Breen and Emrick are play-by-play’s finest

On the list of those who influence the outcome of major sporting events, Mike Breen and Mike Emrick rank low.

In fact, they don’t affect the outcome at all.

But they absolutely affect the enjoyment.

This is my favorite time of year of sports. Early June marks the championship rounds for the NBA and NHL, where Breen and Emrick, respectively, are the main play-by-play voices on TV.

They are both sportscasting icons.

But they operate in distinct ways, and each is the perfect broadcaster for his sport.

In some ways, Breen has the easier assignment. Basketball, on television, can often seem like a much more self-explanatory game. Of course, it is not that simple; the opposing teams use a variety of strategies, match-ups, and plays to out-maneuver each other. But to the naked eye, the sport seems easier to understand.

And the stars are easier to spot.

Basketball possesses the most recognizable names of any American sport, and this year’s finalists are proof. LeBron James, Dwayne Wade, and Tim Duncan are household names internationally; James specifically is arguably the biggest global icon currently playing in any sport.

Breen, then, plays a seemingly complementary role, needing to pepper the inevitable highlights with the appropriate enthusiasm and context.

He does this beautifully.

Without overdoing it, Breen never fails to vocally match the excitement of the moment. He uses quick sentences and includes few but important details; between plays, he also acts as the perfect traffic cop for analysts Jeff Van Gundy and Mark Jackson.

To a discerning ear, Breen’s preparation and expertise shine through. He has been calling basketball games for nearly two decades, and he has developed one of the most important skills of any journalist: economy of words.

In contrast, Emrick is a human thesaurus.

No, seriously.

But for his sport, he needs to be.

I have admired Emrick for two decades. Growing up in New Jersey, I discovered the NHL staple when he began calling the games of my hometown Devils.

Pretty soon, I was hearing his voice as my favorite team won the Stanley Cup.

Emrick has long been regarded as the finest broadcaster in hockey, serving as the play-by-play man for numerous Stanley Cup Finals and Olympic Games. Like Breen, he possesses a historian’s knowledge and an uncanny awareness of how to supplement the moment with information and emotion.

But unlike Breen, he needs to be much more descriptive while describing the action.

Hockey is not nearly as popular as basketball in America, and it is generally seen as a much more difficult sport to follow on television. The athletes move faster, and their puck is far smaller than a basketball.

Enter Emrick, and his never-ending vocabulary.

He stays on top of the action and describes each beat with the necessary precision and gusto. In a game where players substitute in and out, helmets on, barely recognizable unless you can see their jersey numbers, Emrick constantly spends his time pointing out who is doing what and why.

He is a pleasure to watch … and is as synonymous with the game as hat tricks and power plays.

Make no mistake: when it comes to sports — and their enjoyment by fans and viewers — players and coaches rule the day.

But I will always appreciate the work of the broadcaster, particularly when it is done as well as Breen and Emrick do it, over and over again.

Matt Pearl is the author of the Telling the Story blog and podcast. Leave a comment below or e-mail Matt at

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