Sportscasting advice from an old part-timer

I read two websites on sports broadcasting, Sportscaster Life and Say the Damn Score, and there is a Facebook group for sports announcers.

One of the sites has a place where someone can write. That’s what prompted this, which may be shared on the other two sites.

My perspective does not come as one of the network announcers, or a major pro or college announcer. I have almost 30 years experience announcing sports part-time, on radio and cable TV. (Three games so far this season, with another tonight at 7 Central Time here.)

I am good enough at doing this to be employed part-time to keep doing this. I haven’t been hired to do this at a higher level. I’ve figured out that’s probably all right, because I’ve learned that while journalism has poor pay and long and irregular hours, broadcasting adds to it nearly nonexistent job security, where people get fired for no really good reason.

Other part-time announcers I’ve known had day jobs in customer service, a telephone company (remember those?), welding and education. Even though it’s part-time, though, it’s essential to treat it seriously, if for no other reason than to remain employed. That means taking game prep seriously, rather than just thinking you can show up at the game site and not suck.

Broadcasting Ripon College football on The Ripon Channel with former college hockey player Howard Hansen.

If you’re doing this part-time, you’re probably paid per game. The key to getting paid more, therefore, is to do more games. Some of that is tied to how far the team you’re assigned to cover goes in the postseason; that’s out of your hands. Unless I really wasn’t available, I have always accepted a game assignment. That means I’ve done sports I wasn’t familiar with in announcing terms, including wrestling, volleyball and soccer. (Ironically, volleyball is the one sport I actually played in high school, but evidently I learned nothing about the game from sitting on the bench for two years. There is nothing quite like announcing volleyball on the radio for the first time, particularly if you lack the proper equipment and are in a poor broadcast position.) That also means doing games I wasn’t planning on doing when an emergency comes up and the radio station calls me. (And on the couple of instances where I became unavailable for a game, I arranged for my replacement a few days in advance.) Employers will stick with people who may be subpar in other areas if the employee in question is reliable.

Broadcasting Ripon High School football on The Ripon Channel with Marty Ernser, whose voice you can hear on the first video.

Part-time or not, you should always try to improve. That means listening to or watching your games, whether you like to do that or not. It’s not an ego exercise; you are not likely to remember or realize something you did poorly until you hear or see yourself.

A UW–Platteville men’s basketball game on White Out Night, with former coworker Brian Roebke.

You should always try to be more descriptive, to a point. Instead of “ground ball to short,” did the ball roll to shortstop, bounce high to short, dribble to short, roll like a cueball to short, or what? Instead of a three-yard run, did the running back slide through a hole, bang off defenders, spin off defenders, sweep outside, or what? But at the same time your description shouldn’t go over the heads of your listeners or viewers. I know some announcers have a thesaurus-worthy description of plays, but you’re probably overdoing it if your call makes listeners wonder what just happened.

Broadcasters are told to be themselves. (Which brings to mind the question of what happens when your self isn’t good enough, but never mind that right now.) The only way you can discover what your on-air self is, of course, to announce games. That’s easier than ever thanks to Facebook Live, from which comes broadcast example number three in this blog. Early-career announcers are likely to sound something like the announcers they watched or listened to, such as, in my case, Jim Irwin (Packers, Badgers and Bucks), Bob Uecker (who started announcing the Brewers when I was 7 years old), and Dick Enberg (who announced a lot of touch football in my neighborhood, though he probably doesn’t know that).

I’ve watched sports long enough to have figured out what I like and what I don’t like when I’m watching a game, and therefore what to avoid when I’m announcing a game. By now no one is probably completely original in a game call. (For instance: There are probably four acceptable calls for a goal in hockey — “GOAL!,” “SHOT AND A GOAL!”, “SCORE!” and “HE SCORES!” I don’t think I’ve heard any other goal call other than Pittsburgh’s Mike Lange’s “HEEEEEEEEE shoots and scores!,” which is a variation of the fourth choice.) The only catch-phrase I have that I can think of is my three-point call, which started as “Bango!” in honor of original Bucks announcer Eddie Doucette, but became “Bullseye!” because Mrs. Presteblog said no one would get the “Bango!” reference.

Later the same season as the aforementioned White Out game, UWP had an alumni night. I’m not a UWP alumnus, so I tried to figure out a look from my college days, which I guess here is a cross between Sonny Crockett of “Miami Vice” and “The Terminator.” I’ll be bock.

I try not to yell on the air. I think the worst trend in sports announcing is the announcer who screams like a banshee, yells like his dog is about to run into traffic, or adds a fake growl or other pale imitation of boxing ring announcer Michael Buffer. The viewer or listener knows when a big moment is taking place in a game, and to quote the great Vin Scully, you have to announce with your head, not your heart.

I got to do a state soccer match with the house soccer player, which was a better experience than broadcast, though it went to overtime and penalty kicks.

I don’t think there’s anything wrong with borrowing from another announcer if he’s doing something better than you are, even if you don’t otherwise care for that announcer’s work or style. Many basketball announcers use the term “top of the key” for a player in front of the semi-circle through which goes the free-throw line, because originally the lane was narrower than the free-throw-line circle, and it thus looked like an old-style key hole. I heard someone use “top of the silo,” and if you think about it the lane, viewed from above, does look like a farm silo, so I use that, since I do games in the agricultural Midwest. (You will not, however, hear me do the “5-4-3-2-1” countdown to the end zone in football, which is bush league and inaccurate.)

I try to remember to give the score at every new first down, or immediately after that, in football, and after every out at least in baseball. Legendary Tennessee announcer John Ward gave the score after every play of a football game.

One more thing: Enjoy what you’re doing. I go into games now mentally assuming the team I’m covering (assuming it’s not a neutral game) is going to lose, so I don’t sound crushed if they lose. But win or lose, there are few things as good as getting to announce sports, even if (maybe especially if) you’re doing it part-time. I’m announcing for people who can’t get to the game for one reason or another (including being out of state or, once, out of the country), as well as the players’ families thanks to the ability to record broadcasts for future viewing or listening. (I became one family’s personal broadcaster, sort of, after announcing a player’s four years in high school and four years of college.) That should be a fun responsibility.

I’ve gotten to announce state basketball, football and volleyball, NCAA tournament games, games on the way to state tournaments, and great regular-season games. More than once in the middle of broadcasting an exciting, thrilling game I thought to myself that I’m being paid to do this. (I’ve never offered to return my pay, however.)

One thought on “Sportscasting advice from an old part-timer

  1. In this day and ago you are in the majority…thousands of high school, minor league baseball and small college announcers that do it for the fun of it and not the money….as a part time job…Many of the minor league baseball guys may be employed by the club, but only if they double as salesmen year round. Even on the network level the majority of announcers are being paid a game or season contract fee and are not full time employees of Fox, NBC, CBS, ABC or ESPN. Of course, the fee is a lot higher than for a high school basketball game in Montana but the job isn’t. It is still doing the job…on radio painting the whole picture. On TV captioning that picture.

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