In covering any sport as a member of a two-person team, it's helpful to develop and use simple nonverbal signals to avoid confusion.
A sportscast can be deadly for listeners if you and your partner continually interrupt one another or start to speak at the same time. The general rule is that the play-by-play announcer is the booth director. As play-by-play announcer, you'll do all the talking except when you invite your play analyst or statistician to contribute. Play analysts indicate that they have a comment to make by raising a hand or slipping you a note. If you decide to allow the comment, you throw a cue by pointing an index finger when you come to the end of your own remarks. Analysts must always complete their remarks well ahead of the moment when you must again pick up the play-by-play. As you might imagine, hand signals (except for "you're on" cues) are unnecessary when sportscasters have worked together for long periods of time and sense when it's safe to interject a comment.
When calling a football game, many announcers stand rather than sit because it increases energy and frees them to move as needed to relate to the field, the television monitor, spotter's charts, and the play analyst.
When you call any game, keep several important principles in mind. First, truly believe that your chief responsibility is to your viewers or listeners. This translates into being completely honest in reports of the games you call. This belief will be difficult to hold to at times. Unreasonable owners, outraged players, and others who have a stake in your broadcasts may make irrational demands. In the long run, though, you'll prosper best if you have a loyal following of viewers or listeners who have faith in your integrity.
Second, remember that it's your responsibility to report, entertain, and sell. Your reporting must be accurate and fair. As an entertainer, you must attract and hold the fans' attention for up to three hours at a time. Selling means selling the sport more than the team. It means selling yourself as a credible reporter, who communicates natural energy and objectivity but avoids forced enthusiasm.
Finally, avoid home-team bias. Homers aren't unknown to sports-casting, and some play-by-play announcers are famous for their lack of objectivity. The most important reason to avoid home-team bias is that it will blind you to the actual events taking place. Regardless of affiliation or loyalties, it's your responsibility to provide fans with a clear, accurate, and fair account of the game. This responsibility is more apparent if you do play-by-play for radio. Television fans can compare your work with what they see, but when you serve as the eyes of radio listeners, you have an obligation to report with objectivity since your account is almost the listeners' total exposure to the event.
Some of these suggestions are appropriate to all sports; others apply to one or two:
Communicate the Important Events in a Game and Provide Interpretation When Appropriate. A game is more than a series of individual plays or events. Plays are part of a process that adds up to an overall pattern. If you're perceptive and deeply involved in the event, you'll be able to point out crucial plays and turning points immediately after they occur. It's your responsibility to grasp the significance of plays or incidents and then to communicate your awareness to viewers or listeners. You will transmit the significance not only by what you say but also by how you say it. Some critical situations will be apparent to any reasonably sophisticated fan, but at times you must be so tuned in to the game that your interpretation surpasses common knowledge.
When Doing Play-by-Play on Radio, Provide Listeners with Relatively More Information Than Is Necessary for a Telecast. Listeners need to know, for example, what the weather is like, how the stadium or court looks, how the fans are behaving, whether players are right- or left-handed, the wind strength and direction, who's on first, how many yards for a first down, how many outs or minutes left in the game, and whether a particular play was routine or outstanding. Most important of all: repeat the score often, and always before going to a commercial and immediately after a commercial break. You can't overdo this. Some sports announcers use a three-minute egg timer to remind them to mention the score (and other basic information) every time the sand has run through the glass.
When Doing Baseball Play-by-Play, Always Be Ready to Talk Intelligently and Entertainingly During Rain Delays. Baseball fans love baseball lore, and well-prepared announcers who can discuss historical aspects of the sport and provide a wealth of amusing or amazing anecdotes can make a rain delay a highlight of a game.
Never Make Events in a Game Seem More Important Than They Are. A dull game creates a natural temptation to entertain by exaggerating. Avoid this tendency.
Don't Overuse Sports Clichés. You can't avoid sports clichés entirely; there are a limited number of ways of describing things that happen over and over in a game. But unless frequent use of sports clichés is a part of your announcing persona, be conscious of clichés and try to avoid their overuse. Here are several overused sports expressions:
• in tonight's action
• over in the NBA
• over in the American League
• all the action is under the lights
• was in complete charge
• he got all of it
• he was taking all the way
• odds-on favorite
• off to a running start
• off to a shaky start
• sparked the win
• suffered a sixth setback
• raised her record to
• went the distance
Some familiar sports expressions are clear, direct, and uncomplicated and hardly can be improved on: loaded the bases, gave up a walk, got the hat trick, was sacked, finished within one stroke of, and lost the decision. In general, although you can't—and shouldn't—completely avoid clichés, improve the variety of your play-by-play delivery by using several ways of naming the same events or incidents.
Have Statistics in Front of You or Firmly in Mind Before You Start to Talk About Them. If you make an error, you can correct it, of course: "That's the fourth walk allowed by Rollins—hold it; it's the third walk." There's nothing wrong with making an occasional correction. If you repeatedly make corrections however, it becomes annoying.
On Television, Concentrate on Interpreting the Events and Adding Comments About Action not Clearly Shown by the Camera. Television viewers don't necessarily see everything that a trained observer sees. Your commentary and instant replay can provide viewers with specific details that illuminate, instruct, and entertain.
When Doing Play-by-Play on Television, Avoid the Extremes of Too Much or Too Little Commentary. Avoid extraneous chatter that confuses and distracts viewers.9 On the other hand, don't go to the opposite extreme and assume that viewers have been with you throughout the entire game and therefore know everything important that's occurred. From time to time, review key plays, injuries, and other pertinent facts.
When a Player Is Injured, Never Guess About the Nature or Severity of the Injury. If you consider it important to report on the details of the injury, send an assistant to the team trainer or physician. Inaccurate information about an injury can cause unnecessary worry for friends and family.
Don't Ignore Fights, but Don't Sensationalize Them. Hockey and football are often violent, and fights between players aren't uncommon. If you dwell on them, you may provoke both aggression by fans (thrown bottles, for example) and attempts by players to exact revenge.
If You're Not Sure About Information, Don't Guess. Wait as long as necessary to give official verdicts on whether or not a ball was fair or foul, a goal was scored, or a first down was made. Constant corrections of such errors are annoying to the fans.
Tell a baseball audience what inning it is as you give the score. Tell football, basketball, and hockey audiences which quarter or period it is and how much time is left. Football audiences need to be reminded frequently of who has the ball, where the ball is, and what down is coming up. It's all but impossible to give such information too often.
Give Scores of Other Games, but Never Allow Them to Interfere with the Game at Hand. When telecasting, remember that your viewers are being bombarded with information not only from you, the play analyst, and the camera coverage of the game, but also from written information superimposed on the screen at the request of the director to show statistics, to promote an upcoming program, or to "tease" an after-game feature, such as "In the Clubhouse," or "The Fifth Quarter." Because of this overload, be careful not to further distract viewers from the game they're watching. Give scores of other games, but be discreet.
Take Care of First Things First. Provide essential information before going into an analysis of the action. On radio, don't describe the double play until you've told the fans whether or not the player on third scored. In football, don't start talking about key blocks or sensational catches until you've indicated whether or not a first down was made on the play.
Don't Keep Telling Your Audience How Great the Game Is. If it is a great game, the events and the way you report them will speak for themselves. If it isn't a great game, no amount of wishful thinking will make it exciting. At the same time, as an unusually exciting game winds down, it is appropriate to express your honest emotions about the suspense of the game or the victory of an underdog.
If You Can't Immediately Identify a Player, Cover the Play Without Mentioning Names and Give the Name When You're Sure of It ed on the twenty. . . back to the thirty, the thirty-five, and all the way to the thirty-seven. A beautiful interception by Charley Pappas, the all-American defensive back.
Learn Where to Look for the Information You Need. In baseball, watch the outfielders instead of a fly ball to see whether the ball will be caught, fielded, or lost over the fence. Watch line umpires to see whether a ball is fair or foul. In football, watch the quarterback unless you clearly see a hand-off or a pass; then watch the ball. Let your spotters or analyst watch the defense and the offensive ends.
Don't Rely on Scoreboard Information. Keep your own notebook and record the data appropriate to the sport you're covering. For football, note the time when possession begins, the location of the ball after each play, the nature of each play, and the manner in which the drive ends. These notes will help you summarize each drive and will single out the most important plays. For baseball, keep a regular scoring chart and learn to read it quickly and accurately. For basketball, hockey, and soccer, rely on a statistician for data such as goals attempted and fouls and penalties assessed.
Give Statistics and Records. Baseball fans are always interested in batting and earned-run averages, fielding percentages, strikeout records, and comparative statistics. Track and field followers are obsessed with distance and speed records. Statistics are only slightly less important to followers of football, basketball, soccer, hockey, and golf. Remember, though, that some statistics are of little value or interest, as in: "That was the seventh time this season that the Hornets were the first to score in the third quarter!"
Avoid Adopting Meaningless Catch Phrases. Perhaps the most prevalent and annoying habit of sports announcers is the interjection of the phrase of course into statements when the information being given isn't necessarily common knowledge, as in "Wilson, of course, has run for over a hundred yards in each of his past seven games." Even when the information is widely known, of course adds nothing to most statements: "Mark McGwire, of course, was Rookie of the Year in 1987."
Eliminate or Control the Use of the Word Situation. With some sports announcers, nearly everything is a situation: "It's a passing situation," "It's a bunting situation." "It's a third-and-three situation." Constant repetition of this word can become tiresome.
Use Background Sounds to Your Advantage. Most sports have moments of action that bring about an enthusiastic response from the crowd. The sounds of cheering fans can enhance your game coverage. Don't be afraid to remain silent at key times while the fans carry the excitement of the game for you.
When Working with a PlayAnalyst, Make Sure You and Your PartnerAgree on the Pronunciation of Names That Could Be Pronounced in Different Ways. During a professional football telecast, the play-by-play announcer and play analyst pronounced the names of three players in different ways:
McMahon: (muk-MAN) versus (muk-MAY-un)
Lippett: (LIP-ut) versus (lih-PET)
Clayborn: (KLAY-born) versus (KLY-born)
These differences probably went unnoticed by most listeners, but as a professional you should first hear such differences and then discuss them with your partners with the hope of reaching an agreement. Although this is not a major point, to truly be the best in your field demands that you correct even minor inaccuracies.