Time for change for TV sports commentary

On a seismic night of football which saw Bayern Munich hammer the golden boys of European football, Barcelona, 4-0, the talk of the Twitterati should’ve been on the German’s demolition job, but instead they were focussed on ITV co-commentator Andy Townsend.

“If only we were able to mute Andy Townsend”, said one tweeter. Another was a little more drastic in his opinion: “NOOOOOOOOOOOOOO...Andy Townsend is commentating #MUTE”. The consensus was clear: Townsend was not up to the job.

But for viewers there was no alternative to the Irishman (or Englishman, depending how you see it). The equivalent of ITV2 or ITV3 for commentary wasn’t available and the rigidity of such a system meant that those watching had no choice but to accept what they were given.

Why, though, can’t fans be given TV commentary options for their sports? And surely sports journalists have a role to play in TV commentary?

This week I listened to a thought-provoking discussion on ESPN Cricinfo’s The Huddle about the Indian Premier League’s (IPL) commentary. At the crux of the debate was that different commentaries should be made available to cater for different audiences.

Last night, such an idea for ITV would’ve been ideal. Clive Tyldesley and Townsend were more than suitable for the general entertainment audience, like those at the pub.

But for those seeking a more in-depth experience the pair were insufficient.

Ex-professional’s analysis of the game, like Townsend’s, is generally scorned upon, and those that can provide an interesting commentary are a rare breed: Gary Neville is the stand-alone example in football, English cricket probably bucks the trend with its array of commentating talent and Formula 1 has the excellent Martin Brundle.

The style of ex-pros may suit commentary with their name and their reputation, but their substance is often severely lacking - former footballer Niall Quinn of Sky Sports is probably the best example.

An optional commentary team, possibly made-up of journalists or experts from the sport, like historians, who have not necessarily had professional playing careers, would bring viewers a new dimension from the gantry.

For last night’s game, ITV could’ve had German football journalist Raphael Honigstein (who does standard punditry for ITV’s Champions League coverage) and Michael Cox (The Guardian’s football tactics writer) commentating; such an arrangement would’ve delighted “the football hipster” because the duo would’ve presented a far greater, detailed analysis of the match.

However, if the viewer feels they want to hear opinion from those in the game or something a little less involved, then, with the availability of a red button service, they could simply switch to Tyldesley and Townsend.

The issue with any commentary, though, is that it can overpower atmosphere. I remember last year in an FA Cup clash between Peterborough United and Sunderland on ITV, the first eight minutes aired without commentary. It was an unforgettable experience, simply because I’d never heard a game without it before and you could really feel the ambience of the match.

I wish that such an option could be made available, especially for something like the IPL where I will probably never get to experience an atmosphere live.

The lack of diversity in commentary is worrying, however, and it’s something that must be conquered for the better of the industry.

Many were saying similar things about the dominance of Barcelona in European football but look what Bayern Munich did to them. And maybe ITV could follow in Bayern’s footsteps and offer a new democratic era in sports TV commentary.
 

Comments

I share your frustration with Townsend... and it's an interesting point about commentary. It has its roots in radio, at a time before live matches were shown on TV at all, and the style hasn't changed much despite the huge leaps in technology. With the emergence of HD and ultra-HD TVs, which make it easy to read the name on the back of every shirt from the comfort of our armchairs (and count every fang sunk into a defender's arm for ourselves), you have to wonder whether we will really need someone to incessantly read out the identity of the player who has the ball and who he is passing it to. Sky+ and the like give us the ability to pause and rewind live TV - or, put it another way, the ability to choose which incidents are replayed and analysed, and how often. The traditional tools of the commentator are becoming redundant.

But having said that, I don't doubt we'll still have them. And live football on TV wouldn't feel quite the same without the occasional outburst of "take a bow, son"...

By Rob Bailey --

Rob is a lecturer in reporting and writing at the Centre for Journalism

I think the issue is mainly with the co-commentator. They are more often than not absolutely dreadful. Alright have the main one for some stats, figures and something to help you keep in tune with a 0-0, but please get rid of people like Townsend and awful commentatory like: "Chelsea are really dominating here (other team scores), well it's been coming Clive, last few minutes Chelsea have been on the back foot".

It's a well paid job, surely other people can do it well! As Dec says Sports journalists may well be the answer, at least they are trained!

By Matthew Mckew

I agree with a lot of your points there Dec. But here we go again with Sky's announcement that Jamie Carragher will be joining them next season.

Punditry has definitely become too much about former players who profess to know more about the game than someone that has studied, reported and been involved with the game professionally for just as long a period - if not longer.

Not to blow my own trumpet, but there have been many times when I have been watching a game and made a comment about the tactics of a football match or the situation of a cricket match and how it could be altered, only for the exact same comment to be made by one of these ex-pros on commentary. I could do that job!

But as I haven't played at the professional level and gained a reputation of knowing the game because I played professionally, it seems almost impossible to get into it. Ex-pros have a headstart.

Some sports definitely do it better. Cricket does have better commentary on the whole but there are still some rogue ones in there that I cannot stand.

And with Carragher's inclusion the trend looks set to continue for a while yet!

By Matthew Leclere