This wasn’t supposed to be Joe Buck’s first assignment for ESPN.
The veteran sports announcer raised eyebrows earlier this year by jumping from his longtime roost at Fox Sports to the Disney sports giant, where he and colleague Troy Aikman are set to host Monday Night Football. On Thursday afternoon, however, Buck was doing something completely different. Here he was, sitting alongside golf analyst Michael Collins on ESPN2, watching Tiger Woods on the green at the 2022 PGA Championship and talking to baseball great Ken Griffey Jr. about his golf and baseball swings.
Even though the setting is relaxed and informal, it poses a challenge for Buck. “I have to remind myself the whole time it’s not what I typically do,” he says in an interview with Variety. “I have to kind of turn off the gene that I have that wants to be on top of all the action. It’s hard.” He will do more of it Friday, Saturday and Sunday on ESPN2 in a new format that adds sports-pub chatter and celebrity appearances to the typical golf coverage.
Buck and Collins are the latest popular sports personae to try their hand at one of a growing number of “alterna-casts” that have tried to introduce new ways of watching big games and events. If the setup for this PGA Golf view sounds familiar, it’s because it’s produced by Peyton Manning’s Omaha Productions, which has turbo-charged the format with its so-called ManningCast that has Peyton and his brother Eli talking about ESPN’s Monday football games on ESPN2 while the flagship cable outlet offers a more traditional game presentation. Key to the effort is the appearance of top-flight guests who beam in remotely. Many of them are there because Peyton Manning makes a personal invitation.
Omaha is expanding its efforts. After launching the ManningCast last year, the company is taking a swing at golf this weekend with Buck, Collins and an eye-popping list of guests that includes Charles Barkley, Jack Nickalus, Sean Payton, Jim Nantz, Will Arnett, Larry Saban, Scott Van Pelt and Annika Sorenstam, among others. There is some hope that actor Jon Hamm may take part. Omaha is also developing concepts for some of ESPN’s college football and UFC telecasts.
One of the key elements of the shows is that “everyone checks their business address at the door,” says Peyton Manning, in an interview. “You see different people in different fields all with one common goal, and we get to remind people that sports are fun to watch.”
The new presentation adds a dose of energy to the usual golf proceedings. Buck says he knows some people love to lie back on the couch and watch a tournament, but the people who cover it on TV must be ready to pivot, keeping an eye on each individual contestant’s progress and staying ready to provide updates. “You’re just trying to remember where you are and where everyone is. It’s a lot of moving parts, and when you are right in that seat, it’s actually faster than football, faster than baseball, which is counterintuitive,” says Buck. “It forces you to be nimble, to be light on your feet.”
Buck arrived at ESPN with football on his mind, but the chance to host a new golf format surfaced quickly. There had been some chatter with Peyton Manning, Buck and ESPN about trying something around the Masters, Buck says, “and the Masters, I think, wanted to see what it would be like.” After all, he adds, “there’s no pilot” that anyone can examine. “When I showed up at ESPN two months ago, this was on the board as something that could potentially happen,” and he traveled to the Masters in Augusta, Ga., to meet some ESPN executives for the first time. He ran into Collins, who mentioned the chance to “do this ManningCast, this mega-cast for PGA,” Buck recalls. Collins said to him, “I would love it if you would do it with me, and his eyes lit up.”
The pair has “good chemistry,” says Manning, but will also offer golf fans something they don’t normally get from TV coverage. “Both of them like to laugh, which is important, and they aren’t afraid to laugh at themselves.”
The Omaha alterna-casts come after years of experimentation by ESPN. The sports-media outlet has tested running different views of a single game across its networks; a “kidscast” of the Little League World Series with young announcers; even a “Marvelcast” that transformed a 2021 game between the Golden State Warriors and the New Orleans Pelicans into a competition among famous super heroes. Last month, ESPN tried a “retro-cast” that utilized graphics and music to emulate the elements of old NBA broadcasts from the 1960s, 70s, 80s and 90s. Others have gotten in on this game, too: CBS Sports and Nickelodeon are creating an NFL post-season tradition with an annual broadcast that skews an NFL game into a kids’ event.
The goal is to draw new audiences to the sports matches at a time when the ready availability of streaming threatens to take them elsewhere. All the major media companies face significant increases in the already whopping fees they pay for sports rights, so they are, in turn, developing other concepts they hope will bring a bigger overall crowd to watch—even if they have to do so by appealing to various niches, such as families, die-hard fans, or even people who just want to hear a celebrity’s take on a hot play.
Manning says he wants to make sure Omaha’s current productions are top-notch before even considering the prospect of whether the company can tackle more. “It’s certainly a lot of work and a lot of prep,” he notes, and producers and anchors try to have a bunch of questions at the ready for every guest who might appear. On the Monday night shows with his brother, he says, “we have three guests on, and so we are probably getting eight questions ready for each guest, and maybe you don’t get to all of them, but you want to be ready and you don’t want to waste the guest’s time.”
Omaha is ready for its college football and UFC efforts, he says. “We are excited about that and still kind of formulating the teams and the hosts for that, but the number one criteria is good chemistry, people who know each other in some capacity and are like-minded and eager to give people a different viewing option.” Before considering an even wider slate, Manning says he wants to make sure he’s putting up quality programs, and notes he doesn’t want to get “too big too fast.”