February 6, 2005
Ric and I are disagreeing again.
“I’m just saying, I think it should be a national holiday.”
“That’s dumb. It’s the Super Bowl, man. It’s a sporting event.”
“Don’t you think that school and work should be canceled tomorrow?”
“It’s a sporting event.”
“Yeah, but think about it. It’s called Super Bowl Sunday. What other sporting events have an official day-of name?”
“Most people don’t know it as Super Bowl Sunday.”
“Yes they do.”
“No. They don’t. I like the Super Bowl and all. I’m not against it, but it’s not an official holiday.”
Regardless of what Ric says, Super Bowl Sunday is, at the very least, an unofficial national holiday, as evidenced by the amount of people who watch it despite not watching football regularly throughout the season. It’s like the High Holidays of sports; the attendance is always inflated. People don’t gather around in the same staggering numbers for the NBA Finals, World Series, Stanley Cup Finals, Final Four, Rose Bowl, Kentucky Derby, or even Wrestlemania. Just for the Super Bowl. This game is an all-American exhibition of spectacle and sport, and when the team matchup and level of play equals or exceeds the game’s hype, there is no better single game sporting event in the world.
Tonight, Meghan and I are going with MJ to Sigma Chi, his fraternity house. Before I agreed to watch it at the house instead of at Mike’s apartment, I had to get a guarantee that I would be able to watch the game, as opposed to sitting in a loud room full of drunk girls who wouldn’t know Donovan McNabb from Don Corleone. I first became aware of this problem in eighth grade when we watched Super Bowl XXX over at Josh’s house and the girls got bored and tried to lead a movement to go hang out at the park behind Josh’s house rather than watching the game. With a big time matchup featuring two preseason favorites in New England and Philly, this is a game that I am really excited to watch.
But this is the Super Bowl, and in order to really watch the game, one first has to slosh through the piles of promotional crap and other distractions. The Super Bowl is a great American sporting event, but sometimes it’s unclear as to whether the emphasis is on “sporting” or “event.” It’s really an incredible phenomenon. The conference title games—which are played either a week or two weeks before the Super Bowl—attract little fan fare outside of the normal football audience, but then shortly after the Super Bowl matchup is set, the buzz begins to grow, and by Super Bowl Sunday the whole country is ready. No other sport has such an increase of interest from the semi-finals to the championship. Part of the game’s appeal is that it is one game as opposed to a series, and part of it is that football—with its three hour games once a week—is the most TV-friendly sport. But basically, I think it just comes down to this: America likes BIG. We like big burgers, big cars, big breasts, big TVs, and we like big games and big televised events. Along with the normal football fans that watch the NFL all year and then watch the Super Bowl as the culmination of the football season, the Super Bowl appeals to a large majority of Americans because everything about it is big.
Even the coin toss is big, and this year they allow the game’s bigness to overwhelm the normal decision making process to an absurd level. Instead of the referee or a former football star flipping the coin, they let some Pop Warner kid do it, and the kid puts the coin flat on his palm, jerks his arm upward, and the coin flies up with no rotation and then lands flat on the ground. In the NFL, games that go into overtime can be won or lost by the result of the coin toss, and here we are at the biggest game of the season and they’re letting some kid do the honors. Unbelievable.
But then the game starts, and it’s a good one, and the fact that Philly is not only in the game but controlling it is surprising; I figured the Patriots would be running away with it by the second quarter. But give credit to the Eagles: they have shown that they are the class of the NFC and a team that belongs in this game. Both defenses are playing hard, and laying out a lot of big hits—big hits: another good “big” that America likes—and New England’s passing game is really sharp, and Terrell Owens has proven everyone wrong by not only playing but playing like Terrell Owens, and Tedy Bruschi and Rodney Harrison continue to make plays and impress me, and everything about the game is going well, except, except…
“Man, do I hate FOX announcers, bro.”
“You hate all non-Chicago announcers,” Mike says, his eyes remaining fixed on the screen.
“That’s not true.”
But Mike is right, for the most part: it’s not that I hate all non-Chicago announcers, it’s just that I find most announcers who work for a network rather than a team to be beyond obnoxious. FOX Sports is the worst. They’re not the only bad ones, but they are the worst of the bunch across the board. I think I dislike their baseball announcers even more than their football announcers.
The thing about announcers is that they serve as the connection between the game and the fans, much in the same way that a rabbi or priest serves as a connection between God and the congregation. Certainly you don’t need a rabbi to be a faithful Jew and have a relationship with God, but there is something comforting about praying with a person who is more committed to and focused on and knowledgeable about God and religion than you are. In a perfect world, the announcer connects the fan to the game in a way that they cannot achieve on their own. This is why listening to radio announcers is much more fulfilling and enjoyable than listening to television announcers: with radio, the announcers have the responsibility of providing the listener with enough specific description as to allow him or her to visualize the game’s action. Because of this, radio announcers—both team and network—are much more on the ball with the game and much more careful with their words, because it is their words that fill in the blanks that are created by a sound-only medium.
This, obviously, is not the same with television announcers. When the fans can see the game as it unfolds, the job of the announcer becomes more difficult: while a fan listening to the radio has an obvious need for the announcer, the fan watching television does not, so it is up to the announcers on television to justify their existence with thoughtful remarks and sparse yet exciting play-by-play. We don’t necessarily need announcers, but get a great call attached to a great sequence, and it’s magic:
“The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant!”
“Havlicek stole the ball!”
“Down goes Frasier!”
“Do you believe in miracles? Yes!”
“Caught by Clark!”
“And the band is out on the field!”
“Behind the bag! It gets through Buckner!”
“Now—there’s a steal by Bird! Underneath to DJ—he lays it in!”
“Unbelievable!…I don’t believe what I just saw!”
“A spec-tacular move, by Michael Jordan.”
If you know these calls, you don’t even need to hear them. Simply seeing them in print produces an excitement. These calls and others like them are a reminder as to the full strength of the announcer, and when you get a classic call, it raises that moment above the many others in the history of sport. A great announcer will do that; with a good announcer, fans are treated to a broadcast that cackles with life. Take the Gibson home run, for example. Sure it was exciting, sure it was memorable, but that’s not why it is a classic moment. Rather, it was two beasts of the broadcast that placed it ahead of many others in our collective memory and imaginations. One was Gibson’s overreaching, full-body fist-pump that he unleashed as he rounded first base, and the other was the radio call by Jack Buck. Was that a more important home run than the home runs hit by Joe Carter and Bill Mazeroski that won the 1993 and 1960 World Series, respectively? Of course not. But the call sets it apart.
It was Vin Scully who called Game 1 of the 1988 World Series on television, but it is Jack Buck’s famous radio call of the Gibson home run that stands out. Upon first inspection, Scully’s famous line from that broadcast—“In a year that has been so improbable, the impossible has happened!”—seems to be the more memorable call, but it was Buck’s simple and truthful announcing that is remembered, probably because it summed up the feelings and thoughts of everybody watching the game at home or at the park. “I don’t believe what I just saw.” Who did?
Both Scully and Buck are classic announcers, and both are best known for their affiliation with their teams, the Dodgers and Cardinals respectively. Even when doing national broadcasts, these guys and the other top dogs excel by putting a true passion, emotion, and amazement into their calls. This does not surprise me; guys who work specifically for a team tend to be the best at creating a great broadcast, because they can get more involved with the game personally and show their own bias. Any Bulls fan old enough to remember “The Shot”—Michael Jordan’s 1989 game-winner against Cleveland that sent the Bulls to the second round of the playoffs—remembers the classic call by Bulls announcer Jim Durham:
“Michael at the foul line, a shot on Ehlo—GOOD! The Bulls win! They win it!”
A fan watching the game on TV did not need an announcer to tell him that Jordan had caught the pass and hit the game-winner. But the call by Durham matched the emotions felt by the Bulls fans watching the game, and that made it memorable. It was real. It was spontaneous. It was perfect.
Compare that to the call made by NBC announcer Bob Costas for Jordan’s “last shot” in the 1998 Finals. The Bulls are down one with just under twenty seconds to play in Game 6 at Utah, they lead the series 3 games to 2, and the Jazz have just dumped it down to Karl Malone. As Jordan sneaks behind Malone to double him and swat the ball away, Costas sets the stage:
“Malone is doubled, they swat it and steal it! Here comes Chicago. (Jordan is bringing the ball up court) 17 seconds, 17 seconds from Game 7, or from championship number six. (Jordan dribbles slowly on Bryon Russell before cutting to the free throw line for his shot) Jordan…open…(he shoots and scores) Chicago with the lead!”
The call, though full of a seemingly excited intonation from Costas, feels scripted. Everybody watching the game knows what’s at stake; we are not idiots. We understand that if the Jazz win, we go to Game 7, and if the Bulls win, it’s over. This is not the kind of call you would have heard from either the Bulls TV or radio announcers, or from Utah’s TV or radio announcers. You can almost hear Costas thinking carefully about his word choice, particularly on the pause after the first “17 seconds,” in an effort to enhance NBC’s product by packaging the game in the most Professional and Dramatic way possible. That call, while sort of poetic and definitely to the point, in no way reflects the emotions of either Bulls fans or Jazz fans at that moment. And then still, during the timeout between Jordan’s shot and the game’s final possession for Utah, Costas continues on in his attempt to win the Pulitzer Prize for least spontaneous live announcer with this comment:
“That may have been, (dramatic pause)…who knows, what will unfold in the next several months, (another dramatic pause), but that may have been, the last shot Michael Jordan will ever take in the NBA.”
Then Isiah Thomas jumps into the fold for a bit, talking about how Jordan pushed off Russell, but it seems he caught Costas in mid-dramatic pause, because when Thomas finishes…
“If that’s the last image, (dramatic pause), of Michael Jordan, (obnoxious, yes?), how magnificent is it?”
And finally, in case we still were unsure about what possibly laid ahead, Costas informed us as the Jazz looked to inbound and hopefully (for them) hit their own game winner:
“Stockton, Hornecek, Antoine Carr, Karl Malone, and Bryon Russell. If they score, there’s a Game 7. (This dramatic pause lasted a full four seconds. I’m not kidding. Four whole seconds while in the middle of a sentence. Go to the tape if you don’t believe me. Do you realize how long four seconds is, particularly in the middle of a sentence? Go ahead; count it out. I’ll wait…ridiculous, yes?) If they don’t, for the second straight year, they go out in six.”
They did not score, the Bulls won, and after the celebration and trophy presentation and lots of post game interviews, Costas continues on with his announcer diarrhea-of-the-mouth, going on and on about Jordan’s and this Bulls team’s places in history and dropping dramatic pauses as cheaply as the Ohio State coaches pass out the “big play” stickers that they put on their helmets. I’ll spare you of the transcript in its entirety; I’m sure you get the idea.
Was this enough to ruin the game for me? Not even close. This is Game 6 of the NBA Finals, and my team was on the verge of a sixth championship in eight years. But it’s noticeable and irksome, in the same way that an insincere or out-of-touch rabbi would be bothersome. You’re still enjoying the service, you’re still focused on prayer, but man, what’s with this guy?
This is not to say, however, that I find all network announcers to be as annoying as Bob Costas. Any announcer who is calling a game for a network has to remain “unbiased”—at least for the most part, with no overwhelming swing towards one team—but the good ones still manage to react with genuine emotions. They may have team biases that are not on display, or they may just be reacting to the game as a fan with no vested interest in either team much in the same way that I genuinely respond to the play in the Super Bowl even though I don’t care who wins. Either way, these announcers are enjoyable to listen to. Take Dick Vitale, for example. A lot of people find him really, really annoying, which is understandable. His style is not for everyone. He is loud and repetitive, and his voice and his predictability bother a lot of fans. He also seems to be a mondo-Duke homer. That’s fine. But I enjoy listening to Dickie V because he is genuinely excited about college hoops, and his reactions—though much more overblown than mine—reflect my own emotions when watching the game. Marv Albert is another guy I love listening to. Like most great announcers, he’s got a distinct style and a classic catch phrase, (“Yuls! And it counts!”), and I gotta respect him for allowing his New York bias to sneak out during those epic Bulls-Knicks playoff games in the ’90s. It wasn’t much, but you could always tell.
My brother laughs.
“So, will you be able to manage listening to these guys?”
“Yeah. This is the Super Bowl. They’re just annoying, that’s all.”
At halftime, the score is tied at seven and the game feels like it’s going to be one of the all-time greats. Paul McCartney’s halftime show keeps the momentum up (assuming you enjoy the Beatles), and through the middle of the third quarter the game still feels like a classic. Then things get sloppy, and while trailing 24-14 with 5:40 to go in the game, the Eagles start dragging ass down the field and eat four minutes off the clock before scoring a touchdown to pull within three. Nobody watching could quite understand what was going on. It is basic football: when you need a score and time is a factor, you speed up your offense with a no-huddle and work the sidelines. Instead, McNabb and the Eagles meander to the line and down the field with hardly any sense of urgency. Philly holds New England on their next possession and forces them to punt, but the punt goes down to the four leaving the Eagles with no chance at advancing the ball. As if sensing that the trip down the field will be impossible, the Eagles cut their losses and throw an interception to seal their fate. After a great start, the game ends with an awkward thump (not with a bang, but with a whimper, if you will); it was like watching a great action movie for an hour and a half, filled with big stars, great acting, and an intriguing and entertaining plotline, and then having the screenplay just fall apart at the end as the movie becomes boring and nonsensical. The pick is thrown, and then Brady comes out to kneel the ball down, and then the clock ticks down to zero, and then the confetti starts to fall, and then Meghan’s grandma dies and everything stops.