The world of sports broadcasting continues to evolve. Of course, the grainy black and white screens of television’s early years have turned a brilliant color, enhanced by graphics, replays and close-ups.
Watching games on video platforms of all sorts is no longer seen as an alternative to being there. The fingertip convenience of meaty information available through second screens at home, plus the hassle and cost of attending games are presenting difficult challenges; more empty seats to fill.
The commentators on television are often the attraction too. Some analysts on television today have much more in-depth knowledge of the game that add to the enjoyment too. Through the first couple decades of the medium, ex-athletes didn’t partake very often in the broadcasts. For the most part, traditionally trained announcers were assigned by the networks.
In the early years of televised football for instance, broadcast duos were often made up of popular announcers like Chris Schenkel, Lindsey Nelson, Mel Allen, Curt Gowdy and Chuck Thompson. The outstanding early 20th century football star Red Grange was one of the first ex athletes to join the television world as an announcer. In the 1960s, Paul Christman, George Ratterman and Al DeRogatis became analysts. Of the athlete arrivals in the NFL booth later that decade, the two who excelled and became household names for many years were Frank Gifford and Pat Summerall.
Both men became so comfortable on-air, they were able to do both play-by-play and color exceedingly well.
In the late 70s, it was John Madden who turned into one of the most star-studded commentators ever. Interestingly, Madden was drafted but never played a down in the NFL. He was an accomplished coach, leading the Raiders to a win in the 1977 Super Bowl. Working as a color commentator and analyst for nearly 30 years, Madden changed the way many fans saw football. He introduced them to the vernacular of the field and the gruff grunts of the participants.
Athletes can obviously share experiences that traditionally trained announcers can’t. In the 60s when the movement of athletes into the booth accelerated, broadcast pioneers like Red Barber disparaged it. Old-school voices complained that these athletes had no on-air training, made grammatical mistakes and couldn’t economize their commentary, a requirement, they said, was necessary in a broadcast presentation.
The truth though is that the viewing public cares more about substance than style. Sharing anecdotes and helping viewers interpret strategic implementation outweigh any other deficiencies that were historically essential in the booth.
Ex-players can speak from experience; from facing varying challenges on the playing field or off. They’ve been in close games and they can relate to players’ psyches, team needs, strengths and weaknesses.
NFL network broadcasts today have some of the most recognizable faces, both in studio and at stadiums. CBS’ NFL Today, one of the pioneering pre and post game shows had only one ex-player in its early years, Irv Cross. The show was driven by personalities like Brent Musburger and Jimmy the Greek and a former Miss America, Phyllis George.
The world has changed. Flash forward to today. Studio broadcasts are stirred by big named ex-players and ex-coaches, like Phil Simms, Boomer Esiason, Terry Bradshaw Tony Dungy, Rodney Harrison and Michael Strahan. In addition to the knowledge they bring, opinions differ, stimulating interesting debate.These shows also represent racial and age diversity which I applaud.
Fans have their favorite game analysts whether it’s NBC’s Cris Collinsworth, CBS’ much talked about Tony Romo and Fox’ Troy Aikman . ESPN’s crew took its share of criticism last year. Still, the analysts were ex players, Jason Witten and Booger McFarland. Earlier this week, Witten announced he’s returning to the Cowboys where he starred as a tight end.
Again, only players make up the mix. The days of non-player analysts seem to be over; fellows like Howard Cosell, Dennis Miller and Roy Firestone.
The NBA’s partnership with Turner has made for some of the best ever professional basketball commentary. Inside the NBA with Charles Barkley, Kenny Smith and Shaq is unparalleled. The trio of former NBA stars make the show tough to shut off.
Credit Turner for innovation. They’ve introduced player-only broadcasts which don’t include traditional play-by-play announcers. When it was introduced, Turner’s Craig Barry, Executive Vice President and Chief Content Officer, said, “Our new Players Only franchise will allow us to provide a unique and compelling narrative surrounding the game through the distinct perspective and collective experiences of the former NBA player.”
During the NBA All-Star game, TNT had a traditional broadcast anchored by Marv Albert while TBS did a players-only version with Greg Anthony on play-by-play and Charles Barkley and Kevin Garnett providing color commentary. Most viewers of the game though watched the TNT version.
Barry’s thinking, “We believe this original approach (of players-only) will offer deeper insights into the game, both on and off the court, along with broader access that will be entertaining for our passionate fans.”
Time will tell how this is accepted. Yet I believe that we’ll see more players-only formats in the future.
Television has come a long way and the winds of change never fully stop!
Editor’s unrelated note:
Wilt Chamberlain’s 100 point game:
On March 2, 1962, 57 years ago today, the great standout, Wilt Chamberlain scored 100 points against the Knicks in Hershey, Pa before a crowd of 4,124.
The game was not carried on television at all and no video recording that I know of exists today. The game was not carried on radio in New York. The Warriors did broadcast the game back to Philadelphia. Bill Campbell did the play-by-play and By Saam, the Phillies announcer provided the color commentary.
Yes, the NBA then had only 9 teams, including the Chicago Packers, eventually the Washington Wizards. Still, the performance that night has not been duplicated. Chamberlain was so overpowering that he can do virtually anything he would like on the floor. In 1967-68, Wilt determined that he would amass more assists than anyone in the NBA. He did, leading the league in total assists. Oscar Robertson had a higher assists per game average but played in only 65 contests. Wilt played all 82 games, led the league in minutes played, 46.8, and a league high 23.8 rebounds a game. He also averaged 24.3 points per game.
Chamberlain vs. Russell:
The Chamberlain- Bill Russell matchups were epic. They met 94 times during the regular season and 49 times in the playoffs. During the regular season, Russell, who spent his entire playing career with the Celtics, was 57-37 against Chamberlain’s teams in that stretch, (1959-69). In his career, Wilt played for the Warriors, the 76ers and Lakers.
During the same period, the two dominant giants met 49 times in the playoffs. Russell’s Celtics beat Wilt’s teams, 29-20.
The last matchup between the behemoths was in 1969, 50 years ago this May 5th in game #7 of the NFL Finals, a Boston victory over the Lakers. The game was on ABC Television and the announcers were Chris Schenkel and Jack Twyman. ABC did just 4 of the seven games. It wasn’t until the following year that every game of the championship series was on national television.
In that series too, Lakers coach Butch Van Breda Kolff benched Chamberlain in the 4th game drawing the ire of Lakers announcer Chick Hearn whose opinions mattered much.
To my knowledge, the only two men alive who called a Wilt-Russell one-on-one game matchup are Marv Albert and Warner Wolf.