Identity… Politics? Media? Sports?

On Tuesday’s episode of The Ringer’s the Sports Repodders, Bill Simmons raised an interesting question: who is your favorite color commentator? His guests, Jason Gay and Bryan Curtis had their answers but I was stumped when asking myself the same question. I guess Al Michaels? Admittedly, that is a history and fame based answer no different than me saying my favorite NBA player is LeBron James or my favorite actor is Brad Pitt. “I don’t know so here is someone famous”.

I kept thinking on the question and realized I do have a favorite commentator, they just are not on TV and they are multiple people who could be anyone on a given day. Somewhere along the line, apparently, I diverged away from listening to the commentary and instead (typically) having an eye on the shouts and memes of the mob on my twitter feed. Sometimes, like during the Super Bowl, you bask in the best retweeted jokes and stories. Other times, I find I watch a few standout accounts. Watching Aggie games does not quiet feel right without the company of the hilariously nihilistic #Aggietwitter.

Perhaps this is a product of my generation. Perhaps the RTs and “likes” of social media feeds allow a handful of brilliant things to bubble to the surface above the noise and a 90’s style commentator simply cannot match? I appreciate Al Michaels and Chris Collinsworth’s effort during the Super Bowl but I don’t remember anything they said. There are several things that have at least a slightly longer lifespan. Keep in mind this isn’t just memes, social media more than anything else allows truly spectacular journalism and analysis to bubble to the top from the most unexpected places.

No one doubts social media’s role in the evolution of sports and sports journalism. If anything, the subject has been discussed ad nauseum. Yet, we often forget how social media is just the latest stage in the ever-evolving way that we consume sports. Physical attendance was supplanted by print coverage that was supplanted by radio then television and now we are at the intersection of TV and the Internet. In addition, that intersection is often blurred as our TV’s evolve into computers in their own right. Of course, the evolutionary lines blur as well. Newspapers and radio still cover games and you can always buy a ticket to attend a game. The evolution rather refers to what is the primary medium through which broader society learns and reacts to games as they are played.

And our consumption has changed as well.

Changing preferences for commentary during games has changed greatly over time. Listen to any radio recording from the past and compare it to Al Michaels [1]. Heck, compare it to longtime broadcasters like Vin Scully and see the difference (this recording even shows the evolution of Scully over his long career). The mediums through which we consume sports have always changed but so has sports journalism as well.

When I was growing up, having a sports illustrated magazine come to your house was a big deal. Not only were you able to get quality sports journalism, but the reaction times of the larger sports universe “back then” (i.e. 15 years ago) were slower. Often the best way to consume quality content for the larger national sports scene was through reading your SI. There was also something to be said about getting that magazine. It was cool. It was an event that you could look forward to. It is likely that many people in your social circles read the same columns which provided points for discussion and debate. I know I am not the only person who found reading Rick Reilly’s column on the back page every week to be a massive treat.

Even though Sports Illustrated is dirt cheap, and still relevant in some ways, at some point they fell behind compared to larger trends in society. About 2000-2015 it felt like ESPN really did become the “worldwide leader”. You would watch their commentary shows (for some time I would come home from school and automatically put on Around the Horn and PTI), they had quality broadcasts, and the content was readily available on multiple platforms. For a variety of reasons that many have gone into, ESPN has ceded that mantle but to no one clear-cut successor. The problem the ESPN is running into is not necessarily that they are slacking; it’s that the world is devolving and dividing. Their competition now includes Fox, social media, Barstool, The Ringer, other podcasts, Outkick the Coverage, 24/7 and the plethora of recruiting sites, NBC Sports, Reddit (we severely underestimate the roles places like r/cfb and r/NBA play in todays sports world), message boards, smaller blogs, and a host of other competitors that I’m forgetting. The issue is that we do not need to channel ourselves to one, two, or three large institutions to receive some of the only outlets of content anymore. The Internet, and its subsequent maturity, has allowed for unprecedented individualization of consumption. I can think of no better examples than the fact that Outkick the Coverage and Clay Travis have brand of themselves as an anti-establishment, almost Trumpian, red state, sports outlet while Barstool is the frat house of online sports media. How can ESPN’s bland professional image work in this era of individualization?

I personally find myself largely drawn to consuming Ringer podcasts because they fit my style, I have a prior and long history with them (reading Simmons way back in the day), and I don’t have a lot of time so reading and listening to things on the go is typically the best way for me to consume content. I’m willing to bet I’m not alone in that.

I also cannot help but wonder if the changing mediums and reactions of sports coverage aren’t impacting the sports themselves. There are a plethora of reasons for why baseball is the national pastime but a key factor is the reality that the game lends itself so easily to physical attendance and radio. With hundreds of games every season to choose from, you are never hurting if you miss a few games or wait for the best time to attend. The style of the game broadcast over radio is perfect for listening while accomplishing mundane tasks (early 20th century housework and factory work anyone?). The rise of professional football however is inextricably linked with the rise of television. The structure of the game lends itself perfectly to broadcasts and even commercial breaks which turned the game into a cash cow. Football is inherently visual in a way baseball doesn’t have to be. So what does that mean for sports today as our mediums change? The talking point is that football is on the way out and basketball is the next big thing.

Possibly, the concussion issue in football is very real, but I don’t think it’s that simple. Yes, society and mediums are changing but the trend seems to lend itself towards individualization, not a broad societal march to “what’s next”. There are more than enough people in America’s cities and more than enough money floating around for multiple sports leagues to find success and indeed we’ve seen that with massive expansion eras, massive profits for even collegiate sports and the successful founding and expansion of MLS as a “5th” competitor league to the NFL/MLB/NBA/NHL. These things work because there are tons of people and even if everyone chooses to do their own thing, the support is significant enough that the leagues and the teams can still find success. If there are any broader societal trends they tend to be in favor of constant storylines and the outlandish, realities that tie into our constant social media stream where bubbling up through RTs and likes is increasingly difficult and random. There is a reason the offseason, recruiting, off the field issues, and locker room drama are covered, sometimes more intensely, than the games themselves. There is a reason we just elected a reality show president who specializes in creating dozens of storylines and newscycles at any given moment. This is the product of the internet which allows for massive consumption of information and provides a mammoth conduit for discussion, in real time, 24/7, 365.

That new reality also spurs individualization because it is effectively impossible for the average individual to be heard and find recognition in a crowd of billions. That consumers want to individualize their sports consumption is no different than their working to specialize and find niches in everything from work to exercise to hobbies. Ironically, the internet further supports that individualization by allowing like-minded individuals to find each other and for individuals to find their niche whether it be selling a handcrafted product or finding and supporting a hobby. Naturally this tends to create bubbles we can live in. While that might be a positive for self-worth purposes it can also be a negative (I cite the entirety of modern politics). Indeed, traditional society is struggling to keep up with these new realities and the sheer pace of change. The 24/7 internet mob, social bubbles, evolving mediums and lightning speeds strain networks with their sports broadcast rights just as much as it strains the very foundations of democracy, just each in their own way. All of that is a philosophic discussion for another time.

Adapting to the new environment is critical but immensely difficult. Tying back to that Sports Repodders podcast, they postulated that almost no commentators are worth what the salary has become. However, Simmons did postulate two commentators who would be worth the massive salary some commentators receive. He was of the opinion that Peyton Manning and Kobe Bryant would actually be worth their weight in gold for their commentary ability.

I think that this misses the point and demonstrates why adapting to the new reality can be so difficult.

One of the reasons that Tony Romo became an NFL talking point this year as a commentator had nothing to do with his status as a famous ex-athlete, but rather because of his commentary ability in itself. He proved very adept at being able to do the job while also having an almost “parlor trick” in being able to predict and then subsequently accurately break down plays.

Unless Bryant or Manning can reach that level, then what particular or value do they bring to the table beyond celebrity status?

Viewers tuned in to Romo games because they wanted to hear something novel and something quality. Romo provided a service that so good it actually rose above the noise of the mob. Bryant or Manning would have to provide that level of novelty and quality to match what Romo accomplished and they won’t be able to do it via name recognition alone (thought it would certainly help get them in the door).

Instead of finding more celebrity athletes and hoping they are good, why not expend the resources and find someone with an unmatched level of quality? With billions of people to choose from, surely someone has the talent and background to hit that level of novelty and quality? Perhaps networks should think outside of the box and tap into the niche? If the masses seem to trend towards individualization, why not embrace the reality that TV and internet are slowly merging and have a game feed with one’s twitter stream scrolling across the bottom providing insight, jokes and memes that a random commentator duo would not be able to match? Certainly some Silicon Valley guru can formulate an algorithm that synthesis the plethora of data about me and create a novel feed of jokes and sports and history facts? Maybe forgo color commentators altogether and cycle in interesting one-off commentators based on the game. I don’t care what Troy Aikman has to say about a random Texans-Titans game but what if that game included a booth of a standard professional announcer, and Texans and Titans legends Andre Johnson and Eddie George? At the end of the day, creative thinking and a bit of luck allows the good to bubble up but doing the same thing over and over again and failing is the definition of insanity.

That is the new reality: individualization or being so loud, so good, or so lucky that you rise above the noise of the mob. How networks react that reality, indeed how governments and society in general react to that reality, will define the 21st century.

[1]: Of course the first Youtube recording of an old school baseball game I found was presented by Lucky Strike and “Premium Brewed Busch Bavarian Beer”. God Bless America.

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