Champion-caliber: Pistons' radio voice feeling fortunate after 50 years of calls
Through 50 years of “holy mackerel” highs and “man, oh man” lows, one thing has remained the same for Detroit’s dean of sports radio broadcasting.
“I wake up every day a Champion, and you can’t beat that,” said Mark Champion, the aptly named radio man. “It’s a good name to have in this business.”
Champion called every single run of Barry Sanders’ career and now makes courtside calls for the Pistons as they try to return to his lofty surname’s heights.
Michiganians became familiar with Champion’s calls during Lions broadcasts during the Sanders era. Many of the telecasts were blacked out locally when the spacious Silverdome couldn't sell out in time, forcing fans to gather around the radio in throwback scenes similar to Champion’s youth in Muncie, Ind. — listening to radio broadcasts by Jack Quinlan and Vince Lloyd of his beloved Chicago Cubs.
That’s where he developed the passion for radio that still burns today, in year No. 50.
Champion, 68, would go on to call the 2004 NBA-champion Pistons, the 1997 Masters triumph by Tiger Woods, and Tom Izzo’s only national title with Michigan State in 2000, in addition to carrying the notorious figure skating at the 1994 Winter Olympics —featuring Nancy Kerrigan vs. Tonya Harding — to 18 million listeners worldwide while TV coverage was tape-delayed from Lillehammer, Norway.
“I’ve been so blessed with so many major opportunities,” Champion said. “It’s one thing I keep coming back to, just how blessed I’ve been.”
Champion also surfaces globally after every NFL season for the famed Disney commercials where it’s his voice who asks the Super Bowl MVP what’s next, cuing up the iconic phrase from players such as Drew Brees and Tom Brady:
“I’m going to Disney World!"
'Stroke of luck'
Working in Tampa nearby the Orlando amusement park, Champion was a college friend with someone in Disney’s marketing department when the campaign started with Phil Simms in 1987.
“At the time, you don’t even think that it’s going to be something that iconic that would last forever, but it has,” Champion said. “Something I’ve been very proud of.”
Leading up to the Super Bowl, Champion spends a day at a Royal Oak studio recording prompts for every conceivable MVP pick.
Most days throughout his career have been filled with the amusement that a young Champion would equate with a typical child’s enthusiasm for Disney.
“I love what I do, I enjoy it,” Champion said. “I worked with some great people, and we’ve had fun.”
This is Champion’s 25th season with the Pistons, whose flagship station is 97.1 The Ticket. The only Disney declaration he missed was when someone else asked Joe Dumars where he was headed next after winning the NBA Finals MVP for the Pistons in 1989, as Champion was on vacation.
The Pistons would then pick up Champion when he was down later in his career.
Muncie-born and raised, Champion worked at a local station while attending Ball State University, serving as an analyst for Cardinals sports in addition to working as a disc jockey.
After graduating in the early 1970s, Champion made his way to Tampa, Fla. A few years into his Florida stint, Champion was a known quantity locally when the Tampa Bay Buccaneers needed a new radio play-by-play announcer in 1979.
Similar to his arrival in Detroit a decade later, Champion was blessed with good fortune about the timing of his debut.
“It was another stroke of luck,” Champion said. “My first year with Tampa, we go to the NFC Championship game. Then the first year with Detroit, we end up getting the best running back in history. Kind of ironic.”
While in Tampa, Champion befriended Bucs assistant coach Wayne Fontes, who would later move to Detroit to work under Lions head coach Darryl Rogers in the mid-1980s. With the Lions switching from WJR-760 to CBS-owned WWJ-950, Champion moved within the company north to Michigan, based in part because of his connection with Fontes, who became head coach in 1988, a year before Champion and Sanders arrived. Champion became the most connected voice to Sanders’ jaw-dropping runs, with his calls still prominently in circulation as today’s fans acquaint themselves with YouTube.
“One thing I know about Mark, he is as technically sound and solid as any play-by-play broadcaster as far as information listener needs,” said Jim Brandstatter, Champion’s radio analyst in his 16 years on Lions calls. “He is extremely good at the technical aspects of the broadcast, the little things you don’t even remember that he knows about — the details, they just fly off the mouth for him.”
'Best call you ever made'
Champion and Brandstatter’s audiences ballooned whenever Lions games didn’t sell out, leaving diehards to listen to crucial games, including the 1993 playoff loss when Green Bay’s Sterling Sharpe got behind the Lions defense for the winning touchdown.
Like with defenses, Sanders' iconic runs kept Champion and Brandstatter on their toes.
“With Barry, every time he carried the ball, it could easily be the best call you ever made,” Champion said. “But you don’t want to use your ‘A’ material because he might come up with something better the next time around.”
When Sanders passed 2,000 yards rushing in the 1997 season, he still was leaving Champion guessing.
“He needed a certain amount of yards to pass it,” Champion recalled of the season-ending win against the Jets. “Couldn’t remember what it was, 4 or 5 to get right to 2,000, but then he ran the ball and it wasn’t exactly 4 yards. I couldn’t even make the great record-breaking call because I didn’t know where they were going to spot the ball.
“I looked at Brandstatter and said, ‘Oh, man.’ Then, the very next play, he ran off a 10- or 15-yard run. Then I said, ‘Well, he’s definitely over 2,000 yards now.’”
For every Sanders run that elicited a positive “holy mackerel” from Champion, there also seemed to be a “man oh man” moment when things didn’t go quite right for the Lions, commonplace for a franchise that sent Sanders to retirement before the 1999 season.
Champion said he was blindsided when the Lions decided to replace him with Dan Miller in 2005. He said the Lions’ move was a financial one and said he didn’t think it was based on his calls.
“It is what it is,” Champion said. “It came out of left field. I didn’t see it coming at all. I was very, very disappointed.”
Champion said he relied on his faith during that time and eventually landed with the Pistons for full-time radio duties.
“They’re a great organization and you feel like you’re part of the family, so to speak,” Champion said.
'Love what I'm doing'
Champion joined the Pistons broadcasts on a part-time basis the season after the "Bad Boys" won their second NBA championship in 1990.
That continued for many years until a three-year hiatus when Pistons radio rights changed and Champion was not allowed to do both while his Lions duties continued.
That led to Champion becoming the voice of Michigan State basketball during the Mateen Cleaves era, earning jewelry in all three of his years on the radio.
“I got a national championship ring and three Big Ten championship rings,” Champion said. “That was a lot of fun.”
He returned to the Pistons for the 2000-01 season. In another stroke of good fortune at a new role, that coincided with the rise of the Ben Wallace era of gritty Pistons basketball, which dominated the Eastern Conference for nearly a decade.
During deep playoff runs though, longtime Pistons broadcaster George Blaha shifts to radio when national crews take over the TV coverage.
Champion has also done TV work over his career, but values the radio connection with listeners.
“I still think there’s a large radio listenership, people out in their cars, people kind of checking in on games,” Champion said. “It’s still a very important platform for sports. I’ve done some TV over the years, but radio was my first love and always will be.”
Champion now does games with former "Bad Boy" Rick Mahorn and has also worked with other former Pistons Vinnie Johnson, John Long and Greg Kelser over the years.
With Blake Griffin and the Pistons playing well heading toward this season’s playoffs, Champion is hoping for another similar uptick that he’s seen before.
“We’re back on the upswing back with our fellows now,” he said. “Since Ed Stefanski and Dwane Casey came in, we’re seeing a major turnaround. This team is on the rise. I think we’re about to begin another run of good basketball.”
Champion, who lives in Clarkston with wife Carol, said he has not thought yet about retirement, taking it season by season.
“Free time? What’s that?” Champion said, when asked about retirement desires. “I enjoy golf, certainly being with the family and church activities. Travel is nice.
“But I haven’t really given it a lot of serious thought, because I just love what I’m doing.”
Matt Schoch is a freelance writer.