There weren’t an abundance of Black sports anchors on the airwaves, either broadcast or cable, in 1980. But a fledgling news network called CNN (Cable News Network) introduced a man who became a broadcasting icon. Though CNN was a news channel, they had a few shows that veered away from their regular programming of straight national and international news.
One was a show called “Sports Tonight,” and it featured a young, erudite and often hilarious Black sportscaster named Fred Hickman. Hickman, who died last week at 66, was such a natural talent that not only was he among the first people the network hired, they briefly considered making him a news anchor. But Hickman loved and preferred sports, and he would team with his white counterpart Nick Charles to create a weeknight late sports broadcast that rivaled, and in some folks eyes, surpassed anything that was being done on the rival ESPN.
Hickman also brought a vibrant personality that was uncompromisingly Black, though he wasn’t confrontational or abrasive. He was just a guy off the block, and he presented sports in the manner that one might hear in a barbershop, minus the crudity and profanity. He and Charles established an enviable on-air chemistry, and Hickman became a star.
“Fred along with Nick Charles helped establish the prototype for sports anchors on cable,” Lee Berke, president of the consulting firm LHB Media, Sports and Entertainment, told the Associated Press. “Incredibly intelligent, nimble, and funny, Fred turned his shows into destination television, and demonstrated how long-form sports news could work to engage fans on a nightly basis.”
Berke added that Hickman’s legacy “can be seen all over national and regional sports networks today, as anchors look to emulate the qualities that Fred effortlessly offered up show after show.” He would later be the first voice on YES, the regional sports network that carries the New York Yankees and Brooklyn Nets, when it launched in 2002.
“As a professional, Fred was noteworthy for his studio acumen, his presence that gave a fledgling network instant credibility, his dedication to his craft, and his excellence under pressure,” John Filippelli, president of production and programming for the YES Network, said in a statement.
Hickman finally did come to ESPN in 2004, becoming a host on “SportsCenter,” “Baseball Tonight” and “NBA Coast to Coast.” He joined Fox in 2008, serving as host of post and pregame shows for Atlanta Braves games on Fox Sports South and Sports South Networks. After 2011, Hickman worked in local TV news, serving as an anchor and managing editor on the now-defunct Black News Channel, finally doing a sting in straight news at the end of his career.
Hickman, along with ESPN personalities Stuart Scott and John Saunders and the Gumbel brothers, Brian on NBC and later HBO, Greg on CBS, paved the way for Black men and women in sports television. They showed the Black anchors could be knowledgeable and credible no matter the subject. But at the same time they didn’t have to be anything on air except themselves.
Let no one kid themselves. Had there not been a Fred Hickman in 1980, there wouldn’t be a Stephen A. Smith in 2022. The amount of stylistic and content freedom that ESPN allows Smith is unrivaled in sports television, but Hickman could easily have done the same thing if he wanted to do so.
Brian Gumble of course was a pioneer in news long before sports, hosting the Today Show for 15 years. His brother Greg has also covered pro football and college basketball for CBS for decades. But Fred Hickman wasn’t a play-by-play guy. He was an anchor, and he was also the sports voice of CNN for over two decades, and later the central voice for the New York Yankees and then New Jersey Nets, followed later by the Atlanta Braves.
After news of his death became public, tributes were paid to Hickman on various ESPN shows. Former ESPN and CNN colleague Dan Patrick also honored Hickman. His influence and impact were huge, and he will be remembered for helping make it no big deal for there to be a Black man anchoring a sports news broadcast.