When the New York Rangers won the Stanley Cup 20 years ago, the clinching game aired not just nationally on ESPN, but on the MSG Network, a regional cable channel. And so New York fans watching at home got to hear long-time announcers Sam Rosen and John Davidson call the climactic final seconds and describe the scene once the celebration begun. Listen to the clip if you have a moment, and pay particular attention to Davidson. A former Rangers player who would go on to be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame as a broadcaster, he literally shouts "Yes!" at one point after the Rangers clear the puck out of their zone in the final seconds. Once the final buzzer sounds, Davidson, like the Rangers fans watching at home, is downright giddy anticipating the presentation of the Stanley Cup.
That sort of thing is unheard of now: The championships of major sports leagues (and most playoff games in earlier rounds) air exclusively on national networks, which strive to present neutral broadcasts for a general audience. The thing is, fans with a rooting interest in these big games aren't neutral. But even if national networks will forever hold the rights to such games, there might be a way to inject a local flavor -- and we're about to witness the trial run.
Next week, Turner Sports will experiment with multiple broadcasts of the NCAA tournament semifinals: In addition to the familiar, main broadcast on TBS (called by Jim Nantz, Greg Anthony and Steve Kerr), they'll air four team-specific ones on TNT and TruTV. The announcers in those games won't be aiming for balance or neutrality: They'll be selected because of their affiliation with one of the teams, and they'll be encouraged to call the game from that team's perspective.
Turner says it's prepared a long list of potential names to call the semifinals on these broadcasts depending on which teams advance to the Final Four. If it's Florida versus Virginia on one side of the bracket, they'll be ready. But they're prepared, too, for Dayton versus UConn, or any other combination. The broadcasters they use might include a team's regular radio announcer, or someone who covers them regularly on regional television, or perhaps even celebrities affiliated with the school. The rest of us, meanwhile, aren't affected in the least: We can still watch the neutral broadcast on TBS.
The time is right for this sort of experiment. From a logistical standpoint, it's made possible by huge media companies owning the rights to major sporting events. Turner can air games across multiple cable properties, and if other rights-holders wanted to try it, ESPN, Fox, and NBC could easily do the same. And as streaming technology becomes increasingly mainstream, networks also have the option of broadcasting these alternate, team-specific feeds online. What might have seemed futuristic in 1994 is our reality today.
But sports broadcasting has been evolving, too -- and in ways that set the stage for something like this. For local broadcasters, the line between journalist and partisan observer has never felt more blurred. This isn't to say that homerism is a new concept -- it's not, obviously -- but as more and more teams own at least a slice of the network airing their games, there's less of an expectation of a perfectly objective broadcast. And most of the time, fans of a given team don't really care if their home announcers are neutral. Biased coverage is no good when it goes easy on the home team. But a fair, honest broadcast in which the announcers care which team wins can be fun. It makes sense: Fans like broadcasts that focus on their team, and they get attached to announcers who seem to live and die with the games just like they do.
But then, just as the games get really important, those local TV announcers go away, in favor of the national broadcast teams. And even if they pop up in the national booth, they're forced to at least try to play it neutral. Ever see those videos on YouTube in which a local team's radio call is synched up to the TV feed of some nationally televised sporting event? Those calls are reliably more fun that the TV calls.
Local TV announcers are so established as the voices of the teams they call that it feels wrong to have someone else describing such important moments. Consider what happened in 2012, when the Los Angeles Kings were on the verge of their first Stanley Cup championship. The clinching game aired on NBC, but arrangements were made for Kings announcers Bob Miller and John Fox to call the game, as well. That call wouldn't be broadcast live anywhere, but rather recorded so that Kings fans could, eventually, hear him call the final game, and the final moments especially.
What Turner Sports is doing, of course, is far more complicated (and far more expensive). But it's also more likely to be copied.
In fact, the Final Four isn't even the perfect venue for this: College fans often don't form the sorts of connection to local announcers that fans of pro teams do. And so while the team-specific semifinal broadcasts will be fun for fans of the schools involved, it's even more exciting to imagine Vin Scully call nine innings of a Dodgers World Series game on Fox Sports 1 while Joe Buck calls it on Fox from the next booth over. (Scully, when asked last year if he would consider calling upcoming Dodgers playoff games on TV for a national outlet, said he wouldn't "intrude on the fellas who have been working TV." But multiple broadcasts would allow everyone to do their thing on separate channels.)
Other networks might never go for such a thing. To use Fox as an example, they may not want to take eyeballs away from Buck, their star play-by-play man. But for fans, at least, it would be a win-win: Neutral fans could watch the same telecast as always, as could fans that prefer the national broadcasters to their own team's booth. (Mike Breen and Doc Emrick, for example, both do a great job on national NBA and NHL broadcasts, respectively.) But fans who want a broadcast devoted to their team could get that opportunity, too. Turner Sports, with its experiment next week, might just be onto something.