clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Broadcasting NBA games is harder than ever

Pleasing a team, TV network, and fan base all at once is harder than you think.

There’s an old saying out there about how to find the right balance between being a “homer” and “objective” as an NBA broadcaster, and it goes something like this:

“The greatest announcers . . . they say, ‘When one side says you’re a giant homer and the other says you’re too hard on the home team, you’ve probably done your job.’”

Actually, that’s not an old saying; it’s a quote by longtime Denver Nuggets analyst Scott Hastings in an excellent piece by Bleacher Report’s Leo Sepkowitz called “The Precarious Perch of NBA Broadcasters”, which focuses on the fine line NBA announcers have to follow when it comes to pleasing both their employer — usually the teams they announce for — and following the guidelines for the network they’re on.

According to one regional sports network contract obtained by B/R, broadcasters for the network agree to “not make repeated references to” any member of their local sports team—players, management personnel, etc.—”that may be reasonably expected to bring any of them into public disrepute, contempt, scandal or ridicule.” Such legal parameters might be unnecessary, as it’s natural for broadcasters to root for the home team, and fans have always enjoyed a degree of homerism in the broadcast booth anyway.

With increased worldwide views of local broadcasts thanks largely in part to NBA League Pass, local broadcasters are under more pressure than ever to find that balance between pleasing the fans with “homerism” while remaining objective enough to keep other viewers engaged — and that’s all while keeping their employer happy.

Some broadcasters have learned this the hard way, the most recent being former Spurs forward and three-time champion Bruce Bowen, whose contract with the Los Angeles Clippers was not renewed following some pretty mild criticism of Kawhi Leonard in a radio interview over the summer.

“I think there’s nothing but excuses going on. First, it was, ‘Well I was misdiagnosed.’ Look here: You got $18 million this year, and you think that they’re trying to rush you? You didn’t play for the most part a full season this year. And you’re the go-to guy, you’re the franchise, and you want to say that they didn’t have your best interest at heart? Are you kidding me?”

Although they’ve never given an official reason for releasing Bowen, it was widely reported (and was backed up by Bowen himself) that it was due to the Clippers’ desire to recruit Leonard as a free agent either in 2019 or 2020 (depending on if he opts in or out of the final year of his contract).

Another victim who fell off that tightrope was longtime Chicago Bulls announcer Tom Dore, who covered the majority of the Michael Jordan era but ran into trouble during their 2000s slump, and the team needed help recruiting free agents.

“That recruiting [mindset]—’We’ve got people to take care of you no matter what’—I think that matters to [the] agent as well as players,” Dore says. “It makes the job of being honest more difficult in a lot of markets.”

In the summer of 2007, Dore was asked a basic question about the ability of Ben Gordon, the Bulls’ star shooting guard, to potentially play point guard. “I said basically the same thing as Bruce Bowen, I guess,” Dore says. “The story in the paper the next day was that I said he couldn’t play point guard and couldn’t handle the ball, pass, that kind of thing.”

He adds: “That story, I think, ultimately got me fired.”

Soon after the Gordon piece was published, Dore was told by the network, then called Comcast SportsNet Chicago, that “you have a real problem here,” he recalls . . . Dore was not terminated on the spot, but his contract was not renewed following the ‘07-08 season. And although word came down from the network, “without a doubt,” Dore says, “the team is the one that’s going to make that call.”

There are more intriguing stories about how broadcasters have had to find the happy medium in announcing NBA games, as well as what they say in other interviews, so be sure to check the whole thing out.

Personally, I believe the Spurs announcing duo of Bill Land and Sean Elliot have always done an excellent job between pleasing the fans (they’ve often been called one of the more homer announcing teams in the NBA) while not hesitating to criticize the Spurs’ play on the court or acknowledging when they caught a break from the refs (even if it’s just with a humorous “we don’t need to see that again” after seeing a video replay). They fit the objective that Hastings mentioned above and have hardly faced any controversy beyond the DeMarcus Cousins incident of 2012 (which was more on Cousins, who eventually apologized, than Elliot).

They represent the Spurs well, and their jobs have been made a little easier by having the entire fan base and organization behind them, which is more than Bowen was able to say about the Clippers.

“I feel like this,” he said. “As an analyst, as a former player, as a guy that used to talk to Kawhi a lot, I think it’s important that I can say the truth and be able to face his mother. You know, I’m not tearing him down, but I am talking about the way you go about things.”

He added: “As an analyst, I’m supposed to talk about what I see and what I feel for this game that I love. So, if you can’t do that, what does that say about your organization?”