What if a TV channel opened a sporting program with a few fancy graphics, followed by the beginning of play, and no commentating whatsoever, from anyone? Basketball, football, tennis...they all just showed what was happening on the field of play and no one ever spoke to the audience.
It would be weird because we're so used to commentators, and it would be somewhat impractical. But I ask this question to illustrate how difficult it must be to commentate on sporting events, because one of the fundamental things we all need to take into consideration is this:
What, ultimately, is the commentator's purpose?
I'll attempt to provide my own answer to this. In order of importance:
Above all else, sports is entertainment, and a commentator who knows every rule and every iota of historical data is worthless if he's boring. The audience must always come first.
Being eloquent and not stumbling over sentences is simply a sub-set of this.
The commentator must not only know his subject, he must know different aspects of it. He must know its history and its people. He must be able to pronounce names correctly. He must know its politics and the way shifting events within the sport affect each other.
3. Impartial about contestants on the field of play.
If partiality exists, the commentator should find a way to leave it at the door of the booth.
4. Tactful and aware.
For lack of a better way of putting things, the commentator should be someone who is a people-person, who knows how to get along with other people naturally and wisely. He should not be someone who acts boorishly (i.e., interrupts others, drones on about a subject after it's over, etc.). Someone who is socially aware and awake.
5. Chemistry with co-commentators.
Several points to consider:
About tennis in particular: on top of these requirements, the commentator should talk at opportune moments between points, but be silent (mostly) during points.
This is difficult because of the ambiguous length of tennis games. No one knows if the next point will be the last or not. Too often, I have heard commentators attempt to bring up a deep, very good point about something important, only to have to put it on hold because suddenly the network is cutting to commercial because the game ended.
Also keep in mind that the commentator must cope with performing on live television in front of millions of people, fluidly take the audience to commercials (if you're in a country in which the TV stations have them; we do here in the U.S.); and sometimes make quick announcements for the network.
Additionally, the commentator has a job (perhaps unspoken) to hype the contest on which he is commentating
. Television is a business which depends solely on its ability to attract viewers. Any commentator who said, "Folks, this is a runaway, you might as well go water the lawn or watch Fear Factor
." would get fired so fast our heads would spin. Part of his job
is to say, "Well, they've still got a chance," or, "Remember, he came from behind last month, so folks, he could do it again."
As an example, too often, I've seen Pam Shriver's hype of anyone-who-can-beat-Serena accused of being bias, when it is clear to me that she's trying to engage the interests of viewers who want to see a contest instead of a rout. It's part of her job.
I also remember Jim Courier encouraging people to call in sick so they could stay home and watch Wimbledon. Brownie points from the production office, anyone?
Also remember, some sports have slow spots in which it's difficult to come up with something to say (baseball being a prime example; I'm convinced baseball has stats out the wazoo simply to give announcers something to talk about).
Tennis suffers from this to a certain degree. Commentators still bring up Monica's stabbing during an easy match -- usually in the 2nd set -- often because they've run out of things to say and it's an easy subject on which to jump. Likewise, I'll never forget Cliff Drysdale desperately trying to milk the subject of "What position is the sun in the sky?" during an Oz Open Final to embarrassing lengths.
Personally, I would place Mary Carillo at the top of the list, by a mile. She is witty and energetic without effort
. Her turns of phrase are charming, and if they're not spontaneous then she's a fantastic actor. She's also not afraid to call it like it is.
I like Pam Shriver. She's not great, but she Does The Job, and she's a natural communicator. Her chemistry with Mary Joe is very evident, and that's important. I've listened to dozens of matches given by the Pam / Mary Joe team, and I'm baffled at the accusations of bias leveled towards them. I don't hear it. Pam does talk about herself a bit too much from time to time, but not often.
I like Mary Joe, and here I have to admit to my own bias: I'm hot for Mary Joe.
I could look at her all day long. She has a really lovely face, with great cheekbones. Her announcing is somewhat stilted at times, but very functional and nothing about it bothers me. Again, accusations of bias are out of line. If Mary Joe was going to be biased towards anyone, it would be towards Monica, her best friend, and she makes a concerted effort not to let that bias show on the air, and I think she's been damned successful at that.
Cliff Drysdale's announcing is dry, almost a monotone at times, and his chemistry with Patrick McEnroe is somewhere in the negative range. A few years ago, I thought those two were going to get into fistfights. I swear, no matter what opinion one of them had, you could bet dollars to doughnuts that the other would have the complete opposite opinion, and there would be seconds of awkward silence in the booth. It was almost surreal.
I never liked Chris Evert's commentating, but I don't know why. I didn't really hear enough of it to judge. Same with John McEnroe. And now that Chris has left the booth, it's a moot point.
I liked Bud Collins a lot, but his microphone should be turned off while a point is being played. It's irritating to hear him gasp at a great shot, or suddenly whisper, "Net chord!"
I really don't know much about any other commentators, so I'll leave it to the rest of you.