NOTE: Below is a written transcript of this week’s Scott’s Shot. The audio version can be found at the bottom of this post or via your podcast feed.
I love watching sports on TV, but I love sports more when I get to watch while listening to excellent announcers. Announcers really do make an enormous difference in the quality of the product.
In this month alone, we have seen the best and the worst of it.
This is not a basketball podcast, but during the Final Four in the NCAA college basketball tournament, the game between Virginia and Auburn threatened to end in controversy.
An Auburn player was called for a foul with about one second left in the game. Immediately, the Auburn players and coaches made it clear that they thought it was a bad call. The announcers even wondered if it should have been called.
That's when Gene Steratore's mic was turned on. Gene -- a former official himself until just last year -- explained in short but definitive fashion the three reasons why the play was called a foul. Steratore was clear and comprehensive, and his commentary eliminated any controversy surrounding that play, and the way it affected the ending of an important game.
Without Steratore, controversy would have boiled over in a place where it didn't need to. Thankfully, that didn't happen because Gene was there to educate us at a time when we needed it. Fast. That's what great announcing does.
A traditional announcing crew features two people: a play-by-play announcer and a color commentator. The play by play announcer calls the action as it happens. His job is to tell the narrative of the game in real time.
The color commentator's job is to -- forgive the lack of creativity here -- provide commentary on that narrative. He (or she) should be able to explain why a game is happening the way that it is, both tactically and in relation to the rules of the game.
Neither job is easy, and there is often overlap between the two roles. However, of the two roles, the one that is often worse -- the one that is apparently harder for TV networks to find -- is the color commentator.
Color commentary is often done wrong in two general ways. The first way is when he or she just paraphrases what the play by play announcer says. You will notice this any time there's instant replay. Bad color commentators all too often just rehash the play by play the second time we watch the play. It's a complete waste of time. There's little additional analysis or description of what we just saw.
Sadly, this is most prevalent in NFL broadcasts. That's why when, during last year's AFC Championship game, people marveled when Tony Romo -- the color commentator for that broadcast -- was predicting plays accurately before they were happening. He was doing his job to its fullest as someone who understood the game and analyzed the action. It was top-shelf color commentary, and we loved it as fans.
The second general way color commentary goes bad is when the commentator gives a subjective, rather than an objective, point of view. This is something I've complained about before. If a color commentator ever uses phrases like "to me" or "for me" or "I think that" or "I feel like," then he's not doing his job. Those are subjective phrases.
I don't care what a color commentator thinks most of the time. What I want to know is why something is or isn't called, why a strategy worked or didn't work. Give me analysis based on objective fact.
Try to teach me something. Don't just tell me what I've already heard, and don't tell me your opinion -- unless you have already given me the facts first and have earned the ability to share your opinion.
CBS was the American TV network that made sure to have Gene Steratore as part of its announcing team. He was there just in case that moment occurred, and his experienced description was needed. CBS deserves a ton of credit for that.
This all brings me now to the beautiful game. There was a moment about a week ago that cried out for football's version of Gene Steratore. I know you remember it. Sergio Aguero had just scored the goal that would send Manchester City through to the Champions League semifinals.
We saw the replay. The announcers speculated as to whether or not Aguero was onside but spent most of their time talking about how Aguero ended up scoring the goal. Suddenly, a screen showed that the goal had been disallowed. Aguero was indeed offside.
It was the right call, but nobody knew what was going on. It created for a spectacular moment, both for its drama and for its seemingly haphazard way of being handled. On European football's biggest stage, we were treated to a very poorly handled situation.
But I'm only partially referring to how things were handled on the pitch. I'm also referring to the announcing crew. If this were an American sports league, we would have heard from a sideline reporter about what the fourth official was saying to the managers. We would have heard from a former official about what the VAR crew was looking for.
But we didn't get any of that. We got two disconnected announcers left to speculate as much as we were. Part of it was not their fault. They didn't have the connection to what was happening on the pitch and with the VAR crew.
Part of it was also bad commentary. At no point did we get a definitive statement on whether Aguero was offside (even though he clearly was) and what the VAR team would be looking at in the replays.
Big stage. Big situation. Poorly handled.
And I think I know why. The English purists amongst us bristle at the thought of adding sideline reporters and referee experts, those fancy modern bells and whistles that interfere with the beautiful game.
Fine. If you don't want those things, you don't have to have them. In their place, though, you need expert, high-quality color commentators who can compensate by providing that analysis themselves. But how many of them actually do that? So few.
Maybe it's just that I'm in the U.S., and I'm subjected to the world feed announcers. Even then, those announcers should be better. The reality is that we get very little tactical analysis, very little mention of the actual rules and how a play compares to them. Instead, we get a rehashing of instant replays and opinions on what a player's intent was during a play. It's all garbage, a complete waste of time.
There's room within the game of football for more. Those 90 minutes have pockets of time where great color commentary can be provided. When it's lacking, it's so obvious, and something should be done right away.
Stop with this idea that a commentator has to be a name-brand former manager or player. It doesn't. He or she needs to be able to do the things I've mentioned here in a conversational and acccessible way. That's all.
England, as an American lover of football, I can never thank you enough for creating the Premier League and being willing to transport it to my television halfway around the world. You've changed my life because of it.
I'll go further and say that you do a lot of things better than us Americans -- your football, your accents, your domestic beers, and even most of your music and movies.
Will you please allow me, though, to make one suggestion on something that the Americans are doing better than you? This old-school commentary that you are exporting to us is rubbish. I know that you were slow to the VAR game. We've learned with the implementation of replay in all of our sports leagues that it's not always better to have it. It has to be done right.
But the Premier League is finally accepting it next season. Now that VAR is here, can you please go a little further? Give us the quality of broadcast that we need to go along with the new technology being implemented by the game.
We need someone on all broadcasts who can be brought in to tell us why referees make the interpretations that they do -- able to compare those interpretations against the actual laws of the game. We need access to the ones who are making those decisions.
We need communication. What a concept! Hand gestures by referees are barely enough. You know, in hockey, the referees wear mics and skate out to the center and announce whether or not a goal is allowed or disallowed. They, too, could use only hand gestures, but they don't. They go for the full drama of the moment, and we eat it up.
You can't have it both ways, you know. You can't broadcast your games on TV, and then, once the game is on TV, act like it's not on TV. You have to do some things for the TV audience. I know that saying that is more blasphemous than any swears I could say here. But it doesn't make it less true.
Change is scary, I know. Especially for football executives. But it will be worth it. May my commentary here convince you of the need to make yours better.