Iowa

OPINION: Give Gymnastics the Expert Commentary It Deserves

At the beginning of Saturday’s Eastern Michigan at Iowa broadcast on BTN+, announcer John Evans introduced his colleague Kira Schmoke as “the brains of the operation.” He then proceeded to spend the vast majority of the broadcast asking Schmoke, a former gymnast, the most basic questions about college gymnastics, often requiring her to provide answers while gymnasts were actively competing.

My intention isn’t to bash Evans, who also provides commentary for the Hawkeyes’ women’s volleyball and field hockey teams. If I had to guess, he was likely asked to add gymnastics to his slate on short notice and didn’t have time to become an expert in the sport.

However, this is just the most recent example of a trend in college gymnastics commentary, particularly on BTN+ broadcasts, where a male commentator with very little knowledge of the sport is paired with a former female gymnast who is expected to educate both the audience and her colleague while also providing sufficient commentary on the meet.

I have to ask–why is this necessary? Who is making these decisions? Is there some unwritten requirement that all broadcast teams must include a man, even if said man is not even remotely qualified?

Most sports broadcasts include two commentators: a play-by-play announcer, whose job is to narrate the action as it happens, and a color commentator, who is expected to provide expert analysis and statistics during the breaks in the action. Both of these roles require expert-level knowledge of the sport, and it’s easy to imagine the public outrage if an announcer in a football or basketball game didn’t know the basic rules.

Why do we put up with this in gymnastics?

It could be argued that Evans’ role on Saturday’s broadcast team was to represent the average uninformed viewer who doesn’t understand the sport. This is in line with gymnastics commentary at all levels, which seems to assume that most viewers don’t understand the sport, though networks take different approaches in how to handle this.

Tim Daggett has said that NBC prefers for him to focus on the “story” rather than the technical intricacies of gymnastics, especially in hugely popular events like the Olympics and Olympic Trials. ESPN’s coverage of college gymnastics has some standard “education” segments that are used in every broadcast, with streamlined graphics about the scoring format shown at the beginning of every meet; this leaves the announcers plenty of time to talk about the actual gymnastics while the meet is going on. BYUtv, which provides free streams of BYU’s home and neutral-site contests, educates viewers in bits and pieces throughout the meet while also providing excellent analysis.

The problem with all of Evans’ questions, if he was in fact supposed to be representing an uninformed viewer, is that they were all he contributed to the broadcast. NBC’s Terry Gannon sometimes plays this role during elite gymnastics broadcasts, asking Tim Daggett and Nastia Liukin a question about the sport as a lead-in to educate viewers, but he also adds valuable insight of his own.

What is the uninformed male commentator in all these college gymnastics broadcasts (presumably) getting paid to do? Including a male commentator by default sends the message that anyone can be a gymnastics announcer and that no expertise is required, which is disrespectful to a sport that has a long history of sexism and is still struggling to be taken seriously more than once every four years.

To take it a step further, why is gymnastics seemingly the only sport where commentators are supposed to appeal to the most uneducated viewer? If we continue to assume that casual viewers don’t understand basic rules and expert analysis isn’t necessary, won’t that eventually become a self-fulfilling prophecy?

This summer I watched several skateboarding sessions at the Olympics, and despite the fact that I had never watched a skateboarding competition in my life, within the first 10 minutes I understood the full competition format, who the most prominent competitors were and the names of several difficult skills. This was because the announcers weren’t dumbing things down for me but were simply mixing in basic explanations with their play-by-play. It’s a similar way to how BYUtv approaches its gymnastics coverage and should be a model for other streaming services.

Commentary isn’t easy. I know it’s not. But I don’t think it’s too much to ask for announcers to at least do a bare minimum amount of research and have a basic knowledge of the sport they’re covering. I think most fans would agree they’d rather listen to a former gymnast with little commentary experience than someone who’s done commentary for other sports but knows nothing about gymnastics. It’s insulting to the audience, the athletes and the coaching staff to have commentators who lack the most basic knowledge, and it would never be tolerated in a more mainstream sport.

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Article by Jenna King

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4 comments

  1. Yes! Some of the commentary is so embarrassingly awful. Last spring, apparently there were two male commentators for the MAC Championship meet who were limited to comments like, “The gymnast just did a backwards maneuver. She took a step sideways.” The Championships! My older daughter who watched from home is still fuming. I don’t know who all is to blame, but it is definitely a slap in the face to the athletes and fans when the commentary sounds like something out of a mockumentary.

  2. 100%!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
    I’ve literally been annoyed by this for 3 decades! Who the hell doesn’t know that pointed toes and straight legs are basic requirements for most moves? As a 10 year old I literally could have gone over the absolute basics in about 10 minutes. Utah does a great job of the Gym 101 for each event during warm-ups for said event. Would not be at all difficult to copy this format for every televised/live streamed meet at all levels!

    I just watched the BYUtv coverage for the Best of Utah meet, and I gotta say I was not impressed with the guy they had there. He was at least educated on the sport and made mention of some of his favorite athletes and skills. Then he went right back to the cliched tropes on what are the judges looking for here?

  3. I couldn’t listen to the Buhler twins at the Michigan meet either. Now random podcasters get commentating jobs.

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