If you purchased a Malibu, Suburban or Tahoe from Pine Belt Chevrolet in Eatontown, N.J. a decade ago, I’m here to give you an update on sales associate Kevin Burkhardt:
He’ll be calling NFL games this fall alongside analyst John Lynch and sideline reporter Erin Andrews.
The 39-year-old broadcaster, who debuts next month as a rookie NFL game-caller for Fox Sports, offers a modern tale of broadcasting perseverance. After graduating from William Paterson College in New Jersey in 1997, Burkhardt landed a job at WGHT Radio, a 1,000-watt, daytime-only AM station in New Jersey, where he delivered local news, called high school football games and supplemented his meager paycheck as the play-by-play voice of a minor league baseball team, the New Jersey Jackals. Over the next six-plus years Burkhardt could not find a larger station willing to take a chance on him.
Nearing 30, nearly broke and frustrated by his employment prospects, he thumbed through the help-wanted ads of the Asbury Park Press one Sunday morning and landed on a local car dealership that needed salespeople. “I thought I was good enough to make it [in broadcasting], but after so many years of busting my tail, I was making $18,000 a year and working all kinds of odd hours,” says Burkhardt. “It just wasn’t happening for me.”
For eight months, Burkhardt sold new and used Chevys for the dealership. He also continued to send his tapes to New York City radio stations and finally caught a break when the 50,000-watt powerhouse WCBS-AM gave him some part-time shifts on their sports updates. That put him on the radar of all-sports WFAN, which quickly bumped him from freelance work to a full-time gig as the station’s Jets reporter. Three years after working at the dealership, Burkhardt landed a job in 2006 as the Mets field reporter on SportsNet New York (SNY). His baseball work in turn caught the eye of John Entz, then an executive for the MLB Network and now the executive producer of Fox Sports. Entz hired Burkhardt for his current NFL role in May. (Maybe the best part of Burkhardt’s journey to the top was when his old dealership boss, Mike Trebino, called him two years ago to ask him to be the television spokesperson for his Pine Belt Nissan dealership.)
“There are so many people who are grinding it in the minor leagues and leave before they get that break, or they were never talented enough to get that break,” Entz says. “Kevin is a really good guy, and this is what his passion and dream was. Because he stuck it out, he’s achieved something he’s always wanted to. Not to sound corny, but you totally root for him.”
Now comes the hard part. Burkhardt has to be good enough to stay in the big leagues of broadcasting. Last year there were 19 broadcasters who called an NFL game at the network level. It is traditionally a small fraternity, with little turnover. Entz says there is risk involved assigning games to someone who’s never called pro football on television, but Fox believes in Burkhardt’s talent. “We think there is a really high ceiling for him, and we are ready to live with some bumps along the way,” Entz says. “Go back to Joe Buck [who was hired by Fox at the age of 25]. If you believe in someone, you are willing to take the risk and ride out whatever rougher times there are, believing the upside is worth it.”
Fox Sports executives acknowledge the need for an upgrade in depth behind the top team of Joe Buck and Troy Aikman. The network’s longtime No. 2 team—Kenny Albert, Daryl Johnston and Tony Siragusa—can be a tough listen when Siragusa is given too much airtime for his comic antics. Fox had hoped the team of Thom Brennaman and Brian Billick would get critical and viewer acclaim for their call of last year’s Falcons-Seahawks divisional playoff game, but the usually competent Billick had as poor a final quarter as an NFL analyst has had in some time.
Burkhardt has experience calling NFL games, but exclusively on radio. For the past two seasons, he has worked for Compass Media as the lead voice of the Cowboys, traveling to preseason and regular-season games from his home on the Jersey shore. How did a Mets television reporter end up calling America’s Team? It was the culmination of a relationship with Compass that started four years ago when the company needed someone to call the Texas Bowl between Navy and Missouri, after its original announcer had to bail out. Compass liked Burkhardt’s performance enough to give him six NFL games the following year. In 2011 the company hired him to call the Cowboys on a full-time basis, which meant a frenetic August and September for Burkhardt, his wife Rachel, and their young son, Logan. “I would do a Mets game in Miami one night, then fly to do a Cowboys preseason game the next night, and then the next morning take an a.m. flight back to New York,” says Burkhardt. “For two months I had a lot of five-hour energy drinks.”
While working at the MLB Network in 2009 as the channel’s senior vice president of programming, Entz says he found himself impressed by Burkardt’s work as a roving reporter and by his likeable manner on the air. Burkhardt also impressed those he covered. “It is not a surprise to me that he used to sell cars,” Blue Jays pitcher R.A. Dickey, who was with the Mets from 2010 to 2012, told the New York Daily News. “I would buy a car from him, because of his pleasant temperament, and the fact that when he talks, you believe him. It’s easy to be nice sometimes, but to be genuine and to really mean it, that’s a gift, and he has that.”
Burkhardt finally got in front of Fox Sports executives last season when he called a Mets-Braves game with SI’s Tom Verducci on their network. The Fox brass liked what they saw. Burkhardt’s agent initially had discussions with the network about his client calling college football this season but those talks morphed into an NFL opportunity. “When my agent called me with that, I was floored,” Burkhardt says. “I’m sure you hear people say ‘this is my dream job’ all the time, but I literally dropped to one knee on the floor. I could not believe what he was saying on the other end.”
Fox Sports executives think Burkhardt and Lynch will complement each other in temperament, and the crew will be assigned major games this year, including those involving the New York market. The network also assigned two of its top production staffers to the team—producer Pete Macheska and director Artie Kempner. Burkhardt knows he must adapt to letting Kempner’s pictures tell the story of the game. Television sports broadcasting requires far less wordplay than radio. For instance, you don’t need to tell the viewer the direction the running back is heading after a handoff, as you would on radio.
At the moment, Burkhardt only knows his preseason schedule. He and Lynch will work a preseason game, Niners at Broncos, on Aug. 8 for a local Denver station and also do a practice call of the Aug. 18 Colts-Giants from a studio in New York. Regarding a long-term assignment with Fox, Burkardt says he is contractually obligated to the network only through this NFL season. He is under contract with SNY through the end of the 2014 baseball season.
“I could not really sign anything full-time with Fox with my SNY contract,” says Burkhardt, who praised SNY for allowing him flexibility.
Adds Entz: “We feel good really good about Kevin and his future, and we hope he has a great year. We look forward to years after that with him.”
Burkhardt says he’s been building up to this moment for 39 years. “This is something I have dreamed about since I was announcing my Nintendo games as a kid,” Burkhardt says. “The pressure, the emotion the nervousness, the excitement, it will all be there. I really love football, and I can’t wait. I’m ready for this.”