How Chris Berman Almost Left ESPN—Three Times
I started at ESPN in 1979, when I was a young kid and they were just beginning. Cable TV was a neophyte. It's been awesome, but there were moments when it was tempting to leave.
In 1988 the owner of the San Francisco Giants, Bob Lurie, told me that the team wanted to hire its own announcer, and I was his candidate. One of the goals in my career had been to do play-by-play for the Giants, which remains my favorite team in baseball. I had to think long and hard about that: I love the Bay Area, and I was a young guy. Ten years before, that job would have been like dying and going to heaven. But a few weeks later, I called him and said I couldn't. A year before, ESPN had gotten an NFL contract, and I was their host. I said: "Bob, even though this is my childhood dream, you've come a year too late."
In 1989, NBC (GE) came after me for four times what I was making. I loved what I was doing, but four times is four times. And it was network TV. I said to Steve Bornstein, who was our executive vice-president at the time: "You're not a golfer, and I'm not a very good one, but you've got to get to within a nine iron of this offer." This played out over six months, but they got there. I got three times, not four, but it was enough. I had 10 years of equity in the company. More than anything else, though, it was a decision of the heart.
I was really surprised this year when ESPN let my contract run out. Since 1989 my contract was always renewed a year or two before it expired. I can't tell you what their thinking was. I wasn't hurt or shocked—just surprised. This was the first time in a while I had to consider what I might do next. I would have had a place to go: Steve Bornstein was now running the NFL Network. We were talking, and I trusted him. I had to be ready to leave, because this hadn't happened in 20 years.
I'm fortunate ESPN decided I'm still good enough to carry the flag. I've been doing this show longer than Johnny Carson, longer than Lucille Ball. Thirty years is a long time, and I don't want to be anywhere else.