March 1, 2010 10:58 AM   Subscribe

How do sports announcers get so good at their job? Specifically hockey, where the action is extremely fast.

Watching the Olympic gold medal match in men's hockey last night, I was amazed by the fluidity of the announcer (Mike Emrick).

Important faceoff win by Team USA and Kessler.
Now Brodeur to the bench again. Extra attacker out.
It's off Ryan Miller.
Hooked back along further, Niedermayer, quite a go with Langenbrenner.
And it's Zach Parise, net empty, charging after it is Kesler, going back is Perry, KESLER SCOOOORREEEEEEEES!

Of course the guy has a lot of experience at this, so part of it is just practice. But he knows the name of every person who's on the ice, at all times, even with substitutions happening. He's like a tobacco auctioneer, but at the same time he doesn't say too much, and never too little. It's fascinating.

So how do you do that? What's the secret to being able to call play-by-play action fluidly and accurately? If I tried it would sound more like

White guy with the puck, skating.
Very fast.
Hit hard by....Philips. No, Douglas, no, somebody else. Number twelve. Number twelve on the other team. Number twelve for the Pirates or the Kings or whatever.
Back on his feet, moving to the outside and.......and the referee blew his whistle. I don't know why, let's take a commercial break.

American football seems a lot easier to do this (perhaps because I'm more familiar with it?) I think because there's a static moment before the play starts and you can survey the field and get a sense of everyone's position. Basketball seems easy as well, because you can see the players' faces. But hockey? They're nonstop, crazy fast, all over the place, and they're wearing helmets that somewhat obstruct the view of their faces.
posted by spikeleemajortomdickandharryconnickjrmints to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (20 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
Emerick is really a pretty good play-by-play guy, if you watch local broadcasts of games a lot of times the guys only call a little bit and just make small talk about the game most of the time.

It's probably pretty easy for him to memorize what players wear which numbers. I know all the names / numbers for the hockey team I follow and many of the numbers for big-name players on other NHL teams without really trying. You'll occasionally hear them get one wrong though. They also generally play the same guys together so if Joe Thornton is on the ice, chances are so are Marleau and Heatly, and so on.

The refs generally make a signal for what the penalty was or you can tell by what's going on (off-sides/icing/puck out of play).

I think a lot of these guys wanted to do it as kids and practiced making calls against taped games, then got spots on the radio for minor-league teams and moved on from there.
posted by ghharr at 11:08 AM on March 1, 2010

I think in the booth they also have access to replays and data from the scorekeepers which is why they know who scored or was penalized or whatever before the viewer at home does.
posted by ghharr at 11:10 AM on March 1, 2010

I don't know if I am adding to the question or the answer...

Don't forget that the play by play announcer and the "color" announcer are not watching the same screen that you are watching. It is available to them (I;m sure) but they are watching the game live on the ice.
From where I sit, it means that they need pretty good vision to see the numbers on the player's jersey, etc.
Well, they also have the benefit of "local" slow motion playback (on a screen that you don't see).

I pay more attention to hockey than other sports and I am still baffled by how they can relate all that information with as few mistakes as they make.
posted by Drasher at 11:15 AM on March 1, 2010

Part of this is what seems like your unfamiliarity with the sport. I'd wager most hockey fans can spot an offsides, or an icing, or most minor penalties without too much trouble or prodding from an announcer. I've only been into hockey for a few years, but I can generally call a penalty before its announced (assuming, of course, that it's on camera).
posted by downing street memo at 11:17 AM on March 1, 2010

The same way you get to Carnegie Hall... Practice

Jon Miller the Hall of Fame broadcaster for the SF Giants used to sit in the park as a kid and call games as if he were an announcer.
posted by bitdamaged at 11:19 AM on March 1, 2010

Well, as a long time listener of hockey -- lots and lots of practice. And then more practice. The guys doing the junior games aren't nearly as polished or as fluid and the guys doing the NHL. They seem to move up the ranks, just like the players. But if you're calling 82+ games a season, you do a lot of work. Basically every other night or so for 8 months a year. And obviously being intimately familiar with the game is a big part of it -- even hardcore fans can anticipate what the color guy or even the play-by-play guy is going to say, especially when it has to do more with how the game is going vs what specifically is happening. It's second nature. There is a sort of script to hockey games, patterns that happen repeatedly. You can anticipate hits, offsides, icing, shots.

But these guys also know also player #s/names as well as their own mother, and don't usually have to think about them, especially for their "home" team. It just happens. #17 wearing a Canucks (or Team USA) jersey is just "Kesler". There is no thought process there, it just is what is is. There are only at most 30 numbers per team over the course of a season to know.

But, like everything else in life, it simply boils down to (a) natural talent and (b) practice.
posted by cgg at 11:19 AM on March 1, 2010

From my time working in baseball (so, only semi-related), we had 3 spotters in the control room with the announcers. These spotters were there ONLY to track players and shout names. It's kind of fun to watch and listen to -- they've got tons of stat sheets and player rosters in front of them, and try to anticipate where the announcer is going, and shout out the info the announcer needs with minimal surrounding language. So, in your examples, spotters might be saying things like "Face off Kessler", "Brodeur Bench", et cetera. The announcers then just have to make it sound good.
posted by frwagon at 11:22 AM on March 1, 2010

I'd assume practice, practice, practice...

I believe (TV comedy writer and baseball announcer) Ken Levine has written about this on his blog but I can't a specific posts, so I may be wrong. He answers reader questions every Friday, so you could ask him for both his personal and professional expertise. (Baseball is a lot slower than the sports you mention, he may still have insight from people who've actually done it.)
posted by MCMikeNamara at 11:23 AM on March 1, 2010

Practice, practice, practice. Then more practice. Years calling games in the minor leagues. The NHL puts out broadcast notes for (almost) every game with relevant stats, rosters, etc.

As for who's on the ice at a given time, it's not tough to memorize player numbers, and lines / defensive pairs / Powerplay / Penalty kill units tend to be relatively fixed, so when you see one guy on the ice, you can assume the rest of his line is on too or coming on very soon.

Of course, if it's a US or TSN broadcast, they just make random small talk the whole game, so it's much easier on those guys ;)
posted by jjb at 11:45 AM on March 1, 2010

A lot of these guys have practiced from the times they were little kids. They sit in front of the TV doing play by play outloud and in their heads.

The best play by play guys do many hours of preparation for every single game. They collect a huge amounts of stats and notes on every player and each have a system that works for them for "instantly" calling up relevant data.

I could do play by play if it were the Capitals scrimmaging each other and it's not even my job. Another thing that helps is there are going to be the same 6 guys for each team that are on the ice for the majority of the game plus the goalies.

One program that might be of interest to you is called "Voices" that runs on the NHL network. It profiles the play by play guys and for some of them it gives a real in-depth look at how their days run and why they are so good.
This is part 1 of a program on Rick Jeanneret
I think parts 2 and 3 get more into stuff...

I think one of the best ones was the one on Steve Kolbe.

If you get NHL Network just set your DVR to record any of the "Voices" programs. You'll learn a lot.
posted by zephyr_words at 11:45 AM on March 1, 2010 [5 favorites]

In addition to practice and familiarity with hockey, I think they have a little more leeway to make mistakes due to the pace of the game. They need to keep them to a minimum, but most people aren't going to notice if they misread the 15 as a 16 and call the wrong name once or twice. They will also fudge names by replacing them with numbers or the team name if they can't remember them ("and a turnover by a Sharks forward results in a breakaway for number 17")

I also heard a radio play by play announcer mention that they rely on line combinations to determine who players are, sometimes to the point where they don't get it quite right (say Marleau and Heatley get off, Thornton is still stuck on the ice for some reason, but they assume he's come off and call him by the name of the center of the line that's currently on ice).

The good announcers make mistakes like this rarely, maybe once every few games, which is why they get to call Olympics broadcasts :)
posted by millions of peaches at 11:50 AM on March 1, 2010

Anecdotally, during the Canadian CTV broadcasting of the Olympics, the Aboriginal People's Television Network took on the presentation of the games in Native languages.

They showed a short info vignette during the games about how they dealt the difficulty of finding commentators who spoke the languages in question (they presented in Inuktitut, Dene, Cree, Oji-Cree, Mechif, Mi'kmaq, Mohawk, and Ojibway) who had enough ability to do the commentary. In the clip they showed established commentators working with the newcomers to help them gain competencies in commentating, with both watching the screen, the rookie commentating and the pro giving feedback. From this, I gained that a lot of it comes down to a good memory, good speaking voice (clear, fast, etc.) and mimicry.

Kids in Canada also grow up mimicking the commentators when they are watching games on TV. Lots of the time these people are not great at playing the game itself, but are good at seeing HOW it plays out and putting that into words as it happens.
posted by urbanlenny at 11:55 AM on March 1, 2010

Serious would-be announcers go to Sports Broadcasting Camp.
posted by alms at 11:55 AM on March 1, 2010

Hockey is the only American sport where I think the announcers are any good actually.

NFL in particular is typically terrible for the amount of mistakes, both play by play and for tactical analysis.
posted by the foreground at 12:04 PM on March 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

White guy with the puck, skating.
Very fast.
Hit hard by....Philips. No, Douglas, no, somebody else. Number twelve. Number twelve on the other team. Number twelve for the Pirates or the Kings or whatever.
Back on his feet, moving to the outside and.......and the referee blew his whistle. I don't know why, let's take a commercial break.

Nthing everyone else, but I did want to point out that while I appreciate the humor this is just silly. Of course this is what you'd say. You're not a hockey announcer, and I would guess not a regular follower of hockey.

Hockey, in particular, benefits from the small teams and regular lines. My son [12] plays Pee Wee hockey. I could probably call one of his games, but when he went in on a breakaway, I'd recognize him from a myriad of factors not including his face. His number, the way he moves, his stick-handling style. Everyone else on the team, too.

Also, watching the game on the ice is much different from watching it on TV. Watching it live, you can take in the whole ice in at least peripheral vision. Add familiarity with the game and the memory and that's a lot of why it's so fluid.

When, out of the corner of his eye, he sees the goalie moving toward the bench, he knows there's pretty much only one reason that would be happening, so "Now Brodeur to the bench again. Extra attacker out." is just second nature. He's not thinking "Hey, the goalie's moving! What's up with that?".
posted by chazlarson at 12:05 PM on March 1, 2010

I knew a guy who was studying sports journalism in order to become an announcer. Watching a game on TV, he'd just mute the announcers and give his own.
posted by cmoj at 12:22 PM on March 1, 2010

I was thinking this yesterday as well. Emrick is off-the-charts good. Must take years of practice. I actually closed my eyes while watching yesterday for a bit; a blind man would know exactly what was going on. I don't know this sportscaster, but I bet he's done TONS of radio. Radio and TV are two different worlds. FWIW, Gary Thorne is very good as well.
posted by teg4rvn at 12:32 PM on March 1, 2010

Hockey is not that bad compared to, for example, horse racing. Consider the Kentucky Derby ("the most exciting two minutes in sports"), the announcer is calling live for the benefit of fans in the stand, people who have often bet significant cash on the outcome, and he doesn't have much time for corrections. The field consists of 20 horses (often indistinguishable due to being covered with mud), and is pretty fluid up until only a few days before the race. Positions/numbers aren't assigned until 2-3 days before. And "anything can happen in the derby"--when it does, even very good announcers sometimes slip up. Oh, and they're calling a dozen or so other races that day, plus the same the day before.

From watching racing, they a) study up before big races, b) use only what they can remember (if they can't remember a name to go with a number, they just use the number), c) have extra overhead views of the track, d) get a lot of practice on smaller/unimportant races, and e) hope if they slip up that it isn't too bad.
posted by anaelith at 1:53 PM on March 1, 2010

Over time watching a sport you develop a better spectator's eye and are able to anticipate where the action is and what's about to happen. And specific to hockey: when you watch enough of it, you can pick out a lot of players just by their build and skating style. I would not need jersey numbers or faces to identify most of the players on the team I follow, plus a fair number of stars around the league.
posted by shadow vector at 1:59 PM on March 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

""Well, they also have the benefit of 'local' slow motion playback (on a screen that you don't see)."

This is probably of minor use in hockey; I know the local sports guys covering Major Junior hockey for radio broadcast don't use anything like that. They just have years of practice covering the game and a sports obsession rivalling the hardest core geeks in any area.
posted by Mitheral at 3:09 PM on March 1, 2010

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