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Kronick: Can offsite NWSL broadcasts connect to fans?

NWSL's deal with A+E is a landmark one for the league, but like all business deals comes with its concerns (graphic by NWSL)

Lifetime will reportedly broadcast the majority of games from a studio in Florida. (graphic by NWSL)

The NWSL rolled out their broadcast deal with A+E Networks and Lifetime with full bells and whistles, but since then…radio silence. When it comes to the streaming component of the NWSL’s broadcast deal, there are a lot of questions and very few answers. However, the clubs have informed their broadcast teams their services will no longer be needed as it becomes increasingly clear a majority of the Lifetime broadcasts will originate from a central studio.

When I think about the idea of in-studio announcers, one word strikingly comes to mind: disconnect. Disconnect between the fans, the broadcast team, the players and the game.

First and foremost, there will be a disconnect between the fans and the game by way of announcers who are watching the same game as the viewers, sans front row seat to the action. A key component that announcers bring to the game-viewing experience is expert analysis on game play. This very well may be overlooked in this scenario. If announcers are seeing the game in the same way the viewers are, they are seeing it unfold at the same exact time that we are. What can they add from an analysis standpoint that we can’t already see? By watching on monitors, their game analysis may be hindered. They might not be seeing the full field at once, or even worse, they may miss things happening “off camera.” Did we miss the build up of a play? What about a coach telling a sub to start warming up on the sideline? Or that crazy fan who started a chant that’s bringing the far side of the stadium to its feet?

There are so many things that happen inside a stadium, and the announcer typically is the link between that and the viewer at home. Announcers have the ability to help viewers feel like they are really there by adding color to the game itself, outside of where the ball is at a moment in time. By commenting on the crowd atmosphere, sideline activity and most importantly, play build up and off-ball movement, viewers are drawn into a game atmosphere that is both entertaining and sophisticated. So many factors that are fundamental components of the game might be missed with regular in-studio broadcasting crews.

In addition to disconnect between the fans and many important aspects of the game, another apparent disconnect persists, this time between the broadcast team and the players and coaches (and then inadvertently the fans, too). Announcers sometimes wear a few hats during live games–from game-caller to game-analyst to storyteller. They form relationships with the teams, coaches, players and the viewers. To harp on the storyteller job description, announcers are able to give viewers information they may not have been able to get anywhere else. This builds trust between the fan and the broadcast team as they appear to be not only experts on analysis of the game, but also on the stories and people behind the action.

Historically, in-studio broadcasters have not been well-received by viewers. It may be accepted for larger events like international soccer (Champions League or World Cup) where it’s a bit more commonplace. But, there’s been plenty of backlash as well. Awful Announcing has documented the poor reaction of viewers on Twitter to college basketball games on ESPN and Fox that have in-studio announcers–rooted in the notion that the game is being diminished by having announcers call it from a studio rather than on-site.

Right now, I don’t think this is the right move for the NWSL. Yes, it’s likely cheaper for the league to use this studio as their home base for broadcasts across the country. Yes, it gives the league more control over the quality of the commentary and broadcast of the game by introducing a new standardized studio. And yes, this is a step in the right direction and maybe a good starting point. But, in a year when accessibility to content for fans will be greater than ever, it’s so important to put the best product possible out there. And that means having broadcasters that are on-site. In-studio announcers take away from the authenticity of the broadcast–the thrill, excitement, expert analysis, key insights and raw nature of a live soccer game should be portrayed to fans as such, especially when the league is still trying to grow its fan base.

Editor’s note: The Equalizer’s managing editor Dan Lauletta was a Sky Blue analyst the last two seasons and was relieved of those duties last month. This story was not subject to Dan’s approval.

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