Business News/ Sports / Commentators are underrated sporting heroes

The Gary Lineker saga revealed much about British politics and society. But it also showed the importance of an unappreciated sporting star: the commentator. After the BBC suspended Mr Lineker from “Match of the Day", the flagship football-highlights show he hosts, for his criticism of the Conservative government’s immigration policy, several of his colleagues in the studio and the commentary box said that they would boycott their weekend duties in solidarity. Rather than cast around for replacements, the BBC reduced the programme to a commentary-free recap of the day’s action.

For most of the audience, bar a few gloating Tory MPs, it was a surreal and terrible viewing experience. Every field, from politics to pageantry, has commentators and pundits given the task of describing and analysing events. But perhaps only in sport is their absence felt so strongly. “Match of the Day" this past Saturday was a case in point. Without commentary casual viewers would have had little idea about the importance of relegation-threatened Everton’s win against Brentford. Even the discerning fan would have struggled to identify the scorer of Brighton’s second goal (a scruffy, goal-line effort that was initially awarded as an own goal). These mute games left the mind wandering and the action swiftly forgotten.

Until the advent of television, radio commentators provided the only way fans unable to buy a ticket could experience the action live. In 1921 the first-ever piece of radio commentary offered listeners in Pittsburgh coverage of a lightweight boxing match between Johnny Ray and Johnny Dundee. Commentators became celebrities in their own right. Talking about baseball on the radio was how Ronald Reagan made a name for himself, before achieving greater fame as an actor and, eventually, American president.

Though sporting action can be followed using many different media, commentators have retained their importance. Their primary job is still to describe the action, but their secondary functions matter, too: heightening fans’ emotions during exciting passages of play, spicing up the mundane, and commiserating during the worst. Modern features, like instant replays and in-play statistics, allow them to do so in more sophisticated ways—especially in those sports, such as American football, where intricacies are not immediately obvious.

In slow sports, such as cricket and baseball, the verbal accompaniment can even become the main entertainment. The BBC’s “Test Match Special", a radio show that covers international cricket, has attracted a cult following, with conversations often meandering away from the game and down bizarre side alleys. According to a poll in 2005, the show produced Britons’ favourite bit of commentary when, in 1991, Brian Johnston, was floored by uncontrollable laughter after his colleague described how a batsman “just couldn’t quite get his leg over" when trying to evade his own stumps.

To the commentator falls the responsibility of providing the soundtrack to some fans’ most cherished memories. It is a kind of immortality. Followers of Manchester United, for instance, go fuzzy when recalling the words of Clive Tyldesley before the greatest moment in the football club’s history. Trailing during the final minutes of their Champions League final in 1999, Mr Tyldesley asked with a rhetorical flourish: “Can Manchester United score? They always score." They did score—twice, in fact, to win the cup. But lines don’t need hypophora to be great. Latin American fans will associate their favourite moments with passionate screaming and a frenzy of elongated vowels. Victor Hugo Morales, a Uruguayan radio commentator, described Diego Maradona’s legendary goal for Argentina against England in the World Cup quarter-finals of 1986 thus: “Genius! Genius! Ta-ta-ta-ta-ta-ta-ta. Gooooooooooal!" His subsequent description of Maradona as a “cosmic kite" stuck as a moniker for the Argentine years since.

Some commentators become so good at elevating the humdrum and enshrining the memorable that they come to embody their sport. John Motson, who died last month, was one such example for British football fans. Richie Benaud was considered the voice of cricket in Australia; Harsha Bhogle currently has that honour in India. In Formula 1, where commentary has to be almost continuously breathless, Murray Walker set the standard; David Croft has taken his mantle.

They think it’s all over

The next generation of commentating legends could come from new places. One refreshing development is that women are now entering the commentary boxes, after years of male domination. Social media is also producing a new type of broadcaster. YouTubers offer live analysis of sporting events, while interacting with viewers. Many channels rake in hundreds of thousands of viewers, including paying subscribers. But such success stories are rare. Commentating is, after all, a difficult craft. Just ask GB News. The right-leaning media outfit tried to launch an alternative “Match of the Day" at the weekend to give people what they “need" (ie, none of Mr Lineker’s lefty nonsense). But their hamfisted attempts to recap the footballing action generated widespread ridicule. It would appear it’s much easier to deliver right-wing views than, well, views about deliveries from a team’s right wing.

© 2023, The Economist Newspaper Limited. All rights reserved. From The Economist, published under licence. The original content can be found on

Catch all the Sports News and Updates on Live Mint. Download The Mint News App to get Daily Market Updates & Live Business News.
More Less
Updated: 23 May 2023, 02:43 PM IST
Recommended For You
Get alerts on WhatsApp
Set Preferences My Reads Watchlist Feedback Redeem a Gift Card Logout