Some thoughts on the impact of broadcasters on how we view sports by: Chris Foss
When we think of sports, we also can’t help but think of the broadcasters: some great, many mediocre. So often, they seem to hold us hostage with stale, predictable analysis which reacts to the game, instead of letting it play out in a way that allows the fan to make their own judgments. Even worse, some announcers pander to special interests or are downright demagogic.
The most notable example of this is that games seem to be an endless panoply of commercials. League sponsors and the network ceaselessly promote themselves throughout the game. The “bottom line” bar always shows a network’s logo and often promotes its programming. The sideline or baseline shown on TV always advertises for the major sponsors of the stadium or the network on which the game is shown. Even player jerseys will soon no longer be sacred: as has already happened in Europe, we will soon see corporate ads creep onto the threads of U.S. players. Is the game secondary to the way it is framed?
For decades, the framer-broadcasters have held sway over how sports fans view the game, because very few fans are actually able to see games in person. Take the most recent Super Bowl, played at University of Phoenix Stadium, before a reported crowd of 70,288. U.S. viewership of the game on TV, however, was estimated at 114.5 million, so nearly 100% of people saw the game through the lens of NBC’s broadcasting team of Al Michaels and Cris Collinsworth and their production crew. Take even a mundane midseason NBA game, viewed at home by perhaps 2 million and with 20,000 in attendance—that’s 0.01% of fans actually at the game. TV—and how the game is framed by intermediaries—matters. Modern games shown on TV are generally brilliant, glitzy productions, but just because the quality of TV sports is high does not mean we should take it for granted.
For me, as a Portland, Oregon native, the most notorious example of a game being framed in what I would argue to be a detrimental way came at the end of the Portland Trail Blazers’ first trip to the NBA playoffs in 1977, one which culminated with a Game 6 at home in the “world championship” of basketball against the Philadelphia 76ers. In an era of small stadiums (Portland’s Memorial Coliseum couldn’t even squeeze in 13,000 fans for the game), most fans had to either listen to radio broadcaster Bill Schonely’s call of the game, or watch it at home on CBS. The Blazers jumped out to an early lead, then held on for the championship over the Sixers. But those watching at home also had to endure play-by-play lead Brent Musburger’s breathless commercial interjections, imploring viewers to just hang on a bit longer: for, once this game ended, an all-important golf tournament called the Kemper Open would begin. By the middle of the fourth quarter, pretty much every dead ball saw Musburger shilling for CBS’s meal ticket, its big golf package.
Barely had the Blazers’ MVP, Bill Walton, had the jersey stripped from his back by the throngs of Blazermaniacs storming the court than did Musburger steer the telecast to Pensacola for the final round on the links to see the unmemorable Tom Weiskopf pick up the victory. No victory celebration. No triumphant speech from Big Bill. Not even the awkward site of NBA Commissioner Larry O’Brien trying to look excited while handing over the championship hardware which today, bizarrely, bears his name. Because CBS couldn’t wait to get to the Kemper Open, the last sight Blazers fans and the nation were left with of that year’s world championship of basketball was that of Blazer Robin Jones, angrily storming off the court, sulking because he’d rode the pine the entire game. It seems appropriate in hindsight that the sole moment of glory for one of the NBA’s most snakebitten franchises was marred by irreverent stage direction by the Network of Cronkite, once so trusted and consulted by Americana that it was nicknamed “The Eye.”
Now, in response to my whining and complaining, you might say: “Well, Chris, if Musburger pissed you off so much, why not mute the game, and put Schonely’s radio broadcast on over it?” Good point. The modern fan often has this dilemma, especially if they’re enduring annoying national broadcasters. But most fans aren’t going to go to that length. Radio and the TV usually don’t sync up perfectly because TV normally runs on a slight delay. Fans might mute the game, but in 1977, with poor TV signals and picture transmissions (and still many people viewing the game in black-and-white, to boot), they might have missed something crucial by not having the play-by-play, such as it was, from Musburger and the equally dreadful Rick Barry on color commentary.
Then you might rebut my rebuttal: “But Chris, weren’t most viewers of that game—then as now—casual sports fans, just wanting to watch something on a Sunday?” OK, again, fair point. And undoubtedly Musburger was beholden to the god of the almighty sports dollar talking into his ear from CBS’s Madison Avenue headquarters. On the other hand, however, his actions, and the actions of CBS in just pushing through the game as fast as possible, had consequences. They revealed a state of indifference toward the NBA in the 1970s that was unconscionable.
This was an oddball decade of basketball to be sure, but one which featured big stars—Walton, Dr. J, Kareem, Dave Cowens, Moses Malone, Elvin Hayes—and also years of exciting parity. No team won back-to-back championships. The era was a historical watershed for African Americans, as they (and all players) gained the rights to free agency for the first time, and the first black head coaches became successful, including former players Bill Russell, K.C. Jones, and Lenny Wilkens. For an ethnic group navigating an era of turmoil and uncertainty of backlash to the end of racial segregation, the 1970s in the NBA, for many, embodied the American promise. And for the casual sports fan, the game offered excitement, unpredictability, and (for the old school fan) a lot of hard fouls and fighting. Salaries were still low enough that playoff shares mattered, meaning these guys fought hard for their money. The 1977 championship, in fact, featured a huge brawl in Game 2 that nearly cleared The Spectrum in Philadelphia, with fans running onto the court to go after the Blazers’ enforcer, Maurice Lucas, as he sparred with Darryl Dawkins. The NBA product of the era may have been unpolished, but it was fun and in flux, as, was seemingly the rest of American society.
We can’t turn back the hands of sports time to the 1970s, however, so there’s not much that we as fans can do about changing a broadcaster-dominated state of affairs anytime soon. TV sports has come a long way since 1977 in refinement, but also, seems locked into a “package” that leaves little room for sports—or the framing of sports—to evolve. I argue we can and should be more critical about what we see and hear on screen. With sports websites and Twitter, in addition to TV and sports radio call-in shows, we have many tools at our disposal to help frame the game in ways that helps us better make sense in our own minds as to what we believe is really going on. And thanks to multiple platforms and modern sensibilities, we can even mute Musburger (and Tim Tebow!) without losing track of what’s going on in the game.
Footnotes:  The NBA didn’t adopt the moniker “NBA Finals” for the concluding playoff series until 1986. In recent years it’s simply been dubbed “The Finals.”  Only a little bit of Schonely’s call of the game is currently available online: see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KS72pNte8Ck  See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_IF_F5FzZRY (video inn right hand column)  OK, OK, he won quite a few tournaments during the 1970s, including a British Open. But I’m still a little bitter.  It’s bizarre because he presided, arguably, over the nadir of the league—its worst TV ratings, highest incidences of hard drug use among its players, and the near-bankruptcy of several of its franchises. Teams regularly tanked in attempts to get the No. 1 draft choice. Then-Cleveland Cavaliers owner Ted Stepien got a rule named after him for trying to trade away all of his team’s draft picks, resulting in reforms barring teams from trading their first-round picks away in consecutive years. The league’s biggest star was Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who shunned the media for most of his career. (Then again, maybe O’Brien just got unlucky—four months after he retired, the Chicago Bulls drafted Michael Jordan.)  The team was also joined by former Blazer Steve Jones, who added a voice of sanity to the telecast, as he would for much of his long and distinguished career as a color commentator for the Blazers, NBC, and ESPN.  Seehttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3e3C-LQWF2s (video in right hand column)