The Game is the Game

At a time when “reality television” is anything but, sports comes the closest to manifesting that designation

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AlMichaels.jpgI have one of the world’s great jobs. And so I often tell people that if reincarnation does exist and God wants to get even with me in my next life, I’ll be working in a sulphur mine. In Mongolia.

On the night shift. If there’s a better mass media marriage than sports and television, call me collect. At a time when “reality television” is anything but, sports comes the closest to manifesting that designation. Great games provide high drama, multiple storylines, tension (doubly so for the bettors), and from time to time, a little comedy. At its best, it’s a wonderful communal experience—you know you’re sharing your viewing pleasure oftentimes with millions or tens of millions of others. Having now done the play-by-play for the NFL’s No. 1 primetime game for the last 26 seasons (20 on ABC’s Monday Night Football and the last six on NBC’s Sunday Night Football), I’ve seen firsthand something else. There’s a buzz in the stadium that starts well before the game and generally lasts throughout the contest that isn’t replicated at most other games. And it has everything to do with the fans understanding that what they’re watching in person is being seen by a huge television audience.

I’ve been on the inside of network television sports for nearly all my adult life, and I'm still exhilarated by it. A lot of that has to do with the evolvement of technology and the fact that, for the most part, I’ve worked with the best of the best in the industry. And I’m not just talking about some of my well-known on-air partners (John Madden, Cris Collinsworth, Tim McCarver, Bob Costas, Doc Rivers, Jim Palmer and yes, Howard Cosell, to name just a few) but the best producers, directors, tape operators, camerapersons and all the folks you rarely hear about who make television sports the spectacular visual treat that it is. Telecast after telecast, these folks make a very complicated endeavor look amazingly simple. And after all these years, I’m still blown away by how it gets done. A lot of it has to do with the fact that it’s live, and we all live with the pressure of getting it right the first (and only) time. In the sports television business, there’s no take two (or take 20 or whatever it takes to get movie scene just right). Hollywood has its world-renowned Steven Spielberg. I'll take my unknown Drew Esocoff , our Sunday Night Football director, who pitches a three-hour, near-perfect game week after week.

And never gets to say, “take two.”

So what’s next for sports television? I can’t think of any quantum leaps on the horizon, but I do think that technology will keep evolving on an orderly and consistent basis and the viewing experience will get better and better. Over the last several years, hand-held cameras, high-definition pictures and the ability to position remote cameras above the playing surface on cable rigs have been phenomenal enhancements.

I don’t know what’s next, but here’s a word of caution to my peers and colleagues. Don’t let the technology overwhelm what our job is—and that’s to bring the audience the game itself. Our role is to combine information with entertainment and to do it in a manner that allows the telecast to breathe. Wall-to-wall talk from the booth or every-two-second camera cuts to fans in the stands chewing fingernails is what will get an audience ready to throw shoes at their television sets. Sometimes it’s good just to slow it down a little.

And here’s something that I think is timeless. Remember Jim McKay’s classic line that opened ABC’s Wide World of Sports? “The thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.” What followed was, to me at least, even more defining—“the human drama of athletic competition.”

There’s no better way to enhance a telecast than to provide insight into the people providing that drama. Years from now, a football game will still look pretty much like a football game as we know it now. But the cast of characters is ever-changing. And endlessly fascinating.


Veteran broadcaster Al Michaels is the voice of NBC’s Sunday Night Football.