ESPN has a home feel to BermanSports fans know Chris...

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July 30, 1993|By RAY FRAGER

ESPN has a home feel to Berman

Sports fans know Chris Berman. They watch him on ESPN for the rapid-fire delivery, baseball player nicknames and arcane pop-music references.

Waiters know Chris Berman. One asks him to autograph his baseball cap during lunch.

Even Tom Selleck knows Chris Berman. Mr. Baseball stops by to offer greetings in a hotel restaurant.

That's quite a jump for a guy who started by giving scores to people who couldn't sleep.

Other than Dick Vitale, Berman is ESPN's most recognized personality. Though he doesn't anchor "SportsCenter" much anymore, Berman is a host of "Baseball Tonight," calls baseball play-by-play and is anchor of ESPN's excellent NFL studio shows, "NFL GameDay" and "NFL PrimeTime."

"I'm amazed that I've crossed over [into mass recognition]," Berman said when he was in Baltimore covering the All-Star Game. "The fact that I'm recognized in an airport is pretty cool, but it speaks more of our network than it does of me.

"But I guess if you're around 13 1/2 years and you do what I do and nobody knows you, something's wrong."

That may be true, but it also may be a little overly modest. It's likely that Tom Mees and Bob Ley, two other sportscasters who have been around since ESPN's launch in 1979, could breeze through a hotel lobby unimpeded. Berman's appeal is that he's fun to watch, and he's clearly having just as much fun being on the air.

"You've got a jump on 90 percent of the work force in America if you like what you're doing," he said.

Berman began broadcasting to the dissatisfied workers of America -- workers of the world, unite; you have nothing to lose but your remote controls -- in the wee hours. For the first four NTC years of ESPN, he was host of the 2:30 a.m. "SportsCenter."

"The only people who would see me were West Coast, late-night revelers, mothers and fathers with babies and insomniacs," he said. "Oh, I think in Guam we were on in prime time."

Fast forward to 1989. NBC was after Berman. Normally in such a situation, ESPN let its talent go. But not this time. ESPN boosted Berman's salary, and he stayed.

And he's an ESPN guy through and through.

"Once I leave ESPN, for whatever reason, I'm just a mercenary," he said. "I feel so much better about myself being in a place that's loyal to me, and I'd like to repay that.

"Once I leave, that's it -- I'm just on the air making money."

Sounding like someone who's had this discussion with himself several times, Berman makes a case for not leaving ESPN.

"What would be the advantage of going anywhere else? They don't have anything we don't have," Berman said, referring to ESPN's extensive sports properties. "More money, less work? Yeah, that would still be out there, I guess. But I like carrying the ball 40 times a game. Do they do things better than we do? No."

Does he sound content, or what? Berman apparently is at ease with criticism, too. In what could be called the "Build Me Up Buttercup" Syndrome -- at least, it could be if you remember the Foundations -- Berman has been subject to some potshots since becoming popular.

Too much shtick, too many nicknames, too soft on the athletes, some say.

"If the worst thing they can write about me is that I'm a nice guy, it's OK," he said. "I can live with that."

NBC-ya in Atlanta

Just to put your mind at rest: no TripleCast in 1996.

In a news conference this week, NBC Sports president Dick Ebersol said his network's winning, $456 million bid for the Atlanta Olympics won't mean a return of that three-headed, pay-per-view monster.

"There will be no pay-per-view at all," Ebersol said. "The IOC made clear there would be no pay-per-view in the United States for this Olympics."

The question, then -- other than: What kind of hip set will NBC give Jim Lampley and Hannah Storm this time around? -- is: Who's going to be NBC's cable partner for the 1996 Games?

Ebersol said any cable network wanting to share the Olympics with NBC must agree to three conditions.

"We will be available to talk to any cable group that is willing to protect the exclusivity of our affiliates," he said, referring to local advertising being sold only on NBC stations.

"Under no circumstances will we pay anyone to carry our signal. And we will expect some payment, some form of risk-sharing."

Speculation has been that, with the Games in Turner Broadcasting's hometown, TNT or TBS inevitably would be telecasting the Olympics. But Ebersol makes it sound as if the field is wide-open, other than the apparent exit of ESPN when corporate brother ABC failed in its bid.

He also sounds confident that these Games will not be the money loser (an estimated $100 million) that Barcelona's were for NBC. Based on no improvement in the advertising market, Ebersol said, the network could make $10 million on the Olympics just from selling commercials.

As for the prime-time host, Ebersol said, assuming Bob Costas signs a new contract with NBC by next year, Costas would return in that role in which he excelled at Barcelona.

And if we all wish really hard, maybe John Tesh won't be allowed within three states of any gymnast in 1996.

Fame, what's your name?

It's a famous weekend. ESPN will carry hourlong programs on the pro football and baseball hall of fame inductions. Football goes first tomorrow at 8:30 p.m. and then baseball Sunday at 6 p.m. . . . NFL exhibition games will be aired this weekend, too, but these listings are just a warning to keep you from watching football in July: Raiders-Packers, tomorrow, 3 p.m., channels 13, 7; Eagles-Saints, tomorrow, 10 p.m., ESPN (from Tokyo -- aren't the Japanese already upset enough about "Rising Sun"?); Steelers-49ers, Sunday, 1 p.m., channels 2, 4 (from Barcelona).

He's a smart player

So Channel 2's Keith Mills thinks he can get a favorable comment here just by showing highlights of me in a Hoop-It-Up media game? Well, it takes more than that. So, Keith, you'll just have to wait until that check you gave me clears.

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