Seven Principles for Improving NWSL Commentary


NWSL fans deserve better. This is true for pretty much any issue you could identify—better stadium experiences, better coverage, better writing, better everything—but today I want to focus on one specific aspect: match commentary. In particular, the commentary in matches on  the go90 platform.

Whether or not the Lifetime deal has fully delivered on its promises, one thing cannot be denied: the production quality associated with the weekly game has been excellent. Aly Wagner, Jenn Hildreth, and Dalen Cuff bring professionalism and excitement to the games they cover, and set a great standard against which the other games can be measured.

Unfortunately, the go90 games haven’t always lived up.  In part, this is a feature of economics. Like many aspects of the NWSL, the commentary setup lives in an uncanny valley between amateur and professional. Supported by the Lifetime infrastructure—not to mention other well-funded gigs like Wagner’s job covering the men’s World Cup this summer—the game-of-the-week crew have the time and resources to hone their skills and develop their engagement with the league. Those on the go90 broadcasts simply don’t have this luxury. Many of them are busy hustling across a number of different platforms and the quality of their broadcasts, understandably, suffers. Commentary is exceptionally difficult, and it takes time and enormous effort.

Therefore, I engage this subject in the spirit of constructive criticism. No one expects perfection, but it can still be helpful to articulate a set of best practices and objectives.

1. Less is usually more

Don’t speak for the sake of speaking. Crowd noise is one of the finest auditory accompaniments to sports. And when you do speak, remember that (just like in writing) short and direct is usually the best approach. Good commentary performatively illustrates the peaks and valleys of a game by getting in quickly, making the point directly, and then letting the game slide past.

Consider all the other items below as subordinate to this overarching principle. When in doubt, opt for saying less rather than saying more.

2. The most important job of a commentary team is identifying who is doing what

The most important job of the broadcaster is to provide play-by-play. That is: to describe what is actually happening. Specifically, identifying which players are doing what. Doing this job well is the lion’s share of the battle. Ideally, this entails bringing a bit of poetry to the descriptions—little flourishes that embellish and enliven the experience—but there’s no shame in sticking to pure prose.

Consider the following: “Gilliland. To Colaprico. Back to Gilliland. Ahead to Huerta. She centers it. Ertz is there. Can’t find an angle. Sends it back to Naughton. Nice job by Kennedy to close Ertz down there.”

Is this exciting? Not especially. There’s a hint of analysis, but it’s mostly just a list of names. In essence, the commentator is simply telling the viewer what they’re seeing. Still, for all that this lacks flash, it accomplishes the basic objective: to fill in gaps in understanding without intruding on the experience. The star of the broadcast, after all, should always be the game itself. Do this simple stuff well, and you’re already 90% of the way to a successful broadcast.

3. Know the players

In many ways, this is a subsidiary point to item #2 above. In order to correctly identify who is doing what, you need to know all the players. Identification is never going to be perfect—it’s a fast moving game with a lot of participants—but it is critical for commentators to quickly identify who is where. When referencing a play, “that’s a great stop by Sauerbrunn” is infinitely superior to “that’s a great stop by the Utah player.”

For those without a deep well of experience in the league, this problem can graduate from casual inattention to actively misleading. Their attention will get drawn to big name players, who will then be hyped above and beyond any actual contributions. In a game with so many moving pieces, our natural tendency to find patterns tends to generate commentary that fulfills expectations, even if the actual play doesn’t warrant it.

One corollary: it’s also important to know how to pronounce players’ names. This year we’ve heard ‘Fishlocker,’ ‘Cernevesivic,’ ‘Ubaguga,’ ‘Nagasoto,’ and the always classic ‘Lindsey Whoreann.’ These players deserve the respect of having their name spoken correctly.

4. Don’t be afraid to criticize

NWSL commentary is often almost uniformly positive. Every player is exceptional. Every story is great. Everyone is starting to put things together. This sort of coverage does a disservice to the fans watching at home, as well as to the players themselves, who are professionals and deserve to be judged like it. Not every player is going to have a great game. One of the key jobs of an analyst is to identify who is failing, and why.

This is not a call for cruelty, personal attacks, or unrelenting negativity. It’s just a request for commentary to identify is actually happening on the pitch—both the positive and the negative. Infusing a bit more criticism into the broadcasts will make the positive comments stick that much better. After all, one of the great truths is that Lake Woebegone treatments (which imply that everyone is above average) do nothing but dull the quality of legitimate positive treatments. Basically: if you praise everyone, you’re really praising no one.

5. Play-by-play and color commentary should (mostly) stay in their lanes

The two-person commentary model is based on the separation of responsibility. The play-by-play person describes what is happening on a granular level. The color commentator provides bigger picture analysis, drops in the occasional story, and generally tries to liven things up. This is a good setup, but it only works if both partners (broadly speaking) stay in their lane. Trying to do everything is a recipe for failure. Better to focus your attention on one job and do it well than dabble in two.

As part of this, it’s also important for the color person to be in tune with the flow of the game. You may have a good story about a player’s dog, or some analysis about a team’s injury woes, but there are better and worse times to bring these things up. There are few things more frustrating than a meandering story being interrupted by “and there’s a shot!” To avoid this sort of thing, keep a close eye on the flow of the game and build in off-ramps to ease out of an anecdote in sufficient time for the buildup to be described.

6. Avoid reasoning exclusively from results

Far too often, commentary operates teleologically: working backward from the result, emphasizing the factors that contributed to the conclusion and deemphasizing everything else. Now, quite obviously, the result has to be part of the conversation. But soccer is a game of probabilities, with hundreds and hundreds of actions per game but very few goals. A team can be excellent on the day, but simply be unlucky in their finishing. A player can launch themselves into a dangerous slide-tackle and execute perfectly. In both cases, the poor finishing and the excellent technique are clearly part of the story. But they’re not the whole story. We want the bigger picture, too. A player who executes a risky slide tackle today is quite likely to concede a penalty the next time. A team that dominates but can’t find their finishing boots may lose today, but is likely run away with things next time.

It’s a difficult job, but the analyst needs to keep both of these pieces in conversation. Acknowledge that many choices contain a measure of opportunity and risk, and then do your best to fill in that context for the viewer.

7. Try to avoid clichés

Watch a women’s soccer game in the US and you are extremely likely to hear multiple comments about “switching the point of attack.” The announcers are almost guaranteed to discuss the importance of “finding pockets of space.” If a team is playing well but not scoring, they will be described as needing to “work on that final ball.” If a player misses wide, she’ll be instructed to “put that on frame; make the keeper make a save.” Watch any game, and you’re sure to hear discussion about the importance of “getting between the lines.”

Generally, these clichés exist for a reason. When used judiciously, they all communicate real meaning. And their proliferation is by no means unique to women’s soccer. There’s a whole book on football clichés if you want a comprehensive assessment. Moreover, cliché fatigue is a problem for the super-viewer more than the casual fan. Given the limited set of available commentators, those of us who watch most NWSL games are subjected to the same verbal tics repeatedly. That familiarity can breed frustration that is not felt by the vast majority of viewers.

All that said, clichés can be a crutch that undermines the quality of a broadcast. At their worst, they function like idioms whose meaning has been obscured from overuse: the simulacra of wisdom, used in place of actual analysis. Broadcasters hoping to produce high-quality experience will do well to watch their deployment of these phrases. When they are used repeatedly, seemingly divorced from any specific context, they become white noise. Save them up for when they apply, recognize their limits, and they will pack much greater punch.

So that’s it: my seven tips for improving the quality of the viewing experience. If you want to distill these down, I’d say the core underlying theme is respect. Give the players the credit of their professionalism, and treat them like athletes with exceptional skills playing a difficult game. Sometimes they’ll succeed; sometimes they’ll fail. Your job is to help the viewers understand why. In the same sense, you should also respect your audience. Trust them to be able to follow the game, and see yourself as a steward in that process.

Coverage of the NWSL can be better. It should be better. The fans deserve it, the players deserve it, the league deserves it. The Lifetime games provide a great model of what this should look like, Here’s hoping that we continue to see improvements in the other matches that bring them closer to this standard.

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