Posts Tagged ‘Play by Play’

Game Announcers Are Storytellers

October 13, 2014 1 comment

Ross_at_Century_Link_smallerThere are a lot of young broadcasters who are in need of guidance when it comes to play-by-play. You may have been listening to games on radio since you were “knee high to a grasshopper,” but listening and doing couldn’t be farther away from each other when it comes to calling games.

Enter Ross Fletcher.

Recently, I hosted a conversation with the Seattle Sounders FC play-by-play announcer and some young broadcasters and he offered up some terrific advice and even shared his game charts.

He talked about giving the score every two minutes, making sure listeners know which team has the ball and where on the field it is and be prepared. But, what interested me more was how Ross defined the roles of the play-by-play announcer and color commentator, how he preps each game and his passion for telling stories. He’s given me permission to share some of his comments and sent some pictures to help deomonstrate how he approaches game prep. Soak it in.

Know your role. “The play-by-play guy is there to shape what’s really going on and the color guy is there to embellish, to add that little luster and explain things in a bit more detail from a step back seeing that overall pattern. I always think the best combination of color and play-by-play is where the play-by-play is comfortable throwing the color guy a few things and asking questions. I love to ask my color guy questions, because generally the color guy who is there has a breadth of knowledge to answer those and it gives you a good back and forth, a good banter. It keeps the color guy on their toes as well. I would say generally the mix for radio is 70% play-by-play, 30% color. And so the analyst can really focus on the bigger picture stuff adding the “WHY?” to the play-by-play announcer’s “WHAT?” For exciting moments, it is 100% play-by-play until the moment has fizzled out. I’m a bit of a purist. I don’t like the color guy cutting into the play-by-play because on radio you’re still painting that picture and if it’s an exciting moment that chances are the action is going to be very, very quick and so that is a really intense moment for a play-by-play announcer to be able to punch stuff out. Then the color analyst can come in with analysis of the play; why it happened and how it happened.”

Preparation: “I’ve developed over 15 year really how I want this page to look. The actual sheet I have for the in-game the in running play-by-play is a folder (11×7). It has the home team on one side and the opposition on the other. The way I’ve built it up there are individual sticky notes for every player on the squad. That’s a lot of preparation but it comes into its own.
Player LabelEvery single player has their own sticky label and then when I know the confirmed team news I can very simply stick it on to my piece of paper the players who are in the starting 11 in formation order and so that makes it easy to identify both where the player is on the field and which sticky label to look at depending on who you want to talk about. On the sticky labels are the players number, name, age, height, games played, goals and assists, that’s the very basics and that can get you through any play-by-play. Beyond that I do three little bullet points for every player below the basics which give me three different talking points on every player on the field.

Team PagesAbove that I’ll have the current record, where they are in the standings, and recent results with the goal scorers, and next to the players sticky labels some very brief points or simple stats about the club. On the bottom left hand point of the home team I’ll have information on the refs, a sidebar on the head-to-head records of the teams playing, and then I leave about a 1/2 page blank for the storylines I mentioned. I jot them down in capital letters so I can quickly easily read what I need. On the other side, the bottom half of the paper are in-running notes that I keep which is the score, who scored, and the chances it created. Usually, I’ll have enough room for all significant chances, which is a good way to remind listeners what’s going on through game, or recap action during a slowdown of play. You’ll be able to jot down those notes because your color guy will be talking about what happened and analyzing how it came about. That gives me everything I need to know on two sheets of paper.”

On Telling Stories. “You are storytellers and the more stories you have the better. As long as it’s relevant to the game, tell your stories. People love stories. Quite often the athlete’s back story is what is most compelling and not the season stats. People love to get to know personalities. If you feel you have a connection with the people who are out there performing on an emotional level then you’re going to buy into the broadcast more. When the time is right, tell stories, and build the characters, because great sports are built on great characters. It’s called “the beautiful game,” soccer, because it doesn’t really lend itself that well to statistics so in opposition it does lend itself well to good story telling.

What I would say is that great story telling can start in the pre-game show and then you can come back to it during the game. I’m comfortable with people telling stories during the match itself. A substitution is a great time to tell story, because somebody is coming on and the people who are listening want to know about the guy that’s coming onto the field. It is important that you know your “in” line and know your “out” line, and being able to tell your story in probably 15 to 30 seconds. Always have that in your mind about how you’re going to tell that story so it fits into the commentary and doesn’t interrupt the flow of the play-by-play.”

Ross Fletcher started his career at BBC Radio Darby when he was 16. He was the Saturday intern who spent his time filling out soccer score sheets when he wasn’t making the host’s tea. He’s been calling soccer on radio since he was 19. He did some commentaries of lower league and it’s how he got his break. (“I got my break actually by doing games in front of 300 guys and 7 dogs. But you bring that same kind of work ethic to it. Seriously, there may have been more dogs at some of those games than people.”) He spent his early career with the Premier League team Darby County, in addition to national radio reporting and play-by-play on all four divisions of English soccer. He’s been in Seattle for nearly three years.

Secrets of PPM

PPM is about four years old and we continue to learn more about how to use the insane amount of information it provides and what strategies to use to maximize ratings. Inside Radio and Research Director Inc. just released a new study on PPM based on the top 30 markets. Research Director Partner Charlie Sislen talked to about the study (click here for the full study) and he provides strategic tips for programmers who are struggling in this new world.

 One of the findings in the study which may be disturbing to programmers of spoken word formats is that CUME is more important than was first thought. “Everybody knows in the PPM world CUME is important, but when you look at top skewing radio stations they are all really CUME and not TSL driven. We really believe it’s the P1 CUME that’s doing it,” says Sislen.

Sislen notes that play-by-play can help the spoken word format draw in CUME, but it is not a magic bullet; the success of play-by-play depends on the team and the market, and in many cases it can be a detriment. “What a programmer has to recognize is that this event is an important launching point for your radio station to recycle this audience back in. Take them from being P4s and get them into regular listeners. Give them a reason to come in to the other day parts and give them a reason to come back the next day, the next week, some time outside of that play-by-play.”

So how can you win with PPM? Sislen offers the three “C’s” for talk hosts;

  • Crisp
  • Concise
  • Compelling

“If you’re not crisp, concise and compelling and you’re spoken word, the listener is going to go away, and the moment the listener goes away the PPM knows it.”

For programmers, Sislen stresses the importance of building occasions. “For sports, to put it in perspective, the typical P1 spends 6:44 with the radio station (per week). You get four more occasions (of at least five minutes within a quarter-hour) from those people that 6:44 has gone to 7:44. That’s massive. We’re just talking about your P1s and we’re getting them to come in just four more times in an entire week.”

The other hot issue is clocks. How many spots are you running and where are you running them? Some suggest two breaks per hour straddling the top and bottom quarter-hours and Sislen doesn’t disagree. “In a vacuum, absolutely that’s true. However, we don’t live in a vacuum and the spoken word is different than a music format and you’ve got to know what your competitions clocks are. Study your clocks and make sure you understand the rules that you need to garnish to get credit for a quarter-hour.” Once you figure out your competitors clocks, Sislen says you should be going into content when they go into commercial break. It’s that simple.

Listen to our entire conversation, including the importance of marketing your show and station, how buyers and sellers still need more education and what’s next for PPM.

Charlie Sislen Interview Podcast

Look Who’s Talking: Tom Boman

Tom Boman, Broadcast Manager Learfield Sports

GIFF: What are the keys to producing a successful play by play event?

TOM:  Preparation – you need to make sure you’ve dotted the I’s and crossed the T’s. Your on-air crew will have prepped all week on the opponent’s stats, injuries, etc., but your support staff needs to be doing the same thing. Is the imaging ready and current? Is your pre-production edited and ready to go? Are the broadcast lines (ISDN and POTS) ordered and tested? Have you communicated to your on-site engineer that they need to be set up and connected no later than 1 hour before the broadcast start time?

Execution – Is your board op prepared with all the info they need (pre-recorded interview info, highlights, etc). Communication with the crew on game site is crucial both before AND during the broadcast.

GIFF:  As someone who has produced play-by-play events for many years, what are some of the detailed items that elevate a broadcast from good to great?

TOM: It’s the small things:

Great production – You’re PxP talent is doing their best so why not surround them with the best. The production is the first thing your listeners hear. I tend to image our sports broadcasts like rock radio. It builds excitement before the talent even says a word.

Use of highlights – Too many broadcasts forget to take advantage of this. You can tell your fans how that play happened OR you can let them hear it for themselves again. We like to build broadcast opens that use highlights from previous games to help set the stage for that day’s game.

Good equipment – You can have the best talent in the world but if you have them using mediocre gear it will show. It’s the old saying “You get what you pay for.” You don’t have to break the bank but invest in a good headset, mic and mixer. Flash recorders have really become affordable as well. Do yourself a favor and get a good one and make your pre-produced interviews sound as good as your live stuff.

Great prep – Build a format structure for your pre-game ahead of time. This doesn’t mean script your show, just have the structure of where you want to go and how long each segment should take. Then be ready to be flexible if need be. I encourage talent to put together bullet point thoughts and not full scripts.

GIFF: You talk about using highlights. We’ve all heard highlights on-air that were too loose, upcut, too long, or used for sound’s sake. What are your guidelines for editing highlights?

TOM: As a standard we capture and archive:

  • Our team’s scoring plays
  • Defensive takeaways (int/fumble recovery)
  • Sacks
  • Any offensive play in the air or on the ground of 30 yards or more
  • Any game-changing play at the end of the game

A good highlight should be 12-15 seconds in length, 20 seconds max. I only like an analyst to be in the highlight if he gives a “verbal explanation point” (“what a play”……”that’s the way it’s done,” etc.). I like using highlights in postgame coming back from breaks to help set up a postgame segment. My biggest pet peeve is the PxP voice setting up his own highlights. If you have a strong analyst, they should be doing that segment in the postgame.

GIFF: What are the differences between working on play-by-play events at Learfield vs. for a radio station or directly with a team?

TOM: My role with Learfield is different than when I produced the Dodgers Radio Network. Learfield Sports produces the radio networks for 43 schools. Since we aren’t a 24-hour radio station operation, we can focus on the production of our play-by-play product and weekly coaches shows. I think this allows us to laser focus our attention on the little things that make a broadcast great. Of course the flip side is handling the workload for 43 schools, which can become even more excessive when football overlaps with men’s and women’s hoops and hockey.

In the end I think we have an advantage in producing play by play broadcasts because it’s our specialty.

GIFF:  There are a lot of aspiring play by play announcers looking for advice. What insights or guidance are you willing to pass along to them?

TOM: First and foremost is CALL GAMES! Take your recorder up to the top of the bleachers at a local high school or college event and call the game. Nothing beats repetition. Make sure you’re “painting the picture” for the listener. It sounds cheesy but the best PxP announcers do exactly that………they paint the picture. When I listen to demos I close my eyes and try to visualize what the talent is trying to tell me.

Fans really only care about a few things: 

  • What’s the score?
  • Where is the ball?
  • How much time is left?

Outside of this is a bonus. They like insight about the player or a good stat but essentially they want the basics. Good talent gives them what they want and sprinkles in a little of the rest. If you’re working with an analyst you’ll need to perfect the back and forth or “the dance.” In football, for example, the PxP voice should call the play, the analyst should jump right in with the “why” and as soon as the team breaks the huddle the analyst needs to be done and the PxP voice needs to jump in with the next play. Those are the basics.

Contact Tom Boman:, 573-556-1294  office