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The Future of the Black Play-by-Play Announcer

Protests around the country have raised concerns about representation in every aspect of American life, including sports. Broadcasters in the booth are the narrators of our games, but there are disproportionately few Black voices in those roles.

Ringer illustration

In 2001, Marcas Grant had a media job that was almost romantic. Grant was the play-by-play voice of the Visalia Oaks, a Class A minor league team in Central California. For someone who prizes “creative nerditry,” it was a great outlet. Grant would mention the name of a season-ticket holder on the air. The fan, who was listening to a radio in the stands, would turn to the booth and wave.

“You have to love the romance,” Grant told me, “because it is not lucrative in any sense.” To be the voice of a minor league team, he was paid $500 a month, plus free housing. Grant had no health benefits. He sometimes used the coffeemaker in the team motel to boil water for ramen.

Toward the end of his second year of play-by-play, Grant started looking closely at his finances. His student loans from USC were coming due; he had car payments. Even if he could find a second minor league job, he worried about making ends meet. “You’re talking about low- or unpaid internships,” said Grant. “It is hard to continue to do that over a long period of time and sustain yourself.” Grant left the minors. He later got what amounted to a copyediting job at the NFL Network, worked his way into a bigger role, and is now a fantasy football expert.

During his time in the minors, Grant, who is Black, never met another Black minor league play-by announcer. “I kind of felt like a novelty in a lot of ways,” he told me. He added: “You don’t see a whole lot of folks who look like me doing this.”

Minor league announcing jobs don’t get much scrutiny. That’s kind of the point: Young announcers, fresh out of college, get reps away from the prying eyes of Media Twitter. But after the protests over George Floyd’s killing began, the makeup of minor league broadcast booths has gotten a public examination. It turns out Grant’s experience in the minors isn’t unique for a Black announcer. It’s more like the norm.

There are no official numbers about representation in minor league announcing. But Jon Chelesnik, the CEO of the Sportscasters Talent Agency of America, estimated there was only a tiny handful of Black play-by-play announcers in the minor leagues last year. There are more than 100 announcing jobs. Jeff Lantz, the senior communications director for Minor League Baseball, didn’t dispute that tally and said MiLB was aware of the disparity. Announcing jobs, he said, are “pretty much dominated by white men.”

“It is a white fraternity, in a lot of ways,” said Greg Young, the announcer for the Class A Carolina Mudcats, who identifies as mixed race. “There really isn’t a lot of diversity.”

This month, Adam Giardino, a white play-by-play announcer who worked for a decade in the minors, created a grant and scholarship program to help aspiring Black play-by-play announcers. Giardino had a goal of raising $3,000. By this week, he’d raised more than $20,000.

“I think a lot of people had that moment of clarity,” said Giardino. “But it’s been a couple of years, and we as a group have done nothing about it until now.”

The lack of Black play-by-play announcers at all levels of broadcasting is a very old problem. As far back as 1983, civil rights leader Joseph Lowery noted “the disparity between Blacks on the playing field and the absence of Blacks as full-time members of the crew that broadcasts the event.”

In 2001, Greg Gumbel became the first Black play-by-play announcer to call a Super Bowl on network TV. “I think you’ll start seeing more African American talent coming through the pipeline,” CBS Sports president Sean McManus told The Chicago Tribune. Gumbel is still the only Black play-by-play announcer to call a Super Bowl on American TV—and he last called one 16 years ago.

In 2007, Dave Sims of the Seattle Mariners became just the third Black play-by-play announcer hired full time by a team in the history of Major League Baseball, the New York Daily News’ Ebenezer Samuel noted. A June investigation by writer David Jones found that none of the 130 college football teams in the Football Bowl Subdivision had a Black radio play-by-play announcer.

Play-by-play announcer James Verrett, who is Black, pointed out that Black announcers work a lot as analysts. But getting the play-by-play job—the network’s version of the voice of God—“is something that is a wall,” said Verrett. “It’s sort of like the Black quarterback situation.”

“You look at the people who for generations have been the play-by-play announcers that we hold as the titans of the industry,” said Chris Lewis, who calls women’s basketball and other sports for Boise State. “They’ve typically been the Brent Musburgers, the Vin Scullys, now the Jim Nantzes. They fit a certain box of what you’re supposed to look like, sound like, and act like.”

The same disparity appears on college campuses. Every year, the Sportscasters Talent Agency of America presents the Jim Nantz Award to the best college broadcaster in the country. This year, Chelesnik said, only three of the nearly 250 students who applied for the award were Black.

“Before the past month that has brought the racial conversation to the forefront, there just wasn’t much acknowledgement from the industry about the problem,” said Gregory Wong, an announcer with the Salem Red Sox who is Chinese American.

“Whereas people like me, African Americans, Hispanic broadcasters, other minorities—we’re actively thinking about it all the time.”

In the Before Time, when there was Minor League Baseball, aspiring play-by-play announcers tried to latch on with teams after their senior years of college. The jobs are heady—in a city like Amarillo or Altoona, you can be Boog Sciambi. The problem is, you have to survive on little or no money.

Young’s first job out of college was an internship with the Class A Modesto Nuts. The position was unpaid and didn’t have health benefits. Young’s pay, such as it was, was to the opportunity to call the middle innings of a game while the lead announcer took a break—the idea being that the experience would help him land his next job. “The hardest part is just making sure that you have somewhere that you can sleep every night,” he said.

After graduating from Syracuse, Lewis, who is Black, got a choice gig. He was the voice of the Idaho Falls Chukars, an affiliate of the Kansas City Royals. The pay, Lewis said, was $1,000 a month. Since the Chukars play a short season, Lewis’s total pay amounted to about $4,000. He didn’t get health benefits, either.

Minor league teams will tell you they are perpetually cash-strapped. But making low- or unpaid positions the gateway job for an industry can create the same racial disparities seen in book publishing and magazines. Worse, announcers can spend a decade or even more in the minors, waiting for a call from a big league team or TV network. “It’s sort of like searching for the Holy Grail,” said Verrett. “You may be out there in the desert for a long time.”

“That very obviously disproportionately affects minorities,” said Steve Granado, a Mexican American play-by-play announcer who has called games from Idaho to North Carolina.

“It sounds all well and good: ‘I want to be a baseball broadcaster,’” Granado continued. “That sounds like ‘I want to be a fireman.’ But firemen get benefits, pensions, and retirement plans. That doesn’t happen here.”

A big issue in Minor League Baseball is who’s choosing the announcers to begin with. Minor League Baseball has no central broadcast entity. Hiring is left to the teams’ front offices, which tend to be mostly white. In 2017, The Undefeated reported that, in 160 minor league front offices, there were “12 women and/or people of color among presidents, vice presidents, and general managers.”

“I highly doubt it’s a conscious effort,” Granado said of the teams’ hiring practices. “But it’s like everything in this country right now. More times than not, it’s this subtle, built-into-society type thing.”

When the training ground for young announcers is almost totally white, it influences who gets hired for jobs at the next level. “It’s one of those things that is definitely a problem in Minor League Baseball,” said Dominic Cotroneo, a Texas League announcer whose father is the radio announcer of the Oakland A’s. “But you can also say it’s kind of indicative of what’s happening in Major League Baseball.”

Conversations about hiring and fairness that once happened in private are slowly becoming public. Grant said that his parents asked him if being Black made his career progression more difficult. Grant tried not to dwell on the idea. “It is an overly competitive industry with a whole lot of people and not enough jobs,” he said. “That part of it is hard enough without having to think that there’s another obstacle.”

“I was silent for a very long time,” Granado told me. “For years, I was very scared to talk about this, very worried that that’s going to put a target on my back.”

“I don’t know what that big move is,” Granado said of diversifying the booth. “But I know what the small move to get to that big move is, and it’s talking about it.”

A few years ago, Adam Giardino and other announcers noticed that minor- league broadcast booths were changing. Announcers like Melanie Newman were getting play-by-play jobs, breaking the male grip on the position that persists at nearly all levels. Giardino regarded the development as happy and overdue. But the lack of Black play-by-play announcers only pointed out how much work Minor League Baseball still had to do.

When protests began in May, Giardino wondered how he could address the problem. “My children and my grandchildren are going to say, ‘What were you doing then? What was going on in your world as a 31-year-old?’” he told me. Early on, Giardino was afraid his answer would be that he’d liked a couple of tweets. “That just felt horribly vacant,” he said. “I just needed to do something.”

After conceiving of what came to be known as the Black Play-by-Play Broadcaster Grant & Scholarship Fund, Giardino reached out to Black play-by-play announcers for advice. Tellingly, he had never met any in the minor leagues despite working there for a decade. “One of the things that I asked was ‘How do I not come across as a white guy riding in on a horse to save the day?’” said Giardino. “That was the last thing I wanted to do.”

Darius Thigpen, who worked for the Columbus Clippers and Lehigh Valley IronPigs, thought that the program should have “Black” in its title rather than a term like “African American” or “minority.” Lewis, from Boise State, said that a welcoming atmosphere was an important addition to the grant itself. Now, a line on Giardino’s website reads: “There are already countless barriers-to-entry when looking to land a job in play-by-play right out of college—feeling like you’re not a welcome part of the majority-white broadcast community should not be on the list.”

Giardino’s program will match young announcers with mentors who are already established in the profession. “That’s the biggest thing for young broadcasters: having someone you can send your tape to and having them pick it apart,” said Thigpen. “If you don’t have someone who’s able to do that for you, then you’re just kind of stumbling about.”

Asked what Minor League Baseball makes of the project, Lantz said, “We’re very proud of Adam for his efforts on this front and look forward to fully supporting him.” He said Minor League Baseball would make a donation to the program as soon as its nonprofit paperwork was approved.

The protests have seen a handful of noble fundraising causes become mired in controversy. Giardino and his partners have tried to head off similar problems. STAA’s Chelesnik will ask college professors to share the grant program with Black students and encourage them to apply. Some of the extra money Giardino raised will go to pay for college scholarships for Black students this year, while the rest of the money will be rolled over for future grants and scholarships.

“It should be a more diverse industry,” said the Mudcats’ Greg Young. “It really should be and it can be.” Then calling a Minor League Baseball game might truly seem romantic.