What makes a good TV sports game?
November 26, 2009 6:15 PM   Subscribe

What are some examples of good and bad sports TV production?

I've always enjoyed NFL football, and have often wondered what are some hallmarks of good and bad production of these games (I think about this when they cut to the production booth from time to time).

I know one obvious thing might be the commentating. One thing I have noticed is that I enjoy the game more if the sound of the audience is relatively high in the mix (although there is a threshold that I don't like it to break through).

So sports nuts out there, what are some things I could notice that would distinguish a great productino of a sports game from a not so great one?

Thanks so much!
posted by fantasticninety to Grab Bag (27 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Australian Rules Football (AFL) is a very fast ball sport with lots of running, kicking and catching over a very long field. A great sports production would have the ball on screen at all times. Camera operators (and editors and directors) who are skilled in AFL reporting are now in demand world wide for Olympic Games coverage.
posted by Kerasia at 6:23 PM on November 26, 2009 [1 favorite]

I quite enjoyed when Fox (I think) had a colored "dot" that would follow the hockey puck during NHL games.
posted by AlliKat75 at 7:09 PM on November 26, 2009

Quick relevant replays of the critical action from multiple angles for one.

A well designed graphics package that conveyed a lot of information clearly in a minimum amount of space.

Situational graphics/charts that show tendancies/trends of the team either for this season or for the game.

Announcers that can explain why the players/teams did what they did rather than just describing what happened.
posted by mmascolino at 7:13 PM on November 26, 2009

Best answer: Speaking as somebody who's been in the control room for baseball for several years now, there are a few points i've noticed that separate our GREAT producers and TD's (technical directors) from the mediocre ones.

The best TD's and producers I've worked with see the game as a story, which is their job to tell, not simply as an event or spectacle. They will try to weave ideas and themes from the beginning of the game to the end. Every game we do, we have a meeting with our producer beforehand to discuss what our story is for today's game. Whether it's digging into the rivalry between the teams, or the history, or even players that have traded back and forth... My current producer LOVES sibling rivalries. There's an artistry there, not just a technical perfection.

From a technical side, it really depends on how deep into the production you want to dig.

The easy stuff:

* The audience at home should NEVER miss the start of a play. In fact, the camera should be settled in place and framing the play at least a second or two before the action begins.

* You should have a resolution shot of each play -- give the audience a second or two of a shot covering the entire play area to take in what just happened.

* You have a multitude of cameras that can give your audience at home a better (visual) experience of the game than those in the stands. For example, with the baseball team I work with, we have eleven cameras that our TD can choose from at any point. Each of these cameras has a time to shine, and choosing correctly between them can make a huge difference.

* Shot composition - Most top-tier cameramen don't just grab a shot at whim... they all have styles and shots that they like and have composed long before the game. As an example, look at most major league baseball right before the pitch - It's nearly always a shot containing the pitcher, head to foot, the batter beyond them, and, if they are relevant (ie, the TD thinks a player on first might steal), you'll see the second baseman, too.

* Flavor shots - As a corollary to the "standard" shots, you should blend in a mix of interest or flavor shots. One of the TD's that I work with really likes closeups of the pitcher finding the stitches on the ball before a throw, or a very tight closeup of a runner's foot on or against the base.

Somewhat more technical:

* Camera Shading / Engineering (this is what I do) - Cameras don't inherently know what colors look like, and are not as tolerant of brightness changes as the human eye. If you shoot two cameras at the same patch of grass and dirt without adjusting them, the two shots will likely look very different. All the camera shots should be shaded and balanced so they look the same. Also look at shots that have a sharp edge between sunlight and shadows... Can you easily see things in the sunlight (not blown out white) and things in the shadows (not too dark)? If you can, the engineer is doing a pretty solid job. You should never see the engineer making adjustments live (even though he is), and you should never notice color changes.

* Special Effects / Sound Levels - The graphics and special effects should add to the game, not detract from it, and a good balance of sound levels (as you mentioned) can really make a game.

* Replays - Replays are a difficult thing to pull off - a good replay guy is worth his weight in gold. If the game your watching shows multiple cameras in a replay, fading between them, and in complete synchronization... your replay guy is GOOD.

Some more artistry:

* Flavor commentary - The anchors are not on their own out there. Those headsets are there for good reason. Generally there will be a research guy in the control room, who's there to feed those anchors trivia and commentary (They do know the sport, but they haven't ALWAYS memorized all the facts, nor should they). A good anchor and research guy will give you trivia that makes you go "hmm..."

* Descriptive commentary - The anchors should be able to give reasons or thought processes of players or teams... not just verbal replays.

I'm sure there's more, but I don't want to get this post too far into tl;dr range.
posted by frwagon at 7:18 PM on November 26, 2009 [100 favorites]

Good sports production: football (AKA soccer). Few ads, knowledgable
commentators, camera following the action.

Bad sports production: anything having to do with the olympics, world series, super bowl, us open, etc.
posted by dfriedman at 7:18 PM on November 26, 2009

Response by poster: Thank you frwagon for such an awesome answer. If you feel like adding to your answer at any point with other details, don't hesitate! I loved the fact about focusing in on the stitches of the baseball!

Cheers and thanks so much.
posted by fantasticninety at 7:37 PM on November 26, 2009

A common complaint with Fox's postseason baseball coverage in particular is the constant shots of concerned, praying, teeth-clenching fans during pressure-filled moments. It can add to the emotion of a big game, but let's not overdo it.

But that doesn't bug me as much as the constant shots of key coaches and players in the dugout whose expressions never change. It's just superfluous and tedious.

Instant replays that get shown one time too many and cut into live action when it starts up again can be frustrating also.

One thing I love is when players are miked up, but only as long as the guy has enough personality to make it really entertaining, and it rarely seems to be the case.

Personally I find it a lot easier to list things I hate about sports broadcasts than I do things I like.
posted by TheSecretDecoderRing at 7:38 PM on November 26, 2009

I'm going to disagree a bit with frwagon here. Obviously, his technical knowledge is a fascinating insight into the hows and whats of sports production, but producers who see the game as a story to tell often drive me crazy. A lot of this comes from erring on the side of presenting information to the sports neophyte rather than the knowledgeable fan, I imagine, but I often find myself driven batty by production that hinges on the human interest or narrative backdrop aspects of a game. (I find this sort of thing to be particularly prevalent in Olympics broadcasts and Fox baseball coverage.) A little bit can be nice, but undue harping on it just makes me think that the people presenting the sport don't think it's compelling enough by itself. If there's a good rivalry or backstory, by all means mention it, but I get annoyed pretty quickly when everything that happens is shoehorned into a predecided story by production/announcers. I watch for the game, not for someone else's decision of what around the game should interest me.
posted by lhputtgrass at 8:10 PM on November 26, 2009 [7 favorites]

And boom goes the dynamite. That's a pretty good example of bad TV sports production right there.
posted by Effigy2000 at 8:29 PM on November 26, 2009 [1 favorite]

Playing audio of one of the coaches dropping the f-bomb was def a production mistake tonight..

I appreciate when there are knowledgeable commentators who really seem enthusiastic about the game, and spend time (when they have it) drawing up some Xs and Os to tell you how and why a play worked, and about strategies on either side of the ball. The current MNF team is pretty good I think (but last year was ruined by Tony K talking about fantasy football and storylines and other things not too relevant to what was happening on the field).
posted by citron at 8:44 PM on November 26, 2009

My number one thing I dislike about televised sports is the prevailing notion that I, the viewer, want a microphone stuck in front of a player or coach's face at every possible opportunity. I would in fact rather this NEVER happen.

First of all these interviews are a total waste of time, since 99% of the time the player/coach either has nothing interesting to say ("We have to play it one game at a time", etc) and/or is going to be too guarded to say anything worthwhile out of fear of disrespecting someone. Second of all, 99% of the time the entire interaction is painfully awkward and forced, and you can tell the subject would rather be (depending on the state of the game) preparing, concentrating, celebrating, etc. This makes me the viewer uncomfortable and frustrated.

The worst is when I've seen VS. interview hockey coaches while the game is in play (I'm sure it happens in other sports). As someone who is most interested in the quality of the athletic competition, how can the network possibly think I want to interrupt the coach while he's doing his job so I can listen to the usual platitudes and cliches?

Leave the Q&A for press conferences.
posted by ctab at 8:50 PM on November 26, 2009 [1 favorite]

Agree, leave the conjured up stories out of it. If a story appears, great.

Best telecasting hands down is NASCAR. The numbers of cameras and information available is just tremendous. It nearly makes watching people drive 500 miles interesting.
posted by gjc at 9:28 PM on November 26, 2009 [1 favorite]

frwagon's experience and answer are awesome. He mentions framing the game as a story (or rather, a collection of stories), which is spot-on.

One thing I would add is that a good sports production has the flexibility to abandon their plans, depending on the actual game action.

It frustrates me to see some sports productions seemingly revert to preset framing devices, when they're turning out to be irrelevant as the game goes on. For example, if the Lakers are playing the Cavs, and both Kobe and LeBron happen to be having mediocre nights, I don't want to hear about this EPIC BATTLE TO PROVE WHO HAS EARNED JORDAN'S CROWN AS THE BEST IN THE LEAGUE, complete with highlight music and pre-packaged shots from their last game.

You know, I kinda wanna hear about the sixth man that is somewhat quietly working on a triple-double...
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 9:32 PM on November 26, 2009 [1 favorite]

I love college football, particularly the Arizona Wildcats. You can get a feel for mediocre TV production vs. damn good TV production by watching different networks doing games. For example, last month's AZ-Stanford game was covered by Versus. They used the usual camera spots, and the production, while not horrible, wasn't anything special. Last week's game against Oregon was carried by ABC. ABC/ESPN is a whole different story. They don't just show up at the stadium and ask where the camera spots are. They find ways to get the cameras where they want them. The overhead camera on the cables is a wonder in itself; it's supported by towers set up at the four corners of the stadium. They also do a lot of research beforehand on other things, such as what angles will make the stadium look its best. All of the little things that really matter. The result is a TV production that does a much better of of carrying the feel and the atmosphere of the game to the TV viewer. Watch the Saturday evening game on ABC and you'll see what I mean.
posted by azpenguin at 10:03 PM on November 26, 2009

A couple of seasons ago Sky Sports TV decided to move the live scoreboard.

It's always been at the top left of the screen but some bright spark had the idea of moving it to the bottom left. It absolutely ruined the enjoyment of the game because it obscured part of the pitch. A Facebook campaign was started from armchair fans which resulted in it being changed back to its normal position.

The quality of the commentators/studio pundits also makes a huge difference to the enjoyment of the game. I was unimpressed, to say the least, watching a Premiership match live on ESPN in Queens, NYC to find the 'expert' slagging off Manchester United to be none other than Iain Dowie, who won precisely, er, nothing during his career. I have also yet to sit through a game commentated by John Motson without saying "Oh for God's sake, shut the fuck up, Motson" at some point. In fact, if he's commentating and the game's also on the radio I'll turn the sound off and have the radio commentary on instead.
posted by essexjan at 1:11 AM on November 27, 2009

Cool Papa Bell You know, I kinda wanna hear about the sixth man that is somewhat quietly working on a triple-double...

Totally agree. I watch a lot of soccer/football, mostly on ESPN. The difference between the production of European games and MLS games is markedly greater than the difference between the quality of play on the field. MLS Cup was annoying as hell to watch, despite the fact that it was a good game after the first 30 minutes or so.

1. Cameras. At MLS Cup they were in too tight, and angles weren't great despite the fact that they had a huge number of cameras in the stadium. This is a chronic problem in MLS broadcasts. The angles issue is improving as the teams move into better quality, soccer-specific stadiums with purpose-built camera locations. But for some reason MLS producers don't understand that you can't get a feel for the game if you're zoomed in so tight you can't see what's happening off the ball. Way too many closeups too, and too many shots of the coach and bench when important things are happening. The producers don't seem to understand that soccer is a game with few breaks. This means that coach shots and replays must be done very, very carefully.

2. Mix. The crowd mics were mixed way too low. Sometimes they get this right, sometimes they don't. I'd much rather hear the great atmosphere in the stadium than listen to the commentators blathering on. Again, this is sport-specific. At a baseball game the crowd is quiet for large portions of the game because of the nature of the sport. Not so with soccer.

3. Commentators. As CPB said, don't be so committed to a story that you miss what's actually happening in front of you. At MLS Cup, the announcers were so obsessed with David Beckham (who has ranged from piss-poor to average-with-moments-of-brilliance in his time in MLS) and the star power of LA that they missed out on a fantastic story. Salt Lake sneaked into the playoffs and proceeded to beat the best team in the league (Columbus) and another star-power sort of team (Chicago) by playing attractive, attacking soccer. When Salt Lake won, all they could talk about was how the story was LA losing. It's the freaking league championship! How about we talk about the team that just won it?

4. Commentators Part 2. Generally, just STFU. Way too much talking. To some degree you can let the game and the atmosphere present themselves. Talk when you have something to add, not because you feel like you need to talk. Interpret what is happening, don't get off on tangents about irrelevant crap. I actually think this is largely a production problem. They're feeding these guys pre-cooked material that they feel like they have to use.

5. Sideline reporters/coach interviews during play. I'm not sure who thinks this is a good idea. The coaches are always plainly irritated to be interrupted, and the reports never add anything substantive. This seems to be a way to squeeze some eye candy into broadcasts a lot of times. F that.

The biggest thing for me is that broadcasts should be sport specific, and should let the game dictate the nature of the broadcast. I think ESPN's problem with MLS is that they have always used baseball (maybe?) people to do a sport that they don't fully understand. They had Dave O'Brien as an announcer for awhile. He's a very, very good baseball announcer. But for soccer he was constantly telling stories and rarely talking about what was going on on the field. That works for baseball,with all its dead time but is terrible for soccer. The technical stuff all shows that their people just don't understand what works well for the game they're trying to present. If you watch one of their European games where they're getting a feed from Europe and using a commentator who knows the game (Derrek Rae, for instance) it can be a beautiful production.
posted by GodricVT at 5:07 AM on November 27, 2009 [1 favorite]

Oh, and I should mention that by "angles" I mean that for soccer they should be up high enough to see what's happening across a significant portion of the field laterally, which is 70+ yards wide. Get the camera too low and you miss what is happening elsewhere on the field and the sense of depth is ruined. I'm sure the appropriate camera angle is different for different sports. The NFL has this right.
posted by GodricVT at 5:10 AM on November 27, 2009

Funny that you posted this during last night's Giants-Broncos game, which was on NFL Network. That was an example of a poorly produced football game. Totally boring announcers, replays that ran long so you missed the start of the live play, and at one point they were showing a camera pointed directly at a bunch of cables on the ground. What a mess.
posted by Ike_Arumba at 5:57 AM on November 27, 2009

Response by poster: I thought of two myself:

1. I used to love watching the Italian Serie A on Fox Sports World until they decided to add a logo to the top right corner of the screen which was bright red and took up about 1/6 of the screen (no exaggeration).

I ended my subscription to that channel after trying several times to get them to change it without any success.

2. The baseball playoffs on Fox two years ago had a sound effect when it was a fastball/strike. A little flame appeared on the scorebard and there was a "whoooosh". I emailed them to tell them the sound effect was super distracting (I'm sure I wasn't the only one). This advice they thankfully listened to.

Some really great answers here all round. Thanks so much!
posted by fantasticninety at 6:02 AM on November 27, 2009

For me, the worst aspect of modern sports broadcasting has been the introduction of too much data on the screen. Crawlers on the top and bottom, fly-ins from either side with even more stats. And, on top of that, the announcers yakking on about something else entirely separate from any of the data being shown. Oh, and all this while the game or even is going on in the middle of all this.

To my mind, some of the best sports broadcasting is golf. Perhaps it's because they know the people watching probably already know how to play the game, but they don't waste time talking like everyone is a n00b or try to get the audience pumped-up with phony rivalries or whatnot. A good golf presentation really gets across a sense of competition between the players (and with the course itself) without all the noise, bombast and hype that comes with damn near every other sport on tv. The graphics are sparse, giving only the information pertinent to the current scene. The best golf broadcasts let the game be the game, with knowledgeable announcers who don't walk all over things. That's a hell of a lot more than you can say about any other sports broadcast today.
posted by Thorzdad at 8:02 AM on November 27, 2009

[David Beckham (who has ranged from piss-poor to average-with-moments-of-brilliance in his time in MLS)

He's only in MLS to stay match-fit for Milan and England. He doesn't have to play at full-tilt in a third-tier league. No one in the U.S. even notices he's playing at half-speed when he plays in MLS.

And speaking of MLS Cup final - how can a side that dropped 50 out of a possible 90 points during the season win a championship. That's obscene.]

The worst sports broadcasting is anything the NFL broadcasters are doing.

1. Too many commercial breaks. I lose interest in most NFL games before the first quarter is over because of all of the commercial breaks.

2. As mentioned, the announcers are robots now. No one is allowed to have a personality anymore. And of course they talk too much.

3. The ex-player sidekick who basically just parrots what the play-by-play guy said after every play. And they always seem to begin their sentences with the same phrase: "We talked about...". I'm certain that there must be only one media coach in all of the US. who advises all of these color commentators.

4. Sponsoring every aspect of the game during actual play. "This coin toss is sponsored by TD Bank." "This touchdown celebration is sponsored by Toyota. Come celebrate zero per cent financing on a new Corolla."

The best announcers I've found are the ones who work the EPL matches - with a couple of exceptions. And the reason is simple: they shut up.
posted by Zambrano at 10:03 AM on November 27, 2009 [1 favorite]

If you get the NHL network (unlikely, but worth a shot), watch the simulcast of CBC's Hockey Night in Canada on a Saturday night. Then, if you have a chance, watch an NHL game on Versus. The CBC guys (I wish I knew their names) are a pleasure to listen to; the Versus guys? Not so much.
posted by andrewcilento at 3:39 PM on November 27, 2009 [1 favorite]

Is Don Cherry still doing hockey night in Canada? When I went to school in the UP, we got CBC - that was the way to watch hockey!

Now that I live in Iowa, I don't get to watch hockey anymore. Around here, people think Red Wings are shoes.
posted by jpdoane at 9:27 AM on November 29, 2009 [1 favorite]

Last year I sat behind a camera guy at a Saints (NFL) game. He had this instruction sheet taped to his camera, I thought it was pretty interesting: http://www.flickr.com/photos/erikgrande/3092088332/
posted by erikgrande at 8:26 PM on November 29, 2009 [1 favorite]

Not sure if this falls under the umbrella of sports productions, but softball questions from interviewers irritate me also. Everything pretty much sets up the coach/player for standard responses such as "We're taking it one game at a time," and "They're a good team; they play hard."

At least make an effort to get specifics. What's unique about your opponent that separates them from other teams/players? What specific challenges do they present? Hockey is the worst with this. "We really need to establish our forecheck," "We just need to get more shots on net," "The way to improve our power play is to keep things simple"...
posted by TheSecretDecoderRing at 8:49 PM on November 29, 2009

I agree with Zambrano's criticism of the "we talked about" habit of commentators, but good jeebus Robbie Earle, Paul Walsh, Andy Townsend and many other former players on EPL games both in the US and in Britain must have used the same media coach. The "we talked about" habit is annoying because commentators across all sports seem to have the need to get all possible options for the next play/next few minutes out there so that they seem intelligent when one of the 1,056 possible outcomes that they teased just happened.
posted by Nick Verstayne at 2:06 PM on December 3, 2009

He mentions framing the game as a story (or rather, a collection of stories), which is spot-on.

If I want that shit I know where to find pro wrestling.

The best commentary I've enjoyed was Grant Fox doing rugby; as one of the finest first-fives to grace the game his analysis was freakish, and made you understand why he was so hard to play against; rather than explaining the action that just happened, he'd be telling you what you would see in the next phase of play, and what the guys were doing in this phase of play to make that happen.

The worst is populist bullshit: mindless boosterism for the commentator's home team, talking shit about the ref, not knowing the rules and combining that with talking shit about the ref - Mexted, Drake, I'm looking at you - and generally leaving me feeling like I'm listening to a drunk dumbarse screaming behind me in the stands. What, it was too much for you to learn the players' names?
posted by rodgerd at 1:08 AM on December 8, 2009

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