Ben Bouma has been in sports for ... well, pretty much his entire life. He played hockey at Penn State for four years and interned with the Pittsburgh Pirates' public relations department. After graduating in 1993, Bouma joined the Washington Capitals for a few seasons before heading back to the Pirates. Around the turn of the century he got into television, working as a freelance producer for Super Bowls and Olympics and Stanley Cup Finals. He even served as an advisor to help the Peluga family purchase the Buffalo Sabers and served on the board of National Women's Hockey League.
All that is to say Bouma has worn hats of many different shapes and sizes over the course of his career. But one hat among the bunch has remained constant. For the last 30 years, Bouma has worked NFL Sundays for Fox Sports as a spotter and statistician. The Green Bay Packers-Minnesota Vikings contest at Lambeau Field this week will mark his 500th career NFL game (working games under the Fox Sports, ESPN, Amazon Prime and NBC umbrellas), a fitting milestone to hit this year as Fox Sports celebrates the 30-year anniversary of becoming an NFL rightsholder. Bouma is one of the few through lines between the John Madden/Pat Summerall days and today, which basically makes him a made man in an industry where that kind of longevity is rare. And to work that many games, traveling to different cities and studying different teams each week for 30 football seasons, makes for quite the grind.
It doesn't feel like that for Bouma, though. Not even a little bit.
"People are like, ‘I don’t know how you do what you do,'" Bouma told The Big Lead. "I’ve been fortunate. These people I’ve been able to work with are family. We’re our own little team. We don’t get invested in the result as much as the teams do, but you still have to have a joy in the people you spend time and who are dedicated to doing an A+ job."
Perhaps the most prominent member of Bouma's Fox Sports family is Kenny Albert, the only game announcer who has been with Fox Sports for the entirety of its 30-year run with the NFL. Their relationship is the bedrock upon which Bouma's 500-game career was built. The pair met in Washington, D.C. back in 1993. Albert was calling Washington Capitals games at the same time Bouma joined the team's front office. They hit it off quickly and later that year FOX acquired NFL broadcasting rights for the first time, creating Fox Sports in the process. The network quickly set up the top of the depth chart with John Madden and Pat Summerall before hiring what they hoped to be the next generation of broadcasters, all with famous fathers in the industry-- Joe Buck, Kevin Harlan, Thom Brennaman, and, of course, Albert.
When Albert was hired, he was allowed to bring along his own team of statisticians and spotters to work with him on gameday. Bouma immediately came to mind as a natural fit.
"His overall sports knowledge, he was good with numbers," Albert said when asked why he wanted Bouma in the booth alongside him. "I just could tell how sharp he was in that situation since he worked a couple hockey games with us that year in Washington. In ‘94, the two of us set up credentials to see a Washington Redskins-Kansas City Chiefs preseason game. Joe Montana was the quarterback for the Chiefs that year. We did a mock game for ourselves. I did play-by-play in my head, and Ben kept stats to my left sitting in the press box. That was our dry run together and a couple weeks later we were in Anaheim for the first real Fox NFL game between the Rams and the Cardinals."
That dry run was the grand beginning. For the next 30 years, Bouma would work with Albert for Fox Sports. Not every single week; Albert still has a little over 20 games to go before he hits the 500-game mark that Bouma will reach on Sunday. But most weeks Bouma would be behind Albert's left shoulder during the broadcast. When he's the spotter, he's in charge of identifying which players made plays to Albert while keeping an eye for anything notable happening on the field around the play-- injuries, backup QBs warming up on the sidelines, anything Albert might miss because he has to keep his eyes locked onto the action. As the statistician, Bouma is responsible for keeping the stats, of course. But he's also handing notes to Albert when he finds a particularly interesting tidbit or communicating with the graphics truck to get something up on the broadcast when he notices a trend.
He helps shape the flow of the broadcast, nudging it in the most interesting direction for the viewers at every opportunity, informed by instincts honed over many years of practice. Bouma is wired to always think like that, no matter what his role might be for any particular game.
"Some days I’ll do stats, some days I’ll spot, but I’m probably one of the few guys who morphed it together," he explained. "While a game is going on I’m not just doing strictly the statistics job. My brain is constantly thinking about how we can weave in a storyline with numbers and historical context, statistics, all that. It’s one thing to put down-and-distance up and that a guy is 6-for-10 in the first quarter. Did he start off 0-for-7 last week? Or did he hit his first nine passes the week before?
"Tying in those things that lead everything together, that’s what Kenny and I specialize in. We are able to prepare that stuff ahead of time. If you already have eight or nine things you’re looking for, you let the game take you where it will. There’s a lot of people who try to force things, both producers and broadcasters. Eventually the game will take you somewhere, then you let the game help you out and use the storylines within what you’re seeing right now to paint the picture. So many people try to do it the other way and I think that’s where they tend to fail. You can’t force things. It’s live television. Everyone is seeing it. So let it take you somewhere."
Bouma pointed to a scenario last year that exemplifed that mantra.
"Last year we were doing a game in Detroit," he said. "On the first series I happened to look and see Jared Goff run over to the sideline and point at his offensive coordinator, going, ‘I can’t hear you! I can’t hear you!’ And the drive is still going on. The referees don’t stop just because they can’t hear each other. I see that interaction and he goes up in the huddle and calls the next play. After that he has to run halfway to see the offensive coordinator verbalizing the words to him. I tell Kenny, he tells the truck. On the third or fourth play of the first quarter of the first drive, it’s a storyline.
"It added a layer of, if you want to call it, drama, information, visual, all to the opening drive of the game just because I’m another set of eyes paying attention to the intricacies and nuances. Imagine if we missed that, someone in the press box picks up on it and writes about it, and we don’t cover it? We would get shredded. It’s having another set of eyes with all these visuals in front of you to add to the broadcast, help Kenny, and help his color guys."
The story illustrates the complexities of an NFL broadcast. The two voices the audience hears over the course of the three-hour game are the very tip of the iceberg. Albert estimated there are 75 people working a typical Fox Sports NFL broadcast on a given Sunday. In other words, it takes a village to get the games on our screens each week.
Even so, it can all sound easy hearing longtime veterans like Bouma or Albert break down what their day-to-day is like. But they've been working Fox NFL games for 30 years for a reason. They share an incredible passion and dedication to their craft, and both highlighted preparation as a crucial, shared component of their longstanding partnership.
"We probably text each other 30 times a day if he sees something or I see something, whether it’s on social media or an article," Albert said. "We’re always going back and forth. It even happened this morning. Preparation, to me, is the key to each and every broadcast and we’re often passing things along to one another that we think might be interesting or want to use in a broadcast at some point."
"There’s two types of players in any sport that get into the Hall of Fame," said Bouma. "There’s the superstars who do a lot in a short amount of time, and there’s the all-timers who go and do things consistently well for a long period of time. [The latter] always been our attitude. You prepare the same for an NHL preseason game as you would for an NFL playoff game. That’s just the mantra we’ve always had. It’s all about teamwork.
"You’re going into every game 0-0. There might be a tapestry or a painting or a movie out there, but it starts 0-0. Every game. No matter what. You have to be prepared for every possible scenario in that game. But when those games matter, when the moments matter, when the big moments matter, you have to be prepared above and beyond. We take that attitude into every game we do and I think that’s why we still do this. People know they can trust us with any game. They can trust us with a women’s bronze medal Olympic hockey game as well as they can trust us with the Super Bowl."
Thirty years is a long time to do anything, and Bouma's chosen line of work is not easy by any stretch of the imagination. He compares his preparation for NFL games every week to having six days to study for a three-hour exam-- you don't know what the exact questions are, but you have to have every angle covered. Yet even after all this time and all the ways football has changed since that first Rams-Cardinals game in 1994, Bouma's love for his job is plain-- because, as legendary MLB manager Jim Leyland told him during his time with the Pirates, his worst day in the big leagues is better than his best day anywhere else.
"We’ve all been very fortunate. We’re all here because we still respect the big leagues. And it’s an honor to go work in the big leagues every day. And for anybody who wants to be in this business, hopefully we can pass that message along."