By Spencer Poole
Greg Sager is the legendary voice of North Park University athletics. He’s provided play-by-play for teams at the school for nearly 15 years, covering nine different sports. He knows the history of the Vikings like the back of his hand.
But Sager never went out looking for a career in broadcasting. Instead, it found him.
Sager, 61, has always been in and around North Park University. He grew up in upstate New York but has lived in Chicago ever since attending North Park on Chicago’s North Side in the early 1980s, when he witnessed the Vikings win their third consecutive national title in 1980.
In 2008, internet streaming was just becoming a viable option for Division III schools. Lacking coverage from ESPN and deals with exclusive sports networks, streaming evened the playing field and gave schools like North Park their first chance to broadcast games regularly.
At the time, Sager was the scorekeeper for the men’s basketball team. While he didn’t have any experience in broadcasting, his knowledge of North Park sports history and his general talkative nature was enough for the school to offer him a job as the men’s basketball play-by-play commentator.
“They were looking around the gym and said, ‘You know what? Greg’s here all the time anyway,’” Sager said. “I really liked doing the scorebook, but they said I could always go back if broadcasting didn’t work out. So I gave it a try.”
Sager had been a teacher and public speaker for years before he did a broadcast at North Park, a private university of the Evangelical Covenant Church. But even with all that experience talking to audiences, he learned quickly that play-by-play broadcasting has its own unique quirks that make it a challenging skill to master.
“A big part of it is simply getting the words out of your mouth while enunciating them at the same time. They don’t really teach you in public speaking how to speak rapidly,” Sager said. “The best way to help with that is just preparing ahead. Before the other team ever steps off the bus, if you know their players’ names, where they’re from, how they play, then you can almost anticipate what is going to happen a lot of the time.”
Although Sager started off exclusively covering men’s basketball, he soon branched out and added football to his repertoire, along with women’s basketball and volleyball. But Sager’s biggest addition to his busy schedule, both in terms of challenge and reward, was the North Park men’s soccer team, the school’s powerhouse program over the past decade.
Broadcasting soccer games provided a new challenge for Sager — and a new sense of excitement.
“I had to watch a lot of Premier League broadcasts so I could get an idea of how to call the game. I just kind of immersed myself in the sport in a way I wouldn’t as a casual fan,” Sager said. “And once you actually know what’s going on, you can see a real chance at a goal is about to happen 10 or 15 seconds before it actually does, and that’s what makes it fun, when you get into the game so much that you can take the fans right to the edge with you on a developing play.”
One of Sager’s favorite moments as a broadcaster happened during a soccer game. It was the second round of the 2019 NCAA Tournament, and the Vikings squared off against the Gustavus Adolphus Golden Gusties. The two teams were neck and neck throughout the match, with each team scoring a goal apiece before the climactic penalty shootout. To add an extra layer of tension, North Park’s starting goalie got hurt during the game, leaving inexperienced Edin Sabovic between the sticks with the Vikings’ season on the line.
It all came down to one shot. North Park led on penalties 5 to 4, only needing a single save to send them through to the next round — a tough task considering the nation’s second-leading goal scorer Cole Schwartz was stepping up to shoot.
But Sabovic managed to pull off a miraculous save, diving to his left and yet still managing to save the well-placed shot down the middle with his dangling feet.
Sager, and everyone in attendance, went crazy. The Vikings were going on to the next round.
“One of the rules is you’re not supposed to shout into the mic, but sometimes you just can’t help yourself,” Sager said. That game was one of those times.
In a profession where many wear their hometown bias on their sleeve, Sager prides himself on his objectivity in the booth (or table on the top row of the bleachers, in this case). He isn’t afraid to call out the Vikings when they make mistakes or when he feels they’ve gotten the benefit of some questionable calls.
“Broadcasting is journalism. It’s supposed to be about telling the truth. And if I’m not telling the truth about the game, then I’m doing a disservice to anybody who’s watching,” Sager said. “If a North Park player does something really dumb, then I have to say that. If the other team does something really good, then I have to say that.”
Sager’s objectivity came to the forefront in the Vikings’ recent home game versus No. 3 Illinois Wesleyan. North Park ended up losing that night, but the players kept it close against the best team in the conference. In a game like that, with emotions running high as the underdog looked to take down the powerhouse, most announcers might call the game more as a fan than as an unbiased reporter. But not Sager.
“There were several plays where North Park quite frankly got lucky … multiple balls just got deflected right into the hands of a North Park player, and it happened enough that at a couple of different points I said on air they’d been the recipient of some luckiness,” Sager said. “I think if the guys watched the game afterwards and heard me saying they got some lucky bounces, they might take issue with that, but you know, that’s what happened.”
Sager never sought out a career in broadcasting, but it’s clear he’s fallen in love with it, just as North Park has fallen in love with him.
“Greg’s impact at North Park University reaches beyond his talent as one of the best play-by-play broadcasters in the (College Conference of Illinois and Wisconsin). His immersion in all things North Park and North Park Athletics, attention to detail, record-book-keeping and passion for a variety of Viking intercollegiate teams is paramount,” said North Parks sports information Director Tyler Woolbright. “I can confidently say there is no one better suited to be named ‘The Voice of the Vikings.’”
Spencer Poole is a sports media graduate student at Medill. You can follow him on Twitter at @spencp99.