The poaching of Kevin Burkhardt
Kevin Burkhardt, seven-year veteran of New York Mets broadcasts, now nearing the end of his first full year as a lead broadcaster for Fox's NFL games, had about an hour to revamp his preparation for the Eagles and Lions, thanks to a massive, unexpected snowstorm.
He glanced at co-commentator John Lynch, and the full moment seemed to hit him.
"I mean, this is awesome! Snow! You've got a playoff feel to this game!"
It would be one of the iconic moments of the 2013 NFL season.
A few days after that, Fox made it official that Burkhardt would be calling an actual playoff game this year, a huge reward for a first-year announcer.
Burkhardt's primary gig at the moment is at SNY, the broadcast home of the New York Mets, where he's been attached since 2007 as the sideline reporter alongside Gary Cohen, Ron Darling and Keith Hernandez—a grouping of three strong personalities that might be the best television broadcast team in the sport.
Now, after years working at outposts like Jukebox Radio and WGHT-AM, he's at the center of a legitimate bidding war between two television entities.
It is not an equal fight.
BURKHARDT SAT AT HIS DESK IN THE SNY NEWSROOM THURSDAY AFTERNOON, scrutinizing the 2014 New York Mets lineup on his computer screen. It was approximately four hours until he went on the air with the latest Mets broadcast, and three days until he would be expected to broadcast for three-and-a-half hours, in Washington, a Redskins-Cowboys game.
The Mets don't have a leadoff hitter in any real sense for next season. Ultimately, this is their problem. But Burkhardt had made it his, wanting to present the best possible lineup on a stray graphic for a television show that a small fraction of people will watch, compared to his weekly NFL gig.
He placed Ruben Tejada in the leadoff spot, after spending a good five minutes talking over various candidates. Similarly detailed conversations happened over questions like which Met should receive 60 seconds of audio interview time, with one dismissed because of his flat answers.
"I'm concerned it won't be good television," Burkhardt said to his producer, Dave Mandel.
Another candidate was selected.
A few minutes later, Burkhardt was studying the major league and minor league stats of Rafael Montero, Jenrry Mejia and Jacob deGrom, making sure the starting rotation graphic had the fifth starter candidates in proper order.
"If it's me, Montero is the fifth starter," Burkhardt said to Mandel.
The lineup was altered to Burkhardt's alignment. Montero was added to the rotation graphic. A graphic noting backup outfielder Eric Young's platoon splits was created at Burkhardt's urging, then tweaked to better reflect the point Burkhardt wanted to make.
"Kevin as your host is also your voice," Mandel told me he'd been instructed by another producer when he first began producing Mets Hot Stove. "So the viewer wants to hear what Kevin has to say. So, always make sure you plan for time for Kevin to say his take, opinion, and whatever he knows about the subject."
That formula has worked well for Burkhardt at SNY, in part because of his nerdy passion for Mets baseball, but also because he is, for whatever reason, one of those people everyone seems to like.
"First and foremost, I find Kevin to be a very likeable guy, both on the air, and off the air, frankly," Fox Sports executive producer John Entz said in a phone interview last week. "And when you like the broadcaster who you listen to, it makes all the difference in the world. He's not talking down to you. He's talking to you as a friend."
"The funny thing is, I've been told that, and it's a tremendous compliment," Burkhardt said. "And I have no idea how to achieve it other than just to be who I am. If someone—all right, I get hired, and I'm told, 'You've got to try and be likeable.' How the hell do you try and do that?
"I have some strengths, some weaknesses. I'm a little bit of a goofball, a little bit of a nerd. I have my own sense of humor. And I'm just going to be the same person you're talking to now when I'm on the air. Just maybe talking a little louder. I think that's really what it comes down to."
But there's only so much room for him to move up at SNY in his capacity as a voice of the Mets. Gary, Ron and Keith, as Burkhardt is happy to admit, are untouchable.
"I have never had even any remote thoughts about doing play-by-play for the Mets," Burkhardt said. "Gary has been the voice, he should be the voice forever. That's just the way it is. And he's also my number one fan when I fill in for him. He's phenomenal."
So he's been expanding his duties elsewhere. At the moment, he's balancing his work on Mets Hot Stove, the weekly offseason half-hour show on SNY, with his weekly Fox NFL work. He's either prepping for the NFL at home, usually watching film and ingesting the massive amount of information provided to him by the teams and Fox's clips service, or he's flying to a new NFL city and to immerse himself in practices and meetings with Fox NFL producer Pete Macheska and Lynch.
A few months ago, he made a subtle tweak to his Twitter handle, from @KevinBurkhardtSNY to @KevinBurkhardt.
A WEEK AFTER EAGLES-LIONS, BURKHARDT called the Seattle Seahawks against the New York Giants, Super Bowl contender against hopeless also-ran. It played out that way. The Seahawks won, 23-0, and the outcome was clear by the second quarter.
Burkhardt, a 39-year-old New Jersey native who grew up rooting for the Giants, mustered just as much enthusiasm for the game as he had a week before, during that momentous NFC game in the snow. His call on Byron Maxwell's fourth-quarter interception reflected his excitement over being there. But his tendency to step back a bit, and "let the moment breathe," in the words of Macheska, was evident in the fourth quarter. He spoke less frequently, allowing the abject silence of the Giants home crowd to serve as audio prop.
Two bundled, forlorn Giants fans looked out at the proceedings, while a graphic explained that the Giants had last been shut out at home December 4, 1995. Burkhardt, at the time, was an undergraduate at William Paterson University in Wayne.
"That was a long time ago," was all he said.
A little after 4, Burkhardt returned to his desk and did voiceover work for a different SNY show. Then he began to write the show he'd deliver, less than two hours to airtime.
FOX OFFICIALS WOULDN'T TALK SPECIFICALLY ABOUT what Burkhardt might be doing for them a year from now, citing his remaining deal with SNY. But the framework isn't hard to guess at: Fox Saturday Game of the Week in baseball, regular NFL work, and college basketball games on Fox Sports One, which needs additional stars beyond Bill Raftery and Gus Johnson.
SNY can't really compete with that, particularly with its starting baseball-commentary lineup so firmly in place. The network loves Burkhardt, and the feeling is apparently mutual. But it was evident, watching Burkhardt take in one of the network's other offerings, an oddball half-hour of sports-ish talk called "Covino and Rich" interview a C-list comedienne named Syd Wilder, that Burkhardt is the exception to current network programming. (The two hosts handed Wilder a Shake Weight, hoping for, and receiving, the expected video of Wilder, amply bosomed and proudly displaying much of it, using the suggestive product.)
Burkhardt took this in out of the corner of his vision as he stood behind Mandel at the producer's desk, talking to me at the same moment about Daniel Murphy's trade value around the league, and listening to an interview with Zack Wheeler, Mets starting pitcher, to find a quote to tease with.
"That's the key moment," Burkhardt said to Mandel, mid-point on Murphy with me, immediately upon hearing Wheeler talk about his fastball command. "It was in August, when he began to locate his fastball, that things really turned for him."
On the other hand, SNY lets Burkhardt do more or less whatever he wants.
They were under no obligation to let him call NFL games for Fox this fall, but they allowed it. He asked for, and received, a minute at the top of the December 5 Mets Hot Stove broadcast to demand that the organization follow through on its promises to spend money this winter.
In interviews with Mets officials like general manager Sandy Alderson and COO Jeff Wilpon, he's given leeway to move well beyond team talking points, and ask bigger picture questions. For instance, he pressed Wilpon, repeatedly, on whether Mets fans could expect more moves to come, at the press conference to introduce Curtis Granderson.
"To me, it's my show," Burkhardt said. "So I just thought, realistically, it was time to call the team out. They promised this was going to be the year. And if they weren't really sure of that, they shouldn't have sold that as a bill of goods. And so I thought, hey, enough's enough. ... So talking to Dave, I said, save some space at the top of the show. Just me, I don't want the guest on. Because I thought it was a good way of setting the tone for the show."
And it's nothing new. As Burkhardt pointed out, when the Mets fired Willie Randolph, "I was on air, just crushing the organization."
He took to Twitter to counter an effort by someone from the Mets to tarnish Justin Turner's reputation on his way out the door. He has his run of the place, both because SNY is given freedom that many other team-owned networks simply don't have, and because SNY likely understands it has a star in Burkhardt that can't be easily replaced.
At the end of the Mets Hot Stove broadcast Thursday night, Burkhardt teased to the next edition on January 2. He'll be calling an NFL divisional playoff game for Fox on January 11 or 12th, a national audience larger than any he's had before. It's pretty easy to see where this is all going.
"I think what it comes down to is, I'm lucky to have two entities that think I'm good enough to hire me," Burkhardt said. "So I guess I'll see how it works out. ... But when I say I feel lucky, it's not because I didn't work for it. So I know I'm lucky, because there's 14 guys that do it. I'm working in an age when it's so difficult to get jobs. I mean, my life is great. But I worked my tail off for it. When I'm up there on Sunday, I'm like, 'I earned this.' I didn't luck into it."
CORRECTION: The original version of this article placed William Paterson University in Montclair.