sham learned he would be paired with Hansen on the team’s broadcasts, Sham told him, “Just so you know, I really don’t like you.”
It was always an open question as to where ’80s sportscasters’ TV personas ended and their real ones began. Boston’s Bob Lobel told me his on-air self was just one, sarcastic part of his actual self. “I always felt, ‘This is not who I am. It’s what I do,’” he said. In San Diego, Ted Leitner chucked the teleprompter and insisted the camera roll right up to his face, as if to push as much of himself into viewers’ living rooms as possible.
Hansen thought his TV self and real self were identical. He told me: “I swear to God, I’ve never said anything I don’t believe. I don’t think Skip Bayless could make the same argument. I’m not even real sure Stephen A. [Smith] could make the same argument. But I know I can.”
If Hansen bristled with attitude on the air, he was solicitous to viewers. In the ’80s, local sportscasters were like aldermen. Hansen made sure his newscasts were filled with high school coverage. Put kids on TV, he figured, and you win over their parents (and later the kids themselves).
When Hansen showed Cowboys highlights, he inserted cutaways of fans cheering at Texas Stadium. Before TikTok, being on TV was a big deal. “You stick a camera in someone’s face,” said Hansen, “they will watch.”
Hansen didn’t write his sportscast for sports experts. It was written for the masses. To this day, Hansen never says, “Jerry Jones.” He always says, “Cowboys owner Jerry Jones,” on the off-chance someone doesn’t know who he’s talking about.
To be a local sportscaster in the ’80s was to feel like you had everybody’s attention. “When I was fighting for the biggest piece of the pie, there were only three people trying to grab it,” said Hansen. ESPN was in its infancy. All Hansen had to do was clobber the guys on Channel 4 and Channel 5.
In the ’80s, local stations battled to pry away a tenth of a rating point. The anchors got famous and rich. Leitner told me he got calls at the station from women asking for romantic assignations right now. “It was just—how should I put this?—wonderful,” he said.
But the competition turned local news into a fiercely bottom-line business. Consultants weighed in on story selection. Hansen’s Channel 8 newscast was fairly tranquil compared to the competition. But much of local news drifted toward lurid murders, depressing cuteness, the cult of the anchor.
“If we were at all sober, practical-minded citizens,” said McKay, “we would have been like, ‘Hey, stop with the nonsense! Let us know what’s going on at the city council! Let us know what’s going on in the state legislature! We need to know this shit!’ But the party that was going on from the late ’70s into the ’80s … No one cared.”
“When President Clinton was elected, we flew to Arkansas to cover the big rally,” Hansen told me. “When Barack Obama became the first Black president elected in the history of the United States, all the stations in Dallas took a network feed. We had no local presence because ‘We don’t need to spend money for that.’”
Dallas media people grumbled about Hansen more than just about any subject other than the Cowboys. There was his ego, his considerable salary, his verbal slip-ups. Last October, Hansen made a sexist crack about the pay of women who work in television. (In his apology, he blamed his tendency to go for a laugh even when talking about issues he cared about.)
But there was something else “respectable” media types found unnerving about local sportscasters. It was that Ron Burgundy and Champ Kind resembled us. Part of us, anyway. The secret part. The part that thinks we have some good shit coming. The part that wants readers and listeners to think they’re lucky to have us. The inner voice we were trying to suppress was the voice Hansen was speaking in at 6 and 10 p.m.
“People look at that as arrogant or selfish or it’s all about me,” said Hansen. “Well, it is all about me. I mean, at the end of the day, the highlights are the same. The ball scores are the same. The information is the same. So they have to decide, where am I going to get that from?”
Today, selling your own brilliance isn’t just for local sportscasters. In case you missed it, it’s part of everybody’s job.
Before Twitter, a sportscaster took a certain joy in telling fans what the scores were. “It was like you had secrets to tell them,” said Bob Lobel, “and they were anxious to hear those secrets.” The best local sportscasters knew the information monopoly would end. They’d have to use the newscast not just to inform fans but to speak on their behalf.
In Detroit, Al Ackerman coined the snarky phrase “bless you, boys” after the Tigers ended a losing streak. When the Tigers won the World Series in 1984, it became their mantra. In San Diego, Ted Leitner cut loose in segments called “Leitner Strikes.” A postcard once reached him that was addressed to “Asshole, in care of Channel 8, San Diego.”
In Dallas, Hansen’s sportscast dripped with righteous sarcasm. A typical example: “Last week, the papers were full of stories about how the Eagles defense would blitz the Cowboys on every play. Coach Dave Campo says he never reads the papers. And after last Sunday’s game, I believe him.”
As the Cowboys slipped into mediocrity, Hansen blasted his drinking buddy, Jerry Jones. One year, at Cowboys training camp, Jones and Hansen were set to go out for a beer. First, Hansen had to deliver the sportscast. While Jones stood just off-camera, Hansen nuked him and the Cowboys. The segment ended. Jones said: “You want to go grab a beer?”
Then Hansen found another gear. In 2014, after NFL prospect Michael Sam announced that he was gay, Hansen wrote a commentary that was explicity focused on social issues.
To watch it now is to see a pretty basic Twitter take translated into the language of local news. Hansen’s commentary had short, simple sentences. It was disarmingly personal. It had a hook. “I don’t understand his world,” Hansen said of Sam. “But I do understand that he’s part of mine.”
The commentary got shared widely for a lot of reasons. It was really good. It was pleasingly old-fashioned. It was delivered by a white, 65-year-old Texan.
But part of what made the commentary arresting was its presence on local news. Hansen was doing something novel. He was using the capital he’d accrued by giving the ball scores to take his newscast to a righteous place it hadn’t been before. Hansen got booked on The Ellen DeGeneres Show. When he went to Washington, D.C., to accept a lifetime achievement award, he met Obama.
For the next few years, Hansen went “unplugged” when the spirit moved him and (like newspaper columnists before him) when he could find a sports hook. He cracked the Cowboys for signing Greg Hardy after he was arrested for assaulting an ex-girlfriend.
Hansen defended NFL players who protested during the national anthem. “They—and all of us—should protest how Black Americans are treated in this country,” he said on the air. “And if you don’t think white privilege is a fact, you don’t understand America.”
In 2016, Hansen wrote a commentary after the killings of five Dallas police officers. He said he was so inured to mass shootings that he could barely tear himself away from the Rangers game that night. He called Texas’s lieutenant governor, who blamed peaceful protestors, a “fool.” He addressed the horror of the shootings without giving an inch, ideologically-speaking: “Shooting a police officer is not the answer to a problem that too many people deny.”
“People say to me, ‘You always think you’re right,’” said Hansen. “Well, of course I think I’m right. I wouldn’t say it if I didn’t think I was right. Who the hell does that?”
Though Hansen weighed in on the insurrectionists at the Capitol (“they are the deplorables”) and the near-collapse of the Texas power grid, there’s only so much righteousness local news can stand. Lately, most of Hansen’s social commentaries have run on a streaming show called Daily Blast Live, which airs on WFAA, rather than on the news.
“Everything I’m identified as is gone,” Hansen said of his impending retirement. “Every place I’ve ever been, I’m introduced as, ‘You all know Dale Hansen. We watch him on Channel 8.’ It’s gone.”
How do you distill 41 years of being Dale Hansen into a couple of minutes? Hansen has been rolling around his final sign-off in his head.
“I’ve always been afraid of this day because I’ve always known this day would come,” Hansen will say. “My dad said that to me when my mom died. And now I understand just a little bit of what he felt that day. Because a part of me dies tonight. Maybe the best part. Certainly my favorite part. Because this is my life.”
That’s it for an era of local sports. Enjoy your day.