Kronick: Can offsite NWSL broadcasts connect to fans?

Hannah Kronick March 10, 2017 41
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.

  • plasticbike

    NoooOOOOOOOOOOO.

  • dw

    Pretty hard hitting stuff for this site, who usually panders to the league and federation. Good on you, Hannah.

  • Bruce

    Bad decision by a novice media partner.

    Hate the dumbing-down of broadcasts, but this article raises another question that has yet to be answered: streaming of games that aren’t nationally broadcast.

    Are we to assume that ALL weekly games will be announced by in-studio talent?

    If not, will streams even be available if local announcers have been “relieved of duties”?

  • tonysocref

    I’ll be dammed. 2 articles in the same week that weren’t sugar coated.
    Hoping EQ keeps it up.
    Thanks Hannah, and thanks Dan for letting this be posted.

  • Damn.

    This is very disappointing. I don’t care if the 1 game/week on Lifetime is called by in-studio announcers, but the fact that they’ve eliminated these positions across all teams tells me that A) the quality of all broadcasts will go down and/or B) the other games of the week won’t even be streamed.

    If they’re actually streaming every game like they promised, they would still have to employ multiple announcers since many games take place at the same time.

    This really sucks. No matter how some viewers may have felt about certain announcers they didn’t care to listen to, this is a big move in the wrong direction.

    • wolf

      My guess is that only the televised game would have announcers and the other games would just be a silent stream. That is what Fox was doing in Australia.

      • Jana Sheffield

        Personally, no commentary is the only thing worse than in-studio commentary. If I don’t know the players well, I can’t tell one red dot from another on the stream. Plus, I only started watching last year, so I rely on the commentary as I build my soccer knowledge. Further, I loved the local announcers who knew player background, reported on reactions from the bench, and could tell us that it looked like the rain would hold off for now. Glad to see games on TV, but I’m disappointed to lose the voices that have made me feel connected to the teams.

        • htm222

          Agreed. As much as I dislike certain commentators’ style, I rely on them to keep my attention focused and inform me on the players – especially given how poor quality many of the streams are. I would imagine that many would-be fans might be interested in supporting a women’s sports league but didn’t play soccer themselves.

          • Silver Frost

            Ditto. Seeing that one can watch TV on a PC screen or other device, I cut the cable a few months ago. I don’t miss it at all. If they don’t stream all games, then fan interest will vanish, except for Portland. Do some of these less popular teams want to have even less eyeballs following their games?

          • Arcie Tillydee

            Yep. I haven’t had regular TV service in over a decade. In the previous seasons, I’ve watched a LOT of games on the YouTube streams (and not just Thorns away matches! lol). If there are no streams, or they’re tied to a TV subscription I will never have, I’m going to be seriously PO’d.

          • Ashley C

            It will also be interesting to see how this hurts fans in Canada. Especially if there are geoblock/VPN issues. It was also nice to be able to watch the games via YouTube and on my tv via AppleTV.

      • kernel_thai

        I think ill get one PbyP person on non tv games and a PbyP and Analyst for the tv match

  • Will each team still employ their own camera operators? We know how shoddy some of the camera work can be sometimes with the cameras not following the action on the field well, so that will obviously affect how the game is called.

    Will we still get to see all the games every week? The silence on the streaming issue combined with this announcement makes me very nervous.

    • AlexH

      If we can still get the streams of all the games then I am quite content with letting the soccer teams focus on the soccer and the broadcasters focus on the broadcasts.

    • Bruce

      My thoughts exactly. If the camera crew is enamored with tight shots on the ball, there will be no way to get a feel for the flow of the game. With no local announcers, there’s no supplement for that lost insight.

      The worst offenders on this last year were WNY. Matches with no color commentary and a camera crew completely obsessed with following the ball. Yech.

  • htm222

    It’s going to be bad for the league if they don’t stream all games.

    • AlexH

      I think that is very true. I think American broadcasters don’t get that soccer is very much a local sport (which happens to be played everywhere) and fans are far more interested in their particular club rather than the league as a whole.

    • guest

      I know nothing about Lifetime’s online/streaming content, but when did they say they weren’t streaming the other games? My understanding is that there “is an app for that”… or there will be. Hopefully all games will have commentary.

      • guestt2

        Yeah but there are a lot of people who aren’t going to bother downloading Lifetime’s app. If you are struggling for ratings, you want to make things as easy as possible access-wise. The youtube streams were great… even if I felt like I was watching a VHS from 1992.

      • anon

        Do you have to subscribe to lifetime to have access to their app? There is going to be a huge portion of their target market (women under 30) that does not have a TV subscription to Lifetime.

        • Happy

          Old dude here, who also does not have a Lifetime subscription. I will be bitter if I can’t watch games across the league every week.

          • Bruce

            As of today, there have been no official announcements from NWSL/Lifetime regarding streaming availability, technology platforms, support for SmartTVs and the like, whether a subscription will be required to watch non-nationally broadcast games, etc.

            Par for the course.

          • mockmook

            Will that be bitterly Happy? Or happily bitter? 🙂

      • Som Termanni

        The jobs for the product manager and designer for the app haven’t been filled, so don’t bet on it. http://nwslsoccer.m.teamworkonline.com/Category.aspx?c=4314&l=195

        • Bruce

          That’s so depressing, but not unexpected.

          That CRS doesn’t have a director of sales 30 days before season start really doesn’t surprise me, either. They don’t run that club like a real business.

  • SpiritFan80

    Such a shame. I thought there were a few broadcast teams that had a great group who you could tell were invested in their local teams, specifically Houston, Portland, Washington. SkyBlue made good improvements to add content to it’s broadcast last season. Was hoping with a little investment from A&E these would stay on and up their level.

    Having local teams who know all of the players, not just the NTers was great. They brought little tidbits and inside info that the broadcasters from Florida will not be able to get. I realize there are going to be some downsides to progress and this is one of them IMO. Perhaps this will be a first year thing until A&E can get some more permanent local things installed. I do think this deal is going to be good for the league in the long run, but won’t be without some hiccups. I hope they are sticking to the promise of streaming all of the games.

    Lastly, I would like to thank all of the, now former, broadcasting teams of the NWSL. Many put a lot of hard work and time into the job and had to deal with much criticism from fans, me included at times. Just know that your efforts did not go unnoticed by a lot of hardcore fans.

    • Movement

      Everyone needs to calm down. I have it on record that this will not be nearly as bad as everyone is panicking if the final product is delivered on the core platforms being discussed. Some may even like it better.

      • Som Termanni

        Care to share? You’d be the first person with something actually on the record about what the plans are, instead of just hearing from people like Dan who got fired with no context.

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  • Lifetime is losing a lot of institutional knowledge by not having ANY local talent on board for NWSL game broadcasts.

    • Bruce

      Maybe they should have tapped their own institutional knowledge for broadcasting sports events.

      Ah, right, they don’t have any.

  • tonysocref

    This is per and simple BS. There is no way that a studio commentator over 3000 miles away can replicate what a local announcer gives to the match.

    On at least 2 occasions, Ann Schatz for Portland let the visuals and crowd noise do the talking for what had just happened on the pitch.

    Michelle Betos’s stoppage time header for a goal to even the match against Kansas City and Nadia Nadim’s match winning goal against Seattle when NT players were gone.

    • kernel_thai

      If ur Jonesing for Ann Schatz maybe u get some on the stream of the Thorns tournament

      • tonysocref

        The thing about Ann, not only was she an announcer but she was also a fan along with the 16,000 – 21,000 at the match .
        As to the preseason tournament, I plan on being at 2 if not all 3 of the matches..

    • kernel_thai

      Here’s a question u might be able to help me with. I believe Schatz also did a simulcast of the matches on radio with McDonalds sponsoring. Is the radio broadcast still going to happen or is this as easy as watching the stream with the sound provided by the radio?

      • tonysocref

        Things have been silent about any type of broadcasts this year since the announcement with A+E.

    • Steglitz49

      It is not that uncommon these days even by major broadcasters. It saves on sending staff to remote places. They simply sit in the studio and commentate. Granted, more common with non-team sports.

  • kernel_thai

    Only way I see them saving money is if they plan to use a single announcer for non tv matches. I get not sending actual talent to do tv matches. That’s got to be pricy. But how is paying an announcer on per game basis any cheaper in the studio than if they r local to the games?

  • FawcettFan14

    I don’t get why the A&E deal means local PBP/color people need to be fired. Most of them do it for the love of the game, and wouldn’t demand excessive pay. What is the harm of letting them continue in their roles and bringing local knowledge and passion to the broadcasts? Baffling move…

    Back when the deal was announced I say a stray comment about how all matches will be streamed and archived, much like YouTube has done. But the radio silence since then is ominous.

    • mockmook

      Without an official announcement, I think it is premature to assume that non-TV games won’t use any local talent.

  • guest

    No announcers not that big a loss, especially if they keep a mic near the benches so that we can hear the coaching staff, which is oftentimes more interesting than the idle babble coming out of the commentary booth.

    As for the App, it doesn’t have to be anything more complicated than a web browser with a video player on it. Check out FoxSportsGo, for example. The main thing though is that all the games are available for streaming without a cable subscription. If they need to charge a nominal fee like Foxsoccergo, I can live with that.