Aside from being paid to have the best seats in the house, the folks who call the action have a peculiar place in televised sports, getting more air time than any player or team, despite not actually being the point of the broadcast.
Commentators (or announcers or sportscasters, whatever you want to call them) in any sport can become household names, more famous than many athletes. For example, I can’t be the only one who identifies the sport of rugby with the commentary of the sadly deceased Bill McLaren, or Formula One with the now-retired Murray Walker.
In a very real sense, commentators are the narrators of sport, the ones who greet us, set the stage and then tell us what it all meant. Shakespeare would be proud…
It’s a position of incredible power and influence, especially in a growing sport with so many varied and often obscure elements like mixed martial arts.
These broadcasters have the ability to educate and inform their audience, to draw attention to things that we mere mortals who don’t have time to research every nuance of a sport might have missed.
Good calling can make a good match great and a great match legendary, it can make the slightest tactical switch seem important even if it didn’t look like much on the screen. Good commentators embed moments in your mind and help to make stars.
Bad calling however, can aggravate the viewer, cause them to lose interest in the contest, can devalue and distract from an otherwise exciting product. Bad calling… can be worse than no commentary at all.
It’s a position of great responsibility, and is open to abuse. Some commentators self aggrandise, are there more for self promotion than anything else, some announcers play favourites, bigging up their preferred fighter and talking down the fighter they don’t like as much. Some promotions clearly instruct their announcers to resort to witless hyperbole to try and make their show seem important.
Objectivity and professionalism is by no means assured, or even all that common. After all, these folks are being paid by the promoter – they’re not gonna admit to a truly bad match or point out dubious booking, are they?
So what makes a good commentator? First, I think we need to establish roles.
The lead commentator, is the play by play announcer. This is the one responsible for the basics, identifying the competitors, reminding us of the time to go, as well as additional promotional spots like remembering to name check sponsors and do the little shills for upcoming events. This is the commentator who has a big list of statistics for each fighter in front of them and looks to pull pertinent facts out at appropriate points.
This is a role for a calm, professional individual, possibly more a broadcaster than necessarily a fight fan. We need someone articulate, with a presence of mind to steer the tone of the commentary where it needs to go, to reign in their often more exuberant colleague and keep reminding the viewer of the facts.
Who is fighting, their background and stats, what’s at stake, which round is it, how long to go, oh and by the way, we’ve got a title match next week live on (insert channel here.)
Next to them is usually one or more colour commentators. These individuals are often competitors or former competitors themselves, or failing that are folks with a practical knowledge of and passion for the sport.
The colour commentator’s job is to add value, colour if you will to the commentary. They are there to give insight only a fighter might see, naming obscure moves,
In MMA, one of the most important roles of the colour commentator is to provide insight into the ground game – which looks a lot like aggressive hugging to the untutored observer – and draw attention to the importance and tactical significance of seemingly small details.
They let us know what a transition signifies or why fighter A is holding onto fight B’s hand rather than trying to hit him. They can point out subtleties of movement, tactical decisions and all the little things that seem huge in the cage but don’t exactly translate obviously to the big screen.
The thing is, a brutal knockout needs almost no commentary but an awesome ground battle can go straight over most fans heads without competent announcing.
The downside of this is that the colour commentator can constantly refer to their own career, call moves by the names their gym uses as opposed to their traditional or best-known name, go off on tangents that don’t help with following the match and display prejudices against fighters of contrasting styles to their own or the product of once rival gyms.
A commentary team should gel together, flowing back and forth as the pace of the bout demands without interrupting each other (although this is sometimes unavoidable.) They should be professional – we’re not looking for a comedy routine – and where possible, they should be objective rather than letting their own pretences or mindless promotional hyperbole overcome them.
For my money, the best team in the business at this time is Cage Warriors duo of John Gooden and Josh Palmer. Informative and engaging without ever overshadowing the action, they don’t talk over each other and give what I feel to be an accurate call of the events unfolding before them.
I’ve also got a lot of time for Julie Kedzie, Jon Anik, Mike Goldberg and Joe Rogan (even though I do take issue with some of his tendencies when discussing judging and his exact interpretation of the Unified Rules…) in their respective roles.
Who do you like best, and why?