When asked what phrase he recalled saying most as a broadcaster of NFL games, legendary announcer Pat Summerall once replied, "Touchdown, Dorsett." He explained that he said this phrase so often while calling games for the New York Football Giants -- who, at that time, often lost to a Cowboy team led by this Hall of Fame running back.
Summerall went on to do his finest work later in his career when he was paired with John Madden for nationally televised games. I was reminded of this pairing when my best friend (and Giants fan) Huey sent me a Youtube clip of a famous tackle Giant linebacker Gary Reasons made on a snowy December day against the Elway-led Broncos at Mile High Stadium. "The hit" was a leaping blow delivered on fourth and goal stopping the Broncos running back from scoring. The video clip includes the live audio capturing Summerall's voice teeing up the moment, and Madden's voice dissecting it. The latter concluded his praise of this timely hit made by the Giants middle linebacker by saying, "That is football."
I got chills listening, and I started to wonder what happened to the drama we used to feel watching football -- or any live sporting event, for that matter. I watched the Youtube clip a few more times and the answer became crystal-clear: our attention back then was corralled and saddled atop the intensity of the moments creating the drama, and today our attention is maniacally redirected away.
Summerall and Madden never broke away from the drama on the field to inform us that "for live updates, scores and action, we can log onto cbssports.com." Neither announcer ever told us how we could become their fan on Facebook or follow them on Twitter (can you even imagine John Madden trying to explain what a tweet was?). There was no scrolling bar constantly on the screen updating us on stats of players from other games for our fantasy football teams. Back then, the announcers in the booth were the sideline reporters. Back then we were deprived of all of the incremental noise and options viewers are bombarded with today. Instead, we were only served football and the story unfolding on the field by two of the greatest storytellers of all time.
Today's announcers are in the same league as their predecessors in terms of knowledge and insight. The difference is in how much time and space within the broadcast is dedicated to "stuff" unrelated to the suspense of the game. As a result, we are not getting close enough to them to fall in love the way we used to. We listen to Jim Nantz, but we don't hang on his every word. No one loves Joe Buck the way they loved Jack. Howie, Terry, James, and Jimmy give us pre-game noise. Brent gave us "you are looking live."
Coinciding with this frantic display of "click that" "follow this" or "see this" during the games, our attention is further dissected by the toys in our own hands -- making it easier for our minds to run away from the moments we tuned in to watch.
Ratings, circulation, visitors are all numbers that tell us how many people are showing up to watch, read and listen. And these numbers in aggregate keep getting bigger while the emotional commitment of this attention "in the moment" is declining. Is it possible that, in an effort to extend consumer attention by offering more options and platforms, that very attention is actually being lost?
Great column, Ari.
That is writing.
Jonathan -- you just made my day -- thanks.
It goes to show you how out of hand things have gotten when someone as boring as Pat Summerall is used to make a solid point.
Actually, as I have been pointing out in my blog, this is also the case for many radio and TV stations, sports and otherwise. Other examples are radio stations allowing us to download songs they just played via their web site. While they are greedy for a few more dollars today, listeners who download the music no longer need the station and its endless clusters of commercials.
If we need to go online for news updates because a station isn't covering a story properly, we might as well go to a "better" news source.
You are so right. It would be nice for the media to concentrate on their actual content.
Terrific column and so true. And it's not just the increase in social media promotion and product advertising that takes away from the game experience. It's the constant promotion of the program itself and network it is on - dancing routines, pop singers getting us ready and revved for the game, useless stats, reminders of the prime time comedy schedule, interviews with coaches immediately after the national anthem. It's all noise and takes away from the actual contest on the field. Any intimacy and focus on the playing of the game is lost among the fireworks, the animation promos that pop up and block the action, and camera shots of network stars in the stands. When Hank Williams Jr. belts out, "Are you ready for some football?" I want to yell back, "Yes, and if you'd shut your yapper, they might actually get to the kickoff!"
You nailed it Ari
Robert -- I hear ya!!!!
Dave -- outstanding points!
Mike -- thanks man
I think the experience is enhanced when a 70 year old announcer is forced to promote his networks hip, new shows. "Watch when things get wacky on this week's Hawaii five-O". *snark*
Great column Ari. Perfectly encapsulates the current state of affairs.
Arlo that is SO funny!
Oddly enough, I was always entertained with Dennis Miller's sometimes subtle and often bizarre references to historical and literary figures. As much as his commentary falls in line with what IS distracting, he somehow made it all work. Perhaps it was his snarky and often surreal viewpoint that made it work. Clearly, I was in the minority, but there is a space for people like him.
On the other hand, I'm never sure why Jim Belushi or other stars are pulled into the booth for an interview during a game. They may be fans, but they are not part of the game - when am I going to be pulled into the booth as a fan? No, the reality is they are pulled in to promote a show, a movie, a website, etc.
Marketing opportunities are not lost on broadcasters today. And there is a place for what they are doing. But it has to be done better, perhaps differently.
The game of football, indeed any sport, has a quality and value that stands on its own and has to be respected and maintained for enjoyment of the sport to increase. A barrage of outlandish promotional comments reduces that enjoyment.
I always find it astounding, when I look back on the history of sports in media and announcing that the one moment when I had the most respect for sports announcers was the 1989 World Series and how Al Michaels, arguably one of the best sports announcers in history, took over as a news announcer not only at that moment, but for the next several days.
His ability to distill information and provide it in a fashion that users enjoyed and appreciated was not only visible during his sportscasts, but during those tense few days as we all watched nature alter one of our most celebrated sporting events.
You make excellent points and I hope we can learn from them.