LONDON, ENGLAND - AUGUST 01: Tennis commentator John McEnroe watches the night session of swimming on Day 5 of the London 2012 Olympic Games at the Aquatics Centre on August 1, 2012 in London, England. (Photo by Alexander Hassenstein/Getty Images)
NBC sends nearly a hundred broadcasters to the Olympics. How do they stack up against one another by sport? Presenting the NBC Olympic Announcers Power Rankings, with all the good, bad and ugly.
Obviously, there are many events at the Summer Olympics, from swimming to track and field to ... trampoline and equestrian. It's hard to catch them all, but luckily, I've been able to, for the most part. I've stayed awake or woken up at 4 a.m. ET occasionally to see what NBC Sports Network is airing to start their day. It's not always pretty, but sometimes it can be a lot of fun.
Lots of sports means lots of broadcasters, some good, some not so good. So I decided to rank these announcing teams -- many of them thrown together just for this tournament -- in a BCS-like format. These are all the teams that NBC has sent to London for the Games (if they're not on this list, they're calling it off a monitor in New York). They've been ranked based on ability to give information, enthusiasm without seeming schticky and their ability to not call something a 16-year old gymnast did "a disaster" (SPOILER ALERT). Enjoy.
1. Track & Field - Tom Hammond, Ato Boldon, Craig Masback, Tim Hutchings, Lewis Johnson
I think Tom Hammond may be the most underrated broadcaster working at the moment. Do you ever hear anyone complain about his work? Is anyone ever disappointed to see him call the early afternoon NFL Wild Card game every year? Often forgotten due to his regular gig of calling Notre Dame football's continued slide into irrelevance, he's really fantastic for his other gigs at NBC, such as horse racing, and particularly track & field. He is understated, but unafraid to show excitement at track's big moments, like Usain Bolt's victory on Sunday.
Hammond and former track star Ato Boldon make for a solid team. Boldon is a little sloppy at times, but always enthusiastic and knowledgeable about his sport. In addition, he is unafraid to flaunt his connections to current athletes to show where he got his information. You rarely see that sort of source-citing from broadcasters in the Olympics, and the viewers is always better served for it.
2. Soccer - Arlo White, Kyle Martino, Brandi Chastain, Drea Avent
While Ian Darke may be the darling of American soccer fans after his work on the 2010 World Cup, the 2012 Olympics may similarly be Arlo White's big moment, as he's shown day after day that he's just as good. His call of the United States women's last-second victory in the semifinals over Canada was thrilling. He's similar to Darke in that he's got a wealth of soccer knowledge, but is unafraid to bring his voice up for those big moments. His emergence as NBC's MLS play-by-play man has been revelatory this season, and on Monday, 2.9 million more people saw the light.
I'm more split on the rest of this crew. Kyle Martino is fine, a charismatic, young face who is able to keep up with White beat for beat. I'm less sold on Brandi Chastain. While I don't have the same ill will for the former national team star that Hope Solo does (and I've probably seen much more of Chastain's commentary than Solo has), I agree that there are some things she needs to work on. One of my pet peeves is when analysts yell out "Oh!" after an exciting play, and Chastain did that after almost every single goal on Monday, ruining moment after moment. Avent is fairly nondescript, and a decent reporter, though she was replaced by Michelle Tafoya on Monday.
3. Swimming - Dan Hicks, Rowdy Gaines, Andrea Kremer
As cheesy as the pair of Hicks and Gaines can get with all the screaming and the excitement ... it's really hard not to get caught up in it when you have the current crop of American stars in the pool. It doesn't necessarily justify the multitude of octaves that Gaines can rise to throughout a meet, but ... let's just say we're all probably at the same volume, so who could blame them? While many play-by-play men who scream (*COUGHGUSJOHNSONCOUGH*) bug the hell out of me, Hicks and Gaines aren't screaming out of devotion to any self-propogated schtick, which makes it seem genuinely exciting.
Down on the sidelines, is there anyone that talks to Michael Phelps more often over a two-week period than Andrea Kremer? I legitimately believe that he speaks to her more than his entire family combined during the Olympics. The only complaint I have here is that they'll often interview an American who didn't win instead of a foreigner who did. That's not necessarily their call, however. Hicks, Gaines and Kremer do the unthinkable and get people seriously amped for swimming for a couple of weeks every four years.
4. Boxing - Bob Papa, Teddy Atlas, Russ Thaler
You may not see this bunch too much, being that you haven't been able to find CNBC on a TV that wasn't in your college cafeteria or an airport, but they do really good work. Papa, the voice of the New York Giants and the Golf Channel by day, is an excellent boxing announcer. He's able to get out the finer points of a sport that has perhaps faded out of the public consciousness without taking too much away from the action.
Atlas is just plain entertaining. When you hear him speak, you can almost hear every punch he's taken in his boxing life. I wish they could find a way to put his Brooklyn-accented voice on other sports. I would definitely watch him calling synchronized swimming. Thaler is an excellent reporter, typically seen on NBC's soccer coverage. Never any frills, doesn't make it about himself, gets the job done. Exactly what the role calls for.
5. Water Polo - Mike Emrick, Wolf Wigo, Julie Swail, Pierre McGuire
A bit of an odd gang, as the worlds of hockey and water polo rarely ever crossed before, but this has been one of the more entertaining teams of the fortnight. Emrick, the Hall of Fame hockey announcer, brings his precision-like escalating calls from the ice to the pool (complete with his famous scream of "HIT THE POST WITH THE SHOT!" with seconds remaining in Team USA's semifinal against Australia in the women's tournament). He brings a natural curiosity that I think a lot of people have gained throughout this Olympics (the sport's been on a lot) to water polo. He's what is known in television as an "audience surrogate," standing in for the rest of us and asking for helpful pointers about the game.
Wigo and Swail have been excellent teachers, particularly the former, who often sounds like he could (and has) call play-by-play himself. Despite water polo's absence from television outside the Olympics, both sound like they've done this a bunch (Swail called water polo during the 2004 Games, Wigo in 2008) and would be excellent choices for regulars were the sport to get on TV more regularly. As for McGuire, he's far from a favorite for many hockey fans, and he's in a sport where he doesn't know almost everything, but it's been sort of fun to see him bring the bluster and intensity that he brings to hockey over to water polo. Excellent work from all.
6. Basketball - Bob Fitzgerald, Doug Collins, Ann Meyers, Craig Sager
It's kind of disturbing how easily Doug Collins and studio analyst Doc Rivers have slid out of their current NBA coaching jobs and back into broadcasting for NBC's Olympic basketball coverage (and for Rivers, strangely, a moment as a soccer analyst on Monday). The bigger surprise is that they've not just been solid, they've been great, keeping a tournament that can tend to edge towards blowouts often compelling and interesting to the hardcore basketball fans and the neophytes who just want to see 'Bron and KD put up 300 on some third-world country.
Ann Meyers has been good with the women's tournament, almost to the point where it's a shame that she also has a regular gig in the WNBA and can't do regular analyst work on that league or the NBA. Sager is his usual enjoyable, interesting self, always getting good nuggets of info out of the players. I'm less sold on Warriors announcer Bob Fitzgerald. He's fine and clearly knowledgeable, but I wish they'd gone after a bigger name. Someone like Mike Breen or Marv Albert, who've called the last two Olympics despite not being employed by NBC. Bonus points for hardworking backup teams composed of play-by-play men Dave Strader and Chris Carrino, as well as analysts Tim Capstraw, Donny Marshall and Lisa Leslie, who've all been solid calling games off monitors in New York.
7. Rowing - Terry Gannon, Yaz Farooq
I haven't seen a lot of rowing during the Olympics, but what I've seen I've enjoyed. I swear I've heard Terry Gannon call every sport known to man. His official resume lists basketball (NBA, WNBA, college), football (college), baseball (minor league and little league), cycling, soccer, auto racing, golf, horse racing, and now rowing. The miracle is that he does a fine job at all of them.
Farooq, who was not necessarily the most exciting analyst in Beijing four years ago, has become much more enthusiastic to go along with a solid delivery. The key to being a good Olympic announcer is to provide a wealth of information with enthusiasm without stepping over the event, and this duo somehow manages just that.
8. Diving - Ted Robinson, Cynthia Potter, Alex Flanagan
Diving is another sport I really don't understand, and while this team does a good job explaining the sport, Potter can tend to be a bit overcritical of the judges, which makes the contest hard to get into. When you're immediately being forcefed the idea that the judging is crooked (without getting enough time to realize that it's the Olympics and of course it's crooked), it's a bit disheartening.
Robinson and Flanagan are both pros at this stuff, and do a fine job. I'd just like an analyst who wasn't constantly critical of the judges' decisions. At least there's no red/green/yellow judging system in place like NBC did with gymnastics.
9. Beach Volleyball - Chris Marlowe, Kevin Wong, Heather Cox
Heather Cox is not why this team is ranked so low. Cox is probably, next to Kremer, the best reporter at the Olympics. She is constantly providing the booth with information so current that you have to question whether she hides somewhere underneath the sand during timeouts to get it.
Marlowe and Wong aren't my favorite team. Marlowe tends to deliver the same lines over and over again, without enough enthusiasm to make them catchphrases. Wong is just nondescript, and not as informative as his indoor counterpart, Kevin Barnett. The announcer tends to play to the cheese factor of beach volleyball, and it can often sound like they're calling that one scene from Top Gun.
10. Cycling - Steve Schlanger, Paul Sherwen
NBC has itself a dynamite cycling team of Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen to cover most events, the Tour de France of course being the most popular. However, the legendary Liggett (often referred to as the Vin Scully of cycling) was contracted to Australian television for the 2012 Olympics, which left Sherwen with Steve Schlanger, who has called multiple sports at these games.
Schlanger has worked cycling before, and brings an enthusiasm to every call, but it just isn't the same as the chemistry between Sherwen and Liggett as during the great cycle through France every summer.
11. Tennis - Brett Haber, Andrew Catalon, Rennae Stubbs, Justin Gimelstob, Jon Wertheim, Ted Robinson, John McEnroe
Here's another curious case. NBC itself has a very solid tennis team, though it has been depleted through the loss of Wimbledon broadcast rights. Matters weren't helped by the networking shunting most tennis coverage off to Bravo, and letting lead tennis play-by-player Robinson call diving, while they allowed McEnroe to bro out with Shaun White for all but the gold medal matches in tennis. Mary Carillo, another NBC tennis vet, has also stayed away from the courts to host the network's late-night program.
All of this means that NBC was using a bit of a B-team for the weeklong tennis event, and it showed. All involved did a professional job, but not having McEnroe and Robinson made the entire tournament seem a little bit less than the fifth Grand Slam that tennis likes to think the Olympics are.
12. Volleyball - Paul Sunderland, Kevin Barnett, Michele Tafoya
Indoor volleyball has been much maligned for the amount of coverage it's gotten by many -- including myself -- via social media. The sport is simply not very good on television and doesn't belong on the primetime show, which it has been a large part of on multiple nights. It doesn't have the sex appeal of beach volleyball, and it also has too many players to keep track of. I worked on volleyball broadcasts in college and I still don't entirely understand it.
Not helping matters are the team of Sunderland and Barnett, who don't really go out of their way to explain details of the sport to the uninitiated. In addition, Sunderland is prone to saying some pretty ridiculous things. During a U.S. match over the weekend, a player accidentally kicked a ball to set up a point and Sunderland exclaimed "Who says Americans don't play soccer?" and added that the U.S. was lucky the ball landed on the foot of a player with European heritage.
... Uh, no one. Nobody says that, Paul. Americans may not exactly watch soccer en masse, but it is a very popular participatory sport and has been for more than a generation. Far more American children play soccer than, say, volleyball. Also, we have a women's soccer team over here. They're playing in the gold medal game. Maybe I'm overemphasizing one point, but the volleyball team hasn't done much to sell a sport that just isn't the most exciting on the tube.
13. Synchronized Swimming - Randy Moss, Heather Olson
Not as much a knock at these broadcasters -- and no, it's not that Randy Moss (though wouldn't that be amazing!?) -- as it as a knock at how little synchronized swimming really needs broadcasters. It doesn't really get a lot of time on the various networks (as similar sports like pairs figure skating and ice dancing get) to explain what is good and what is bad, and it's not necessarily easy to describe to people. Moss and Olson are competent, but don't necessarily provide the insight and excitement to get people outside of Joe Synchronized Swimfan into the sport.
14. Gymnastics - Al Trautwig, Tim Daggett, Elfi Schlegel, Andrea Joyce
No single team plays up the schmaltz factor like this one. It has often seemed, during these Games, that Trautwig subsists entirely on the tears of teenage gymnasts, for whom he overly emphasizes every... dramatic... moment. That, along with claims of editing around key moments to support narratives (no fault of the broadcasters, but it doesn't help that they played along with the faux-drama behind the US gymnasts waiting for their all-around score) have made the gymnastics broadcasts the biggest trainwreck of the 2012 Olympics on NBC.
It's not merely Trautwig who makes the broadcasts problematic: Schlegel and Daggett are hyperbolic beyond what is necessary on both ends of the spectrum. Every leap and tumble is either the greatest thing they've ever seen or a death sentence for whomever dared to perform it. Joyce is a fine reporter, but a reporter nonetheless, and that doesn't keep gymnastics coverage from being the most brutal part of these games. I personally have no problem with tape delays, but if I have to wait hours and hours to hear this, it simply isn't worth it.
For more on the Olympics, check out SB Nation's London 2012 Olympics Hub.