Thursday, December 15, 2011

The Voices of the American Game

Changeover at ESPN and Arlo White being hired to be the new voice NBC Sports soccer coverage has raised some interesting discussions on just what exactly makes for a good television announcer in Major League Soccer coverage. Debates over what matters, how credibility is earned and why an accent can make a difference have all been waged. The most interesting aspect of these discussions is that nearly all of the views have merit.

It’s a unique topic to be sure. Exactly what do American fans want to hear when watching a broadcast? Two roles essentially companion the viewer while they watch the game: the play by play announcer and the color commentator. Unfortunately though, with these debates ongoing, the roles of these two broadcasters have been obscured a bit. How about accent? Does the announcer need to be American? Have a British accent?

In an effort to delve more in depth with these topics, I spoke to several established veterans of the booth and media journalists to find out their thoughts on the matter. Eric Wynalda, Brian Dunseth, Alexi Lalas, Matthew Tomaszewicz of the Shin Guardian and Nick Firchau of MLSSoccer.com  all weighed in on exactly what they believe the roles of the play by play and color commentators to be.


The Roles

Allen Hopkins, broadcaster for ESPN and for Chivas USA, has broadcasted over 2500 soccer matches. He also teaches collegiate level classes in broadcast communications. He describes the roles as such: “Simply, the play-by-play is the “what” and the analyst is the “why”. When the roles are not clear or the people in those roles are not talented enough, you have ‘bleeding where the roles become undistinguishable… The best play-by-play personalities have the voice, are knowledgeable, overly-prepared, engaging, highly connected to the game at all levels and passionate about their work.”

The ‘bleeding’ which Hopkins refers to is a problem not necessarily specific to soccer broadcasts, but it is one that has come under fire in recent weeks. The expectations of  the play-by-play announcers are different than that of the color commentator. The color commentator’s job is not to tell what is happening, but rather to explain why and how things work.

Allen Hopkins on field with Claudio Reyna

In the early days of Major League Soccer, perhaps that was explaining what a throw in was or why a play was deemed offsides. Now though, that role has changed and matured along with the audience. Nick Firchau of MLSSoccer.com acknowledged this same point about the soccer fan base: “The roles have changed a bit over the years white it comes to the soccer broadcasts in the United States. Now we have a much more soccer-savvy, educated fan base watching MLS and the US Soccer games… announcers have a bit more leeway in how educational they have to be for their audience.”

Brian Dunseth, former MLSer and now a commentator in his own right for Fox Soccer Channel explains his expectations of the color analyst: “The ability to break down and game and explain what’s happening, but not just telling me what’s wrong… tell me how to fix it.”

Color Analyst or color commentator, no matter which way you say it, the job is to go in depth about how things work and compliment the play-by-play role.

How about the miscellaneous information that does not always directly relate to the game? Some want it, some don’t.

Alexi Lalas had this to say: “Yes, sure. The background of a player, be it years ago or in the previous day is relevant at times to what is happening on the field. And it may be relevant to what the view is thinking or has not thought about. There is a time and a place for that information and it’s an art to be able to find when that is appropriate.” 

The question begs though, when is that information important in a 45 minute half with almost no stoppages? There are no commercial breaks, no time-outs, no stopping the clock. The art to which Lalas refers to becomes extremely important. He expands his thoughts in saying this, “Someone who does it very well in football or baseball, may not do it well in soccer. The time and the space may not be appropriate.”

Dunseth offered a similar conclusion: “As a former player, I know there’s more to the game being played than just that 90 minutes. Tell me what’s going on with the team or the individual players that might explain what’s happening. An injury, a family issue or maybe a coach thinking about a bigger picture that might affect the specific game.” 

Brian Dunseth

Both Lalas and Dunseth are former players and recognize that individuals are just as human on the field as they are off. Why then are some commentators blasted by fans for stating information that may not be directly pertinent to the game at hand? Simply put: their job is to give fans a look at the big picture about why things are going the way they are.

Play-by-play though is a different role. It is the job to tell the audience what is happening in no uncertain terms. As the ball moves forward or back between a certain team or perhaps a crunching tackle is made, the play by play man tells us what is happening. This is not to say it should be stoic and monotonous. Emotion is welcomed, provided it’s tempered.

The announcers of the game will always be both championed and lambasted. Few know this better than Eric Wynalda, a former player and commentator now working with Fox Soccer. Wynalda had this to say “I think a lot of commentators get thrown under the bus a bit because you are always under pressure to get “information” out for some reason. Direction is important. I was just as guilty as anybody for trying too hard to get all those stats in at times.”

The pressures to which Wynalda refers, can come from all angles. Studio hosts, channel executives, fans…that pressure can be trying on anyone. Wynalda continues “Sometimes that need to “back up” everything you say leads to too much talking. We’ve got to let the game do the talking and breathe. No doubt, it’s a hard job…I am glad I don’t call games anymore.”

So is that pressure to blame when we hear an announcer, play-by-play or color, ramble on? Perhaps. Perhaps though they are simply not gifted at the art in which Alexi Lalas referred to. JP Dellacamera and Arlo White are considered by many to be masters of this art.

The Voice, The Accent.

Arlo White will be taking on the new role as play-by-play man for NBC’s Sports Group coverage of MLS. White is a fantastic selection, a man who tempers his emotion at the right times and supports himself with calm bravado and facts. There is one bit about White though that causes a bit of debate…his accent. White is not American. Still, he’s an amazing announcer and well respected by many.

Examining the idea of an accent though, is fascinating and polarizing. Some may feel that a British accent, or less specifically, a European one lends credibility to the broadcast while others contend that an American voice is necessary to grow the game stateside.

The answer of course lies somewhere in the middle. Everyone I spoke to agreed on this and offered viewpoints to support both sides.

Nick Firchau
Firchau explains “Ideally it shouldn’t matter. There is an argument that says the average British announcer has likely been covering soccer longer than their American counterparts imply because of the popularity of the sport in the United Kingdom and Europe, so they’re inherently more educated on the nuances of the game. I do think there are American broadcasts out there who are more knowledgeable of MLS and the USMNT then their British counterparts.”

Matthew Tomaszewicz of the Shin Guardian would seem to agree on the matter and took a truly analytical stance on the subject. When asked if the accent of the commentator would lend credibility to the broadcast he responded with: “The answer of course is no, but it’s not that simple. Studies have shown that an English accent has a direct impact on either ratings (late night variety shows) or sales (infomercials).  Those are facts. If you’re a TV executive and looking to get the absolute best ratings possible for a broadcast, which is your job, you have to offer a pretty good reason why you wouldn’t at least consider the accent as material to impact the ratings.”

Tomaszewicz continued by saying "Arlo White is a tremendous play-by-play man. He's young, smart, has great balance and can do a one or two man booth. He's respected by one of MLS's top fan bases. He probably would have earned the NBC job anyway, but you'd better believe his accent played into that discussion."

In a more simple answer, Alexi Lalas said this “I want whoever it is to be good. That certainly applies to Arlo, he’s just that good regardless of his accent. I would say though, that this argument is nothing new. The perception that what we [Americans in the booth] do is somehow inferior is a battle we’ve waged for years and will continue to wage. In that way, you don’t have to be good, you have to be really good to make people forget that you’re talking with an American accent.”

The point Lalas makes echoes heavily now more than ever. American broadcasters, despite broadcasting in America, still contend with the idea that they are not good enough because people expect a European accent on a soccer broadcast. That is simply not just.

Allen Hopkins broke it down in the simplest of terms: “To raise the level of soccer broadcasts AND soccer in this country, we have to take the word ‘soccer’ out of it and focuse on doing great TV. Producing solid and professional broadcasts that the TV industry would hold high, not just the small soccer community at large… We are the only country who has a foreign voice for the most important matches for both club and country. In Brazil, the announcer is not from Paraguay. In England, the commentator is not from Kuwait. In Spain, the commentators are not from Russia.”

It really is that simple. The balancing act to which Matt Thomas and Nick Firchau refer to is important on many levels. Finding a way to appeal to an audience as diverse as the one in the United States is difficult. It’s an entirely separate task than selling the product on the field, though the two are symbiotic.

And so...

Many fans may talk about credibility and what it means to be a good announcer, but few have had a chance to be in that role. John Harkes was heavily criticized for his efforts as a color commentator on ESPN and while some of those criticisms have merit, it seemed few understood what his job truly was. Still, soccer is a business and ratings matter. It is the responsibility of ESPN, NBC, FOX and others to not only provide worthwhile commentary but also recognize that ratings are important to their investors. Ratings are also the most important method in which the fans are heard. If no one watches, they’re likely unhappy with the product.

Strides are being made though. Consider that while John Harkes is out at ESPN, Taylor Twellman is in. Twellman has a reputation for honesty, bluntness but also humility. That’s a very positive sign. Consider also that he has veterans like Lalas and Rob Stone to learn from and we see great potential.

What stood out most from the interviews hosted for this article was that each of these gentleman recognized that there is a constant evolution of not only the media approach, but the fan base. Now more than ever, fans are educated and understand the game. As the fans gain knowledge, it is the responsibility of all broadcasters and analysts to improve. The good news: they know this. 

4 comments:

  1. No article on the voice of the game would be complete without Glenn Davis. He has multiple irons in the game fire, so to speak, and his games are always well balanced with data points, perspective, and interesting back stories. I'm glad we have him in Houston with the occasional Dynamo game but he's in transition from local, to regional, and eventually national.

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  2. You might have mentioned John Champion who does the Portland games. He's a guy that to me was a revelation in the booth. He's American, has no accent, and was always very pleasing to listen to do the pbp. His pairing with Robbie Earle was probably the best tandom of any broadcast in the league. There are good American voices out there. Some of the current ones (looking at you Christian Miles, Jim Watson, Mark Rogodino, john harkes, Greg Lalas)may completely suck (accent or no accent) but that doesn't mean that you have to have an accent to succeed.

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  3. @FrankD very much agree that Glenn Davis is top notch. Unfortunately, he had a schedule conflict that prevented him from contributing. That said, he's a fantastic voice for radio, podcasting and broadcasting.

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  4. Great mention of people that don't get enough credit for helping the game in the US. Where's the love for JP or Seamus Malin? These were the guys when I was growing many moons ago.

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