On Sunday, CBS hopes you won’t hear Ian Eagle calling the Super Bowl. No offense to Eagle. He’s fantastic. But that would mean CBS activated an emergency plan and something bad happened to Jim Nantz.
Eagle is the Super Bowl’s backup announcer. Its break-glass-in-case-of-emergency guy. Its Chad Henne. Eagle has gotten used to the job. “I’ve actually been the break-glass guy two other times,” he told me this week. At the 2016 and 2019 Super Bowls, CBS asked Eagle to be in town on Sunday on the small chance that Nantz lost his voice or had a medical emergency. Eagle, CBS’s no. 2 play-by-play announcer, would have called the game.
This week, Eagle is also listed as the backup for Kevin Harlan on the radio. “I’m officially José Oquendo,” he said.
In a normal year, backup Super Bowl announcers are minor figures. During the coronavirus pandemic, they feel like the Cabinet secretaries who get left home during the State of the Union address. The Super Bowl is a commercial-delivery vehicle worth more than $400 million to CBS. Eagle is helping to protect the game not just from a bout of laryngitis, but from a pandemic that left the networks scrambling all season. In a year full of backup plans, Eagle is the last one.
Network executives have come to the Super Bowl with announcer succession plans for two decades, though they rarely discuss them, even with the announcers. In 1997, Pat Summerall and John Madden were set to call Fox’s first-ever Super Bowl. “I thought, God, what happens if one of those guys gets sick?” said George Krieger, a former Fox executive. Krieger called around to make sure the network’s no. 2 team, Dick Stockton and Matt Millen, were on site in New Orleans just in case. Stockton wound up watching the game as a fan; Millen called it for the radio.
Last year, Fox didn’t need to work up an elaborate emergency plan. Joe Buck was calling the game. In the same press box, Kevin Burkhardt, Fox’s no. 2 announcer, was calling the game on the international feed.
Not every network arrives with substitutes. NBC’s Fred Gaudelli, who has produced six Super Bowls, said he’d never heard of bringing fill-ins to the game site. “That thought has never crossed my mind,” Gaudelli said. “It would definitely cross my mind if we were doing this game.”
Announcers have sick days like everybody else. In the case of Summerall, who dealt with alcoholism while he was at CBS, the network had a super-sub like Verne Lundquist on standby. But only a tiny number of announcers have found themselves unable to call a big game. In 1989, NBC’s Vin Scully missed Game 2 of the National League Championship Series with laryngitis. Nearly three decades later, ESPN’s Dan Shulman missed a World Series game on the radio for the same reason.
If you narrow the focus to only TV games with tens of millions of viewers, the list is even shorter. Joe Buck couldn’t speak two days before the 2004 NFC championship game; he later had voice problems he attributed to nerve damage he got during hair-transplant surgery. But Buck called the games. Perhaps the closest a massive event has come to losing its announcer was when Bob Costas got a viral eye infection at the 2014 Winter Olympics. After six days off TV, Costas walked back into the studio and reclaimed his chair.
On the record, announcers will tell you they want to be as reliable as the players on the field. Off the record, they’ll tell you Super Bowls are like trophy heads. They wouldn’t dream of handing the prize to someone else, even a colleague.
The coronavirus stripped away a little of that bravado. Announcers from ESPN’s Doris Burke to the University of Alabama’s Eli Gold got back positive COVID-19 tests. Tony Romo and Al Michaels missed games due to what their networks called COVID-19 safety “protocols,” a nebulous term that could mean an announcer had contact with someone who had the virus. After missing CBS’s final regular-season game, Romo called the Saints-Bears wild-card playoff game remotely.
All season, the networks kept their break-glass announcers close by. According to Gaudelli, NBC’s Sunday Night Football crew took rapid COVID-19 tests at the game site every Saturday night. If any of them tested positive, NBC had subs ready to fly in to replace Michaels, Cris Collinsworth, and Michele Tafoya, or Gaudelli, his director, and technical director, on Sunday morning.
“This whole season has been so odd,” Eagle said. “You go do your preparation, but you’re not cleared to work unless you get the email that says, ‘Your test came back negative, report to work.’”
The networks’ COVID-19 safety measures made announcers feel like a protected class in a way even huge salaries and limos did not. As of this week, Eagle had (happily) taken nearly 70 COVID-19 tests. In the NBA bubble last summer, he called games from a plastic chamber that reminded him of the armored vehicle the Pope rides in. “I was very certain that I would not be assassinated,” Eagle said.
In normal times, NFL crews are about as socially distanced as a traveling circus. This season, Eagle’s CBS crew didn’t have a single in-person dinner or production meeting.
“There are camera guys that have been on my crew for 10 years that I did not see once,” Eagle said. “Literally did not see over 18 weeks. I texted a few of them at the end of the season just to check in.”
On Sunday, Eagle’s job is to do a segment on the CBS pregame show with his partner, Charles Davis. “I’m not preparing as if I’m going to do the game,” he said. “I’m preparing to cover the Super Bowl.”
But as the backup announcer, you can’t not prepare to call the game. Here, Eagle has a leg up. This season, he called both a Chiefs and Buccaneers game; he called the AFC championship game for Westwood One. That means Eagle prepared hand-written “boards”—the info-packed cheat sheets announcers hold while they’re calling a game—for each team. Eagle can cross off players like Eric Fisher and bring the boards to Tampa.
Asked whether he was ready to call the Super Bowl in an emergency scenario, Eagle said, “Yes.” His voice had so much certainty that it was almost toneless. It was like asking a veteran quarterback whether he was ready to play in the Super Bowl.
“Of course you like to know the assignment ahead of time, like to prepare in the way you’ve grown accustomed to,” Eagle said. “But if you have to step in and call a game at a moment’s notice, that’s not going to be a problem.”
I’ve always thought no. 2 announcers are a lot like backup quarterbacks. Whenever we get frustrated with the no. 1, the no. 2 looks better and better. Like Henne’s heroic work against the Browns, no. 2 announcers are insurance options. While Nantz is holding up CBS for “Romo money,” the New York Post reported this week, the network re-signed Eagle.
Eagle almost got called off the bench once before. In 1996, ESPN hired him to announce the NBA draft lottery on the radio. It was a big break early in Eagle’s career. As the lottery was about to start, an executive in the New Jersey studio threw his arm around Eagle. The executive said Bob Costas, who was hosting the lottery on NBC, was stuck in traffic. Eagle should forget the radio. He needed to get ready to be on national TV in seven minutes.
Eagle went to makeup. He took Costas’s chair on the set. He led the NBA team representatives on site through a rehearsal. With two minutes to airtime, Eagle was ready to go. Then a security guard burst into the studio and yelled, “Costas in the building!” Eagle stood up. He surrendered the chair. He passed Costas as he walked off the set. “Ian,” Costas said, “I’m sure you would have done a great job.”