The Voice of Big-Time Sports

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Joe Caneva/AP Images
Howard Cosell and Muhammad Ali before the start of the Olympic boxing trials, West Point, New York, August 7, 1972

Two years ago The Wall Street Journal calculated that in a typical National Football League game, the ball is live for only eleven minutes. The game clock runs for an hour, but most of that time is spent between plays; and the television broadcast of a game, which includes advertising and a halftime show, runs for a good three hours or more. If you think Americans might be impatient with being asked to commit that much of their time for eleven minutes of action, think again. Professional football is the most reliably popular form of television entertainment. During the season, half of a week’s ten top-rated shows are often either professional football games or football-related spinoff programming, like pregame shows and omnibus reviews of a week’s games.

You might think that sports journalism ought to be for fans who didn’t attend a game and want to know what happened. Broadcast sports journalism originated on the radio, and was meant to confer a feeling of being there to people who weren’t. But it has been clear for a long time that an additional function of sports journalism—today, the prime function—is to create a setting, not to report on results. American social masculinity now makes its primary home in the conversational bonhomie that surrounds sports. This kind of talk originates in sports journalism and then spreads to bars, parties, airport lounges, and dinner tables. Newspapers have had sports columnists, whose primary job isn’t to give results and who typically are their employers’ most popular and valuable staff members, for eons. Radio sports announcers more directly “call” games in progress, but the best ones learn how to develop an intense bond with the public; remember that Ronald Reagan’s early professional training came from announcing baseball games on the radio in Iowa.

On television, sports fans can see the game, but announcers are an essential part of the experience. Somebody has to fill all that time between plays, explain what’s going on (it goes by awfully quickly), give background information about the players, coaches, and competitors’ games, and, most important, offer up emotional guidance and surrogacy. By long-established genre convention, announcers of televised sports usually come in pairs—one member more phlegmatic, to do the play-by-play, and one more florid, to provide the color commentary. The play-by-play man tells you what just happened, and the color man offers up feelings; your own reaction and that of your friends, gathered in front of the screen, are cued and shaped by the intricate interplay of their reactions.

Important as they are in mediating and intensifying the relationship with the audience, sports announcers are in an odd position. The top announcers are hugely, and durably, popular, but only as connecting figures between the players and the fans. With a few very rare exceptions like …

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