SPORTSCASTERS

The history of sportscasting, like almost everything else on television, is rooted in radio. Radio's first generation of great sportscasters--Graham McNamee, Ted Husing, Tommy Cowan, Harold Arlin, Ford Frick, and Grantland Rice--transformed the airwaves into an "arena of the mind" in which hyperbole would become honored as an art. McNamee, regarded as the first well-known play-by-play announcer, was unapologetic about sacrificing accuracy for excitement. His emphasis on enthusiasm, of course, lives on in the television performance of John Madden.

The radio days of sportscasting are notable as a period when sporting events would be "re-created" from bare-bones wire service reports. Announcers located in studios sometimes hundreds of miles away from the game site used sound effects and imaginative language to manufacture the impression that they were actually on location and describing the play-by-play action as it unfolded on the field of play. Perhaps the most notable conjurer of the illusion of sport re-creation landed his first job in the entertainment industry at WOC in Davenport, Iowa, as a football announcer. The year was 1932 and Ronald "Dutch" Reagan, who 48 years later would ride his oratorical skills into the White House as the 40th president of the United States, was paid $5 a game for his services. Many of the second generation of distinguished radio sportscasters--Mel Allen, Red Barber, Jack Brickhouse, Clem McCarthy, Lindsay Nelson, and Bill Stern--would later be prominent voices in television's first decades as a mass medium. Two of this group, Allen and Barber, were the first broadcasters to be enshrined in the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Sports programming played a central role in transforming television into a mass medium in the late 1940s, stimulating much of the initial demand for this expensive new technology. As much as 30% of the prime-time schedule was devoted to sports programming during this period.

In urban centers, many Americans' first television experience was watching an athletic contest on a set prominently displayed at the local tavern. Although roller derby and bowling also played well on the small screen, the sports best suited to the limitations of primitive television sets were boxing and professional wrestling. During this period when most television programs were sponsored by a single company, Gillette's Cavalcade of Sports stayed on the air for 14 years, the longest continuous run of any television boxing show. The prototypical wrestling announcer, Dennis James, would become one of the first sportscasters to become known solely for his performances on television. Sportscasting in the 1950s basically followed the radio pattern of enthusiasm.

Sportscasters, and their employers, conceived of their role as being ambassadors of the game. As exemplified by the partisan commentary of Chicago Cub's announcers Bert Wilson and Harry Caray, many operated as boosters for a franchise. Point men in the team's public relations efforts, these sportscasters are often identified as the beloved "voice" of their organizations.

In the 1960s, television sports would be revolutionized by the advent of instant-replay technology. Introduced on 31 December 1963, during the Army-Navy football game, instant replay would figure prominently in enabling the phenomenal rise in popularity of televised football during the 1960s. Unseating boxing as the supreme made-for-TV sport, slow-motion replay technology made chaotic combat on the gridiron into an aesthetic experience in which even the most grotesque display of brutality (for example, the snapping of Joe Theismann's leg) became a thing of beauty, a kind of improvised ballet of violent masculinity. In 1964, immediately after the advent of instant replay technology, CBS paid an unprecedented $28 million dollars for television rights for NFL games and instantly recouped its investment with two $14 million sponsorship contracts--one with Ford Motor Company, the other with Philip Morris.

Establishing Sunday afternoons, once considered a "cultural ghetto," as a showcase for the masculine melodrama of professional football would set the stage for premiering what would eventually become the single most significant regularly-scheduled special event of the television year--The Super Bowl. Known then as the World Championship Game, the first match-up between the top teams in the AFL and NFL was played on 15 January 1967, and did not attract enough paying customers to fill the Los Angeles Coliseum game site--even with a local blackout of televised game coverage. The game was carried by both CBS and NBC. In pre-game promotions, both networks emphasized the excellence of their sportscasters. CBS offered its regular NFL announcer/analyst staff of Ray Scott, Jack Whitaker, Frank Gifford, and Pat Summerall, while NBC featured Curt Gowdy and Paul Christman. However, The New York Times found that the much ballyhooed competition between the two sportscasting staffs "proved to be malarkey . . . never were two networks more alike." Despite such negative reviews, the Super Bowl quickly caught on. In 1972, Super Bowl VI established a new record for the largest audience ever to watch an American TV program, a record since surpassed by several other Super Bowl telecasts.

An account of sportscasting in the 1960s and 1970s would not be complete without acknowledging the influence of Roone Arledge, the man who first penned the lines (on the back of an airline ticket), "the thrill of victory, the agony of defeat." In the early 60s, as the architect of what was destined to become the longest running sports program on television, Arledge hired a young Baltimore announcer named James K. McManus to host ABC's Wide World of Sports. After McManus changed his name to Jim McKay, he would go down in broadcast history as the man who first informed the world about the tragic terrorist attack that took the lives of ten Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympics in Munich, West Germany. As an ABC vice-president, Arledge played an instrumental role in the adoption and refinement of instant replay. Then, after being promoted to president of ABC Sports, Inc., Arledge would author yet another American institution, Monday Night Football. When Arledge's salary reached the one-million-dollar mark in 1975 he was considered the television industry's highest-paid executive.

Arledge's philosophy of sportscasting was established early on when, in 1961, he adopted a policy of not signing contracts that included the traditional announcer-approval clause. This policy made ABC the first network to allow critical commentary to accompany the play-by-play, a clear break with the obligatory boosterism of sportscasting's past. This philosophy is perhaps most clearly embodied in Arledge's underwriting of Howard Cosell's stormy career. Arledge designed the innovative narration of Monday Night Football around Cosell's quasi-journalistic commentary. Thanks to the Cosell factor, the bantering of the most memorable stars of Monday Night Football--Cosell, Frank Gifford, and Don Meredith--was both controversial and tremendously successful. Often humorous and sometimes rancorous disputes between Cosell and Meredith, refereed to a certain extent by Gifford, made even the most lopsided contest entertaining. While the public loved it when Meredith won an argument with a well-placed zinger, Cosell, near the end of his life, got the last laugh. In 1994, Cosell joined the elite ranks of Jim McKay, Lindsay Nelson, Curt Gowdy, Chris Schenkel, and Pat Summerall when the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences recognized his accomplishments with a Lifetime Achievement Award. In the post-Cosell era, the mantle of the sportscaster that Americans love to hate is now worn by Brent Musburger.

 

Although former Miss America Phyllis George is generally credited with breaking sportscasting's gender barrier in 1975 when she joined The NFL Today on CBS, at least one woman performed as a color commentator in the 1950s. Her name was Myrtle Power and she was signed by CBS after achieving brief celebrityhood as a baseball expert on The $64,000 Question. While women have continued to make inroads into sportscasting, it has not been without struggle. Perhaps the most confounding obstacle involves female access to male locker rooms, the subject of much controversy during the 1980s and 1990s. Jocko Maxwell, an African American who went to work as a sports announcer in 1935 for WHOM in Jersey City, New Jersey, is recognized as the person who first crossed sportscasting's color line. Recently, several African Americans have distinguished themselves as announcers and commentators, the most noteworthy and notorious being Irv Cross, Bryant Gumbel, Jayne Kennedy, Joe Morgan, Ahmad Rashad, and O. J. Simpson. Even so, racism, like sexism, is still alive in the world of television sportscasting as demonstrated in 1988 in a racist comment by Jimmy "The Greek" Snyder. A well-known odds-maker, Snyder's career as a game analyst on CBS was curtailed when it was reported that he attributed the competitive excellence of African American athletes to selective breeding.

With the launching of ESPN in 1979, sportscasting entered a new era. ESPN quickly became the first profitable basic cable network and is currently available in over 59 million U.S. television households making it the largest cable network. As the dominant national supplier of sports-related programming to cable systems, ESPN has had a profound impact on both the economic and stylistic dimensions of sportscasting. Largely because of ESPN's "March Madness" coverage, NCAA basketball's annual 64-team national championship tournament has joined the World Series and the Super Bowl as a mega-event on the television calendar. ESPN coverage is also responsible for cultivating a larger following for women's basketball and men's baseball at the collegiate level.

Stylistically, the ESPN era in sportscasting has been marked by what media critic Leslie Savan calls "the ironic reflex." This style, associated with the postmodern turn in popular culture, appeals to the "Bud Bowl" generation--a generation that pays more attention to the Super Bowl commercials than to the game itself. Rightfully or wrongfully, this generation believes that being conscious of the contrivances of television's commercialism makes it somehow immune to its manipulation. NBC's Bob Costas surely ranks as the most sophisticated and celebrated member of the new wave of hyper-cool sportscasters. Earning five Sports Emmy Awards between 1987 and 1994, Costas's postmodern credentials were validated when NBC scheduled his interview show, Later with Bob Costas, in the time slot immediately following the nightly performance of television's king of irony, David Letterman.

Three of ESPN's most familiar sportscasters put very different spins on the postmodern style. Chris Berman impersonates Cosell's "He...could...go...all...the...way!" when narrating football highlights on Sportscenter, the terrifically popular sports news show that appears daily on ESPN. However, Berman is best known as a punster whose nicknames for baseball players (e.g., Roberto "Remember the" Alomar, Greg Gagne "with a spoon," Wally "Absorbine" Joyner) command their own page on the World Wide Web. In contrast to Berman's playfulness, Keith Olbermann, another regular on Sportscenter, is the epitome of postmodern cynicism. As a sportscaster with an attitude, Olbermann carries on the Cosell tradition of opinionated commentary, but inflects it with the Costa-esque smirk or the Groucho-Marxian raised eyebrow. On ESPN's college basketball beat, Dick Vitale takes enthusiasm over the edge, the excessiveness of his hyperkinetic performance making Vitale a parody of himself.

And, yet, amidst all the winks, nudges, insincerity and excess of contemporary sportscasting, there is still a profitable place for good, old-fashioned enthusiasm. In 1993, after Fox outbid CBS for the rights to broadcast NFC football, John Madden negotiated a contract with Rupert Murdoch that would pay Madden $30 million over four years. With that deal, Madden, a sportscaster who emotes the sincere enthusiasm of sportscasting's pre-ESPN days, became the highest paid sportscaster of all time.

-Jimmie L. Reeves

FURTHER READING

Alexander, Sue. "Gender Bias in British Television Coverage of Major Athletic Championships." Women's Studies International Forum (Oxford), November-December 1994.

Catsis, John R. Sports Broadcasting. Chicago: Nelson-Hall, 1996.

Cosell, Howard, with Peter Bonventre. I Never Played The Game. New York: Morrow 1985.

Farrell, Thomas B. "Media Rhetoric As Social Drama: The Winter Olympics Of 1984." Critical Studies in Mass Communication (Annandale, Virginia), June 1989.

Madden, John, with Dave Anderson. One Size Doesn't Fit All. New York: Villard, 1988.

Merrill, Sam. "Roone Arledge." in Golson, G. Barry, editor. The Playboy Interview: Volume II. New York: Perigee, 1983.

Messner, Michael A. "Separating the Men From the Girls: The Gendered Language of Televised Sports." Gender & Society (Newbury Park, California), March 1993.

O'Neil, Terry. The Game Behind The Game: High Pressure, High Stakes In Television Sports. New York: Harper and Row, 1989.

Powers, Ron. Supertube: The Rise Of Television Sports. New York: Coward-McCann, 1984.

Rader, Benjamin G. In Its Own Image: How Television Has Transformed Sports. New York: Free Press; London: Collier Macmillan, 1984.

avan, Leslie. The Sponsored Life: Ads, TV, And American Culture. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: Temple University Press, 1995.

Spence, Jim. Up Close And Personal: The Inside Story Of Network Television Sports. New York: Atheneum, 1988.

Sullivan, David B. "Commentary and Viewer Perception of Player Hostility: Adding Punch to Televised Sports." Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media (Washington, D.C.), Fall 1991.

 

See also Sports and Television