When Washington Wizards announcer Steve Buckhantz was widely mocked for missing a call on what looked like a game-winning jumper from Wizards forward Trevor Ariza, most observers that weren’t named Shaquille O’Neal were quick to point out that, from the typical NBA camera angle, Ariza’s shot looked like a perfect swish. Because we as viewers were on the weak side of the attempt, all we saw as the ball disappear below the rim’s horizon and make the basket’s net flutter. All the hallmarks of a made shot – save for the part that saw it go in.
If you’ve forgotten what it looks like, watch:
Also immediately afterwards came the reaction from fellow broadcasters (like the Minnesota Timberwolves’ great Jim Petersen), not just coming out in defense of Buckhantz in order to keep a status quo, but to point out what has been the NBA’s iffy little secret for years – the guys that call the games for TV, radio, and the writers that observe the action on the free newspapers you pull up every morning are being pushed further and further away from the action so that NBA teams can plop more courtside seats around the court.
“If I’m sitting in my old seat, there’s not a tenth of a percent chance I miss that call,” Buckhantz said. “From that particular perspective the ball looked like it went in. I’ve watched it 100 times, and each time it went in. I would make the same call each time.”
“It’s not breaking news that that is not a good vantage point,” agreed [Detroit Pistons play by play announcer George] Blaha, who lauded the work done by Wizards senior director of communications Scott Hall and his assistants. “If you didn’t have the best statisticians in the league and a great media relations group, it would be extremely difficult. They make it as easy as possible. But you really have a problem with depth perception there.”
Moving broadcasters farther from the action is a trend in every major sport, and the NBA has been no different. Twenty-three of the league’s 30 teams place radio broadcast teams off the court; the Wizards began doing so two seasons ago. This season, the team moved the home and away radio broadcasters into the club level, and put the home and away television broadcasters into radio’s previous spot.
Railing against this injustice isn’t going to win many people over. People like me are incredibly grateful to do this for a living, and it’s genuinely embarrassing for Yahoo! Sports’ Great NBA Nerd to point out he has never paid for an NBA ticket in his life. As if I could afford to anyway, on a sportswriter’s wages. As if anyone can, really.
It’s not an indulgence to ask for the privilege of a press pass and/or courtside seat on press row, though. As much as it is our job to work on our writing craft, watch endless games from home and read up on the stats that our readers don’t have the time to wade through, it’s also our job to accurately detail the action before us while we’re given the opportunity to cover a game live.
Personally, I find the second-tier placement nearly as revelatory as I do the courtside press row placements I used to get in, say, the United Center before they cut out two rows worth of press tables in order to accommodate more high end seats. Watching the action from afar helps the journalist to fully appreciate off the ball work and the context that comes from seeing the entire court from above.
As a general rule, though? And for local TV broadcasters – the immediate and trusted voice of the team? It’s not the same.
After watching the game as I writer I’m allowed the time and space needed to gather my thoughts, gather the reaction from players, coaches and other media, and carefully construct my analysis in an eventual column. Announcers have to articulate what they see right in front of them, immediately, and suffer the scorn and derision from internet commentators (and, also, Shaq) if anything goes awry. That’s a big enough burden as it is, compounded by seating arrangements that are expected to result in the clearest take on the action amongst the thousands in attendance.
The problem the NBA and these teams face is that attendance issue, and the fact that the viewing experience at home offers so many often preferable alternatives to schlepping to the big arena in the big city to watch the game live. Teams, looking to squeeze every dollar even after signing some players to those stupid contracts they haven’t earned, are indirectly getting back at the hand that stopped feeding them. Even the most basic of cable packages can result in brilliantly produced showings of 82-plus games a season for the local team, which hurts the gate receipts, so teams have started to take that voice further away from the actual game action.
It’s an odd and unfortunate case of tail-chasing, completely understandable on the teams’ end and a likely continuing detriment on the side of both broadcasters and, most importantly, fans.
Buckhantz, to his credit, is taking the issue in his usual stride. From Steinberg's report:
“The bottom line is I’m thrilled to be calling games and happy to be calling games no matter where I sit,” he said. “Would I like to be on the floor where I have the best vantage point of the game? Absolutely. . . . Having said that, this is my new home and I have to make it a nice one.”
Apologies for sending you off on your weekend on this dour note, but this is what happens as technology shifts the way we take in entertainment.
Intelligent sitcoms buttressed by worthy comedic writers are fading, not because the writers aren’t out there, but because the distracted audience isn’t the same. Newspapers, mostly giving away free content online, are cutting staff and scraping by. Teams are finding it hard to give away tickets to fans that are wary of the gas and parking prices, to say nothing of the investment it takes (speaking as a father of two) to take children to a live game. The laptop screen and cathode tube ray, placed in that warm living room, gets all the more appealing by the day. With serotonin receptors sipping at a seemingly inexhaustible supply of whatever, there really isn’t much reason for us to go chase down the sort of vantage point it takes to point out that, no, that shot didn’t go in.
The broadcasters you love are being punished for this. It’s not right, but it’s not going to get any better.