ESPN anchor Rece Davis began his career looking like a Sigma Nu pledge. "I had two shirts," he says, "the white oxford buttoned-down and the blue oxford buttoned-down." However, experience—and the prodding of his wife—has helped Davis forge his own neo-preppy look. He began turning down the network's swag suits and cut a deal with New York clothier Peter Millar. Now Davis "can't stand to see guys wear buttoned-down shirts with suits. Save that for the yacht club," he says. Thanks to his fashion-forward colleague, Scott Van Pelt, Davis is on to a new style motif—pocket squares. "Van Pelt said his grandfather told him once that 9 out of 10 men don't wear pocket squares," Davis recalls. "And you don't want to dress like 9 out of 10 men."
Dressing sports anchors may be the least fulfilling job in the fashion industry—just below being Naomi Campbell's personal assistant. This explains why many networks, such as CBS (CBS), hire third parties such as Ward Rhobe Management, the U.S. Steel of the third-party sports-anchor-styling business. Founded in 1992, Los Angeles-based Ward Rhobe has faced competition from numerous anchor-styling outfits in what is estimated to be at least a multi-hundred-dollar industry. Two decades later, its market dominance is unrivaled. "CBS Sports was our very first client when they got the Olympic Games in Albertville," says founder Rich Valenza. "They were concerned by what their talent might look like without help in a country such as France."
Ward Rhobe's clout has allowed it to take fashion risks. For CBS broadcasts of this month's NCAA basketball tournament, Valenza cut a deal with Sean John—the clothing company founded by P. Diddy. In other words, chubby middle-aged guys in the throes of male-pattern baldness will be wearing outfits more accustomed to NBA draft night. "It's a little more colorful," admits Valenza. "You'll see more vested suits. You'll find paisley ties with striped shirts." While Valenza's work with CBS has helped him land other clients, sports anchor styling remains a challenging vocation. "It can take two or three years to help clients' wardrobes," he says, "and break some of the habits."
Sometimes, though, these habits are impenetrable. Many sports broadcasting companies, such as ESPN, allow anchors and commentators to dress themselves. From their own closets, in clothes they buy themselves. It's a precedent that's hard to correct. Ever since Howard Cosell popularized the garish blazer in the '70s, broadcast reporter Craig Sager has been refining a wardrobe that melds Ringling Brothers clown with Cotton Club pimp. When Hank Aaron broke Babe Ruth's home run record in 1974, Sager met him at home plate wearing a long white overcoat. After a Boston Celtics game in 2009, Kevin Garnett implored Sager—sporting a pink-checked jacket, red-striped shirt, and powder-blue tie: "You take the outfit home and you burn it." Yet Sager's wardrobe doesn't compare to that of Don Cherry, the longtime host of Hockey Night in Canada, who often looks like a Scottish rodeo clown at an '80s prom. He's rivaled only by Walt Frazier, who often broadcasts New York Knicks games in leopard-print jackets, cowhide-pattern suits, and plaid blazers.
Reversing decades of sartorial mayhem has become a grassroots movement led largely by retired players. Well-coiffed former quarterback and The Bachelor contestant Jesse Palmer has received acclaim for his Mad Men-esque skinny ties and narrow suits. "When you're in Europe or the U.K. and you look at sports anchors, it's at a whole different level of sophistication," says retired NHL goalie and Hockey Night in Canada commentator Kevin Weekes. Although he's introduced numerous commentators to the pocket square, Weekes is astonished at what he sees men wearing on the air. "A lot of guys are 6-foot-1 and wearing a four-button suit," he says. "I understand that if you're Shaq. Even still—no!"
Amy Fine Collins, a special correspondent for Vanity Fair and a member of the International Best-Dressed Hall of Fame, suspects that such bad dressing is actually intentional. "I think it's supposed to give them a little more authenticity—that they're such guys that they can't put a lot of time into how they look," she notes. Or perhaps it's a role-model crisis. "If we relied on our producers to dress us," says Rece Davis, "we'd all show up unshaven in sweats."
Yet even the schlumpiest guys are starting to notice the pandemic. Despite his proclivity for an accountant's uniform of ill-fitting sports jackets and starchy shirts, Pardon the Interruption co-host Tony Kornheiser was suspended by ESPN last year after lambasting his colleague, anchor Hannah Storm, on his radio show. "Horrifying, horrifying outfit today," Kornheiser said. "She's got on red go-go boots and a Catholic school plaid skirt. ... She looks like she's got sausage casing wrapping around her upper body." While Storm often dresses well and even wrote a 2008 Huffington Post column about her personal style—"Solid colors work best because, as you can see, we have a pretty wild set!"—Kornheiser wasn't entirely wrong. It's hard to turn around the fashion fortunes of an industry that seems perpetually trapped in a Grand Rapids convention center, circa 1987. It's just very surprising that someone like Kornheiser noticed. Even though he's at a flat-top desk, there are video stills proving that he sometimes forgets to wear shoes. And pants.