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Networks Want to Reinvent Sportscasting During This Pandemic Year. But Should They?

The focus seems to be slipping further and further from the games people have actually tuned in to watch

Back in early May, when ESPN first started broadcasting games from the Korean professional baseball league, I was thrilled. At the time, it had been about a month since any American TV channel had aired live, competitive sports (unless cornhole counts); and the novelty of watching older games on cable and YouTube was starting to wear off. I looked forward to getting deeply into the KBO — getting to know the players and the teams while following the twists and turns of a long season.

I lasted about two weeks.

The problem wasn’t the product. The talent in the Korean league may not be up to the level of Major League Baseball, but over the years I’ve watched and enjoyed plenty of minor league ball, college ball and softball. I’m not picky when it comes to my favorite sport. I was genuinely interested in the KBO.

But ESPN didn’t seem to be. Though the network assigned some of their best baseball broadcasters to the KBO (for games they called remotely, from their own homes back in the U.S.), the telecasts I watched were loaded with digressions and shtick that distracted from what I’d tuned in to see.

The biggest drag? The in-game interviews. Roughly four times per game the announcers would stop to chat with a guest, sometimes for an inning or more. While those conversations were ostensibly about baseball, they were rarely about what was actually happening on the field at that moment. There’s no way to predict when the most exciting moment of any game — baseball or otherwise — might happen, so sometimes these folks would be gabbing away about some unrelated issue while a pivotal play was unfolding onscreen, barely remarked upon.

I’d like to blame this nonsense on the pandemic. Hey, it’s a weird time — sports leagues are experimenting with how they play. They’ve been competing in empty stadiums filled with cardboard cutouts and pumped-in crowd noise. They’ve planned extended tournaments in lieu of full seasons. And they’ve been working with their TV and streaming partners to expand the access to on-field sounds and sideline personnel.

Then again, the de-sport-ification of sports telecasts was already becoming a trend. Even during spring training baseball, ESPN had players mic’d-up and were talking to the announcers while they were playing the game. Frankly, it’s become exhausting in recent years to tune into games that quickly turn into talk shows, with roving reporters talking to a player’s parents, or visiting with some celebrity who has a new TV series to plug.

Perhaps the most horrifying peek at sportscasting’s potentially dystopian future arrived just before the COVID-19 shutdown, during the abbreviated inaugural season of the new XFL. The spring football league allowed ESPN and Fox (its two broadcast partners) to put mics on everybody, from the players to the coaches to the officials in the instant replay booth. Additionally, reporters were given free run of the sidelines, allowed to interview just about anyone at any time.

I’ll admit that the XFL experiment had its moments. In one game, a faltering quarterback openly questioned his coaches and his teammates, and then was benched — all live on air. I’ll grant that this did make an otherwise tedious 27-0 blowout more interesting. And throughout the shortened season, some of the on-the-fly snippets of play-calling and referee decisions were genuinely revealing.

But here’s the thing: While the content of those gimmicky innovations was sometimes worthwhile, I can’t say that it was integrated well into the broadcast. As a television show, the XFL games were a mess. They overwhelmed viewers with a cacophony of audio signals — play calls, inarticulate shouting, crowd noise, commentary, interviews, physical collisions and sound-dips to cover any loose profanity. It was harder than it should’ve been to keep track of the actual football.

This is my major beef with these changes sportscasters are pushing so aggressively: How do they help?

When I was watching classic baseball and football games earlier this summer, I couldn’t help but notice what the broadcasts 10, 20 or 50 years ago were lacking. I’m glad we have score-boxes on the screen now. I’m grateful for the wide variety of camera angles. I love instant replay. I love the first-down lines superimposed on the field. I’m happy about the introduction of advanced stats into sportscasting, and the graphics that help explain them. These are all genuine enhancements. 

But talking about something other than the game, while the game is happening? Not an enhancement. A sound mix so chaotic that you can’t understand what the play-by-play person is saying? Not an enhancement.

Also: Not necessary. The baseball games in the 1970s and 1980s featured interviews too, but they were rarely aired live. Someone in the production team excerpted the best soundbites and someone else found a dead spot in the game to slip them in. There’s also a rich tradition of sports documentaries, which take the best of those “up close and personal” moments on the sidelines and work them into the larger story. These kinds of inside-the-game gimmicks can be useful, provided they’re deployed sparingly and thoughtfully.

But my sense — my fear — is that the people in charge of the sports broadcasting departments these days don’t trust that their games alone will be good enough. For years now (decades even) ESPN, Fox Sports and others have been chasing something elusive: a younger audience, for one; but perhaps also viewers they hope will become more loyal to the networks than to the sports they carry.

Maybe this is why the daily ESPN lineup is often weighted more toward panel shows and documentary retrospectives (uniquely ESPN-branded content, in other words) than toward live sports. Also, lately ESPN, CBS and NBC seem to be buying the rights to major sporting events only to push them off to their apps, as though these games have more value as streaming “content” for a handful of subscribers than as something that large numbers of people might spontaneously channel-surf to. And don’t get me started on the tone of too many broadcasts, where the announcers sound bored, smug and cranky — seemingly more interested in their own voices than in describing what’s in front of their eyes.

Okay, maybe that’s one criticism too many. Most professional sports announcers do a fine job with what they’re given. But they might do better if they weren’t being asked to juggle so much superfluous stuff.

I think a lot these days about the great Vin Scully, who retired as the voice of the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2016. For much of his career, Scully worked solo. Night after night, good game or bad game, he told the story of an unfolding contest while also weaving in anecdotes, promotional material, relevant stats and his own gently poetic observations. Scully was a spellbinding entertainer, and marvelous virtual company. But he ultimately kept the focus where it belonged — on the players, on the plays and on the stakes of the game. He understood what seems to be getting lost: that most people who tune into sports want to watch sports.