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Sarasota Thursday, Aug. 6, 2020 2 months ago

A Sarasotan is an ESPN commentator for niche sporting events

He's helped call stone skipping and cherry pit-spitting competition, among other things.
by: Ryan Kohn Sports Reporter

Each year on July 4, millions of ESPN viewers watch Joey Chestnut and other competitive eaters devour as many hot dogs as they can in 10 minutes. It's tradition. But this year, the Nathan's Famous Hot Dog Eating Contest from Coney Island was joined by a few more quirky contests on ESPN's family of networks.

And if you were one of the people tuning into the Mackinac Island Stone Skipping Tournament on ESPN3, you heard the voice of a Sarasotan. 

Eric Steiner moved to Sarasota in December from Grosse Pointe, Mich., where he was born and raised. He used to vacation to Longboat Key as a kid, he said, and he always knew he'd move here eventually. Another place he visited as a child — and still does — is Mackinac Island, located in the middle of Lake Huron.

Mackinac Island, where the stone skipping tournament is held annually. Courtesy photo.

Life happens differently on Mackinac Island. There are no cars; everyone gets around by bike, by horse-and-buggy or by walking. Other than its transport options, the island is known for two signature things: its fudge, and its July 4 stone skipping competition, which has been an annual event for 52 years. 

"My involvement in the competition started 22 years ago," Steiner said. "I decided to start taking my family there when our boys were in kindergarten. We happened to stay at the same hotel as the people running the competition. My boys ran up to them and started bothering them, asking them about the best stones to use and all these questions. They got to know us after that, and they asked me if I was willing to be involved in some capacity. I said, 'Sure, why not?'  They needed someone to do public relations for the event and to call the play-by-play on the beach, for the people in attendance."

It was a fun side gig for Steiner, who has done numerous things in his career, like owning movie theaters, but currently runs an internet business. The Today Show did a segment on stone skipping and used part of a script Steiner wrote. CBS Sunday Morning did a segment on a stone skipping event in Franklin, Pa., and asked Steiner to be a part of it. A few documentaries on the sport were created, including "Skips Stones for Fudge," in which Steiner is interviewed (it's on Amazon Prime Video). 

Somehow, 20 years passed. Steiner, by this time dubbed "The Voice," was getting ready to hang up his microphone. The Mackinac Island crew even threw him a retirement party in 2018, he said. That was that. Or so he thought. 

A month before the event, Steiner heard rumblings that production company Go Live Sports Cast, which produces the stone skipping tournament and has a long-term contract with ESPN, was considering putting the tournament on ESPN3. Four days before the 2019 competition, Steiner got a phone call from his old crew.  It indeed was going to be on ESPN3, and the company wanted him to be the color commentator alongside Paul W. Smith, a legend in Michigan radio. Steiner agreed. 

"They liked that if skippers do badly, I will trash them," Steiner said. "I have no pity, even for my own son."

(Steiner's son, Maxwell Steiner, won the 2019 competition and is a former Guinness World Record Holder in the event. Asking those bothersome questions years ago paid off.)

A screenshot from ESPN's airing of the Mackinac Island Stone Skipping Tournament, with Eric Steiner and Paul W. Smith on the call.

The competition went so well, the company asked Steiner to do more for them, including the 46th-annual Cherry Pit-Spitting Championships in Eau Claire, Mich., which also aired on ESPN3. Steiner said he had to study for the competition by watching videos on YouTube, writing down notes and some ideas for quips. Besides the laughs, Steiner said his goal when calling sports like these is to educate the viewer. The more they understand what they're watching, he said, the more they can appreciate it as more than a novelty. 

Then again …

"What can you say about a guy who spits a cherry pit?" Steiner said, laughing. "They spit them like 60 feet. And they have to eat them first, too. I'm watching this thinking we're going to need someone who knows the Heimlich soon, but they're good at it. It's kind of amazing to watch."

Steiner said he has more events which will air on ESPN lined up but can't disclose the details yet, though one of them is "absolutely hysterical."

ESPN re-aired both the cherry pit-spitting and the stone skipping competitions in March as part of its "ESPN 8: The Ocho" day. That afternoon, Steiner said, someone stopped him in the street and asked if that was him on TV, the first time he's been recognized by a "fan." He's thrilled with the unexpected second life broadcasting these events has given him, he said. 

"Never did I think things would end up like this," Steiner said. "But it's been a lot of fun."

This story has been updated to include production company Go Live Sports Cast's connection with ESPN and additional context. 

I’m the sports reporter for Sarasota and East County and a Missouri School of Journalism graduate. I was born and raised in Olney, MD. My biggest inspirations are Wright Thompson and Alex Ovechkin. My strongest belief is that mint chip ice cream is unbeatable.

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