I grew up a fan of the Chicago Cubs and Buffalo Sabres, so it goes without saying that my childhood sports fandom was full of disappointment and not a lot of positivity. Until 2016, the Cubs were the poster-children of “here we go again.” Every time they gave their fans a glimmer of hope, it was just a matter of time for the other shoe to drop – and every Cub fan knew it. As for the Sabres, they’ve made the postseason all of two times since their President’s Trophy-winning season of 2006-07. For some perspective on how long ago that was – the star of that team, Danny Briere. Well, he’s now my boss as a front office executive with the Maine Mariners. A childhood of experiencing sports the hard way was unquestionably part of what made we want to become a play-by-play announcer. After all – if you’re broadcasting the game, you don’t have the time to be a fan. But it’s also what presents a challenge in an area of sportscasting that I think is among the most important: staying positive, even in the direst of circumstances.
Sometimes the line between a fan and a broadcaster can be a thin one. To be an effective sportscaster, you have to be a fan in a lot of ways. The passion has to be there. If you aren’t invested in the event at hand, why should the listener or viewer be? A good play-by-play announcer conveys the full gamut of emotions that a fan of his or her team (or both teams, in a neutral setting) experiences during the course of a game. Where the duties of a fan and a broadcaster differ, is the professional presentation of what is happening. There’s no room for open “rooting,” “cheering,” or knee-jerk reactions in the broadcast booth. And there’s definitely no room for excessive negativity.
I will be the first to admit that I’m the type of fan that tends to go straight to the hyperbolic negative when it comes to my teams. Blame it on the Cubs and Sabres, my dad’s fandom, or something else but once something bad happens, my mind starts to spiral. Our star player got hurt? Season’s over. A veteran pitcher got shelled? He’s done. The team is on the road and falls into an early 2-0 hole? They’re never coming back. These are typical fan reactions for myself, and probably a lot of people. But as a broadcaster, I do everything in my power not to let my thoughts go there. Of course, I’d never say those things on the air regardless of how bad the situation gets, but if your mind goes there, your tone will subconsciously convey it.
Once again, there’s a happy medium in play here. If you’re working for a team and something unfortunate happens to them, you SHOULD sound disappointed. Fans of your team don’t want to hear you getting excited about the other team scoring, but they also don’t want to hear that the world is ending. I can’t remember who said it, but the best way I’ve ever heard the “approach to a call” described is that a broadcaster should “call the game neutrally, but from the perspective of their team.” Just because something bad happened to your team doesn’t mean you can abandon your duty to paint the picture. And of course, the old cliché about “having nothing nice to say” and “not saying it at all” applies here too. Sometimes it’s better to take a deep breath, let the crowd tell the story, and re-engage after a few seconds if you find the angry fan in you bubbling to the surface.
When it comes positivity and to not letting the negativity consume you, the biggest concept I like to remind myself is: never give your audience a reason to tune out of the game. After all, if no one is listening, what purpose does your broadcast serve? It’s your job to remind people why they should stay tuned in even in a blowout game. This past season, I had the unfortunate circumstance of my team being down 7-0 in the first period. In a hockey game, that’s rather unheard of. I didn’t pretend as if the Mariners were playing well, but there were 40+ minutes of hockey to be played and I had to give the audience reasons to stay with me. Maybe the backup goaltender has an interesting story, or someone has a point streak on the line. There were also home games the following two days so I had to hype those. I was proud of myself for putting on what I felt was a good overall broadcast, despite an 8-1 final score.
The second key concept I’ve developed in my search for positivity is what I’ll call “The Comeback Principle.” I think most broadcasters would agree that the most exhilarating calls are big comeback wins. There’s nothing better than being the storyteller in a game where your team erased a seemingly insurmountable deficit. Think back in your career to the biggest comeback you had the chance to broadcast. As you think about listening back, imagine being disappointed with your call when your team fell into a big early hole. Your comeback call turned out great, but the body of work as a whole is tainted because you got too gloomy during the bad times. You’re not happy with yourself, are you? Of course, it’s not rocket science. The great thing about improbable comebacks is they are… well… improbable. So stay positive regardless of the score, because you just never know when that big comeback is going to come – and when it does, you’ll be so much prouder of your call when it’s consistent from start to finish.
I worked in the Northwoods League from 2016-18, doing summer collegiate baseball with the Rochester Honkers (Minnesota). I have many great memories from those two-and-a-half years, but the 2016 season was a true test of broadcasting adversity. My introduction to the Northwoods League was on a late May evening in Eau Claire, Wisconsin where the Honkers were to open their 2016 campaign against the Eau Claire Express. The game began about an hour late due to a rain delay. I can still smell the dusty-but-charming press box at Carson Park where I set up, ready to call my first Northwoods League game. The Honkers went down in order in the top of the first, all three batters striking out. Then, after Eau Claire scored two, the Honkers side struck out again. And then again. And again. That’s right – the first TWELVE Honkers batters struck out. The first twelve offensive at-bats of my Northwoods League broadcasting career. The first batter of the 5th inning flies out, finally putting a ball in play. The next guy singles to break up the perfect game and no-hitter. The Honkers lose the game 4-0, striking out 19 times. Unfortunately, the game was foreshadowing for a season that would end up with a final record of 20-52.
Those 72 games took place over a span of roughly 80 days, a long summer indeed. But before each and every game I would go down to the dugout to chat with a coach or player. Usually, it was manager Trevor Hairgrove – big shout out to him for putting up with it in what couldn’t have been an easy season after making the playoffs the year prior. Learning to come up with enough non-repetitive questions day after day to fill a 3-5 minute interview in the midst of such a rough season was invaluable to my career growth. It forced me to look closer at the details of each game, beyond the box score, which in turn made my play-by-play better. The following season saw the Honkers make a ten-game improvement and achieve a new Northwoods League single-season home run record, by both a team and an individual. As a result, there were many more storylines to pull from that season, but everything was just easier having gone through the previous grind.
I was spoiled for the first four years of my broadcasting career in college as the voice of the Oswego State Lakers men’s ice hockey team. So spoiled, in fact, that the team didn’t lose a single game with myself on the mic until late into my sophomore year. The Lakers won around 90% of the games I got to call in four years, dominating a good deal of those. So while I was equipped for disappointment from my history as a fan, I knew nothing but winning as a broadcaster when I entered “the real world.” Of my nine seasons as a full-time hockey broadcaster (five since graduating college), my team has only missed the playoffs twice, and the 2018-19 Mariners were 37-32-2-1, so they easily could have made it. The point I’m trying to make is that I’ve been lucky enough not to have to deal with too many “hard times” as a play-by-play announcer. And in that fact lies the challenge for me, personally. The smallest bit of disappointment tends to spiral in my mind, and that’s where I can’t allow myself to let that negativity hit the airwaves.
If I’m able to achieve the positivity on the air that I’m striving for, maybe that will make me a better fan, too. You would think that after that crazy rollercoaster of a Game 7 in the 2016 World Series, I would never doubt my beloved team again. But load those bases with two outs in the 9th and a three-run lead, and all I can see is a heartbreaking grand slam. I’m far from a perfect fan, or a perfect broadcaster for that matter, but you might just find that the power of positivity goes a long way in both realms.