What makes a good commentator?

MARTYN SADLER, the editor of League Express, considers the qualities that make us want to watch and listen to a sporting event

THE RECENT death of the former BBC commentator John Motson got me thinking about TV sports broadcasters and what distinguishes the great ones from the rest, regardless of which sport we are talking about.

Motson had a remarkable career for BBC television, starting in 1971 and continuing until 2018, usually while wearing his trademark sheepskin coat.

As I write this, I can easily imagine his voice ringing out with an accent that is hard to pigeonhole and is essentially classless, which was perhaps part of his appeal.

Around 20 years ago some scientists, led by a speech therapist called Jane Comins, used voice profile analysis to assess eight leading television and radio football commentators and found that Motson had the perfect pitch, volume and rhythm, making him the number one voice among TV commentators across a range of sports.

The researchers also found that Motson’s voice was the most appealing to fans, with 32% of those asked in a survey voting him their favourite football commentator.

“Close analysis of the commentators’ voices showed many similarities in their capacity to inspire enthusiasm, trust and excitement,” said Comins.

“But John Motson has the biggest impact on fans, simply due to the use of his voice.”

I don’t think there is any doubt that Motson’s commentaries on the BBC added to football’s popularity. Even I, as a non-football fan, found that his style helped rather than hindered me in enjoying the game.

So, when we try to judge what makes a great commentator, it’s quite obvious that the voice is the most important asset, with pitch, volume and rhythm all playing a part.

But a great commentator needs more than just a good voice.

Four more qualities are a genuine and detailed knowledge of the sport, as well as a great love of the game and a genuine sense of humour, as well as the ability to coin a phrase that we will all remember.

The BBC used to have a stable of commentators covering a wide range of sports who had all or most of those qualities. I’m thinking of Kenneth Wolstenholme (football), Bill McLaren (rugby union), John Arlott and Brian Johnstone (cricket), Murray Walker (Formula 1), Peter Alliss (golf) and Dan Haskell (tennis).

The original Rugby League commentator was, of course, Eddie Waring and, in my view, Eddie also had all four of those qualities. And there are countless phrases associated with him – “poor lad”, “early bath”, “it’s an up’n under”.

Unfortunately for Eddie, his style of commentating was very easy to parody and he became one of the favourite subjects of the impressionist Mike Yarwood in the 1970s. That, combined with his decision to act as a presenter on the knockabout TV game show ‘Jeux sans frontières’, led to a lot of lampooning, which inevitably meant that Rugby League itself was apparently being mocked, which was distinctly unappealing to the majority of its supporters.

That fate never befell Motson, whose diversification from football took in tennis and some other sports, but for the most part he stuck to what he was good at.

On February 1972, Motson had what he later described as his big breakthrough, when he was commentating on the FA Cup replay between Hereford United and Newcastle United for Match of the Day.

When Ronnie Radford scored a long-distance equalising goal, Motson’s reaction was: “Oh what a goal! Radford the scorer. Ronnie Radford! And the crowd are on the pitch. What a tremendous shot by Ronnie Radford.”

That piece of commentary persuaded BBC executives to promote him to cover higher-profile TV matches and his career was on the rise from that point.

What’s quite remarkable is how few Rugby League TV commentators we have witnessed in the last 60 years.

Ray French took over from Waring after the 1981 Challenge Cup Final and the BBC’s current lead commentator Dave Woods then took over from French from 2009.

On Sky we had Eddie Hemmings for many years before, following his retirement, Bill Arthur stepped into his shoes.

Hemmings certainly had a style of his own that in my view enhanced the game, creating some of his own magical moments such as the famous ‘Wide to West’ commentary. Hemmings was an expert at modulating his voice to reflect the action on the pitch and he developed an entertaining partnership with his co-commentator Mick ‘Stevo’ Stephenson, with Stevo not afraid to be controversial and Eddie often seeming to rein his partner in with amusing quips.

I sometimes think that the test of a good commentator is whether they compel you to watch the action when you are trying to read a book or a newspaper while simultaneously watching television, and Hemmings would pass that test with flying colours. His partnership with Stevo was easily the most successful commentating partnership in Rugby League TV history, at least in the northern hemisphere.

But times move on. Now that we have Viaplay and Channel 4 giving us live coverage of Rugby League, we have Mark Wilson coming to the fore as a commentator and showing a great deal of promise in that role.

In the past, commentators of note included John Helm, who was the lead man in the old ‘Scrumdown’ programme that was presented by Yorkshire TV, and Clive Tyldesley, who covered Rugby League for a time with Granada TV. Both of them were very effective with a much lower level of production values than those we currently see on our screens.

There is little doubt that Rugby League commentating has changed a great deal since the Eddie Waring days. At the height of his powers, for example, Eddie would occupy the commentary box without any other pundits accompanying him, whereas today’s commentators have to learn to work with their sidekicks.

But the object is the same – to inspire enthusiasm, trust and excitement, as we saw above.

It’s the sort of job that looks easy – until you try to do it yourself!

This is an amended version of Martyn Sadler’s ‘Final Whistle’ column that was first published in Rugby League World magazine’s April 2023 issue. To take out a subscription to Rugby League World, go to https://www.totalrl.com/rugby-league-world/