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What makes a sports announcer great?

Vin Scully at Dodger Stadium, 1990 (Photo: George Rose/Getty Images)

This has been a hit-and-miss summer for television, but one piece of regular programming has been consistently wonderful: The “Vin Scully Gets Distracted By Babies” Show. Some of you may know this by its more common name: Los Angeles Dodgers home games. This will be the 88-year-old Scully’s last year with the Dodgers after 67 seasons on the job; and for those of us who’ve tuned in night after night to enjoy the announcer’s final bows, it’s been especially delightful whenever the camera turns to an infant in the crowd, setting Scully off on a reverie about the child’s adorability. He then easily pivots back to the game, without missing a pitch.


When Scully signs off for good, it’ll be the end of an era. Next summer will arrive without his familiar honeyed voice, telling stories about Greek mythology or American history between putouts and base knocks. For decades now, Scully’s been having a friendly conversation with his audience, keeping them updated on the action while sharing fascinating facts about the players and the world at large. There’s never been anyone quite like him. He turns even the dullest game into a three-hour oasis of civility.

But just because Scully’s irreplaceable doesn’t mean that sports announcing as an art-form will be done when he retires. He’s the last of a dying breed, it’s true; and it’s also true that televised sports in 2016 at times seems overrun by listless, unskilled broadcasters, from baseball to the Olympics. But there are still a lot of excellent announcers out there, with core virtues that newcomers and even some long-timers would do well to emulate.

For example:

1. Have a distinctive voice

Scully apprenticed under Red Barber, a Mississippian who became one of the most recognized voices in broadcasting in the mid-20th century when his calls of Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Yankees games were carried around the country. The conventional wisdom for the radio and TV industry is that the voices we hear the most should be neutral and middle-American—the sound of Lincoln, Nebraska and Kansas City, Missouri, not Georgia or Maine or Minnesota. But Barber’s gentlemanly southern twang became one of his selling points. And though Scully was born in the Bronx, over the years he seemed to pick up a bit of his mentor’s slow drawl. At the least, he doesn’t sound generic. Neither did his peers Mel Allen, Chick Hearn, or Keith Jackson; and nor do current veteran announcers like Verne Lundquist, Mike “Doc” Emrick, and Marv Albert. Even the lead man for Dodgers radio, Charley Steiner, has his own unmistakable growl.


Having a recognizable style isn’t always a boon. Many sports fans can’t stand Dick Vitale’s bellow, or the inarticulately gruff murmurs and sudden excited eruptions of local baseball announcers Ken “Hawk” Harrelson and Mike Shannon. But all three of those men also have plenty of fervent followers who’ll be sad when they finally step away from the microphone. And even viewers and listeners who dislike them would have to admit that it’s helpful to be able to tell right away that they’re calling a game—if only so they can hit the “mute” button.

2. Find the right partner

Part of what makes Scully so unique in modern sports broadcasting is that he’s alone in the booth for nine innings, talking directly to the audience—and never to any color commentator. This would makes a huge difference in the tone of any telecast, but especially in baseball, where the long lulls between exciting action are often filled by two announcers talking only with each other, and failing to keep viewers involved with what’s happening on the field. It’s generally even worse in the “three-man booth,” where two color commentators jostle to get their points in during the times when the play-by-play announcer isn’t talking.

But there are several good partnerships in contemporary broadcasting, too. Lundquist and ex-quarterback Gary Danielson have an easy rapport calling SEC football games in the late Saturday afternoon slot on CBS; as do Brad Nessler and Todd Blackledge on ESPN’s Saturday night SEC telecast. Len Kasper never gelled that well with Bob Brenly on the Chicago Cubs TV side, but ever since Brenly was replaced by ex-MLB pitcher Jim Deshaies three years ago, they’ve become one of baseball’s best teams, delivering illuminating details about the game without ever losing their sense of humor.

Even the three-person booth can work, with the right mix. When ESPN had Dave O’Brien, Rick Sutcliffe, and Aaron Boone working together on baseball, that particular combination of voices—especially Sutcliffe’s garrulousness and Boone’s lighter touch—was often distractingly off-key. But Boone blends very well with the calmly authoritative Dan Shulman and the enthusiastic Jessica Mendoza on Sunday night games now. The three of them seem to enjoy each other’s company, and that bubbly chemistry makes for a more entertaining telecast. (On ESPN’s “Global Game” MLB specials, the combo of Karl Ravech, Eduardo Perez, and Doug Glanville also meshes well.) Similarly, while Tara Lipinski and Johnny Weir would be a fun pair of ice skating commentators no matter who they were working with, they’re helped immeasurably by the steady professionalism of Terry Gannon, who knows just how to ask the right question to get them going.


3. Know the sport


Much of the pleasure of listening to Scully over the years has come from the way he recounts his firsthand experiences of watching the likes of Jackie Robinson, Sandy Koufax, and Fernando Valenzuela play. Scully’s absorbed a lot over the decades, and is able to relay insights into baseball history and strategy without ever descending to the wonky. And he does all this without ever having played the game professionally—which has increasingly become a requirement for sports broadcasters, for no real reason beyond perception.

It’s not that actual athletes’ perspectives don’t enhance our understanding of the game. They do, quite frequently. But there’s a fallacy in some quarters of sports journalism that merely being a jock automatically equates to expertise. Even some announcers who never played professionally feel obliged to defer to the wisdom of coaches and former pros, presuming they must know best when it comes to matters of strategy. This attitude is particularly prevalent in the militaristic culture of football, which may be why that sport’s broadcasting industry has been slowest to come around to the revolution in statistical analysis happening across athletics. Most televised football games—especially on the NFL level—end up offering vague commentary about levels of “momentum” and “mental toughness” that do nothing to illuminate what’s actually happening on the field.

Stats aren’t everything. They should be a tool in a broadcaster’s kit, along with replays and tidbits picked up during pregame warmups. They’re illustrative, not explanatory, and some broadcasters can paint a vivid picture just fine without them. (Scully, for one, rarely cites advanced metrics, because he doesn’t really need them to tell his stories.) But because athletes themselves are often mistrustful of anything that smacks of scholarship—any knowledge not attained through hard physical labor on the field, in other words—too many broadcasts are dismissive not just of numbers, but of relevant historical comparisons. And that can be annoying to fans who like data, trend analysis, and context. What’s the point of having someone call the game who proudly knows less than many of the people watching?


4. Don’t be a crank

This follows directly from the previous point. When Scully does refer to modern baseball statistics, he may be wary, but doesn’t automatically belittle them. As with everything else he brings up over the course of a broadcast, data points tend to be treated as, “Here’s something interesting that you might want to know.” Scully’s like that too when he’s sharing anecdotes, or offering up fascinating historical facts. He sounds as excited by Mike Trout or Corey Seager as he was about Roy Campanella or Mike Piazza. In that way he’s a lot like Doc Emrick, who slips in philosophical musings and offbeat observations during the rare pauses in the fast-paced NHL. Both men are enthusiasts, sharing their engagement.

Many broadcasters though—especially in baseball—spend their three hours on the air complaining. They gripe about “the modern player” or “the changing times.” They needle stat-heads. They whine about the pace of the game and the rule-changes they dislike. They’re basically telling their audience, over and over, “This sport used to be fun but now it’s terrible and you should watch something else.” They cross over from “telling it like it is” to “bumming everybody out.”


Even Bob Costas—a venerable broadcaster well-deserving of his decades of accolades—has gotten crankier as he’s gotten older. Once the NBC golden boy who had a facility with arcane facts and a knack for pop-culture references, Costas now cocks an eyebrow at the new generation, while cracking jokes that are decades out of date. (During one baseball game this summer he talked about All-Star voting and made a comment about “hanging chads,” which even cruise-ship comedians stopped using as a punchline about 15 years ago.) Put Costas on an MLB broadcast with fellow coot Jim Kaat, and the lifelong baseball fan suddenly takes it on himself to run down the entire state of the sport. On the other hand, when Costas recently covered a Pittsburgh/Chicago ballgame with Emrick—a Pirates partisan since boyhood who’d always dreamed of calling a game—the two of them reminisced about Bill Mazeroski in a way that brought a lot of Costas’ old ebullience back.

5. Don’t get hung up on jargon

For generations, whenever somebody in football tacked somebody else in the open field, it was called “an open-field tackle.” Then some announcer apparently heard some offensive or defensive coordinator refer to movement in the open field as movement “in space,” and now every football game is filled with so many references to tackles and yardage “in space” that it’s like we’re watching Pyramid, not the NFL. Similarly, somewhere in the past decade an interception return for a touchdown became a “pick six,” and a game-winning home-run became a “walk-off.” At first these expressions were colorful, but they long ago became clichés. It’s terminology that sounds insider-ish, but over time comes off as cutesy and lazy. (Along the same lines, whoever convinced sports broadcasters to say “untracked” when they mean “on track” should be publicly shamed, Game Of Thrones-style.)

There’s one exception where excessive jargon is allowed: the Olympics. Because without Cynthia Potter instantly assessing every twist and toe-point and splash, would novices ever understand diving? The Olympics are also a case where having actual athletes calling the games definitely does help, since there aren’t that many veteran broadcasters who know the ins-and-outs of handball or kayaking. At the just-completed Rio games, NBC had a winning combination on team volleyball with Paul Sunderland, Kevin Barnett, and Heather Cox, all of whom had played the sport at a high level and put the drama into perspective.


6. Be open to suggestions

This advice is less for announcers than for their bosses. Because sports tend to do relatively well in the ratings no matter whether the broadcast is excellent or crummy, the people who televise the games don’t seem to have a lot of incentive to pay attention to what their audience thinks—or tweets. Are masses of sports nuts clamoring for more curt, unrevealing interviews with coaches as they’re running off the field or court at halftime? Does anyone actually like it when baseball announcers spend a half-inning talking to a guest in the booth or a player in the dugout? Do networks ever focus test their onscreen graphics to make sure that viewers can make sense of them?


This is what frustrates fans most about the state of sports broadcasting: that sense that no one in charge is listening. Every time NBC carries the Olympics, the press and social media complain loudly about the primetime package, which is too heavy on human-interest stories and interviews (and ads), and too light on actual athletic activity. And every time, NBC offers the same excuses, and ultimately shrugs off the criticisms as irrelevant. Similarly, every March Madness, NFL Playoffs, and MLB Playoffs now feels like a slow process of good announcers giving way to the blander ones that the major networks have designated as their top guys.

The situation’s not entirely dire, though. The NBA and NHL have Albert and Emrick for their biggest games. And Fox recently responded to widespread complaints about its Joe Buck/Harold Reynolds/Tom Verducci MLB postseason team, and will now be pairing Buck with John Smoltz, a well-informed baseball Hall Of Famer with a pleasant demeanor and strong communication skills. And just last week, MLB Network presented an experimental broadcast which had Smoltz, journalists Jonah Keri and Mike Petriello, and advanced metrics zealot Brian Kenny popping up throughout an afternoon game to debate stats and tactics.


Scully wouldn’t have thrived in that format. But in a way, the Kenny/Keri/Petriello/Smoltz approach was in the spirit of Scully, Barber, Joe Garagiola, Harry Kalas, Ernie Harwell, Bob Uecker, and so many other of baseball broadcasting’s greats. The approach was different, but the idea the same: to the tell the story of a game, while convincing viewers to stick around for how it comes out.

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