Do sport broadcasters actually care about our viewing experience? Or are they content just to set up cushy gigs for the boys?
It can be hard to gauge the popularity of pundits. First and foremost, as an audience, we’re fans of sport – we’ll watch the product regardless of who’s talking over it. Thus, viewing figures are not a reliable metric.
On face value, it makes sense to funnel some of the game’s icons into the commentary box, as they’ve got sufficient cultural capital and fan recognition in the bank. But to hire solely on the basis of on-field CVs is absurd.
Late comedian Mitch Hedberg had an apt routine:
“When you’re in Hollywood and you’re a comedian, everybody wants you to do other things. Alright, you’re a stand-up comedian, can you write us a script? That’s not fair. That’s like if I worked hard to become a cook, and I’m a really good cook, they’d say, ‘OK, you’re a cook. Can you farm?'”
And so it goes with sport punditry. Show me a highlights package of Andrew Johns or Wally Lewis any day, but I can do without their musings on most things. Darren Lockyer, meanwhile, sounds like he’s gargling gravel.
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The responsibility of broadcasters is to make it worth staying home to watch the games we love. Yes, sport should be entertaining, but note that’s not synonymous with stupidity. If your biggest contribution is to the blooper reel, you’ve got a problem.
Across the board, insight has given way to backslapping and guffawing. The NRL is by no means the only offender. Nine’s bloated cricket collective is much maligned, serving up the same reheated banter each summer. Shane Warne is a longstanding farce, Ian Healy, Michael Slater and Mark Taylor manage to flounder despite their experience, and Michael Clarke still finds charisma elusive.
Elsewhere, Fox’s rugby team is blinkered by bias and hyperbole. Greg Martin’s criteria for Wallabies selection appears to be whomever he last saw break a tackle or win a turnover. Phil Kearns is stale.
The point is that you don’t become a sage by virtue of having played the game at the top level. In many cases, the opposite is true. What good is knowing how it feels to take the first hit-up in Origin if you lack the ability to articulate it?
There are so few Richie Benauds in the world ‒ those who can master the game and the microphone with such poise and longevity. I’m not saying you have to be Stephen Fry to warrant a commentary gig, but moving away from the lowest common denominator can’t hurt. We need light and shade in a broadcast ‒ a balance of the emotional and the cerebral. Not three blokes in a pub.
If the USP of the ex-pro is to know the game inside out, then are they really delivering on that promise? More often they can be found using their status to act extra matey in post-game interviews.
Maybe years of vanilla press conferences and simple mantras is enough to drain the character from most players. Maybe it’s the simple fact that they’re not professional broadcasters or journalists ‒ those who can frame a question, contextualise analysis and, crucially, call bullshit.
Which begs the question: how many capable, trained professionals are being shoved down the queue while yesterday’s punch-drunk heroes provide Batman sound effects (‘Phwoarrrr’ etc.) on our screens?
At worst, sport broadcasting is trending wilfully towards anti-intellectualism. At best, banality. So, who are the best broadcasters out there at the moment? We’re talking temperament, insight, humour, passion, clarity and listenability.
Personally, I favour Ricky Ponting for the cricket, Simon Hill for football, and Peter Sterling for the league. I don’t watch enough AFL, but no one comes close to the recently retired Dennis Cometti. Meanwhile, the strongest presenters are Yvonne Sampson, Mel McLaughlin and Lucy Zelic by some distance.
For too long, sporting coverage has been crippled by poor recruitment. Nepotism and gender imbalances remain entrenched. For the sake of the fans, commentary boxes must become more hospitable to those equipped to add value, not just cachet.