At the other end of the spectrum from anchoring is play-by-play. While both skills require much preparation and research, play-by-play is more spontaneous and less rehearsed.
It is sports broadcasting by the seat of your pants, in that anything can happen and sometimes does. And that very quality of unpredictability is what makes it so attractive to many broadcasters. "I love the spontaneity of it," says Charley Steiner, who worked at ESPN and now is the radio voice of the Los Angeles Dodgers. "It unfolds right before your eyes, the complete opposite of the studio experience, which is very scripted and controlled."
However, don't let the spontaneity of play-by-play fool you. Announcers don't simply walk into a broadcast booth and do a game without lots of preparation, which in most cases takes much more work than for a traditional studio broadcast. "I would say that for something like baseball, the game preparation is generally between four and eight hours for each game," said Steiner. "Hopefully, you're prepared for any and all eventualities when you're on the air.
Play-by-play preparation for a live sports broadcast actually begins several days before the game. On Monday and Tuesday, announcers start looking ahead to their next assignment, including reading team reports and press guides. The image above shows the list of assignments for ESPN announcers who called a 2004 football game between Florida State and Virginia, and it is fairly typical of a weekly schedule for a play-by-play announcer. The on-air personnel for the game included a play-by-play person, an analyst, and a sideline reporter.
This preparation usually includes reading newspaper and Internet stories about the event and the athletes, going through game notes supplied by the teams involved, and talking to athletes and coaches before game time. The broadcaster can then use all this information during the game, in the form of statistics, information, or simply interesting stories. John Madden is generally recognized as the most accomplished and successful football broadcaster in the game today and much of his material comes from the preparation he has done before the game starts. "In preparing to do a game, he says, "I always come across stories I can use on the air." Steiner says, "The thing I like most is talking with the players in the dugout three hours before the game. You get a sense of who they are and it helps to tell better stories on the air."
Much preparation goes into doing a play-by-play broadcast, even on the local level. Consider a radio broadcast of a game between two local high school basketball teams, where preparation might include the details given below
There's also another kind of preparation in which the play-by-play broadcaster uses aids to help him with names, numbers, and statistics. For network events, the play-by-play person will have a "spotter," who helps identify players and substitutions. Even if there isn't a spotter, the play-by-play person typically has access to a "spotting board," a visual representation of players, numbers, names, and positions that are arranged for easy access. In a football game, for example, the broadcaster might arrange the spotting board to correspond to the players' location on the field and their position on the team's depth chart. Each broadcaster has his own way of putting together a spotting board and no single way is better than another. The key is to come up with a board that can be accessed easily and quickly and with as little disruption as possible. Most, but not all, boards include things such as a current depth chart, the stat sheets and play-by-play sheets from the previous game, the latest media guides and releases, and a "speed card" for quick, instant information.
Whether you're doing a game on radio or television, the preparation is much the same. But after that, the similarities end. Doing games on radio and television are entirely different experiences.
Brad Schultz is an assistant professor and head of the broadcast sequence in the journalism department at the University of Mississippi. Prior to entering academia, he spent fourteen years in local television and has experience as a sports anchor, producer, reporter, photographer, editor and writer. He covered the NFL, NBA, major league baseball, PGA, NCAA, and Indy 500 among other events. Dr. Schultz is the editor of the Journal of Sports Media and has published several articles and conference papers on local sports broadcasting.