Joe Buck Talks Fox Super Bowl Plans and MLB Cheating Scandal: "Tip of the Iceberg"

THR Joe Buck_20200109-JoeBuck37825 - THR - H 2020
Christopher Patey

On the eve of TV’s biggest event, the network’s lead football broadcaster opens up on his future plans, Tony Romo, his haters and why mixing politics and sports is "never a great idea."

Over 25 years, Joe Buck — or at least Buck's signature voice — has become synonymous with American sports. After all, he's called all the biggest NFL and MLB moments in recent memory, including 22 World Series. And Feb. 2, he'll be in the booth once more, covering his sixth Super Bowl as the Kansas City Chiefs and San Francisco 49ers face off in Miami on Fox. The biggest challenge, he says of calling something watched by 100 million: "Remembering that it's just a game."

For Buck, 50, who, sources say, earns between $6 million and $7 million a year, sports is the family business. He's the son of late St. Louis Cardinals announcer Jack Buck and husband to ESPN reporter Michelle Beisner-Buck. He got his start in 1994, when he was hired by Fox to call NFL games; not long after, he added baseball. Today, Buck — the father of two daughters (ages 23 and 20) and, with Beisner-Buck, 1-year-old twin sons — spends 40-plus weekends a year on the road as the go-to national broadcaster for both leagues. In that time, he's also become one of the most heavily criticized announcers in sports, typically by fans who are convinced he's rooting against their team.

During a January stop in L.A., St. Louis-based Buck sat down to discuss the future of sportscasting, the place for politics on air, MLB's sign-stealing scandal, his friendship with Super Bowl halftime star Jennifer Lopez and, yes, that infamous hair plug saga.

What should the outcome of MLB's cheating scandal be? And how will interest in the game be impacted?

This is the tip of the iceberg, it just depends on how deep Major League Baseball wants to wade down into the mess. I don't think [public interest takes a hit]. Think back on the steroid era: That was a way bigger deal, and people thought fans are just tired of it, they're not going to go to games, and attendance rose every year.

Had you observed any sign stealing when you were calling those games?

No. I mean, even with the Yankees last year there was some talk about whistling that was coming out of the Astros dugout. The Yankees kind of made that charge — although it wasn't like an overt complaint filed, it was more kind of players talking about it. That found its way back to A.J. Hinch, the manager, who when we walked into his office, he just dismissed it out of hand. He said “That's ridiculous” and probably pointed to the game the previous night and said, "Well, if we were stealing signs we need to do a better job of it," then everybody laughs and we move on to the next question. I'm just as intrigued as everybody else to see how intricate the relaying of the signs to the hitters got, I just don't know if we know all that.

Tony Romo is negotiating what will likely be the biggest deal in sports broadcasting. Any predictions?

It just points out that what we do isn't that easy and [he's] a precious commodity. Whether ESPN gets him or CBS keeps him, in my business that's the biggest off-season story in the NFL. Two weeks ago, it was, "They're going to offer him between $8 million and $10 million," and the next time I read it, it was $13 million or $14 million. I don't know what happened, but his price just keeps going up. If I'm [CAA's] Tom Young — our [shared] agent — I'd say, "Just sit out, it keeps going up by $3 million every two weeks."

How much do you worry about the future of sports broadcasting as people increasingly cut the cord?

As much as people throw stuff at their TVs and yell at me and yell at Troy — and think that we’re always rooting against their teams — I think there's always going to be a place for somebody guiding the action. But I do think the viewers are going to have more control. Eventually, you might be able to have a specific camera on a specific player — if you just want to watch Aaron Rodgers play, and you don't care about anything else, you can just have your camera on your phone train on Aaron Rodgers. Or you can have whatever voice you want — you can jump into the Packers radio call and it's synced up with [the TV broadcast]. Maybe at some point we're not traveling to the games, maybe we're doing it in some central location like they already do for some of the Olympic sports. But I think there's always going to be value in having the people calling the games actually in that city and getting information you can't get through your phone.

How do you deal with that criticism from those who say you're rooting against their team?

They blame the messenger. They're used to listening to broadcasts all year where the [local announcers] are actually representing their feelings; then here's somebody [new] and they're getting excited because the other team just hit a home run. That's my job, to make it as exciting as I can. I don't care who wins.

You called Game 5 of the World Series last year when President Trump was booed. You didn't address it on the air. Why not?

One thing I learned when I started was mixing sports with politics is never a great idea — certainly in 2019, now 2020, it's a no-win. Everything political is so charged that it's just not worth it for us or me to weigh in on the booing — people could hear it, and there was applause there, too. People at home don't need me to hold their hand and navigate them through that. And I honestly believe people tune in to games to get away from all that stuff.

But wasn't mixing sports with politics unavoidable when Colin Kaepernick inspired other players to take a knee during the anthem?

It's just too simple to say that the kneeling and Kaepernick had the direct effect on ratings that people seem to think he or the kneeling had. A lot of factors happened, including injuries to some of the biggest stars in the league — Aaron Rodgers being hurt — and then some of the bigger teams being not competitive. And it's something my wife and I talked about: I grew up in a really privileged situation, I didn't grow up like Colin Kaepernick did, and I don't know what Colin feels when he sees somebody in a police uniform. So I'm not going to cast stones at somebody who had a different upbringing. You cover it, you get it out there, you don't avoid it, and then you let the viewer form their own opinion — they vote with their eyes and their fingers and their remotes.

Do you see a streamer like Amazon getting a major NFL package when the next rights deal comes up?

The NFL rights are locked up with the networks for three more years after this, and I know all the networks are working to extend contracts or get new packages and get that done now. So I don't know that it's there yet.

How have you seen sports change in the streaming age?

I think the fans now are more knowledgeable than they've ever been. It's made my job harder, it's made me work harder because you're not going to make mistakes and get away with them. Now it feels like the consequences are a lot greater — there are a lot more people coming out of the woodwork to tell you that you just made the stupidest statement they've ever heard on TV because everything's right to their device: every bit of news, every injury, every opinion.

You made a lot of news when you revealed what you called a hair plug "addiction" in your 2016 book. Be honest: Was it really an addiction?

No, it's a joke, a funny way to start my book. You'd be a masochist or a lunatic to be addicted to getting live hair follicles ripped out of the back of your head and surgically implanted into the front of your head. I had eight of them, and on the eighth one, they put a tube down my throat and it damaged the nerve, which left me with a paralyzed vocal cord. As a sports announcer, I have to be loud and emote, so that was a life-shaking moment for me. It was nine months of me freaking out my career was over and driving my family crazy by constantly asking if my voice sounded better.

What do you do during the Super Bowl halftime show? Do you watch?

I've gotten to know J.Lo — not to be a name-dropper — through Alex [Rodriguez] being on Fox. I've gone to dinner with her and to her show in Vegas — she gave me a shout-out from the stage. So, I feel like I owe it to her to watch. But there's stuff to do while that's all going on — go to the bathroom and talk [through] what you want to do in the second half.

What's the biggest mistake you've ever made on air?

Asking Tony Womack, who was a second baseman for the Arizona Diamondbacks, if the woman standing next to him on the field — as I interviewed him from the booth — was his mom. He said, "No, that's my wife." This was pre-Twitter, thank God. I ran down after we were off and said, "I'm so sorry." And I sent his wife flowers.

Your deal at Fox is up in three years. What's next?

At some point, I want to have some time to do other projects, whether it's to produce something or host something else or do a game show. I don't want to keep doing the same thing over and over for the rest of my life.

Interview edited for length and clarity.

A version of this story first appeared in the Jan. 29 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.