Nothing in professional sports is easy. Athletes make difficult feats appear effortless, which is a testament to their unique and otherworldly skills. While not as extraordinary as a one-handed catch over the middle or an alley-oop lob pass and finish from half court, broadcasting and providing intelligent commentary on these plays is still difficult in its own right.
Though day-in-day-out fans may not need extensive commentary to understand the game and its multitude of strategy and scheming, novice fans or casual viewers may appreciate the announcer’s presence. However, they could also become easily lost when the color commentator overwhelms them with unfamiliar jargon. In a subtler way, these announcers influence how many fans think about the game, the players and the coaching decisions.
Unfortunately, many announcers are becoming increasingly inept and failing to adapt their analysis to actual facts supported by data. The status quo of commentary protects coaches and other decision-makers at the expense of fan knowledge and information.
Most partially informed commentary occurs in football because there is enough time between plays for a decent amount of description and analysis about what just happened. Compared to basketball or hockey, when commentary happens during pauses in play, football has the most immediate opportunity for feedback.
A major issue is football commentators’ unwillingness to incorporate data into their segments. In baseball, for instance, it is extremely common to hear what percentage of a pitcher’s fastballs have resulted in strikes, balls, or outs compared to curves, sliders and the like. In football, you will almost never hear an announcer bring up the fact that a team has 60 percent chance to convert on fourth and short. As such, almost every football commentator is overly conservative with his analysis and is out of touch with what data, or even common sense, suggests.
Earlier in the season, the Chicago Bears were down 20-0 at Seattle with backup quarterback Jimmy Clausen at the helm. Unsurprisingly, the Bears struggled to get any offense going whatsoever. The Bears faced fourth-and-inches near midfield, and Head Coach John Fox, who is one of the most conservative play-callers in the NFL, trotted out the punt team in hopes of burying Seattle deep. CBS announcer and former quarterback Phil Simms supported the move and said it was better to hope the defense made a play. Simms ignored the conversion rate data and the fact that points were far more likely to come from the offense. Essentially, Simms shifted the responsibility from the coaches to the players. If the Bears failed to stop Seattle quickly, the defense should be blamed — not the coaches who put it in that situation. The Bears ended up losing 23-0, and Chicago’s only impressive feat was that it punted on each of its 10 possessions.
Relatively speaking, it was a low-risk, modest-reward play. If Chicago got the first down, it would have at least had a chance to inch closer to scoring range and chip away at the deficit. If Chicago failed, the team would still be down 20 points and its already miniscule comeback chances would have decreased further.
Fourth downs aside, the another annoying aspect of modern-day commentary is the aversion to the two-point play. For instance, in late October, Indiana hung tough on the road against No. 7 Michigan State. Indiana, whose kicker had already missed an extra point, scored with 10 minutes left in the third quarter to bring the Hoosiers within two. While Indiana contemplated going for two and the tie, the announcers made it known that it was “too early” to go for two. The kicker subsequently missed another extra point, and Michigan State went on to score the next 24 points and win decisively.
The notion that it was too early is absurd. It is reasonable to think a team down by eight points will have to go for two eventually to tie, so why not do it as early as possible? If the conversion succeeds, the game is tied; if it fails, you still need to score again anyway, but you can at least adjust your strategy and future decision-making based on that result. In short, there is no significant advantage from being down one point compared to being down two. Fans deserve to know the numbers. The announcers are obviously free to disagree based on feelings or past experience, but introducing data along with their analysis will actually force them to justify their positions, making fans more informed. All of this information is readily accessible; announcers just need the courage to use it.
Michael Ippolito is a junior in the College. The Water Cooler appears every Friday.
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