With All These Sports Channels, Who’s Gonna Call the Games?

TV networks are having trouble developing credible talent

Sports Broadcasting Talent Drain
Jacob Thomas

Talk to sports purists (especially old-timers), and many will trace gripes about the professional leagues back to two dreaded words: Expansion and dilution. To this contingent, everything was better when there were fewer teams, placing less of a drain on the talent pool.

While there are several mitigating factors in this discussion, there is one area where both expansion and dilution are clearly having a deleterious effect — sports television. And based on prevailing trends, the problem is only going to get worse.

The appetite for sports has already produced an environment in which a dizzying number of games are televised, each requiring its own broadcasting team (usually, a bombastic play-by-play guy, an ex-coach and/or ex-player color man, and a perky sideline reporter). On an average Saturday this September, there will be a few dozen college football games in every market, via ESPN and its sundry companion channels, the major broadcasters and an assortment of regional networks.

This, however, is increasingly just the tip of the iceberg, as the latest trend involves individual teams and conferences with their own dedicated channels — from the Pac-12 and the Big 10 to the U. of Texas, and from the Los Angeles Dodgers to the Houston Rockets (with preseason games starting in October).

Fox Sports, meanwhile, is preparing to launch a national alternative to ESPN on Aug. 17, dubbed Fox Sports 1, promising around-the-clock coverage and  thousands of hours of news programming each year — including a nightly program and morning newscast scheduled to make its debut in January — presented “in a Fox Sports way,” as co-prez Eric Shanks has described it.

Granted, these enterprises generally air an awful lot of reruns, slicing and dicing up games for rebroadcast and repeating highlight shows. But they must also provide original programs and analysis, which can’t help but place an additional burden on the supply of on-air talent, as well as on producers and staff.

Based on a brief survey of sports broadcasting, it’s safe to say the market is not up to it. In fact, despite no shortage of those eager to join the fraternity (and it’s largely just that), it’s pretty clear the networks are having trouble developing credible talent to fill the slots that already exist, much less staff an onslaught of new ones.

In this regard, the pro sports leagues are actually far better positioned to absorb expansion than TV is, largely because they’ve been able to reach beyond U.S. borders in the quest for talent — recruiting NBA and NHL players from Europe, or baseball players from Latin America and Asia. And while there is always a shortage of worthy pros for any of these rarefied endeavors, in most of these cases, adding a couple teams only requires unearthing a few dozen prospects.

As TV networks sprout up, the hunger for on-air talent has not only devoured the ranks of the usual suspects — coaches and players — but also prompted enlisting more print journalists, many of whom struggle to make the transition.

Nor does it help, quality-wise, that the current generation of aspiring broadcasters appears to have been influenced more by the bombast of announcers like Gus Johnson or basketball analyst Dick Vitale than the contingent that preceded them, which grew up admiring the professionalism of Dick Enberg, Vin Scully and Keith Jackson.

Put these factors together, and the trend in sports broadcasting provides a feast for the eyes, perhaps, but an assault on the ears.

Then again, with an increasingly splintered audience and so much bandwidth available, such a cacophony of sports is an almost perfect symbol of the times, where everything worth doing is perceived as being worth overdoing.

So in the midst of another summer of baseball scandal involving the stain of performance-enhancing drugs, when it comes to sports on TV, it’s not just the players who are feeling the need to get juiced.

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