Here is a brief clip of ESPN NFL reporter Dianna Russini explaining that the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have moved on from Antonio Brown after his most recent completion of The Classic Antonio Brown Behavior Speedrun. It’s not very long, and really there’s no need even to watch it. Just listening to it will do.
So: what do you hear, there? Did you notice that the word “lawsuit” arrived with a little extra oil and vinegar on it? Did you notice that Russini went absolutely Carmela Mode on the phrase “no longer” at the end, in what was most likely just a slip of the tongue but also objectively some real New Jersey–sounding shit? I did, too, but that’s not all I heard. Because Russini grew up in the same part of the same state that I did, I also heard a symphony of sonic memories: an elementary school teacher telling me to “sit on the log” because I cursed on the playground; a friend’s mother exasperatedly informing a bunch of us that we could drink out of the hose; a girl named Courtney in my high school physics class saying the words “rubber stopper.” I heard a future that every sports fan could have, if only we were permitted to have it. I heard, in the “uh” that replaced the “er” at the end of that word, the sound of a future in which the people calling regional sports broadcasts speak with the regional accents appropriate to those broadcasts.
This is a nation of great and varied and occasionally delightfully hideous regional accents, but for the most part this is not borne out in local sports broadcasts. Every now and then one of those voices winds up in the right place—think, for instance, of Jerry Remy saying “here comes the pizzer” while providing frame-by-frame analysis of one Red Sox fan chucking a slice of pizza at another. But given what a strange and strange-sounding nation this is, there’s something more than disappointing in the fact that so many broadcast teams consist of some interchangeable Syracuse-finished play-by-play guy with utterly denatured diction and a color commentator position filled by an ex-player who understands the job as either mashing away on a catchphrase soundboard or sounding and acting like someone who has had exactly four beers. It’s reliable, I suppose, but there is also something being lost in that bargain.
Some of this is mimetic, and so more or less the result of the same sort of unconscious cultural mirroring that Tom Wolfe flagged in The Right Stuff when he identified that every airline pilot spoke in some version of Chuck Yeager’s voice. And in some cases, it might be that this pairing reflects the actual market in question—the vaguely joke-shaped blobules of drawling anti-commentary from Mark Grace during Cubs broadcasts may well reflect the way that a lot of Cubs fans think and talk about the team, although that doesn’t really make either of those facts any more pleasant. Grace, who was suspended for a few games in 2020 after repeatedly calling his ex-wife “a dingbat” on air, is maybe not the best example here; every region and every fan base has many thousands of this kind of sunglasses-on-forehead truck donkey in it. There is demonstrably nothing important that would be lost by replacing him with someone who sounds a bit more like Serengeti’s vocal performance on “Dennehy.”
Sports are a big business, and the pressures of the market have a way of flattening the nuance and squeezing the character out of things, to render them shelf-stable, or easier to categorize, or just more predictable. And national games are just going to be what they are—people who sound like they are from nowhere, sitting next to people who are recognizable from somewhere, talking around whatever needs talking around. But there is a point at which the imperative of what works best for the gray decision-makers at Bally Sports Network or whatever diverges from not just what fans want, but what these games truly are. Sports are best and most singular when they are strange; they are, oddly or not, easier to know and easier to care about when and where they are cracked, or off, and somehow more familiar for it. They might as well sound that way, too.
That lesson can and should be scaled throughout this proud and strange-sounding nation. Regional sports networks have numerous issues, but making them more regional—making sure that at least one person calling a Colorado Rockies game has The Stoner Voice, or that the 76ers are somehow pronounced “semi-sixers” on their own broadcast—could only help bond teams to the communities in which they play. What is the point of having a team whose fans call it The O’s, located quite literally in Baltimore, if the people talking about that team on television are saying the letter “O” in a normal way?