Last Updated on August 20, 2021
Interview with John Rooke
John from SportsDegreesOnline.org sat down with John Rooke and the two discussed Mr. Rooke's career path in broadcasting as well as the current state of sports media and broadcasting, as well as how young people can break into the world of broadcasting.
About John Rooke
John Rooke has extensive experience in broadcasting, as he has been the play-by-play announcer for the Providence Friar's Men's Basketball team for almost 30 years, as well as the voice of Gillette stadium for both the New England Patriots and the New England Revolution. On top of this, he is the Director of the Center for Business, Entertainment, and Sport Management and a Distinguished Executive Faculty member for Dean College.
Can you speak a bit about your career path thus far and how you got to where you are today as a broadcaster and professor?
I’ve been around for a few years. I’m in my 46th year of media. I started as a writer with the school on a journalism scholarship and kind of stumbled into broadcasting. The teaching came a little bit later on in my career, but I’ve always maintained time to be a part of the circus, so to speak. I’m still an active broadcaster. I think that lends credibility to what we’re trying to do in a place like Dean College and the program that we’re trying to build. So I would say that my interest in seeing that things are done the right way has helped fuel my interest in teaching, instructing, and passing on what I know to a different generation. I think that’s the main reason why I wanted to move into teaching. As it turns out, it turned out to be a rewarding experience along the way. I’d say that’s the short story of it all.
What is the day-to-day like for a sports broadcaster?
It really varies a little bit by sport. For me, I usually spend roughly two hours of prep for every hour that I’m going to be on the air. So if I’ve got a two and a half-hour basketball broadcast, I will probably spend four to five hours preparing. If I’ve got a three-hour football game, it’s going to be at least six hours of prep over the course of several days before the game. Baseball is a little different because you get into a routine during baseball. If you’ve got a three-hour baseball game, I’m sure you’re going to spend a minimum of three hours during the day of your game preparing for the game that night. It really kind of depends on the sport.
If you’re a talk show host, then you’re going to spend pretty much the early part of your day preparing for your show. You work with the producer if you have one, lining up guests if you decide that that’s what you want to do. You come up with a theme for the show. There are different ways to go about it. Of course, if you’re a TV broadcaster, then you surely have a calendar of events going on that day. Turn cameras up to get coverage or go out and shoot it yourself, you’ll come back, you’ll write your scripts, and deliver the sports news for whatever TV station or radio station that you’re working for that night. It varies a bit, it just really depends on what aspect of sports broadcasting you’re into.
When prepping for a broadcast, are you looking at backstories of opposing players that are coming in? Are you diving into statistics, looking at scouting reports? What does the prep look like?
All of the above. Anything you can do to increase your knowledge, not only of the team that you’re covering but the other team. And if you’re not a team voice then you clearly have to do a lot of studying on both teams. The idea is to make the audience comfortable with your knowledge level to the point where they feel like you belong, whether you really do or not. That’s the challenge that network broadcasters have all the time is to make the audience comfortable enough with their knowledge. I’ll give you a great example: last night’s ESPN TV broadcast. Watching the Red Sox and Yankees game, unfortunately, one of the guys who was doing the broadcasting, Alex Rodriguez, is a former Yankee, so Red Sox fans naturally believe he’s going to be one-sided in his coverage.
The problem is that what the play-by-play announcer does is to lead A-Rod into where he’s got a lot of knowledge, and it makes it appear that his coverage is also slanted towards the other team. Yankees fans don’t see it because Yankees fans don’t care. Red Sox fans do care. That’s the difficulty that you run into when you use former players as play-by-play broadcasters because they’re tied to those teams, and they’re going to seem to be biased towards those teams. That’s a challenge not only for the hiring officials, but that’s a challenge for the athletes. I think it hurts coverage, and it hurts respectability. It hurts integrity. It hurts continuity. It hurts everything.
At the network level, you really can’t have a tie to a team in the hopes of being able to please the majority of your audience because I mean it’s still all about informing, but it’s also about entertaining. We’ve gone way past the time of only informing the audience. Back in the 60s and 70s, it was like that. There are so many choices that an individual has now and so many different outlets that a consumer can go to, whether it’s radio, TV, web, streaming, Youtube, this, or that. I mean it’s all over the place now.
I remember when I was in college talking about the future of where we would have 500 channel universes. Well, we’ve blown by that and then some here 40 years later because, quite frankly, we’re in thousands of channels that you can go to be informed and to also be entertained. This is a form of entertainment for people. It has long since gone by just the days of the ink-stained wretches who are just newspaper reporters. We’ve gone way by that. You’ve got to be able to prepare for who your audience is, and I just don’t think the television networks do it well enough to be able to hold on to what I think would be a significant share of the audience.
This is why I think there will always be a need for local broadcasters, team voices, team beat writers, team talk show hosts, things like that, because people want to know about their teams. And if you’re watching the games on ESPN or FOX or the major networks, and you’re just tuning in, and you hear two announcers talking about one team in particular, you’re going to begin to wonder, “Well why are they talking about this one team?” Then you do a little digging, and you find out that this person worked for that team, and this person worked in that league or whatever and they’re going to go naturally towards their wheelhouse and what they know. That’s just an unbalanced broadcast and that leads to bias, and that’s what we really have a problem with in today’s day and age of media and communications is bias from announcers and from wannabe journalists that are supposed to be impartial, but they’re really not.
They’re not impartial because of the entertainment factor involved here. They’re just trying to get eyeballs on the broadcast. That’s what ESPN’s doing. That’s why they hire people like Alex Rodriguez to do games. You’re sort of scratching one back and you’re alienating another. It’s a difficult challenge for a lot of people these days. It’s a different way of approaching depending on the sport and the duty that you have within the industry of broadcasting.
What are some of the most memorable games or moments in games that you have called?
I’ve been lucky to have been in a lot of really great situations from Bowl games to NFL championship games to basketball championship games. The Providence Friars winning the Big East have certainly been a couple of my best memories. You know when they were a jump shot away from reaching the Final Four back in ‘97 that was also a big memory. I’m lucky.
I think if you’re lucky enough to spend as long as I have in this industry, you’re going to have your fair share of games and some are going to stand out over others but sometimes games don’t stand out for winners and losers. Sometimes games stand out for the circumstances leading up or the repercussions coming after or for instances that happen during games. For instance, a game that I called in the old Foxboro Stadium where it was so foggy we couldn’t see the field. I actually called the game from the press box off of the TV monitors because you can’t see anything on the field.
The television networks moved the cameras down to field level because when they were up in the press box, they couldn’t see the field either. So in the middle of the game we’re watching the television camera crews for NBC for network television they’re taking them downstairs so they could actually see something on field level. That was a bizarre experience, but that’s memorable because of mother nature’s involvement. There’ve been a lot of games like that. I remember covering a training camp for the old Houston Oilers back in the mid-1980s where it was so hot in San Angelo, Texas, we fried an egg on the sidewalk during the game. We were trying to get across to our audience how hot it was for the football players in full gear! I mean they were doing two-a-days back then. So they’re putting on pads and they’re knocking each other senseless and it was so hot in San Angelo, Texas – I think it got up to 106 or 107 that day – It was so hot we literally went to the kitchen, and we got an egg and we got a pan and we fried it on the sidewalk.
That was pretty memorable. And that was just doing a TV sports story so that was pretty memorable. I’d never done anything like that before so that was interesting. My first year out of school I worked for a TV station in Waco, Texas covering Baylor University and because I was so relatively young and stupid at the time, I did a story on what it was like to be a walk-on football player. I got permission from my TV station, and I got permission from the coaching staff at Baylor because I’m just a skinny runt, really. I had a camera follow me around for three days, and I did everything a walk-on football player would do. I did a first person story on what it was like to walk on to a major college football team. That was extraordinarily memorable, largely because I played wide receiver, and I dropped a touchdown pass in the scrimmage. It was right in my hands and I dropped it. I fumbled it. That was extraordinarily memorable.
You can’t do this business for too long without having some major events happen in your life, and obviously, there’s good with bad as well. Not everything is strawberries and roses. You don’t get too high with the highs, you don’t get too low with the lows. You always have things on your schedule that you look forward to. To me, planning is the key to having long term success with always having an eye toward what you have to do tomorrow while you take care of what you have to do today.
How can someone break into the field of broadcasting? It seems like there is such a small number of jobs, and I’m sure a lot more interested people than jobs available.
Well that used to be the case when I broke into the industry. There were a lot fewer jobs back in the 80s than there are now. The reason there are more jobs now is because it seems like every radio station and TV station not only has their regular radio broadcast, but they have a website or podcast along with it. Professional teams and collegiate teams have their own radio, podcast, and website. So there’s a lot of content out there that needs to be produced.
Whether it’s a laptop, a PC, or your smartphone, there’s a lot of content that needs to be produced out there for people to be not only engaged with their teams and sports, but for entertainment purposes like I said earlier. I think there are way more opportunities now than there ever have been before in the history of the industry. It is still difficult because a lot of people look at it traditionally, and they don’t see it or they don’t learn it non-traditionally. What I try to do with my students, and how I would tell someone to break into the field of broadcasting, is make sure that you learn everything that you can. That means you’ve got to learn how to write. You’ve got to learn how to speak. You’ve got to learn how to shoot and edit. You’ve got to learn how to interview. You’ve got to learn how to do a lot of different things, and then once you learn how to do these things, you’ve got to find an outlet or a school or whatever that will let you practice your skills. Because like an athlete, the thing that makes you better, that gets you to increase your ability, is to practice.
NFL players are practicing 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days per year. Professional athletes rarely have downtime. If you’re going to be a professional broadcaster, you need to look at it the same way. You need to rarely have downtime in order to work on your craft to where you can actually not only get on the ladder of success, but then start working your way up that ladder of success. I preach that to my students all the time. In a place like Dean, where we have a sports broadcasting degree program now, and we’re one of the smaller schools in the country that has a major big time program like this, we put our students to work- their first month on campus, they’re on the air. They’re on the campus radio station. We’re an NCAA Division III program because of the size of our school, but our students do all of our broadcasting. We don’t hire professionals to put our games on the radio or whatever. Most division 3 schools don’t, some do, but most don’t. Our students do everything. When we broadcast our games on radio, we also stream them on the net. So they get an opportunity to learn television skills as well as radio skills.
We have a student newspaper here where I’m a faculty advisor, and if our students are not on the schedule to broadcast the game, or working in our digital studios, then we have them writing. They’re covering games like they might for a regular newspaper. They’re always working on their communicative skills, and that’s really how someone breaks into the field. You need to be constantly working on improving yourself, looking for opportunities to get into the field by serving internships, working with mentors in the industry, and finding part time jobs that at first might not pay you anything, but if you are there long enough and they like what you do, then they could end up hiring you. That’s how I got my first job in the industry. That’s really what you have to do. The one thing that I would tell anybody who’s trying to break into the field of broadcasting is to never say, “No.” Eliminate that word from your vocabulary because when you say, “No,” you plant a seed of doubt in someone’s mind about you. Just eliminate it. So if they say, “Hey could you do this?” “Sure I can.” And then if you don’t know how to do it, figure it out later.
I like that attitude.
You have to because you don’t know if you’re going to get a second chance, and that’s really the biggest obstacle that I see a lot of my students stumble across. They’re like, “Well, I don’t really want to move to Wichita Falls, Texas or I don’t really want to move to Billings, Montana.” Okay, well that’s fine and dandy, but you just blew an opportunity to work in the industry. So what do you want to do? Do you want to work in the industry? “Well, I want to work in the industry, but I want to work close to home.” Well then you’ve completely eliminated most of your opportunity. It’s not about the industry, it’s really about you wanting to stay close to home. So I would tell you, go find a job working for whatever down the street if you want to be close to home. If you want to work in the industry, you have to be willing to go anywhere and do anything. That’s really what it’s all about.
I’ve heard that same advice from a number of different professors. If you can just be flexible and be open to opportunities anywhere then you’ll be fine. But they have a lot of students who are close minded and of course they want to work for a Boston sports team, or in a major market, but not everybody can.
A lot of kids who come to school at Dean or Providence, they want to work around here. They want to stay in New England. I understand that. But guess what? People don’t go from college right into a top ten television market like Boston. You can’t do that. It doesn’t work that way. You’ve got to go pay your dues in a smaller market.
I was fortunate. I went to school in Austin, and then I got a job in a top 100 TV market at a school in Waco. I was extraordinarily lucky. Right place, right time, knew people, went and auditioned, got the job, and I was right in the middle of everything. It was a great job to have right out of school. I was working 100 hours a week right out of school because there was so much I could do. I never took a day off. On Saturdays, I was doing college football. On Sundays, I was going to cover the NFL. On Fridays, I was doing high school football. And then there was Monday through Thursday. When do I take time off? I didn’t.
I had to be careful with that after a while because of burnout, number one, and you have to look out for your mental and physical health, number two. But that’s what you have to do. If they had told me that a job like that would be open in Des Moines, Iowa, I would’ve gone. I can’t even count the number of jobs I almost took in this industry, that were all over the country. If any of those jobs had happened and opportunities had come about before doing what I did, I would have gladly taken it and paid my dues there and used that as a stepping stone.
I came here to Rhode Island 33 years ago, thinking that this would probably be another stepping stone. I wasn’t sure where I’d go, but I came here because I wanted to: A) continue my television career, and B) get back into doing play-by-play. And as it turns out, the play-by-play thing actually came about first, and I ended up working on TV in Boston for 11 years. I worked in New York for a couple of years. I worked in Hartford for a year. The television thing kind of took care of itself, but the radio and play-by-play work is really what took over my career. And of course the stadium announcing also became a big part of my career because I’ve been with the Patriots now for 30 years. Who knew?
That could have happened at any stop along the way. It just so happens that I ended up picking a region of the country where it was really easy for me to move to other markets. So I came to work in Providence, but it was easy for me to also work in Boston, work in Hartford, and work in New York. I was in a geographic part of the country where it was really close for me to move around and work from station to station and not really have to pick up and move myself physically. So that was lucky, but I was willing to do it. I worked at ESPN for 11 years, but I didn’t have to move to Connecticut. I commuted from where I lived in Rhode Island. I live in southeastern Massachusetts now, but I am still able to do everything that I’ve been able to do just because I’m in the area, and I commute. It’s worked out very well. If you find an area like that when you are in the industry, you might find a city or a town that you want to be a part of, that you like the atmosphere, you like the people, you like the job, and they like you, and there’s no reason why you can’t stay for a good long time.
What is one of the most challenging aspects of sports broadcasting?
Probably staying relevant because it’s so spread out as I suggested earlier. Through all the different aspects of media. TV, radio, streaming, web, that kind of stuff. Trying to stay relevant and being able to be followed, if you will. I would also say balancing the need for accuracy with the need for being relevant on social media. Social media is a really good thing, and it’s also a really bad thing. There are some days where I wish social media would go away, and there are other days which I’m like, “Wow this was fun. I enjoyed that.” I’m able to interact with people I would have previously never been able to do that with. Social media also helps me re-establish relationships with people that I’ve worked with over the years and friends. It’s sort of a double-edged sword. I would tell you, the need for being first versus the need for being accurate is the one large challenge for anyone out there in sports broadcasting that they have to tackle every day.
I tell my students, “I would rather be last and accurate with a story than first and inaccurate.” Because my personal integrity is one the line when I put a story up there, and I break a story or I’m covering a story. I either know my stuff or I don’t. And If I don’t know my stuff, then I am going to lose the public’s faith in my ability to get accurate information out there. That’s still at the heart of being a broadcaster. You are still a reporter. You are still a journalist. Whether anybody wants to realize that or not, we teach it differently today. It’s not journalism 101 per se, it’s really more about infotainment. That’s really more what it is. You have to teach people to be a little bit of everything in this day and age, whereas 40 years ago, it’s really all about getting it right and getting it accurate. If you got it first, it was just a feather in your cap. Social media has put pressure on reporters and journalists to get it first, build your social media following, be witty and snarky, and be all the things that social media accounts can be. Some of them are entertaining, and some of them are quite good at what they do. Others stumble. I think that’s where you’ve got to figure out what it is you want to be very, very, quickly in this industry because you can’t be all things to all people. It’s difficult. It’s very difficult. The challenging aspect of it is balancing accuracy with the entertainment factor.
Can you talk a bit about your experience at Dean College and what separates it from other sport management programs?
I think the biggest difference that I’ve been able to notice is that the curriculum that is offered at a lot of schools is really good. I think it’s very cool that so many schools have decided – and wisely so I would tell you – to offer sports management, sport broadcasting, sports marketing, that kind of thing because there’s so much emphasis on the sports industry. First of all, the sports industry has grown into a multi-billion dollar industry worldwide as everybody knows. Forty years ago, when I first got started, that wasn’t the case. Sports was what we called, “the toy department of life.” You were lucky to be working in sports, and nobody took it terribly seriously because you’re talking about games people play. True, that’s very true.
But over the last 40 years, sports has grown into a multi-billion dollar industry to the point where now, there are a lot of people who depend on sports for their livelihood. And for a lot of people sports is a huge, huge, emotional escape from the daily drudgery of life. People pay big bucks in order to be able to be entertained and informed about their favorite teams and their favorite sports. There’s much more of a demand for that nowadays than there was 40 or 50 years ago.
At Dean College, what we’ve done is embraced that aspect of it. We were one of the first schools in the country to do a complete academic partnership with an NFL franchise. That’s one of the reasons why I was hired here at Dean because of my relationship with the New England Patriots, having worked for them for a number of years. Before Dean College came calling, I was teaching in Emerson College up in Boston at the time, and they asked me if I’d be interested in starting this program at Dean, and I said, “Good Lord, yes.” It’s an opportunity for me to grow my own career and do some more teaching, but also utilize the auspices of what the Patriots, the Revolution, Gillette Stadium, and Patriots Place have and use that as a teaching tool. I don’t know too many students who wouldn’t want to have that. With the Patriots, the Kraft family bought the team, bought the stadium, and bought everything back in the early 1990s for about 170 million. That now is worth almost four billion dollars. They’ve had a huge R.O.I, over the past 30 years. Why wouldn’t a student who is serious about the industry want to learn from the people who have that kind of investment in the industry?
We use the Patriots and the Revolution personnel as our teachers. We invite them over to campus. They lecture our students. We take our students to use their facilities as part of our classrooms in the extension of our campus here at Dean. Certainly being close by in proximity helps us in that regard. But to have that kind of an ability for our students to get that kind of an edge to learn from people who are doing it at a billion-dollar level, I don’t think you can put a price tag on that kind of experience.
Not only are they teaching our students in the classroom, but our students are serving internships and part-time jobs in their businesses. That’s really what sets us apart. If you’re serious about sports from marketing, from management, from event management, from broadcasting, from any of these points of view, venue management, that kind of thing, then I don’t know of too many choices that would be better suited than to where we are in the marketplace because we’re right in the middle of it. We’re right in the heart of it. We handle all of it.
I would also add this; we tell our sports broadcasting students that they do need to learn about the business side of sports. We encourage them to take electives like sports management, sports marketing, and event management courses. Conversely, with our sports management students, we encourage them to take our sports communication courses as electives because they need to learn how to communicate in a better effort to be a salesperson, or a marketer, or a planner, or a manager, whatever it may be, a scout, whatever it could be, whatever you’re trying to do, you need to know the other side of the business if you are truly going to learn. We put real value. We’ve got a real bite to the degree program here. We’re going to equip our students with a really strong experience that’s going to make them extraordinarily hireable when it comes time for them to get into the marketplace.
Are there any jobs or opportunities in the sports industry you can think of that might be overlooked by someone without experience in the industry?
Every pro football team, every pro basketball team, and I’m talking not only at the major level, but at the minor league level as well, they have a need for people who can sell. So learning sports sales is an incredible skill to have. Season tickets, skyboxes, advertising, whatever it might be. There’s a definite need for that in the industry. I would tell you that a sales job is likely the most prevalent job that exists in the sports industry. When I tell that to my students, they kind of recoil, “Oh I don’t want to be a salesperson.” They equate it to someone who’s selling burgers at a cash register at McDonalds or someone who’s selling cars at a used car lot down the street. That couldn’t be further from the truth.
Everybody that’s in this industry sells even if you are a sports broadcaster like me. I’ve spent my 45 year career selling myself! To teams, to stations, to newspapers, to schools, to colleges, I spent my whole professional career selling myself! You sell yourself when you go on a job interview, so don’t tell me you can’t sell. That’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard in my life. “I don’t want to be a salesperson.” Well, then, I guess you don’t want to work! You have to look at it differently.
There are a lot of jobs in this industry that certainly revolve around sales, but they’re not just about sales, there’s public relations jobs. A lot of teams hire their own media to cover their team so you write stories for the website, you do podcasts, you do vlogs, you can do just about anything, really, and that’s where a lot of the reporting and sportscasting jobs are today: within teams and small organizations that don’t have big bucks, but they need people to create content for their social media outreach. You’re going to be able to find that if you are equipped to do that. Event management is huge nowadays. You can go and work for a facility like the Dunkin Donuts Center, Gillette Stadium, or the brand new Polar Park in Worcester; They need people because their job is to get people in the stadium. They need to put butts in seats. How do you do that? You market it, you sell, you promote. I think one of the biggest fields that I would tell either my sport management students or my sports broadcasting students – I would tell them the one course you need to take before you leave Dean is Sports Media Selling. Learn how to sell. They’re like, “Ew, gross, I don’t want to do that.” Okay, that’s fine. You don’t want to do that. Then I guarantee you’re going to have a hole in your resume that you’re not going to be able to overcome because chances are the first job you get.
Jobs in this business are plentiful within sales and marketing out of school, and if you do decent enough at it you use that as a toehold to get into something else. For someone, let’s say you want to be a scout, you want to work for a team. Okay, that’s fine. You can do that. But the way you are going to get your foot in the door in the organization is probably by selling tickets or selling advertising in that organization. It happened with my own son. He got his degree in digital media at Marquette University, and he started out working for a regional home improvement chain called Timber Land in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. He ended up going out and doing marketing things for them in the public parking lot of Milwaukee Brewers games. That’s what he would do, and he would sign people up for home improvement promotions. That’s how he started, and then he got a job working with the Providence Bruins as a ticket sales rep. And then he was in the right place at the right time because he knew that’s not what he wanted to do forever, but he wanted his foot in the door working for a professional sports team. Sure enough, they had an opening, and now he’s the play-by-play voice of the Bruins. So that’s how it works. He paid his dues a couple of years doing things that he didn’t really want to do.
“I don’t want to do this the rest of my life, but I want to learn the industry. I want to know people. I want to make contacts.” Making contacts in the industry is invaluable. You really have to network like crazy, and this all goes towards what I said earlier– don’t ever say, “No.” You need to meet people. You need to eyeball people because they will remember you if they’ve had an interaction with you before. And if they remember you, your chances of getting a job are going to be increased. It works. My own son is walking and talking proof of that. I use that as an example all the time.
Are there any good books, podcasts, or other resources you would recommend for someone looking to learn more about this field?
You know, honestly, there probably are, I really spend most of my time usually reading textbooks. I don’t have a lot of downtime where I listen to many of them. The one piece of advice along those lines that I would give is if someone looks like they are offering advice, listen to what they have to say, and then decide if it suits you and your needs. If it does, then you’re going to get some valuable information out of it. If you are like, “Eh, I’m not interested.” Then don’t waste your time, and find something else that you can do.
I would pick up a book that tells me about the industry. I would listen to a podcast about people trying to find jobs in the industry. That’s what I would do. Anything would probably be relevant.
The other relevant thing I would do is try to network like crazy. I’m going to try to make connections on social media with people that are in the industry that I enjoy listening to, or reading, or watching, and I’m going to try and make a connection with them. Maybe try at some point to bug them to see if I can make contact. Then get to know them a little bit, and then use them as a reference for something that might happen down the line. I think that could be wholly valuable for someone trying to break into the business.