Aaron Gordon wonders why so much of our in-game sports commentary is completely inane.
I watch sports on mute because announcers are the worst. When I started watching baseball games on MLB.TV, which allows the viewer to choose from multiple audio selections, including “natural ballpark sound,” leaving the viewer with only the crack of the bat and cheers of the crowd—I encountered just how superfluous commentators have become. By this simple innovation, I was reminded how intricate and complex baseball can be, how tranquil a ballpark environment is, and how I can add context to a game without the help of former players. Mostly, I realized how intellectually hollow the commentator has become.
If you watch the World Series, Tim McCarver says things like, “Folks, we don’t want to throw a lot of numbers at you, but this year, 39% of leadoff walks have scored. That’s about 40% of the time.” This is representative of the basic assumption sports announcers seem to have about the American public: we are dumb.
When McCaver rambles, “In Scrabble, W’s are worth 4 points. S’s are only worth 1 point. But as far as [ex-Red Sox reliever Jonathan] Papelbon is concerned, S’s are worth a lot more than W’s,” or Troy Aikman concludes “And that’s what they’re gonna have to do, the Giants are that is,” there’s something more than tradition and custom assuring our subjection to floundering commentary. There’s a basic misconception about the knowledge of the modern sports fan. Viewers don’t need analysis anymore; they want excitement.
One article necessarily fails to encapsulate sports commentators’ total incompetency, but once upon a time there was a glorious website, Fire Joe Morgan, which exposed America to the rationally cavernous utterances sports fans are routinely subjected to. Fire Joe Morgan hasn’t been updated in three years, but its last few posts still exemplify the dimwittery we are subjected to during a majority of the biggest sporting events of the year.
Troy Aikman—who, well, says a lot of things like the quote above—won best analyst in the SI.com 2006 Media Awards. His runner-ups included the aforementioned Tim McCarver and National Football League announcer Ron Jaworski. (This list could easily be confused with the Too Many Words Were Used to Express This Thought Award.) To identify these men as “analysts” is a misnomer. They’re not on the air to analyze; they’re on the air to talk, to occupy time from one play to the next. The networks don’t really care what they say because they assume you don’t either.
Networks know we tune in to watch the game, not listen to commentators. They’re right; the days of identifying with play-by-play announcers are long gone. We’re a generation removed from relying on descriptions of the game via radio personalities. Networks want to give you the impression of watching a game with some friends, so they have two or three people sit at the game and talk at you about it. This way, even if you’re watching alone, you’re not really alone. The failure of this strategy comes to the forefront when I’d rather watch the game on mute than being subjected to such profoundness: “By guessing right, they may have guessed wrong.”
But with modern technology, I don’t need announcers to have company. Even when I get up at 7 AM on a Saturday to watch a soccer game occurring 3,000 miles away, millions of people on Twitter are having a conversation about the game I’m watching with them. Yes, I’m alone in my room drinking beer at 8 in the morning, but I’m talking on Twitter and instant messaging with friends in England and Australia, on the opposite side of time. In the days of radio, you were assured one person was having a conversation about the game. Now there are millions.
The effectiveness of crowdsourcing sports conversations is highlighted by the increased sports knowledge of the median fan. A generation ago, the smartest people in the game were likely former players and coaches. That’s no longer the case. Former Navy pilots and general stats nerds are on the cutting edge of intelligent sports commentary. They’re not just talking to other nerds, either. Aaron Schatz, founder of Football Outsiders, debates with former players on an ESPN daytime scream-a-thon, Numbers Never Lie. Brian Burke, founder of Advanced NFL Stats, writes weekly Washington Post and New York Times columns. The concept of an impenetrable Sports Knowledge Elite is as antiquated as radio.
Since the general sports fan is smarter than he used to be, the viewer now craves a new type of commentator: excitement. Here lies the Gus Johnson conundrum: he represents such a sweeping change in the sports commentary landscape, his time has not yet arrived. He’s a total inversion of the McCarver-Aikman-Jaworski mold, who have experience playing the game but tremendous disconnect with modern viewers. Instead, Gus Johnson is the modern viewer; getting amped for big plays—comically so—and doesn’t try to espouse grand, sweeping theories of the way the game ought to be played. He simply watches, just like the rest of us.
Unfortunately, networks haven’t come to terms with this change yet. The first that does will be able to hand-select the very best. (I suggest Gus.) For now, just enjoy the way “A-Rod fouls that ball off beautily.”