The United States Of Accents: Sports Announcer Talk
Sports announcers have one of the most important jobs in the world. They’re tasked with giving the play-by-play of the action in front of them, but they’re also expected to provide historical insight, color commentary and amusing anecdotes. It’s no wonder that people who watch enough games will develop strong opinions as to which announcers they like and which they don’t. And while there are certainly some distinctive announcers, if you watch or listen to a lot of sports, you might start to note similarities in the ways they speak. It’s enough to make you wonder, is there a sports announcer accent?
That might sound like a silly question, but there actually are a few common speech traits that can be tracked across sports commentators. Because while we usually think of accents and dialects as regional, the way someone talks is influenced by a number of factors like age, class, race and, yes, career. And with a career like sports commentator, where the voice is the most prominent feature, the accent used becomes all the more important. Where did this accent come from, and does it affect the way people experience sports? Let’s tee off into the world of sportscasting.
How Sports Announcers’ Accents Developed
After the end of World War II, the way people talked on the radio shifted. Whereas before, professional newscasters and the like would use something called the Mid-Atlantic accent — a hybrid of American and British accents that was known as the “professional” announcer voice — the 1950s ushered in a more American sound.
People on the radio and on television started to use General American, an accent that is clearly American but doesn’t have any features that would make it clear what region a person is from. It’s an evolving standard used by newscasters and anyone else trying to sound “professional,” because (unfortunately) regional accents often come with stereotypes and preconceptions. And because the history of broadcasting in the United States is very white and male, the accent is also the one most identified with white men.
Sports announcers were a part of this phenomenon. This isn’t to say that there was a magic change from one to the other, but there was certainly a slow shift in how announcers sounded. If you compare a baseball broadcast from 1944 and one from 1960, it’s easy to hear the change from the r-dropping, nasal Mid-Atlantic accent to the deeper, more Walter Cronkite-like General American accent. This General American accent communicated authority, and that’s why even today, pretty much every newscaster still uses it. Sports announcers, however, play a very different role, and so the accent changed to fit that.
Sticking with baseball, it was in the 1970s that the Generic Baseball Announcer Voice was born. It’s this period that the actor Hank Azaria parodies in his sitcom and podcast Brockmire, about a disgraced baseball announcer who uses his baseball announcer voice even when he’s not actually working (to humorous effect, as you can imagine). It still makes use of General American, but it has a more nasal quality, and makes use of a lilting, singsong quality that is useful both for keeping the audience’s attention and packing in quite a bit of information. It’s part carnival barker, part auctioneer.
While Generic Baseball Announcer Voice was certainly popular even in other sports, it certainly wasn’t the only voice you’d hear while watching a game. For example, color commentator Myron Cope was the “voice of the Pittsburgh Steelers” in football — a sport that overtook baseball’s popularity in 1972 — and part of Cope’s rise in the 1970s was thanks to his strong, distinctive Pittsburgh accent. Cope was more an exception than the rule, but certain sports announcers could certainly achieve fame with unique voices. Especially when the accents reflected the working-class fans of the team they’re announcing for.
It was also around this time that there was another trend that changed the way sports announcers sounded: former players were becoming color commentators. Now, instead of the trained voices of life-long journalists, you’d hear more and more from people who didn’t have the same kind of training. This wasn’t welcomed by everyone. In 1985, sports journalist Howard Cosell wrote in the Sun Sentinel, “Put an ex-jock in the booth, and their cliche-ridden presentation of a game is the least of their sins. As a result of their lack of training, most of them are blessedly lost when trying to establish a story line for a telecast.” Regardless of whether you agree with Cosell, the introduction of players to the booths helped speed along the democratization of voices in sports. Some of the most famous voices in sports got their start as athletes, like the thick Boston accent of former Celtics player and sports commentator Tommy Heinsohn.
The past few decades of sports announcers have made it particularly difficult to nail down a specific “voice” that they all might share. There’s plenty of General American to be found, but there are also regional sounds from all over the country (though it still skews toward white, male voices).
Still, this doesn’t invalidate the original point: there’s something unique about the way that sports announcers talk. If you want to find out what linguistic features really separate sports announcers from the rest of us, you have to look not at the accents, but at the way they construct sentences.
Sports On The Sentence Level
In 1983, Language and Society published one of the earliest series studies of a phenomenon known as Sports Announcer Talk. The author, linguist Charles A. Ferguson, looked at utterances by various sports announcers to find traits that seemed to define their way of talking. What he found was that Sports Announcer Talk was distinguished by its syntax more than anything else. While the study is relatively old and focuses primarily on baseball, the features Ferguson highlighted are still very much in play today.
Ferguson also makes one point that is relevant here: he calls Sports Announcer Talk a register, not an accent or a dialect. A “register” is a way of talking that is used in a specific situation, like working as a sports announcer. In any case, here are a few syntactic features that define Sports Announcer Talk.
The word “simplification” can refer to a number of different things in linguistics, but here it mostly means that there is something missing from the sentence that the listener might expect (if the speaker were using Standard English). This comes up often in a sentence like “Milburn remaining on first [base]” instead of “Milburn is remaining on first.” This likely evolved from a kind of economical shortening to get more information to listeners faster, and at this point it might sound oddly formal to include the “is” in a sentence like this.
Often in regular speech, English puts the person doing the action first. “John Smith is on first base,” for example, would be considered better than “On first base is John Smith.” And yet, oddly enough, sports announcers use the second version far more often, in phrases like “Tagging at third is Nettles to score” and “On deck is big Dave Winfield.” Ferguson came to the conclusion that this likely happens because it gives the announcer an extra moment to actually figure out who is doing what, which would be especially difficult in the days before ever-present cameras and screens.
Sports announcers will often identify a player with extra information, whether it be mentioning they’re left-handed, referring to a relevant statistic or calling them by their nickname. Instead of saying just “Next up is Smith,” an announcer might say “Next up is Smith, who hit a home run last night that tied up the game.” Ferguson mentions this is the mark of a good announcer, because it provides the listener with more context, while also showing off the announcer’s knowledge of the players.
Perhaps the most notable feature for anyone listening to a sportscast is the use of routines. These are the phases used countless times during a single game to provide the listener with information. Ferguson looks specifically at the “count” in baseball, where the announcer lets the listener know how many balls and strikes there are by saying something like “It’s three and one” (“There are three balls and one strike”). Every sport has its own set of routines. Another common example is football announcers saying something like “Fourth and 10” to let the listener know it’s fourth down with 10 yards needed for the team to keep possession of the ball. Routines are economical ways for the listener to keep track of what’s going on, and they also fill the space during breaks in the action.
There are also more variables that affect the way sports announcers sound. A 2003 study found that sports announcers speak differently depending on whether they’re on the radio or on television. In this case, the linguist finds that radio announcers use more simplification because they have more information to get across, whereas television announcers can rely on the fact that the viewers are getting some information visually.
This all might be getting a bit into the weeds, but it shows how even something like sports announcing can be filled with incredible variety and linguistic richness. Next time you listen to a game, pay attention to the way the various commentators talk about what’s going on. You’ll see just how much is going on.