‘Tis the Season for Sports on TV

[Guest Contributor: This post comes courtesy of Dayvon Williams, author of the “Fourth and Long, Is Football All Done?” blog.]

In sports broadcasting there are a few times of the year when the media coverage just doesn’t stop. This time of the year is one of those times. Yes, I know there’s always some type of media coverage on some sports every day during the year. If there wasn’t, ESPN employees would be out of a job. But this time of the year gets nuts. You have college football, which can be a show in and of itself with the many games being played throughout the week. This is the time where every game really counts. Then you have the NBA, which just opened its season. Some people say that the beginning of an NBA season doesn’t really matter, but that is false because every game matters.

Next is College Basketball, who some say is more electrifying than the NBA. College basketball brings that attitude in the sports medium. NBA players making big plays is kind of expected because they’re professionals now. Don’t get me wrong, they’re still great plays, but just a little sting is taken off because it’s what they do. Now if you saw a crazy amazing play in college basketball, it’s a different story. For one it’s an amazing play, secondly you have the hyped crowd of students in the background intensifying it a little more, then you have to put in the fact that he’s a college student. If you see Aaron Harrison make the same play as LeBron James, you’re probably going to hype Harrison’s play more, because of the fact he’s making plays LeBron James is making.

Next you have the NHL, which is about 24 games into its season. And like the NBA, they’re still kind of in the starting point mode. Lastly, you have the NFL, which is coming down the stretch of its season going into week 13. This time of the season, like college football, is one of the most important. If you’re in a tight division like the AFC North where the Pittsburgh Steelers are only separated by half a game to the Cincinnati Bengals, losing a game could mean losing a home field advantage in the playoffs.

Covering these sports in the broadcasting world is crazy. These are the sports everyone wants to know about now. People want to know how their favorite team, player or school is doing. The host Jemele Hill for Numbers Never Lie (now named His & Hers),  always brings up how her Michigan State Spartans are doing, whether it’s good or bad. Every week during this time of year, the stakes get higher, the plays become more outrageous (the other-worldly  catch Odell Beckham Jr. made last night), and the window for other teams closes a little more.

Odds are, some form of sports television will end up on your screen at this time of year. It’s a great opportunity to recognize and appreciate the massive operations that work tirelessly to bring you the games you want to see and people will be talking about. ‘Tis the season.

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Another Ode to Sir Charles

In an earlier post on this blog, I delved into the many reasons why Charles Barkley is such a forceful figure in the world of sports media. So, here we are again. Why, you ask? Why not?

There are so many things aspiring sports broadcasters can learn from Barkley. The more you watch him, the more you come to appreciate the persona that he portrays on the air. What you see is what you get. He is one of the rare members of the media who actually is the same person on and off the air waves. It’s such a refreshing delight to watch.

In my previous post on Barkley, I neglected to include what I consider to be one of his finest moments yet in broadcasting. You’ll recall the situation in which Charles got in some mildly hot water for making fun of San Antonio Spurs fans. Earlier this year, the issue came up again on TNT’s Inside the NBA. Not only did Barkley not shy away from addressing the matter, he handled it with extreme dignity. Take a look.

 

With each passing day, I always try to think to myself, “Be more like Charles Barkley.” When it all comes down to it, the man has absolutely no fear about how other people think of him. This gives him a tremendous amount of personal liberty in his work and allows his true passions to shine for the world to see. I will never ceased to be amazed at the courage and tenacity with which Charles approaches his work.

 

 

 

And Suddenly It All Made Sense

No matter the career you choose to pursue, you’ll very likely reach a point where you’re looking for a sign(s) to tell you that you’ve “made it.” Why? All humans want to be liked in some way or another and know that they’re headed in the right direction. It’s simply who we are.

I took over the lead play-by-play job at Westfield State less than a year ago. Last February, I had the chance to broadcast a basketball game with Joe Meehan (the man who preceded me) for the final time. For me, it was incredibly gratifying to get the opportunity to express to Joe on the air how grateful I was to him for all the help he had given me over the previous two years. So what?

Well, as the game drew to a close, I got out my thank-you message to Joe and managed to get through it without stumbling. “Phew”, I thought. The game ended and we began to pack up all of our broadcast equipment. As we were planning to leave the arena, Joe told me something I will never forget.

First, he told me how much he appreciated my kindness. But then, he said, “You’re the right guy for this job. Just make sure you enjoy it.” ‘Wow”, I thought. That was the moment. The moment when I started to realize what this job really meant to me. My heart started beating at a faster pace and I could feel goosebumps forming on my spine.

Without getting overly sappy (if that’s possible now), this memory is the first thing I think of whenever anyone asks me why I want to be a broadcaster. In the end, the games you do, while certainly worthy of credentials, are not the be-all end-all. Broadcasting has opened many doors for me to connect to people in ways I would have never thought possible. For me, this story serves as a poignant reminder that my job doesn’t just entail covering games; it allows me to become a better person. How cool is that?

 

 

Get Used to This

As I have previously discussed in this blog, the business of sports broadcasting is incredibly cut-throat. This is especially true when it comes to the viewing/listening public. Let’s face it; the vast majority of people who watch a sporting event are incredibly passionate about one of the teams playing in that event. Thus, when listening to the game broadcasters, they hear only what they want to hear and consider any form of excitement the broadcasters show about the other team a form of on-air bias. The bittersportspills blog captures this issue quite well.

In this post, the writer is frustrated with what he heard during a game the Cowboys and Seahawks played last month (a game Dallas won 30-23). The Cowboys are one of the most polarizing, attention-grabbing teams in America, which naturally brings about some resentment amongst fans. In this particular case, the writer feels that Troy Aikman (Fox’s lead NFL analyst) went too far in his praising of the Cowboys, despite the fact that Dallas managed to win a game in which it was a massive underdog. Upon hearing this, the writer switched away from Fox immediately as he apparently “could only stand it for a minute.”

This is where it truly gets tough for broadcast teams. Oftentimes, it seems that no matter what you say, it will rub someone the wrong way and shape their opinions of your work. Joe Buck (Fox’s lead NFL and MLB voice) has often talked about this problem, as he has been the subject of much Internet hatred and vitriol over the years. As someone who constantly gets called out by fans for being “in favor” of one team over another, he is a very qualified voice to listen to on this subject. (Skip to the 9:38 mark of this video to see what I mean).

 

In the end, as broadcasters, we have to be prepared for criticism, whether warranted or unwarranted. It’s part of what comes with a big stage in which we are exposed to countless different groups of people. Like Buck says, the moment we can put our heads down and stop worrying about outside “noise” is the moment we can begin to take the next step in our growth as sports broadcasters.

When the curtain splits…

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As a broadcaster, I have always felt a unique connection to people who engage in theatre. At first, it may seem odd to compare the role of a dramatic actor to that of a play-by-play broadcaster, but they are actually more relatable than you think. Most plays begin in the same way I envision broadcasts do: the curtain opens, the lights come up and the spotlight is shined on an individual/group of people whose responsibility it is to convey a specific message to an audience. I understand this metaphor may not be 100% applicable in all situations, but play with me here.

Both broadcasters and actors have to put themselves on the line at the beginning of their performances. I liken this to the “red light” coming on when television shows are filmed. No matter how much rehearsal has been done, there is ultimately one moment of pure, unfiltered truth. Either they rise to the challenge or they don’t. It is this moment that can horrify people for nights on end.

In my personal experience, I have felt many sets of nerves rumble throughout my body before going on the air for a game. I would be concerned for myself if I didn’t. Broadcasting is a performing art and the knowledge that someone out there will be listening to every word I say can be, in a word, frightening. I can only imagine the intense feelings broadway actors must feel knowing they are performing in front of hundreds, sometimes thousands of onlookers. Yet, when I am not working, I find myself craving this feeling of uncertain nervousness. It’s what makes broadcaster and actors so passionate about what they do.

At the end of the day, I have come to truly appreciate the effort that theatrical artists put into their performing skills. I respect the amount of courage these people possess to be completely fearless about working in front of large crowds. The next time you watch a sporting event, make an effort to listen to what the broadcasters say, especially at the beginning of the telecast (i.e. on-camera opens). They are displaying the same bravery that actors portray through their aspect of the performing arts.

Don’t go Out of Bounds

 

As this blog has alluded to previously, the jobs of play-by-play announcer and analyst are essential to the success of a broadcast team. Yet, as much as the two roles have to work together in order to create cohesion, they entail drastically different responsibilities.

The cardinal rule for a play-by-play man/woman is to never get in the analyst’s way. 99.9% of the time, an analyst is a well-spoken person who played the sport he/she is watching and therefore is qualified to explain what is unfolding to viewers/listeners. On the contrary, it is very rare to find a play-by-play person who has played the sport he/she is covering. Thus, the main job of play-by-play people is to describe what they are seeing in the game, give viewers/listeners an idea of basic information they need to know (down and distance in football, balls, strikes, outs and runners on in baseball, etc.) and then get out of the way and allow the analyst to shine. As simple as this process may seem, it is truly a complex art form that doesn’t get appreciated nearly as often as it should.

You may think I’m coming from a biased position here, and in some ways I probably am. But, I have seen so many bad broadcast teams in my years of observing sports media that I will quickly rise to the defense of any team that has proven it can function well together and enhance the broadcasting experience for viewers and listeners. For many years, Pat Summerall (the gold standard for football play-by-play) and John Madden (the comical, yet brilliant analyst who appealed to so many) showed off the strengths of their working relationship to millions of people week in and week out. Coincidentally, Summerall was actually a former kicker for the New York Giants, while Madden was a legendary head coach for the Oakland Raiders. Here are some samples of their work. Just sit back and enjoy…

 

 

3..2..1..3 in the booth!

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The idea of three people working together in sports broadcasting has been toyed and tinkered with for years on end. This type of work is often considered quite challenging. It’s hard for three different people to express their own distinct personalities on the air during the course of a single broadcast. ESPN has had many problems with this over the course of their Monday Night Football package, as their three-man experiments have resulted in Joe Theismann, Tony Kornheiser and Ron Jaworski being removed from the booth. It can be inferred that ego partly played a role in these outcomes, but primarily ESPN just found it impossible to properly incorporate the minds of these football experts into broadcasts that also featured a standard play-by-play, one analyst structure. Recently, Fox Sports did a tremendous job of allowing three distinct voices to shine during their coverage of the Major League Baseball postseason and World Series. The team of Joe Buck (for my money, the best play-by-play man in the business), Harold Reynolds (an excitable ex-Seattle Mariners player) and Tom Verducci (an esteemed SI writer) never seemed to have one voice dominating the conversation. During every game that this team worked, it seemed as though the three men were just having an extended, fun-loving discussion about what was unfolding in front of them and each man was able to add their individual insights to enhance the viewing experience. Someday, I really want to try out working with two analysts in my play-by-play work here at Westfield State. I have always viewed this as a fun challenge and an opportunity to measure how effectively I can allow other voices to shine.