On a crisp January Saturday afternoon, fans file into Worthen Arena to watch Ball State Men’s Basketball face Western Michigan.
The popcorn has been served. The national anthem has been sung. The lights go out, and the Cardinals’ hype video flashes on the jumbotron.
“All right, Cardinal fans. It’s game time! Let’s show our visitors from Kalamazoo how loud Worthen can be.”
As fans stand up and cheer, Ball State public address (PA) announcer Tom Simpson reads the Cardinals’ starting lineup. Simpson, sitting at the scorer’s table, is about to give himself a vocal workout for the next two hours, announcing everything from scores to fouls to promotional reads.
It’s something he’s done since 1987.
“I still love doing it … I love looking back at the different players and a lot of different teams,” Simpson said. “I’m hoping that maybe sometime in the near future, we could make a postseason tournament.”
A hometown product
Simpson has lived in Muncie for virtually his entire life. He graduated from Muncie Central High School in 1978 with aspirations of becoming a broadcaster. While studying at Ball State, he majored in radio, television and motion pictures (RTM).
After graduating from Ball State in 1983, Simpson worked for 104.1 WLBC-FM, covering Ball State and high school sports while also working in a sales role. He did everything from hosting a college scoreboard show on Friday and Saturday nights to calling play-by-play.
At the time, the Cardinals didn’t have a permanent PA announcer. Every few years, a different student would take the role before graduating. Knowing there was an opening, Simpson approached Earl Yestingsmeier, former Ball State Men’s Golf head coach and then-Ball State sports information director.
“[Yestingsmeier] said, ‘Have you ever done it before?” Simpson said. “And I go, ‘No … but I think I could learn.’
“Obviously, the university was familiar with the fact I was doing on-air work at the radio station, so they were familiar that I had a skill set and I had a good voice. I wasn’t just somebody walking off the street … I certainly had a relationship with Earl and some of the other folks at the university.”
Though Simpson said he had some "butterflies" during his first days on the job, his knowledge of Ball State helped, as well as his relationships with Yestingsmeier and Morry Mannies, former Ball State radio play-by-play voice.
The gameday gig
For each game he announces, Simpson’s goal is simple.
“I don’t want to disrespect the other team,” Simpson said, “but I want to make it clear that we’re in Ball State’s house and we’re going to make sure that we do everything we can, by the rules, to get the crowd fired up.”
A couple of days before each game, Simpson visits the opponent’s website. He’ll scour the roster and view stats while checking phonetic pronunciations of uncommon names. If a name’s particularly tough, he’ll write it down or practice it himself a few times.
About 30 to 45 minutes before tipoff, Simpson arrives at Worthen Arena. Sometimes, he’ll visit with the opponent’s sports information director to clarify pronunciations before receiving finalized rosters. While at the scorer’s table, he has both team’s rosters in front of him. He also keeps his own stats for reference.
“There’s not a lot of time once we get started,” Simpson said. “Typically, it used to be back in the day, at halftime, I’d have a break — I might have 10 to 15 minutes to stretch my legs, go to the bathroom. That’s really not the case anymore. They’ve got virtually every timeout and every break scripted out. Once I start, I’m pretty much not done until two and a half hours later when the game is done.”
Sitting next to Simpson at each home game, Shawn Sullivan, Ball State deputy athletics director of marketing and strategic initiatives, said much of his relationship with Simpson over the years has been based on sarcasm. During a recent game against Buffalo, before Simpson was about to announce the starting lineups, Sullivan turned to him and said, “Hey, Tom — it’s BOO-fallow.”
“He might chime back or laugh,” Sullivan said, “or he might just play along and be like, ‘Are you sure it’s not Buh-FA-loh?’ We get to have some fun with that.”
As a fellow PA announcer, often working Indiana Pacers and Fever and Indy Eleven games, Sullivan described Simpson’s voice as “authoritative, but also welcoming.”
“That’s a tough balance — I think he does such a good job of being unique and variable in his calls,” Sullivan said. “That’s hard to do without being annoying.”
Creating a legacy
Peyton Stovall, 2010 Ball State alumnus and former Ball State Men’s Basketball player, met Simpson during his freshman season in 2004-05. Stovall was introduced to those sitting at the scorer’s table, and Simpson would often give him a fist bump before each game.
“He’d say to me, ‘Good luck tonight, Stovey,’” Stovall said. “It’s those things that I always remember — some of our relationships grew and grew through his voice.”
Stovall, now an associate athletics director at Purdue University, said Simpson’s commitment to Ball State is what stands out to him compared to other announcers.
“[The announcing] creates memories for families,” Stovall said. “They can come back and share it with their kids. Those are legacy points … I’m sure there are people that have played here like myself, and we’re now bringing our kids back. They’re hearing that voice.”
Simpson said he doesn’t take one second of his job for granted, and he’s even more grateful for the support he’s received from the Muncie community. From attending Muncie Central and watching the Bearcats win a state title in 1978 to announcing Cardinals’ home games more than 40 years later, he's thankful for the place he calls home.
“Muncie is probably, in my experience, the most giving community that you could possibly find for a town of this size,” Simpson said. “If you look at the nonprofit organizations in town that help people in need of all ages, whether it’s kids in daycare to senior citizens to everything in between, Muncie’s just a tremendously generous, big-hearted community that likes to help its fellow man.”