Last night the NFL broadcast a truly terrible blowout game. Most of the chatter on twitter about the broadcast had to do with the nightmare week the NFL is having. The rest of it had to do with how truly awful Phil Simms is as a broadcaster (some had to do with the fact he took a public stand about not saying the Washington football team name, but then said the offensive team name multiple times). He adds very little to any broadcast for any fan who has ever seen an NFL game. He is a better prepared NFL version of Jon Barry (He does, at the very least, have regular conversations with the teams he is covering that week – look no further than the @philsimmsquotes “Talked About” counter for each game to see proof of this – it’s literally a count of how often he says “talked about” regarding his prep for the game, and it’s usually in the twenties).
It occurred to me while half-watching the blowout that the one piece of sports coverage which has not gotten demonstrably better during my lifetime is the color analyst on a broadcast. We have guys regularly breaking down X’s and O’s in every sport, providing insider information on teams and the league, breaking news, and generally adding a ton of value. People like Zach Lowe, Bill Barnwell, and Chris Brown are now part of the mainstream media, providing the insight that simply wasn’t available to a fan until recently.
And then we have today’s color analyst. For some reason, league broadcast partners continue to think that hiring a recently retired player is going to provide the type of higher-level insight and evaluation that fans want. Each broadcast is targeted towards viewers who have perhaps seen one or two “sports matches” in their entire lives. Actual analysis and insight is kept to a bare minimum (Ronde Barber, after retiring as announcer after a two year stint, said the hardest part about being an announcer was being forced to “dumb down” everything – why make him do this, Fox????).
There appears to be a longstanding underlying fear that a new viewer will tune into a broadcast, hear something smart and/or insightful about a game which they do not yet understand (shocking!), and decide then and there that they are done with trying to watch that sport, as it’s too hard and complicated to follow, and that new viewer will be lost forever. This strikes me as “that’s the way we have always done it” writ large. This may have made sense when these sports were in their infancy and the success of each league actually hung in the balance. It does not make much sense any more. (I personally believe it’s never a good idea to “dumb” something down for an audience. Making it more clear should be the goal – but that requires a skilled communicator).
I have long been a proponent for multiple audio feeds on the same broadcast. This would allow a “new viewer” to watch someone like Simms or Barry blather on about how the team who scores more points will win, and allow a basketball (or football) nerd (or just regular fan who wants to learn something!) to listen to Zach Lowe or Bill Barnwell talk about what is happening in the game from a strategic standpoint. The ESPN Megacast “coaches feed” from the last national championship broadcast was an excellent example of how this might work in practice (although doing a megacast for every broadcast is not practical, doing one for the “game of the week” in every sport, at the very least, seems plausible).
It will take some courage from the broadcast partners to try something new and go against the status quo. Breaking from the status quo and innovating is, unfortunately, not something that league broadcast partners seem particularly interested in. Here’s hoping we see that change in our lifetime.
For those looking for some Phil Simms twitter reaction, here ya go: