Tuesday Tips: Dos and Don’ts for Ultimate Commentators

Adding both professionalism and personality to a broadcast takes practice.

Michael Ball and Adekale Ande commentate the 2021 D-III Men's COllege Championship final for Ultiworld. Photo: William 'Brody' Brotman -- UltiPhotos.com
Michael Ball and Adekale Ande commentate the 2021 D-III Men’s College Championship final for Ultiworld. Photo: William ‘Brody’ Brotman — UltiPhotos.com

Tuesday Tips are presented by Spin Ultimate; all opinions are those of the author. Please support the brands that make Ultiworld possible and shop at Spin Ultimate!

Since Ultiworld launched, streaming and post-produced ultimate has become more and more commonplace. Equipment is more affordable, knowledge more accessible, and the expectations have risen. Fans want to connect with teams and players more readily and meaningfully than reading about their exploits days later.1

One of the most visible — or rather, audible — features of many ultimate productions is the commentary. The voices of ultimate act as the humble narrators, helping contextualize and bring to life the game. Great commentary can become intrinsically linked to the plays it covers. Most calls will not go down in the annals of ultimate’s history, but can still enhance viewers’ experience.

I’ve done hundreds of games across all sorts of divisions, teams, and events. On occasion, aspiring game-callers will ask me for advice on the topic, and whenever we bring on new commentators I’ll help provide some orientation. If you’re thinking about giving commentary a try, here are some lessons I’ve learned over the years.

Do: Arrive Prepared

This shouldn’t come as a surprise, but being prepared will improve your commentary. A lot.

I know that commentary can sometimes feel like a pretty casual gig. Often commentators have personal and/or ultimate relationships with some of the players in the game they will be calling. That can make it feel more like you can just wing it. But even in those situations, putting in the extra time will pay dividends.

“Spend time covering your basics before your tournament weekend. Get rosters from coaches or tournament organizers, confirm pronunciations with reliable sources and ask coaches/captains for quick interviews in advance,” advises ESPN broadcaster Ian Toner. “Nothing loses an audience member faster than mispronouncing a name or speculating about a player’s status when information is available elsewhere.”

Great ways to prep:

  • Talk to players, coaches, and others around the team. Get their pronunciation and pronouns. Find out interesting information about players and teams. Get quotes or anecdotes you can use during your broadcast.
  • Create materials you might need. It could be printouts of rosters and info, it could be a spreadsheet you want to access, or ad reads you need to do. Or all of them! And plan for things to go wrong — have backup plans for anything critical.
  • Watch film. Learn about teams’ playstyles, players’ roles, and familiarize yourself with what they do well and struggle with.
  • Fill out context. One of the main jobs of the commentary crew is to give viewers context. What does this game mean? What is the result’s impact on the season? How does this performance fit within what the team has or will do? What’s the history or relationship between these two teams?

Do: Get to Know Your Stream Team

Calling games by yourself is both really difficult and, fortunately, pretty uncommon. Often commentators will operate in pairs or even trios. Coordinating with and building some chemistry between members of the broadcast team will go a long way toward improving the commentary.

It is helpful to have a sense of structure and roles. The most common setup is a play-by-play (PxP) commentator and a color commentary, with a third person sometimes coming in as an analyst, expert in a specific area, or just additional color. PxP is describing the game and driving the conversation — the host of the show, so to speak. The color commentator is adding more detail to the broadcast with information, analysis, or even more personality and levity.

While the best chemistry will come from reps together, just some conversation can do a lot. If everyone on the broadcast has a sense of everyone else’s point of view, you can direct conversation to help everyone succeed. For example, if a color commentator is a youth coach, the PxP can ask questions about the type of fundamentals associated with youth coaching. But beyond that, learning each others’ cadence, tone, and sense of humor can add a lot to the quality of the broadcast. Much like playing on the field, knowing your teammates’ strengths, weaknesses, preferences, and personalities will boost your performance.

Do: Practice, and Review

Like with preparation, putting in the time will help improve your game. While it is ideal to practice with your team, especially the other on-air talent, even doing some passes alone can smooth out verbal hiccups or inspire you with some ideas of things you’d like to include in your broadcast. Especially if you’re going to go live with little experience, getting to know the rhythm of the game can be both helpful and make you feel much more comfortable on air.

“Cue up any game whose events you haven’t committed to memory and mute the volume,” recommended Toner. “Record yourself calling one half. Playback your recording the next day. Critique yourself and even ask someone you trust to offer thoughts.”

All of us — even on-air vets — have verbal signatures that, when you listen back, draw an intense amount of your personal attention. “Do I really do that all of the time?” you’ll ask. We all know about the typical “umms” and “likes” that creep into speech, but maybe there’s a word or phrase you use more frequently around ultimate than you realized. Or you use “here” or “there” frequently when describing play. It’s only through noticing these things that you can try to break those habits.

Do: Check Your Biases

As I mentioned previously, many commentators will be associated with players or teams in the game they’re calling. That familiarity is part of why you’re probably asked to commentate! But while you might have a perspective, many fans prefer balanced commentary that fans of both fanbases can connect with and appreciate. While major pro sports can have home team broadcasts that can be tailored to the team — and thus have some homerism to it — that isn’t really an option for most ultimate events.2

If you’re hyper-familiar with one team, make sure to learn about the other. Attack your natural tendency to stay in your comfort zone, with stories, anecdotes, and the likes about the team you know better. Say the players names from both teams, and don’t use first names like you and audience are all friends with the players. Avoid presenting the game from one team’s point of view; “Team X needs a stop here,” “Team X is on a roll,” when sometimes you can make Team Y the subject.

We all bring other biases to the table, too, and we should be thoughtful about checking those before making assumptions or leaning into stereotypes about players based on their identifying characteristics. Understand the greater context in which your words will be heard and work towards equitable, fair, and inclusive commentary.

Don’t: Hide Your Personality

You have something to add to the broadcast! It might be your perspective, humor, insight, knowledge, charm, or even your joy. While there are some guidelines as to how to achieve a level of professionalism and a high level of communication, a lot of people feel like they need to be in a specific type of style they have heard elsewhere. In attempting to get to that mainstream, down-the-middle voice, they lose their own, and become robotic and somewhat lifeless. Don’t try to be something or someone you’re not. Bring your voice, but your voice dressed to the nines, like you’re giving the speech at the wedding.

On the same note, your personality will shine if you’re enjoying yourself. I worked in sales for years, and when making phone calls, we would be coached to smile while we spoke. People can hear it and you can feel it. Have a good time and it’ll enhance your presentation and make you a warmer host for the audience.

Don’t: Make Noises Where You Could Use Descriptive Language

This might just be a pet peeve of mine, but it drives down the professionalism of a broadcast quickly to me to hear a bunch of “Ooohs” and “Aaaahs” when exciting or nerve-racking moments occur. Even an exclamation such as “Wow” sounds much cleaner to me. But ideally, we should be describing what is causing that reaction, and letting our tone and word choices convey our emotions. Highlights can bring this out, but it feels even more common with close plays, like bids that come up just short or near collisions between players. We aren’t sitting on the couch with the audience.

Don’t: Overthink What You’ll Say

“Young broadcasters can get hyper fixated on coming up with ways to emphasize a goal call or offer up the perfect analysis, and the mental and vocal energy they devote to that doesn’t always match what they need to carry the rest of the broadcast,” said Toner. “If you can just focus on narrating the basics of the event unfolding before you, you’ll better inform your viewers, and with practice, that excellent highlight call or sharp analytical point will come to you naturally as you practice and get your reps.”

You don’t have to come up with a classic line one-liner that will be quoted decades from now. If you do, that’s great, but aiming for it is like watching a pot to get it to boil. Focus on the work that makes up the most of your broadcast.

  1. Shout out to everyone who remembers waiting months for the quarterly UPA Magazine to get event recaps. 

  2. And to be honest, I actually hate homerish super-biased commentary in major sports, but it seems to be more and more common. I can’t really deal with broadcasters only talking about their team, complaining about every call against them, and only acknowledging their own team’s strong play. Miss me with that. 

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