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Column: ESPN’s decision to reduce Brent Musburger’s national airtime has a cost

ESPN’s decision to reduce Brent Musburger’s national airtime has a cost

Says longtime broadcaster Brent Musburger: "Football and television were made for each other.”

(Ethan Miller / Getty Image)

Spoke to Brent Musburger the other day, after realizing I hadn’t heard his voice all season. ESPN, in one of its oddest decisions, has relegated him to Southeastern Conference games, which is why we seldom see him anymore.

“You’ll just have to subscribe to the SEC Network,” he says.

That’s Musburger, all right: Still crazy after all these years.

The SEC remains a plum assignment, though sentencing Musburger to what essentially is a regional telecast is like booking Placido Domingo to sing in Marriott lounges. It’s good for Marriott, but not for opera overall.

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Fine by him, Musburger insists. But not by me. That he won’t be working one of the two New Year’s Eve college football playoffs is insane.

I can’t help but note that sports’ signature voices are disappearing faster than white rhinos. Keith Jackson has retired. Next up Vin Scully and Dick Enberg. With every retirement toast, sports journalism gets a little more earnest and fresh-faced. And about as soulful and satisfying as a cup of microwave soup.

“You are looking live at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California,” Musburger would crow, and you’d know in an instant you were in for a feast.

When Jackson retired, Musburger became the voice of the Rose Bowl, not the smallest of footsteps in which to follow. He did what all the legendary announcers do, wove a storyline, introduced you to the cast — what the player’s daddy did, how until junior year in high school some fleet safety had focused more on the trombone than on football. It was homespun, a tad corny. And, in the end, as rich and autumnal as a Robert Frost poem.

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For all its flaws, football remains the Great American Romance — we can’t get enough. We seem to want to make something mythic of this sport, when it’s far more than that. For most of us, the sport ranks somewhere between a fetish and a religion.

It’s as if football were brought here on the Mayflower, or placed as an addendum to the Declaration of Independence. The coaches all used to look like Teddy Roosevelt. Now most of them resemble your dentist. But the game ... oh, what a rich and resonant game.

“One word: television,” Musburger says. “Football and television were made for each other.”

Yet, for vast technical achievements and amazing camera work, I’m struck by how dry and unmoving most of today’s announcers are.

“The biz and the industry have changed,” explains Musburger, now 76. Because of the conference TV deals, he says, telecasts are playing to more of a niche audience that has a lot of background to begin with.

“And a lot of the [great] storytellers were baseball guys — Scully and Jack Buck,” he says. “They came up through the game, and had to learn to keep things entertaining. But football works at a different pace, especially these days. You don’t have the time.”

I complain to him about Fox’s World Series announcers, who focused on pitch counts and slugging percentages while ignoring the grace and spirit of the sport. He agreed, saying, “I thought there was a lot of clutter.”

“I’m a people guy, that’s my background,” he says of his preference for more biography and less statistical goo.

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At one time Musburger was at the forefront of sports broadcasting. As CBS’ No. 1 librettist, he hosted the first studio show, with machine-gun narration of all the action around the NFL, packed into a 30-minute pregame. Back when the game itself was more brash and colorful, so was he.

The young announcer had his share of detractors, including his own colleagues. One of his most famous moments came in a Manhattan watering hole, when Jimmy “The Greek” Snyder threw a punch.

“I don’t know that it was much of a fistfight,” Musburger remembers with a chuckle. “Jimmy landed the first punch. My brother dove across the table, and Jimmy picked up a beer bottle.

“The bartender was the smartest guy in the room, and he turned out the lights,” Musburger says.

So the bar fight — over the amount of airtime the Greek was getting — ended quickly.

Not so much Musburger’s game, which like a good saloon story, seems to have gotten better with time.

If only they’d keep the lights on a little brighter. By all rights, Musburger should’ve called the first college playoff final last season, but was replaced by ESPN’s Chris Fowler, wholly likable but lacking in personality and panache.

Too much of those things can be a distraction. Too little, we’re finding, is far worse.

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chris.erskine@latimes.com

Twitter: @erskinetimes

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