For NBC’s Big Ten crew, good times equal better broadcasts in inaugural season

On3 imageby:Andrew Graham11/22/23

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The foundations for the chemistry of NBC’s newest trio of college football broadcasters likely lies at tables and booths of bars and restaurants around the Big Ten. And one, in particular, looms larger than the rest: Mickie’s Dairy Bar in Madison, Wisconsin. 

Situated a few hundred feet south of Camp Randall Stadium, Mickie’s has been a go-to of color commentator Todd Blackledge for years. It even earned a feature on his “Taste of the Town” segment that aired during his tenure calling games at ESPN. So when he first got to take his new NBC co-workers — namely play-by-play announcer Noah Eagle and sideline reporter Kathryn Tappen, among the rest of the crew — for a meal in Madison, the choice of location was obvious.

“He got me something called a scrambler, and that delivered,” Eagle said. “I mean, it was fantastic. It didn’t look, definitely, like the most nutritious item in the world, but it was one of the most delicious items in the world.”

From unseen moments sharing meals to an increasing count of on-air reps, Blackledge, Eagle and Tappen have quickly developed into a cohesive, complementary crew, delivering Big Ten football in primetime (most weeks) to millions at home. And ahead of the capper to the season — a Black Friday showdown between Michigan State and Penn State at Ford Field in Detroit — the trio reflected on the growth and success of Year 1 serving as the Big Ten’s primetime broadcast.

“I’ve just noticed every single game, we get better and better and the growth has been more than I ever thought it could be,” Tappen said. “I mean, I think we all came into this as total pros knowing we do a great job, but we continue to grow each week, which I think is great.”

The journey for the 2023 season started over the spring and summer when the trio first made introductions, mostly over the phone and with a few lunches and spring games interspersed — Eagle was absent, on duty calling Clippers games. But things didn’t really kick off until the season began and productions took precedence in their schedules each weekend.

And that time spent on task, both in the booth and on the field — but also spent in production meetings, traveling to and from venues and at Blackledge’s various haunts for Thursday meals — has been more fruitful than any perfunctory time spent together. 

Plus, it runs deeper than just the on-air trio, with producer Matt Marvin and director Charlie Dammeyer and the whole host off-camera technical crew often joining in on the Thursday night meals. 

“We like to do things together, we like to do things with members of our crew. There’s no hierarchy. There’s just pure joy for college football. That’s a common thread for all of us. And we make a point, when we get into town on Thursdays if we don’t go to a team practice, we make a point to go watch the Thursday night game altogether. There could be anywhere from 10 to 12 of us at that table, usually at the dive bar in one of these college towns. And we just sit around and have some food and laugh and get ready for the next day’s meetings,” Tappen said.

Along with Mickie’s, one of Eagle’s other favorite spots was Frita Batidos, an Ann Arbor, Michigan, establishment serving Cuban fritas (a derivation of a hamburger) and other street food.

“Yeah, man, that was really good too,” Eagle said. “And I will say, both times I felt like I had to go back and take a nap afterwards.”

NBC’s Big Ten crew has gotten a chance to visit numerous venues — and nearby eateries — in Year 1, and has seen all but three teams from the league in action. Rutgers, Northwestern and Indiana will wait for 2024, at least, to play on the NBC broadcast. 

They’ve hit up the traditional powers of the league with stops at Ohio State, Michigan and Penn State, where Blackledge played quarterback. They’ve also made stops at Purdue, Illinois, Maryland, Michigan State, Iowa, Minnesota and Wisconsin. They also were on hand at Notre Dame when the Buckeyes visited in Week 4. 

And though the matchups in a given game might not be the biggest billing in the Big Ten that week — Fox gets first choice in the pecking order for its Big Noon slot — the NBC primetime broadcast has been one of the 10 most-watched college football broadcasts most weeks in the 2023 season. The lowest rating came for a Week 2 game between Charlotte and Maryland that largely got overshadowed by the massive TexasAlabama game happening simultaneously.

But even the perceived lesser matchups are going to get the same amount of attention, preparation and care. Eagle offered an example from the middle of the season, when he, Blackledge and Tappen were following up the Ohio State-Notre Dame game with MSU playing at Iowa.

“And the reason the example fits is because that game ended up being a really interesting game. And Michigan State had a lead into the fourth quarter, eventually Cooper DeJean has a punt return touchdown to essentially win the game late in the fourth quarter in a packed Kinnick stadium at night under the lights. Children’s Hospital with a wave after the first quarter. Like all these elements that still made it special and still made it college football,” Eagle said. “And so we’re doing high level college football every week. That is a blessing for all of us. And I think we know that regardless of the matchup.” 

And all the preparation and burgeoning chemistry manifest in the broadcast. Eagle, as the play-by-play announcer, wants to be viewers’ willing guide for the evening without overbearing, mostly trying to create space for Blackledge to offer insights or Tappen to deliver a report.

“Most of the time I just want to give him enough space and I wanna make sure that he’s got enough runway so that he can fully explain stuff that I think makes him different, separates him, showcases how elite he truly is,” Eagle said.

(Courtesy of NBC)

The feeling is mutual, as Blackledge commended the professionalism and ability of Eagle, who despite turning 26 in December, has felt like a long-time veteran in the practice. Blackledge, who called games on ESPN with Syracuse alum Sean McDonough, joked that he can’t seem to escape them as he’s now with Eagle, another Syracuse graduate.

And both Eagle and Blackledge raved about Tappen and all the work she puts in to maybe make just a handful of appearances each game. Tappen explained that she tries to report throughout the week, getting brief chances to speak with players on the phone around their schedules prior to showing up for the game each weekend. 

The goal is to be ready to have a story, report or tidbit available no matter what direction the game goes or who makes a play. 

In that regard, Blackledge thinks she’s among the best of the best.

“She’s excellent. And I’ve had the privilege of working with some really good sideline reporters — Holly Rowe, a lot of years at ESPN and Molly McGrath my last three or four years at ESPN and Kathryn now. And the thing I would say about all of ’em is they just — they’re such hard workers. They put so much time into it and KT is, I mean, not only is she amazing in her preparation, but she talks to players during the week on her own. She talks to the parents of players during the week And she comes to the game loaded with great information and great story ideas,” Blackledge said.”… And she’s fun to hang out with. She’s definitely one of the crew.”

And that reality — that Blackledge, Eagle, Tappen and the rest of the team enjoy getting to come work together — has been the base of flowering on-air chemistry. Chemistry from the booth on down that NBC hopes to bring to Big Ten games for years to come.

“And obviously it gets easier and better the more you’re around these people just genuinely and naturally. But, this is only Year 1. Like I can’t even imagine what Year 3 and Year 6 and Year 10 — if we go that far — what those all look like, just because I feel like it’s gone so well and it’s happened so organically through this first season,” Eagle said.