The Voices of Sports

Sports Commentary is an art that often goes underappreciated by the average sports watcher. Here, we take a dive into what exactly it is, its interesting history, the different forms of commentating, and the unseen effort that goes into creating the dynamic experience of sports entertainment.


If you have ever listened to a Spanish commentator of a soccer game, you may have heard the iconic ear-splitting scream of “¡Gól, gól, gól goooooool!” from the commentators whenever a team scores a goal, reflecting the pure excitement and energy of the moment. Commentating is a crucial part to the emotion of not only games in Spanish-speaking countries but every nation, across any sport. As sports, and more importantly the technology in sports, evolves, so do their commentators. How has this iconic industry of sports commentary changed over time, and what has remained the same since the first days of commentary?

Radio facilitated the first big change to sports commentary. In the early 20th century, those in the sports industry found that this new invention had the potential to give the excitement of a game to a larger audience. The radio made it possible to broadcast sports games with real-time commentary, bringing this action directly into the living rooms of listeners across the nation.

As technology has continued to evolve, from radios, to television, to the personal cell phone, the experience of following a game has evolved dramatically; you can watch competitions in person, on your TV, or listen on the radio in your car. While the preferred ways to experience a game varies widely person to person, a similar vein between them all is sports commentary.

Current Paly teacher and avid sports watcher Sheri Mulroe gives her perspective on experiencing games via radio or live broadcast on TV.

“[I prefer] TV or YouTube,” Mulroe said. “I like the visuals along with audio.”

While less necessary when watching a game on TV or your phone, sports commentary is instrumental for in-person or radio viewers to understand what is happening. Even more than understanding the game, though, sports commentators –– more than visuals –– can make the game memorable, be it for better or worse. Whether it’s by yourself or with a group of friends or family, a sports commentator can make or break the experience of a game. Some may even not watch a game unless their favorite commentator is calling the game while others might turn off the sound or even the game itself if the commentary is poor. The art of commentary is difficult to master, but when executed effectively, proper commentary is what makes sports moments so iconic. Mulroe explains what creates this effective, proper commentary.

“It is great when an expert in the sport is commentating,” Mulroe said. “It makes me more interested in what they have to say and they also have interesting nuggets of info to share that someone else would not.”

Before diving into the intricacies and the importance of sports commentary, the basics need to be broken down. 

First, what is sports commentary? Is it an announcer giving a basic play-by-play on what is literally happening during a game? Is it a commentator explaining background facts about the players on the teams? The truth is, sports commentating is a little bit of everything, and to add to the complexity, television announcing is different from radio announcing. 

Within a televised broadcast of a game, there are usually three different roles, occupied by three different people. This includes the play-by-play announcer, a color commentator, and a sideline reporter. 

Play-by-play announcers are responsible for explaining nearly everything that happens during a game: the actions, sponsors, and sometimes even statistics about a player on the field. However, not all sports have the same play-by-play style. For example, in a sport like tennis, a play-by-play announcer won’t be constantly talking; they will let the action speak for itself. It likely won’t be helpful to have an announcer saying “ball on this side of the court, ball on the other side of the court” again and again. Instead, the announcer might explain what happened after the end of each point. On the other hand, for a sport like basketball, every action on the court needs to be announced in rapid play-by-play. In fast-moving sports like this, action is constant so there is hardly a time when the play-by-play commentator isn’t talking. 

Paly has its own form of announcing for football, basketball, volleyball and other sports, however it differs from the standard play-by-play announcer. Instead, these people simply explain what just happened after a certain play. Arne Lim, a former Paly student, has spent much of his recent years in Paly as an advisor and badminton coach, but eventually found himself up in the booth with a microphone at Paly sporting events. He explains his experiences as an announcer, takes a dive into what exactly he does, and how it differs from a play-by-play commentator.

“I just say what the result [of the play] was so people can figure it out,” Lim said. “That itself is also keeping things moving for the people who are listening.”

Lim further explains the difficulties of finding the right times to speak and what tone of voice is necessary during the specific situation.

“Being aware of the sports and what is going on is important, also keeping the tone of your voice for when something about your team happens versus something good for the other team,” Lim said. “If it is Paly I want to ramp up Paly a little bit.”

Play-by-play commentators, on the other hand, have a different job. Lim goes into further detail about the differences between that and his form of announcing after the fact.

“When it comes to commentating, you have to be in the moment when you have the microphone,” Lim said. “You have to be willing to practice ahead of time, different ways of saying similar plays. That is one of the main differences between commentating and announcing.”

The color commentator, also known as the color analyst, takes on the role of explanation. This is usually someone with experience in the sport, such as a former player or coach. This person goes in-depth with the X’s and O’s of each play. This typically happens before or after the announcement of action and makes the game easier for fans to understand. It can be an explanation of rationale or decision-making or just an enumeration of the rules that caused one thing or another. Overall, a color analyst attempts to give you insight into what’s going on in a player’s, coach’s, or team’s mind during a game.

The sideline reporter is the person on the court or field with the microphone. Their job is to conduct interviews during the game asking questions to the coaches and reporting what is happening “on the sidelines” of a game, hence the name “sideline reporter.” Although they will not appear with too much redundancy during a live broadcast, they are always on the sideline, moving from place to place to pick up the scoops of the game. A viewer may see them listening in on team huddles or coming up with questions to ask players (who tend to be the main source of the live information that gets transmitted from the field to the commentary booth). 

Radio commentary, however, is a little different from TV commentary. It’s pretty close to being exactly like TV commentary, but, as the listener isn’t able to see anything, the commentator is forced to be much more specific. A lot more details are explained on radio, as it’s all up to a listener’s mind to imagine what’s going on during a game. If a commentator leaves out a lot of details, then a viewer is left in the dark of the events of the game, making it much more important to be descriptive on radio commentating. Often radio commentators take diction lessons, and even talk so much they lose their voices at the end of a game.

Lim explains how the radio played a major role in his childhood, giving him fond memories that he would never forget.

“I grew up listening to a lot of games [on the radio], baseball and football,” Lim said. “I’d be in the backyard, actually, with my dad doing some gardening and we would listen to a lot of games.”

Listening to games growing up helped Lim adapt styles of commentary that he has taken with him into adulthood.

“What I did was I actually picked up styles of what some of the people said and how they said it,” Lim said. “[I learned] when to raise my voice, when to lower my voice and when to be exasperated with the team. A large part of who I am now is based on imitating the people who went before me.”

The first record of non-in-person sports commentating took place in 1921 when Florent Gibson of the Pittsburgh Post covered a fight between Johnny Ray and Johnny “Hutch” Dundee over the radio. This revelation of being able to experience an event while not physically attending it was novel at the time, but would eventually go on to become the new norm of the athletic experience. Radio broadcasting continued as king for almost 20 years until May 17th 1939, when the paradigm of sporting events coverage would change forever. On this day, a college baseball game between Princeton and Columbia became the first-ever sports event to be broadcasted live on television for fans to watch. 

However, it was only broadcasted to local markets. Not until a decade later did sports start being televised on a national level. The first of these nationally televised events was a football game between the University of Pittsburgh and Duke University in 1951. The national-level television of games revolutionized the way people experience sports and exponentially broadened the audience: no longer were die-hard fans the only ones who could follow sports teams, first radio and then television allowed the average American to fully appreciate the art of athletics and the game.

Within a few years of the first nationally televised broadcast, live games with commentators quickly became the new norm, and millions of people tuned in to watch live sporting events every day from the comfort of their homes. Now, as technology has continued developing, the viewership and understanding of the game have become even more accessible and widespread. Programs such as YouTube TV, NBA League Pass, and many more allow people to stream games from their mobile phones or computers, making it easy for sports to be watched casually on the go. 

As these nationally televised broadcasts became evermore popular, channels and programs started to implement pregame, postgame, and in some cases, halftime broadcasts to keep the audience engaged –– and watching their channel –– outside of the sporting event. Familiar broadcasts include the “Inside the NBA” crew on Turner Network Television (TNT), which includes Shaquille O’Neal and Charles Barkley, and “The NFL Today,” with familiar faces like Boomer Esiason and Coach Bill Cowher. Popular in the Bay Area on its NBC affiliate (i.e. local channels of the national broadcast) are shows like Giants and 49ers Pre and Postgame Live. Hosts of these shows have become household figures for sports-loving people all over the bay. One of these beloved hosts, Laura Britt, works with the Giants, 49ers, and Sharks. Since her entrance into television broadcasting, she has quickly become one of the most recognizable faces in Bay Area sports television. This entrance began at the local level, not in the Bay, though. Britt began her career in Mississippi. 

“I went to college and majored in mass communications with a concentration in broadcasting, and then started my career in Jackson, Mississippi for the local Fox station, Fox 40 WDBD,” Britt said. 

Britt revolutionized the industry with the founding of a digital sports network, allowing for people to stream and watch shows talking about the latest sports scores, highlights and news from the same place.

“After Jackson, I went to Chicago and helped launch the first-ever digital sports network,” she said. “It was [initially] called 120 Sports, now it’s called Stadium. I was part of the team that launched it. So then after that, I worked there for almost five years, and then got the opportunity to come to NBC Sports Bay Area.”

Britt feels that her position at NBC is special but that many underestimate the work that goes into it. 

“There’s so much preparation that goes into [broadcasting],” Britt said. “At our network specifically we don’t use teleprompters at all so we’re hosting hour-long shows live immediately before or after a game. The game will end and there’s no commercial break: it just rolls seamlessly into our show.”

This phenomenon, Britt tells, is called “seamless” in the broadcasting world, and in a tight game or one that changes significantly at the end, can add increased pressure and challenge to broadcasters.  

“In a live game, sometimes the ending is clear but a lot of times, it’s not,” Britt said. “A ninth inning, a fourth quarter could change a lot of things so you have to really be prepared for a lot of different situations.”

This “preparation” looks a bit different for each game depending on the score or how the match is going. However, to complicate it more, it differs from sport to sport. 

“When I’m about to go on air I’ll type out some thoughts in a ‘win’ or in a ‘loss,’ so that no matter which situation happens, I’ll have some pre-thought out,” Britt said. “If it’s a blowout you have it written in your head already. [But] every sport is different also. Hockey is completely different then baseball, completely different then football and basketball.”

Because of the abundance of differences, Britt explains that the key is for each broadcaster to refine an individual approach.  

“When I first got into [the] business I saw reporters writing notes on their notepads or anchors taking notes,” Britt said. “Their notes will do me no good, and my notes will do [them] no good. You have to refine what works for you and how you should take notes for a game.”

Her main point, however, is that viewers in front of their screen don’t see the preparation, work, and background jobs that combine to create each show. 

“There’s so much preparation and not just in my seat,” Britt said. “On the production side of things they have to have graphics built for different scores that they don’t know the outcome of, highlights are being cut, [they’re] interacting with [the] analyst, making sure that [they] know what they want to talk about and what they’re comfortable talking about.”

Host of the Sharks and A’s broadcasting shows, Brodie Brazil parallels this sentiment. Explaining how the work for each show is a nonstop process, he emphasizes that broadcasting is not as simple as many believe it is.

“I will get into work usually about 90 minutes before a show,” he said. “Then there’s the show, the game, the postgame show and so I’m at work for seven-plus hours usually,” Brazil said. “At home, I am mentally committed to my work for at least another hour or two per day. So that’s the part that people don’t see, it’s not all two hours at once.”

Brazil further explains the mental side of being a broadcaster. What many people fail to understand is that the art of broadcasting takes a lot of practice to become comfortable during the show.

“In my earliest years of broadcasting, I was nervous,” Brazil said. “If you had a heart rate monitor on me it probably would have been spiking.”

Brazil continues by explaining that preparing for a show is similar to that of a performance, and that it is necessary to be mentally strong and resilient throughout the production. 

“I think the feeling now is more like I’m excited, I’m zoned in,” Brazil said. “You’re out there to perform. I don’t mean perform like an athlete, but perform like somebody on the stage and if you don’t get some type of feeling then there’s probably something wrong.”

Throughout history, technological advances have shaped the world. Specifically, inventions such as the radio, the TV, live broadcasting, and streaming on the go, have changed the way fans experience their favorite teams. Each of these fundamental changes have played a major role in the development of sports entertainment. Not only this, play-by-play commentators, color commentators, sideline reporters and broadcasters all play their own unique role in the overall experience of sports entertainment in their respective fields. The intricacies of each are usually unknown or overlooked by the common, casual fan. Despite this ignorance, it is the combination of fan and announcer emotion (be it positive or negative) with the behind-the-scenes efforts of analytical sports minds that creates the cohesion and the enjoyment in watching and experiencing sports.


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