After spending nearly 30 years with ESPN as one of its premier sports analysts, college football and professional tennis anchor Chris Fowler returned to his roots on Friday to hold a forum with students and staff at his alma mater, the University of Colorado Boulder.
“It’s really exciting, a thrill for me to be back here,” Fowler said. “CU for me is a lot more than an alma mater. My parents went here, met here, my dad has three brothers that all went here, cousins, second cousins, a whole bunch of Fowlers have all come here through Boulder.
“My dad actually grew up in Boulder, went to Boulder High, my mom grew up in Denver, so we moved back to Colorado before I went to high school at Palmer in the Springs. This was my in-state school, so it was an easy choice, but it for me was also the best choice, and I’ve never regretted it.”
And from the herd to the big time, Fowler has had quite the journey to get to where he is today.
During his time as a Buffalo back in the early 80’s, Fowler took part in every journalistic avenue available to him through campus radio stations, TV stations, publications and internships at local stations. While he was still a student, he secured an internship at Channel 7 in Denver that led to a sports producing job at Channel 4, where he switched over to sports anchor shortly after graduating from school.
A year after Fowler began his career on camera, he sent in an audition tape to ESPN and the rest is history.
“Even though it was a startup show and I was 23, they still wanted big market experience, so it was a sequence of things that happened because CU was near Denver, I had an opportunity, and it set the stage for free ESPN and after that I sorted through different responsibilities at the network and have been there for 30 years,” Fowler said.
Back then, ESPN wasn’t quite the household name it has become today. At just seven years old, the now-marquee sports network took on its newest eager sports fanatic, not knowing how much of an influence he would become in shaping its image.
“If I hadn’t been at CU to get the opportunity to get into a bigger market and then make the most of it, ESPN never would have hired me at 23. It was a lot easier at ESPN then than it is now,” Fowler said. “It was important for our sports fans, but didn’t have much of a global footprint, to say the least. ‘The Worldwide Leader in Sports,’ which they made their motto way before it plied, was pretty laughable back then.”
When he first started out in 1986, Fowler hosted a high school sports program at ESPN called Scholastic Sports America, where he spent the next two years before being offered a position as the SportsCenter West Coast correspondent. But in the long run, he decided the opportunity wasn’t the right fit for him. Just a year after that, they offered him a position covering college football.
And thus began a long-term relationship with College GameDay.
From the get-go, Fowler’s participation in College GameDay proved to be an uphill battle because the interest in the sport wasn’t nearly as prominent as it is today.
“GameDay wasn’t anything you’d want to host at that time, really,” he said.
But as the show evolved over time, so did the interest in the sport across the board.
“I think beyond that, because it’s never been about ratings or awards for me, I can honestly say that it’s that the show that helped grow the sport,” Fowler said. “It helped showcase programs that people didn’t know about.”
“It put the spotlight not just on the three, four, five, six teams that everybody used to see on television when we all got one or two games every Saturday afternoon, but a much broader spectrum so that people in Florida knew what Oregon was about, and vice versa. And that’s neat.”
From there, the program blossomed into a five-time Emmy-award winner, and Fowler’s career began to soar. For the past 13 or 14 years, he’s also taken on the brunt of ESPN’s professional tennis coverage, and he guessed that he’s called upwards of 55 Grand Slams over the years.
“This is important enough to ESPN that I get to call six Grand Slam finals a year of the eight, which I can’t tell you what a thrill that is. There’s nobody that’s been able to do that before in TV history, because no network’s had the rights to three out of the four before,” he said.
In between tennis and football, Fowler has enjoyed picking up other sports coverage from time to time, including Triple Crown races, the X Games, college basketball and Heisman Trophy presentations, just to name a few.
“I didn’t know what the hell I was talking about with these sports (the X Games) and nobody did either, the audience didn’t either. And so you learn on the fly,” Fowler said.
But regardless of the depth of his knowledge on any given subject, Fowler was always ready to tackle the assignment and strut his stuff on the camera.
“Preparation equals confidence equals performance, because if you’re prepared you should be confident, if you’re confident you shouldn’t go on camera and look like you’re unsure or scared or nervous, because you know you’re ready for whatever happens, and that comes over time too with experience,” he said.
And as you can expect, each unique sport takes an equally unique approach to Fowler’s preparation of its coverage, whether it just focuses on the history of the matchup itself or delves much deeper into its location or a broader topic.
“You tailor the preparation to the specific event,” Fowler said. “I mean if I’m covering a game in football, you know as much as you can about the two teams, you really are preparing right down to kickoff, you’re fine-tuning, you’re figuring out out of this mountain of information what are we likely to use, what do we definitely have to get in, but we need to get ready for this in case this unexpected thing happens.
“With tennis it’s much more focused. It’s two players, so you look back at the history of their two matches, you look at a lot of tape, you look at the previous matches in that tournament, and then you’re also ready if it gets really lopsided. It’s also about anything else that might come up in the world of tennis.
“So the preparation is really tailored differently for whatever the event is. If I’m hosting an event, I learn a lot about the host city, the history of the event in the past, the current teams and really broad topics that you have to be ready for because the job description is so different than just calling a game.”
After 30 years, as the face of the journalism game has changed significantly, so has the face of ESPN and Fowler’s responsibilities.
“Now, culture has changed a lot, it’s owned by a corporation, it’s massive, there’s a million employees so you don’t know them the same way that you used to,” Fowler said. “It’s become far more corporately responsible and politically correct than the frat house it was when I first got there, thankfully. That’s the tip of the iceberg, it’s grown in lots of different ways, but it’s an American success story of a company.”
And even after three decades, Fowler’s love for his job is just as strong as it was from Day One.
“It never will get old, hopefully, because the passion is genuine and I’m not faking it,” he said. “And you hopefully have the perspective that you realize you get to do that for a living. It’s all I’ve wanted to do since I was 10.”