ESPN’s SportsCenter has changed immensely over the last 18 years—sets, anchors, topics—but there has been one constant. It is hard to imagine an episode of SportsCenter without that deep, gravelly voice. “Coming up next...on SportsCenter.” You’re probably doing an impression in your head right now.
Despite being a staple of ESPN programming for two decades, Chris Kelley, the 59-year-old voice of SportsCenter, has been on the air live just once, in 2012. A video of the original broadcast is on YouTube. It is a bit awkward, though not quite as bad as Kelley makes it sound.
“They called me at two o’clock in the afternoon. I had just fired up a big, fat joint and they’re like, ‘Chris we need you to drive in here right now,’” Kelley recalled. “I shaved my beard off, I put a sport coat on. They put me in makeup.”
After a bit of back-and-forth between the anchors, setting up Kelley’s big reveal, anchor David Lloyd said, “The wizard of Oz comes out from behind the curtain. He’s no longer a disembodied voice. Here he is: Chris Kelley. Take it, Chris.”
The camera panned to Kelley, who wasn’t quite following what was going on, standing in front of a microphone. “I was a total fish out of water,” he said later. “They didn’t tell me that they were going to introduce me.” After a stutter that sounded like some combination of a “thank you” and a laugh, Kelley recited his scripted line about the NBA Finals matchup, followed by a sponsorship from Men’s Wearhouse. He had been reading from a teleprompter instead of from the script in his hand, so when the cameraman pushed past him, Kelley had to pause to recover his place.
The appearance still annoys Kelley, but he laughs about the awkwardness of it all. Before agreeing to come in, he had suggested an alternative approach for revealing his identity. “I told them, ‘Why don’t you send a camera crew out here and shoot me in my natural environment.’ That would’ve been better.”
Kelley lives alone on six acres in the mountains of Sharon, Conn., and does all of his ESPN recordings in his basement with a 19-year-old microphone. Aside from a few foam pads for soundproofing, the room looks nothing like a recording studio. He grows tomatoes, celery, scallions, and broccoli in his garden, and maintains his lawn as if he lives in Bel-Air, though no one else regularly sees it. He drives a black Jeep Wrangler that is covered in dust and dirt. Kelley is slender and six feet tall, with a full head of hair, equal parts grey and black, and a beard to match; his face is heavily wrinkled. He wears slim fit jeans, black work boots and a camouflage fleece. In one moment Kelley looks homeless, in another he looks like Mick Jagger.
Prior to beginning a career in voice work, Kelley was a musician. He was the lead singer for Rods and Cones, a 1980s rock band popular in the Northeast—particularly in Boston, where the band formed. He began his career as a voiceover artist in 1991, and has recorded nationally televised advertisements, and promotions and narrations for companies like HBO, VH1, the Discovery Channel, Pepsi, Verizon, and Fruit of the Loom. Watch TV long enough and you’ll hear his voice.
“Kells is a troubadour,” said Joe Marx, a communications program director who knew Kelley in college. “I don’t think the entertainer on stage, nor the ‘voiceover ESPN guy’ even cracks the surface of who he is. Kells is an amazingly complex, fascinating, and deeply good soul.” Kelley and Marx met as undergrads at Boston College in 1979 and started a jam band called the Elliot Mouser Floating Blues Band. The band still meets up and plays in Kelley’s basement or an occasional show once or twice a year.
Kelley’s ordinary speaking voice doesn’t sound exactly the same as his ESPN voice, which is akin to an old-time radio DJ. Longtime voice actor Bill St. James, the voice of NBC Sports and the last six Olympics, described it as gruff and somewhat nasally. “His voice sounds like someone who was out all last night partying,” St. James said. “He does not sound like too many other people who do what we do.”
While Kelley lives in relative solitude these days, he maintains a reputation. “Most people in the business are somewhat off-centered,” St. James said.
Jed Markson, a producer at Star Trax—a recording studio in Manhattan where Kelley met St. James—remembers the first time he worked with Kelley in 1991. An electronics store requested a series of radio spots featuring a “Denis Leary knock-off.” Before the first recording for his audition, Kelley grabbed a piece of wood used for sound effects and started banging it against his forehead, in order to psych himself up.
“I just remember laughing, saying, ‘This guy’s out of his fuckin’ mind.’ From that moment on we became good friends,” Markson said. “We were like, ‘This guy’s one of us.’”
Kelley grew up in Holyoke, Mass., in what he calls a traditional family: strict, Catholic, Irish and Italian. He is the youngest of six children, by six years, and says he was “kind of a mistake.” After graduating from Boston College, Kelley launched himself headfirst into the rock n’ roll lifestyle. He attended countless Grateful Dead shows and formed Rods and Cones. The band started off playing at dive bars and fraternity houses, and soon began touring across the Boston area.
In 1987, Kelley moved to New York City and began working as a bartender at The Rodeo Bar in Murray Hill. The band stayed in Boston, but played shows at The Rodeo Bar as well as other local venues such as Tramps, The Bitter End, and CBGB. Hilly Kristal, the founder of CBGB, took interest in the band and Kelley in particular.
“Hilly loved Chris,” said Tom Schneider, the former manager of Rods and Cones. “Hilly saw Chris as, ‘Oh my God, this guy has everything. We can make it happen.’ Of course, he managed not to make it happen.”
Rods and Cones recorded a live album at CBGB, and Schneider said Kristal was very supportive of the band. “Hilly gave us prime spots. That’s where we made our most money. According to Schneider, the band sold out 1,200-seat venues in Boston and toured across Massachusetts, New York, Rhode Island and Connecticut.
But while the band achieved modest success, it wasn’t enough to keep things going. Rods and Cones broke up. Kelley was fired from the Rodeo Bar, but continued to play solo shows. In December 1990, between sets at Tramps, a suited voiceover agent named David Evans approached Kelley and gave him his card. On Jan. 2, 1991, Kelley showed up at his office. Within the first week, he booked two national commercials.
Recruiting new talent, people with little or no voiceover experience, was a big part of Evans’s job at Abrams Artists Agency. “I just had a gut feeling he could do that,” Evans said. As a former musician who understood the working dynamic with a producer, he also felt Kelley would be easier to work with than other actors in the business. “Besides Chris’s voice, there was a humor and flexibility. People were enchanted by his personality.”
Kelley is an anomaly. Like any other craft, success in voice work ordinarily requires extensive practice, but Kelley took over one of the highest-profile jobs with barely any experience. He says the knack came almost instantly.
“I had a good enough sense of performance,” Kelley told me. “And I was a good enough little boy to follow directions, because that’s really all you were there to do, just give them what they wanted. It’s not rocket science; it’s just getting a feel for it. I already had that with music.”
St. James pointed to nuances in the craft that many voice artists fail to perfect, such as of shortening a 30-second recording by half a second, or lining up a script with visuals on a screen, things that gave Kelley no trouble.
Evans set up Kelley with his first ESPN promotions in 1995, noting that he was particularly good at doing sports-related voiceovers. “He was edgy, extreme, hip and he could read quickly,” Evans said. Not surprisingly, Kelley started off with voice work for the very first X Games. He became the full-time studio voice for promotions in 1999, where he eventually earned the nickname “Brought To You By.”
“His voice is obviously the one we all have burned in our memory,” longtime ESPN reporter Suzy Kolber said. “[It is] distinctive and really cool at the same time.” Kelley is a good sport about being known simply for his voice. He has obliged requests for voicemail recordings and even called into the studio to prank former SportsCenter anchor Robert Flores, at the request of a producer who was apparently annoyed by how often Flores mimicked Kelley.
“He brings a sound to ESPN that I think is unmistakable,” Flores, now an anchor for the MLB Network, told me. Flores said ESPN employees were as curious about the man behind the voice as viewers were. “His story, or identity, it’s definitely come up more than once. People seem to be interested in finding out, ‘Who is that guy? Does he come in every day?”
Kelley quickly took to the freelancing aspect of voiceovers, sending out demos and casting a wide net.
“It’s really like banging a lot of chicks,” Kelley said. “I would liken it to my 20s, when I could just kind of shack up with somebody or I could have one-night stands, or, you know, a couple of returns. You’re constantly trying to get notches on your belt.”
Kelley said he found the work much easier than his previous hustle in the music industry. “I was so ripe for voiceovers, considering the rock and roll lifestyle. I just had to show up everyday, pound the pavement, get on as many audition tapes as possible and try to convince people I knew what I was doing. With 20 years of performing under my belt, it was a fucking piece of cake to tamely show up sober in the daytime and just have to read words. You’re kidding me.”
But Kelley knows his lengthy tenure at ESPN is unusual. “It’s from the old school. It’s like if you were in the ‘60s and ‘70s and there were 20 guys doing it back then, not five million.” Larry Kenney, a voice actor best known for his work as Lion-O on Thundercats and appearances on Imus in the Morning, once told Kelley he paid for his three daughters’ college tuition off of a single Miller beer commercial that aired for a decade. “Now, I never got that lucky, but I stepped in shit no matter how you look at it,” Kelley said.
He calls himself a dinosaur, and says nearly everyone he met when he first broke into voice work is either retired, out of the industry, or dead. “If I turn the television on now, I listen. There might be one voice I still recognize.”
“It’s hard to have a decades long career in this business,” St. James acknowledged. “It’s very hard, because everybody’s looking over the horizon for who is the next thing.”
Financial stability can be hard to count on. “It is strange to be in a business where there is ultimately no job security,” St. James said. “There’s an old joke about voice over. There are five stages to your career, in my case it would be: ‘Who’s Bill St. James? Get me Bill St. James. Get me a Bill St. James type. Get me a young Bill St. James. Who’s Bill St. James?’”
Kelley told me ESPN started threatening to replace him four years ago, suggesting his time was up. He was initially alarmed and decided to no longer watch any ESPN programming, so as to avoid potentially hearing another voice, even as the company decreased his role.
“Back then it was still so important to me, I didn’t want to hear somebody else on my work. So I stopped watching ESPN,” he said. “After the Red Sox won in October of 2013, I just did it then. Of course, I wanted to put it on a few times after that but I just said, ‘Fuck it. No way.’”
Despite still doing limited work for ESPN, he hasn’t kept up with the network’s major changes.
“I didn’t realize so many anchors are gone,” he said. “I’ve been doing these billboards for ‘SportsCenter at 6, with Michael and Jemele.’ I just found out the other day Jemele is a girl! I swear. My local post office, the guy goes, ‘What’s with Michael and Jemele, they’re unwatchable, those two,’ and I go, ‘What kind of guys are they?’ Guy goes, ‘Jemele’s a woman.’ I go, ‘Shit.’ I guess that makes sense. Jemele, yeah… but it could be a guy. I don’t know.”
Kelley also hasn’t seen the new $125 million SportsCenter set that debuted in 2014. “I don’t even know what the network looks like, sounds like, and I don’t even care as long as I’m working,” he said. “If you’re in it long enough and you’re not a robot and a dork, you eventually end up seeing so many of the ugly sides of what it is to be in that business. There’s all that great stuff, but there’s tons of bullshit like any other job.”
Though ESPN’s hardball negotiating stung at first, Kelley believes it was a blessing in disguise, because it forced him to budget for retirement, albeit a bit sooner than he anticipated. “It’s probably the best thing that ever happened because I never even looked at my future before,” he said. “I didn’t look at what it was going to be like to be looking at 60 without work.”
“The last five negotiations have been, ‘I think this is it.’ So, it’s been a shitty ending. It didn’t need to be like this,” he said. “I still love doing it, when I go down and get in the seat. I just feel like they’re not asking much of me. And that is almost the signal, you know.”
Of course, Kelley doesn’t need to watch ESPN to follow news of the company’s decline. “I’m on the business pages every day, so I always see whatever’s been going down,” he said. “When you’re at the top, I would imagine you’re not as hungry, you’ve got more confidence. Your model’s working.”
In late December, Kelley found out he would be returning to ESPN for another year, re-upping on another one-year contract. That summer, Kelley said, he proposed a three-year contract to avoid the annual renewal dance, and was met with radio silence.
While he is happy to stay with ESPN for at least the remainder of this year—and seems to have enjoyed most of his tenure with the company—Kelley is also excited about the prospect of life without a day job. “I’m at that point where I’m almost 18 again. You know, when you’re first making your decisions on what want to do and what you’re going to study,” he said. “Then, as you make your choices, you work it down to what you end up doing. As you get to the end of what you’re doing, it’s a reversal and all of the sudden there’s all these possibilities again. It’s fuckin’ beautiful.” In addition to continuing to support his two college-aged children, Kelley is considering writing travel brochures or a book about baseball in the 1960s.
But voiceover remains his true calling. “I love doing this,” Kelley said. “I don’t have to sling it for big, corporate America any longer, I don’t give a flying fuck. I just love the performance.”
Zac Howard is a freelance journalist based in Manhattan. You can follow him on twitter @zachoward_.