Commentators are underrated sporting heroes
THE GARY LINEKER Saga revealed a lot about British politics and society. But it also showed the importance of an underappreciated sports star: the commentator. After BBC Mr Lineker, suspended from Match of the Day, the flagship football highlights show, for his criticism of the Conservative government’s immigration policies, several of his colleagues in the studio and on the commentary box said they were boycotting their weekend services to show Solidarity. Instead of looking for a replacement, the BBC reduced the program to a comment-free summary of the day’s events.
Aside from a few gleeful Tory for most viewers MPs, it was a surreal and terrifying viewing experience. In every field, from politics to pageantry, there are commentators and experts tasked with describing and analyzing events. But perhaps their absence is only felt so strongly in sports. “Match of the Day” last Saturday was a case in point. Without the commentary, the casual viewer would have had little idea of the significance of relegation-threatened Everton’s win over Brentford. Even the most discerning fan would have struggled to identify the scorer of Brighton’s second goal (a sloppy shot on target originally ruled as an own goal). These silent games made the mind wander and the plot quickly forgotten.
Until the advent of television, radio commentators were the only way fans who couldn’t buy a ticket could catch the action live. In 1921, the first-ever radio commentary offered Pittsburgh listeners coverage of an easy boxing match between Johnny Ray and Johnny Dundee. Commentators became celebrities themselves. Ronald Reagan made his name talking about baseball on the radio before he rose to fame as an actor and eventually as a US President.
Although sporting events can be followed through many different mediums, commentators have retained their importance. Their primary purpose is still to describe the action, but their secondary functions are also important: pumping up the emotions of fans in exciting game passages, spicing up the mundane, and showing compassion in the worst cases. Modern features like instant replays and in-play stats allow them to do this in more sophisticated ways—especially in sports like American football, where the subtleties aren’t immediately obvious.
In slower sports like cricket and baseball, verbal accompaniment can even become the main entertainment. The BBC‘s “Test Match Special,” a radio show covering international cricket, has attracted a cult following, with talk often veering away from the game and down bizarre back alleys. According to a poll in 2005, the show produced Brits’ favorite commentary when Brian Johnston was overcome by uncontrollable laughter in 1991 after his colleague described how a batsman “just couldn’t get his leg all the way over it” when he tried his own stumps evade.
It is the commentator’s responsibility to provide the soundtrack to some fans’ fondest memories. It’s a kind of immortality. Manchester United supporters, for example, become fuzzy as they recall the words of Clive Tyldesley ahead of the greatest moment in the football club’s history. In the closing minutes of their Champions League final in 1999, Mr Tyldesley rhetorically asked: “Can Manchester United score? They always score.” They scored one goal – even twice to win the trophy. But lines don’t need hypophora to be great. Latin fans will associate their favorite moments with passionate screams and a frenzy of lengthened vowels. Describing Diego Maradona’s legendary goal for Argentina against England in the 1986 World Cup quarter-finals, Victor Hugo Morales, a Uruguayan radio commentator, said: “Brilliant! Genius! Ta-ta-ta-ta-ta-ta-ta. Goooooooooooor!” His subsequent description of Maradona as a “cosmic dragon” has stuck as a nickname for the Argentine years ever since.
Some commentators become so good at elevating the monotonous and anchoring the memorable that they embody their sport. John Motson, who died last month, was one such example for British football fans. Richie Benaud was considered the voice of cricket in Australia; Harsha Bhogle currently has that honor in India. In Formula 1, where commentary has to be almost constantly breathless, Murray Walker has set the standard; David Croft has taken over his mantle.
You think it’s all over
The next generation of commenting legends could come from new places. A refreshing development is that after years of male dominance, women are now entering the commentary. Social media is also creating a new breed of broadcaster. YouTubers provide live analysis of sporting events while interacting with viewers. Many channels attract hundreds of thousands of viewers, including paying subscribers. But such success stories are rare. After all, commenting is a difficult craft. Just ask GB News. The right-wing media outlet attempted to launch an alternative “Match of the Day” over the weekend to give people what they “need” (ie none of Mr Lineker’s leftist nonsense). But their amateurish attempts to summarize the football action drew widespread mockery. It seems it’s a lot easier to hold right wing views than, well, right wing delivery views of a team.■