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The best sports broadcasters make the job easy: but it isn’t

Brendan Schabath

WKAR Current Sports reporter Brendan Schabath wants to be a professional broadcaster, and is learning how much preparation it takes to make the calls look seamless. He decided to ask professional broadcasters about their process.

For as long as sports broadcasters have been around, the biggest and most influential sports moments in history have been punctuated by play-by-play announcers. Whether it’s Tom Cheek’s famous, “Touch Em all Joe!” after Joe Carter’s walk off homerun in the 1993 World Series, or Mike Breen’s infamous “Bang!” after a big shot in the NBA, announcers have been associated with some of the biggest moments in sports history.

For me, there’s one call I will never forget. With 10 seconds left in the game, all the Michigan football team had to do was punt the ball away and it would’ve beaten No.7 Michigan State, 23-21 to win the 2015 edition of the rivalry. Instead, one of the craziest finishes in the modern era of college football took place.

“Woah he has trouble with the snap! And the ball is free! It’s picked up by Michigan State’s Jalen Watts Jackson and he scores! On the last play of the game! Unbelievable!”

Sean McDonough’s voice-crack ridden call probably didn’t go how he wanted it to. But it was authentic, exciting, and encapsulated everything in the moment.

While we all lost our minds, McDonough lost his voice.

Brendan Schabath

Did you ever wonder how McDonough so effortlessly proclaimed Watts-Jackson as the player who recovered the fumble? I did. Yes, it was easy enough to look at a roster sheet and see that No. 20 was Watts-Jackson but it was McDonough’s preparation in building that roster sheet that made it so easy.

Many pedestrian fans are unaware of how much work and preparation goes into a broadcast for play-by-play announcers. There’s more to it than simply knowing every name and number for both teams. Hours are spent tirelessly combing through information, interviews and storylines to develop a complete understanding of both teams. This was something that I, an aspiring broadcaster at Michigan State, had to learn the hard way.

I got my start in broadcasting back in high school. I was a three-year player at one of the best basketball programs in Michigan, but wasn’t good enough to make the team my senior year. I had already been announcing some games for my school’s tiny online radio stream but as a senior I took over the sportscast club and began announcing every game I could. In that final season, the basketball team went to the state championship and I got to call the game courtside at the Breslin Center. I knew then this was the career path I wanted to take, but I didn’t know how much hard work it would be.

When I got to MSU, I was enrolled in the journalism program and would focus most of my time on sports broadcasting, specifically play-by-play announcing. I quickly learned from upperclassmen that play-by-play was not a job in which I could just show up, put the headset on and call the game. They taught me how to prepare. I never realized I would need to know names, numbers, statistics, background information, team history, current records, upcoming schedules and so much more in order to call a game.

It’s been a grueling process learning how to prepare for a game over the last four years. I remember my first game on-air at MSU. I was doing color commentary for a volleyball tournament that MSU was hosting. I was assigned the Indiana State and Miami (Ohio) game to commentate. I prepped an eight-page booklet of the two teams’ rosters and stats. Turns out, trying to flip through eight pages of unfamiliar stats while being live is not very practical.

I’ve had to adapt and learn what works best for me. Part of that process has been speaking with trained professionals who also deal with the same struggles.

Roxy Bernstein is a play-by-play commentator for ESPN, the PAC-12 Network and the Oakland A’s. He graduated from Berkeley in 1996. Bernstein quickly became the play-by-play voice of Cal men’s basketball just one year after graduating. Since then, he’s announced men’s and women’s college basketball, college football, college baseball and the NHL for ESPN. All of that goes along with his duties as an announcer for the Oakland A’s and the PAC-12 Network.

Bernstein has ascended to the threshold as one of ESPN’s top broadcasters because of the preparation he puts into each broadcast.

“I watch, at least, the previous game for each team that I have. At least that, sometimes two, maybe even three games leading up to the game. I might watch the most recent game twice,” said Bernstein.

He dives deeper into each team after watching its games. Scouring media notes, collecting stories and interviewing coaches and players is routine for Bernstein. It’s difficult work. It takes time and focus and even after all those hours of preparation, he may not even use all of his material.

“Of all the stuff I have prepared and I have written down in my notes, I maybe use five to 10 percent of it,” said Bernstein. “You never know when you’re gonna need something or to be prepared for something, so I really grind away at being prepared.”

Example of play-by-play games notes.
Brendan Schabath
Example of play-by-play games notes.

Bernstein has the advantage of working for major networks like ESPN and the PAC-12 Network. Other announcers, like Jeremy Otto, don’t have that luxury. Otto began his broadcasting career in high school at the University of Detroit Jesuit calling football and basketball games. After high school, he moved on to NAIA Madonna University located in Livonia, Michigan.

Smaller programs don’t have the same media relations departments as the bigger schools. The media relations team at a big school will take time to learn about each player and coach, and then gives that information to the media. Simply put, a school like Madonna can’t afford a media relations department that will do all that work. This means the task falls to Otto.

“For a college basketball game, I’d say [I take] anywhere from 10-12 hours to prepare,” said Otto.

Recording stats and knowing the numbers are important, but in sports, the stats are only good in context. For Otto, the most critical part of the prep is speaking with head coaches. Making a human connection allows him to understand everything contextually.

“As long as the coach will accommodate you, I always make that the priority,” said Otto. “We can look at stats and stats and stats and even articles and press conferences and stuff like that, but you hope they’re gonna tell you more information than what’s already out there because you’re curious about things.”

At its crux, journalism is a storytelling industry. This same concept applies to play-by-play announcers. Each game has a story that unfolds before our eyes and it’s the announcer’s job to tell that story in real time. But with each game there are more stories. They seep into the soil like the roots of a plant, intertwining with each other and running in all directions. The announcer is the gardener that digs these stories up.

Dalton Shetler, the play-by-play voice of MSU women’s basketball, has done his share of “gardening” and knows how important it is.

“As you just pay attention and you observe, you just find a way that your team connects with the rest of the world,” said Shetler. “That’s how you prepare in the season with a team as you move forward.”

I’ve seen many student broadcasters quit the race because of how hard the preparation for a game is. As broadcasters, we are doing a disservice to the athletes, coaches, parents, fans and our viewers if we don’t prepare enough. Life gets in the way many times. I’ll be the first to admit (embarrassingly) that I’ve called my fair share of games when I’ve been less than fully prepared. The hard part is learning from those mistakes and taking the time to be better in the future.

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