When friends, family and acquaintances hear that I do some play-by-play broadcasting, their immediate response is almost always the same. Some form of “How do you know what to say?” is usually the first thing they ask.
Actually, that is not true. The first thing is a request to pretend like I’m calling a big play right there on the spot. Which is way, way more difficult than you would think.
But anyways, play-by-play is something that almost everyone is familiar with but few have actually done. Just about everyone has watched a game, but far fewer have called one. And so, interesting questions come up.
When I get that specific question, my instinct is to say, “Um, I’m not really sure, it just kind of happens.” And while there is some truth in that statement, that is not the right answer. In reality, I have found that calling a game is a little bit of science and a whole lot of art.
The science comes first, in the form of preparation. With the weekly schedule of arena football, I like to get my prep in gear two or three days before the game, a luxury that those who call baseball for a living do not have. The purpose is simple: I do not want to be memorizing the basic facts on game day. Waiting until pregame warm-ups to learn the wide receivers’ numbers is a disaster waiting to happen.
My prep work consists of two major pieces: depth charts and a sheet of notes. Putting these together serves two valuable purposes, both familiarizing myself with the teams and trends, and creating materials I will use during the broadcast itself.
By going through and manually inputting each player’s information onto a page that is laid out like they will line up, I learn the teams without feeling like I am memorizing words for a spelling test. My physical depth chart is not my primary source during the game – if I did it right, it is all in my head. But I hold the chart in my hand as a security blanket. It is better to pause for a beat to make sure you are right about what college a player attended than to stumble over yourself trying to remember it.
On game day, I do whatever I can to set myself up for success. One of the best things about calling arena football games in Jacksonville is that my vantage point is right in the middle of the field on the main concourse level. Sitting – well, standing – that close to the field makes recognizing players a breeze.
I mentioned earlier that I do not want to be memorizing players’ names and numbers during warm-ups. But I am still playing attention. Once the teams are dressed out and on the field, I can look for identifiers. Maybe someone’s gloves are a different color than their teammates’, or they are the only defensive lineman without a visor.
Last Saturday’s game provided a great example of this. Los Angeles receiver Fred Williams was about the only player on the field with neon green shoes. So in the event that the #11 on his jersey was not easily visible, the shoes let me know right away that it was Williams pulling down a catch in traffic.
Eventually, though, there is only so much good that preparation can do. Once the whistle starts, the science stops. This is where the art comes in.
Every broadcaster has a unique style. And I think it is absolutely critical to let your own personality flourish rather than trying to mimic someone else’s. I can say, without a doubt, that I have picked up cadences and expressions from the broadcasters I have listened to the most over the years. But I do not think about that in the moment. I do everything I can to simply describe what I see as the action unfolds.
For me, the true art of a broadcast is weaving in stories or other bits of information in the natural flow of the game. Vin Scully is and forever will be the Grandmaster of in-game storytelling, but he is completely out of everyone else’s league. While none of us will ever be on his level, adding anecdotal flavor to the call is one of the most essential pieces of play-by-play.
I mentioned earlier that I have a page of notes containing facts, figures and trends. I do not hold it in my hand like I do my depth charts; instead it sits on the table in front of me, readily available for me to look at during breaks. Whenever there is a media timeout, I will glance at the sheet to remind myself of things I can draw on as the game progresses.
Just as important as knowing what to say is finding the right moment to say it. Coming into last week’s game, I knew that LA receiver Donovan Morgan had accounted for more than half of the receiving touchdowns in franchise history. I could have thrown that fact out when I first mentioned his name, a first-quarter reception that brought LA over midfield.
Instead, I waited. And waited. And waited. Finally, in the fourth quarter, Morgan caught a two-yard touchdown pass. And while I’m paraphrasing myself here, waiting for the right moment let me add a little more context.
“That was Pete Thomas’ fifth TD pass of the game, which means that the KISS have now thrown for 231 scores in their three years in the AFL. I mentioned earlier that Morgan was far and away LA’s all-time leading receiver, and how about this: Of those 231 touchdowns, Donovan Morgan has caught 120 of them. That means that more than half of the TD passes in KISS franchise history have fallen into the hands of number one.”
In some ways, a football broadcast is three hours of scoping out those moments when you can deliver a little bit of key information while remaining in the flow of the game. I would like to think I can do that more often than not, and I cannot wait to give it another shot on Saturday as the Sharks host the Tampa Bay Storm.