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Announcers could use some help

Devon O'Neil
Summit Daily News

My ears hurt.

The Winter X Games commentary is a pain in their drums. It’s been five days now that they have had to endure the abrasive jibber-jabber, and they yearn to go back to the peace they knew before arriving in Aspen.

You see, the athletes here do incredible, treacherous, breathtaking things ” but then the announcers describe them. This is where the problem exists.

I call it the X-emphasis: a dialect, it seems, derived from our everyday sports commentary. You don’t get that human-speak you are used to hearing come out of professional announcers’ mouths. It sounds more like robots in a movie, with each syllable broken into its own, emphatic word. “Un-be-LIEV-able!” is one of their favorites.

The robot-talk is not the only problem. Mispronounced names, biased analysis and generally intrusive sarcasm also contribute to the ear-plugging urge I get on a daily basis at the X Games.

The scariest part of it all, to me, is this: Some people out there genuinely enjoy the lingo. Enough so, apparently, for the announcers to keep their jobs year after year.

Monday afternoon I spoke with ESPN’s Molly MacDonald, who oversees much of the event production involved with putting on live Winter X entertainment. MacDonald, 30, hires the competition announcers (though not the TV broadcasters; those are different in most cases).

“Primarily we hire people for their personality and for their style, so we want them to be able to have their own personality and style in how they announce,” MacDonald said.

“Obviously, we try to reduce the amount of any kind of ‘bro factor’ and slang,” she added. “We definitely want it to sound as professional as possible.”

A few nights ago, Travis McLain ” one of the roving announcers for ESPN, and the leader of the X-emphasis crew ” began a report by smirking into the camera and saying, “I don’t know if you know this, but I’m kind of a big deal around here.”

McLain, an Aspen native, is a perfect example of ESPN’s objective when selecting event announcers. The network goes for ex-athletes who are raw in the field of commentary, as opposed to seasoned announcers with little or no inside knowledge of the sports they describe.

McLain is a former pro snowboarder who won a Winter X Games gold medal in ultracross in 2000. He knows the athletes, and they know him. They seem to like him, too, which only adds to the unfortunate lingo liberties he takes.

Among other bits, he enjoys roboticizing: “That’s right, everybody. You heard it here first,” even for the smallest of things. “It’s gonna be siiiick” is another common one. He also mispronounces the names of snowboarders and says things like, “It’s her first superpipe debut.”

MacDonald said she is happy with the staff she has assembled, but noted in McLain’s case, “Yeah, he’s one of those people who comes up with a phrase and it sticks in his head, and he says it over and over again.”

I asked MacDonald what kind of feedback she gets on her team.

“I think for the most part it’s pretty good,” she said. “I think you’ll always have people who get annoyed by someone’s voice or don’t like the way they’re announcing. Sometimes that’s even a good thing, too, because people are still interested in listening. You take some of the greatest announcers in the world and you have people who love ’em and people who don’t like them.”

To be sure, action sports commentary is not designed to be as well-versed and traditional as that of other professional sports. As well, I know my own feelings would probably be cause for conflict if I brought them up in some circles here.

What bothers me most is the bias. While the TV commentators do a decent job remaining objective, the event announcers cater to the athletes like they are kings and queens. In fact, MacDonald said the on-site announcers are told not to say or do anything that might hurt the athletes’ feelings or interfere with their psyches.

“We try to tell as true a story as possible while always giving the athletes the benefit of the doubt,” she said.

It seems impossible to treat the fans fairly by doing that.

Devon O’Neil can be contacted at doneil@summitdaily.com

Aspen, Colorado


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