Patrons standing in line at Starbucks looked up as Mike Markham broke into the warm-up phrasing that readies him for a public announcing gig.
“Red leather, yellow leather,” Markham said in a distinctly professional voice deeper than his normal speaking tone. He repeated the line several times.
It’s the same kind of warm-up he’ll perform in a Rio hotel room next month during the 2016 Summer Olympics. Markham, who has announced Winthrop sporting events for eight years, was selected to do the public announcing for women’s basketball in Rio. He’ll work 18 games, including several of the United States’ contests.
“It’s just awesome,” Markham said. “I’m just really thankful and appreciative for the opportunity.
Surely the 36-year old from New Orleans has deep voices littered throughout his family tree that foretold of future success?
“My dad’s a bit loud, but not really,” said Markham.
His mother was a teacher and constantly chided him to enunciate his words. But he never had any other inclination to put his voice to work in song or public speaking.
“It was nothing I paid any attention to until I was an adult,” Markham said.
People say ‘hey, your face doesn’t match your voice. I get that quite a bit.
Mike Markham gets plenty of comments on his deep voice
Markham was watching one of his future wife’s college soccer games in 2001 thinking to himself that he could do better than the flat PA announcer.
“That was kind of my first idea of getting into any announcing, the first time it kind of occurred to me,” he said. “It was just something that intrigued me. Some opportunities materialized and I just went with it.”
Markham didn’t get the college soccer job, but he did start announcing high school basketball games in Hattiesburg, Miss., in front of crowds of 50 to 500 people. He was paid meagerly but gained experience.
Listen to Mike Markham describe his start in PA announcing:
Markham attended three colleges but didn’t graduate from any of them; multiple short-term jobs didn’t result in anything stable or rewarding either. Stints in El Paso, Texas and Miami led to part-time gigs announcing college sports. He decided to attend the south Florida branch of the Connecticut School of Broadcasting, at his wife Ginger’s urging.
That move formally launched Markham’s vocal career. He got a radio job that brought the couple to Charlotte in 2003. He covered sporting events for a syndicated radio content provider, before shifting into traffic reporting.
Mike Markham’s traffic reports were picked up by various radio stations and he would use a different alias for each one. “Mike Thibodeaux,” “Roger Maxwell” and “Johnny Biscuits” were a few of the fake names under which Markham delivered traffic news to local cities, including Charlotte. “David Lagniappe” was another pseudonym derived from the French phrase for “a little extra.”
‘I get it done’
Like big swathes of the country, Markham was caught up in the successive gut-punches of Hurricane Katrina and the recession.
His family was displaced by the giant storm in 2006. His parents’ house near Lake Ponchartrain took on 10 feet of water, and his 89-year old grandmother had to be rescued off the roof of her home down the street.
In Charlotte when Katrina hit, Markham said he struggled with survivor’s guilt for many years. That alleviated slightly when his parents and sister joined him in Charlotte. Louisiana remains important to him; three tattoos on his arms remind him of his birthplace.
Around the same time, Markham was laid off from his traffic job, and then quit another one after barely a year. He decided to strike out on his own in the voice-over industry, seeking work in commercials or narration.
“I set up a home studio, started marketing myself as a voice-over guy, and basically failed.”
Listen to Mike Markham talk about some of the comments strangers make about his voice:
Markham has a wonderful working voice, but voice-over clients usually want natural voices for commercials. Markham’s is full of drama and power. It’s not natural-sounding at all.
“God, that’s what I picture,” said Aimee Kline, Winthrop’s director of event management and promotions, who hired Markham back in 2007. “Just booming, almost like pipes. King Triton from the Little Mermaid, that kind of voice.”
Markham’s vocal power can fill a room, the way it briefly did in a suburban Starbucks earlier this week, so he channeled his efforts to live announcing.
By that point, he had been announcing live sporting events for a few years, mostly college athletics. He heard about a promoter putting together a mixed martial arts event in Charlotte and decided to whip up a demo tape. Markham called a fake MMA fight in his home studio and sent the recording to the promoter, who hired him.
I didn’t tell the guy I had experience I didn’t have. I just kind of threw it out there.
Mike Markham with a good lesson for freelancers seeking work
The promoter’s company went out of business after two events, but Markham worked both. He began reaching out to various promoters, enduring constant rejection but also landing some gigs, improving and honing his abilities. Markham is his own agent, marketing department and chief financial officer.
“Whatever needs to get done, I get it done,” he said. “If I’m not working, I’m trying to find work.”
Banging on the door
Mike Markham has live-announced in a dozen countries, 22 states and worked with over 50 promoters.
Markham works about 120 events per year and roughly three-fourths of the year’s 52 weekends. The Saturday afternoon college basketball games at Winthrop - or Queens University or UNC Charlotte - pay most of the bills.
The career isn’t exactly lucrative - Markham reckoned there were probably 10 people in the world that do his job full-time. But there are unintended benefits for Markham, like being a stay-at-home dad for his son, Jack, who turns 6 in August.
He’s had some colorful experiences too. In 2012 he worked a mixed martial arts event in Moscow in front of Vladimir Putin and 20,000 spectators, and last October he announced the World Amateur Boxing Championships in Qatar, a gig that helped him land a spot in Rio next month.
The idea of working the Olympics originally came to Markham in 2011, but the 2012 games in London came a bit too soon. A contractor hires announcers for the Olympics and Markham said he has legally harassed the woman in charge for the last five years. That persistence - a hallmark of Markham’s career - paid off last year with the Qatar job, and again three weeks ago when she called to offer the Rio Olympics opportunity.
A lot of people use this as a hobby but this is how he supports his family. I just feel very fortunate that he chooses to have (Winthrop) as part of his network.
Winthrop’s Aimee Kline hired Mike Markham to work Eagles’ sporting events back in 2007
Markham is headed to Bulgaria next week for an MMA event, before jetting across the world to Rio.
“I’m really excited about the fact that I can say, I’ve literally worked toward that one specific thing for five years,” he said. “London didn’t work out, Sochi didn’t work out, kept banging on that door and so late in the process it finally swung open.”
Undoubtedly there will be a moment next month where Markham steps back and realizes he’s calling the Olympics. Until then he’s constantly sipping lukewarm water, sucking down throat lozenges, poring over international basketball rules and practicing his Chinese and Portuguese pronunciations.
“The fact that it happened after five years of dedicated focus to that particular thing is very rewarding,” said Markham. “That’s exciting.”