Conflicts in Tennis Announcing

By Jane Voigt

Washington D.C., July 18, 2016 — John McEnroe touched off a torment of negative comments at Wimbledon. It had nothing to do with his tennis, but everything to do with the state of tennis broadcasting and those people hired to deliver information about matches, players and the state of the sport around The All England Club.

The discussion can’t be contained to Wimbledon, either. It has spread world-wide and includes all tennis tournaments, no matter their status. The question is: Should tennis commentators have a relationship with players in a match?

Background

McEnroe first drew attention on Saturday, during the men’s semifinal match between Milos Raonic and Roger Federer. John was commentating for BBCSport that day. Nothing wrong there except McEnroe was hired three weeks earlier by Raonic to consult/coach the Canadian about his game, especially his grass game which McEnroe made a speciality of as a young man. He won three Wimbledon singles titles in the 1980s. 

20150422-ms-0773

Although John McEnroe retired from tennis decades ago, he maintains a strong presence on the Powershares Tour.
Photo credit Leslie Billman tennisclix.com

The next day, McEnroe was alongside brother Patrick McEnroe and Chris Fowler for ESPN to call the men’s final between Andy Murray and, yes, Milos Raonic. Twitter lit up with disbelief. Why was he there? Wasn’t his presence a conflict of interest and potential set up for bias? Were lines in sport broadcast journalism being blurred to the point that ethical questions were broached?

“So many people have done it [coached and commentated],” Coach Wayne Bryan, father of Mike and Bob, said in an interview with DownTheTee today. “It doesn’t rise to the level of ethics. It’s sport and entertainment; it doesn’t really affect lives in significant ways.”

Bryan made a distinction between a ‘color commentator’ and an ‘announcer.’ He suggested that those roles are defined by the network executives before air time.

“There are so many coaches that are [color] commentators,” he said. “These are the tennis guys.” The announcers, on the other hand, are the ones in the booth that maintain point-by-point continuity, people like Chris Fowler for ESPN and Brett Haber for Tennis Channel.  

email-logo

“Tennis is a small world,” Bryan went on to say. “Donald Dell [Citi Open co-owner] has worn so many hats. He’s played professionally, coached Davis Cup. He’s called matches. He started a player management company.”

Bryan has been in the position with his sons that could be seen as a conflict, as well. He’s had to introduce them at many events, especially World Team Tennis. He’s at Citi Open in the same role this year, to introduce players before matches. 

“Many times I’ve had to introduce Bob and Mike,” he said. “Maybe I should have been at home and not doing that. I’ve tried to read the bios and be even handed.”

Disclosing the relationship between coach, commentator and player seemed to be a key criteria for the situation. “As long as they disclose their affiliation,” Bryan said, as his voice tapered off, meaning disclosing the relationship put the reality on an even keel with no conflicts of interest in question. 

“I think there’s been a couple sticky situations with coaching and commentating,” Sloane Stephens, the defending Citi Open champion, said in her pre-tournament press conference. “I’ve heard some not nice things about players and coaches. At this point it’s the players paying the coach. If the players agree to let them commentate then that’s all personal preference. So, in the end if talked about beforehand then it’s up to the player. So, it was up to Milos, really.”

Raonic did give the nod to McEnroe for his ESPN stint before the Wimbledon final. 

“I would think Milos would want John in the players’ box,” Bryan added. “But if he gave the okay, then … “

The McEnroe Wimbledon incident is not an isolated one. 

Justin Gimelstob, John Isner’s (No. 1 seed at Citi Open) former coach, commentated for Tennis Channel and was a member of the ATP Player Counsel while coaching the American. Normally he sat in the player’s box while Isner played. However, followup coverage on Tennis Channel would feature Gimelstob. 

Stosur vs. Kudryavtseva CO 2016 07 18 LB 00040

Samantha Stosur, Citi Open’s top seed for the WTA competition, started with a bang defeating Alla Kudryavtseva, 6-3, 6-0, in under an hour this afternoon. Photo credit Leslie Billman tennisclix.com

Mary Jo Fernandez worked Wimbledon for ESPN. She’s the United States Fed Cup captain and captain for the women’s Olympic team. Her husband, Tony Godsick, is Roger Federer’s player-agent. Lindsay Davenport had coached Madison Keys, too, while employed by Tennis Channel.

“Truth be told, tennis has worn me down a bit on such conflicts across broadcasting,” Richard Deitsch wrote for si.com. “Things are so incestuous in tennis that I’m convinced nothing will ever change.” 

Sam Querrey doesn’t think it matters much. Well, not as much as his tennis and star quality attention after upsetting Novak Djokovic at Wimbledon. 

“I have no problem with it,” Querrey stated up front. “Obviously it was a great team [Raonic and McEnroe] for the grass court season. And as a commentator I don’t think it’s a conflict of interest. McEnroe does a great job commentating. I think if he was an employee of the ATP and coaching, I think that would be a little different. But we’ve had that in the past with Justin Gimelstob and Isner. I don’t think Justin crossed any lines. I thought he did a great job of separating the two.”

Querrey did not think that McEnroe showed any bias as he called the Wimbledon final. “I thought it was fine,” Sam said.

Tennis is not the only sport where lines between coaching and commentary are blurred or overlap. Mark Jackson, head coach of the Golden State Warriors from 2011-2014, now commentates for the NBA and his former team. Steve Kerr, who took over Jackson’s position with Golden State, has spends time in the booth. Others who have not coached but played professional sports moved from their fields to the confines of broadcasting, too. They include Bill Walton, Phil Rizzuto and Frank Gifford.

What’s The Answer, If One’s Needed

ESPN anchor Hannah Storm raised a possibility during a Variety-Sports Illustrated conference in Los Angeles last week. The topic was named, “The State of Live Sports Coverage.” She suggested, “major sports broadcast outlets were not far away from hiring fans to work as on-air broadcasters and that their addition would take the global sports bar experience of social media platforms to another level,” si.com reported. 

The costs savings would be profound for producers, like reality TV has been for them, but the quality might fall apart as the sport-fan-turned-pro-announcer stumbled around trying to fill in the minutes. Sure, they’re are thousands of people who know volumes about sport and, specifically, tennis. But they probably couldn’t sit in a booth and be expected to retain listeners. 

However, one idea floated at this conference introduced the use of fans as commentators. Since big broadcasters, like ESPN, want to gain the ears of millennials perhaps another avenue could be paved outside the standard studio settings. Maybe some fans could be hired and trained to live-stream pre-match stories, such as those that happen during tail-gating parties. The intrepid team could wander parking lots or sit in while tennis fans eat a meal and live-stream their perspectives. 

“What would work best would be uncensored coverage,” wrote si.com, “No restriction on language and unfiltered scenes of what was happening. It wouldn’t always be pretty, but it would be authentic.”

The day we witness this type of live reporting is here. Twitter won rights to live-stream 10 of the 16 NFL Thursday night games three months ago, according to Sports Illustrated. “In order to get a little practice in before the season starts, Twitter was streaming Wimbledon [during final weekend] as their first sports live stream broadcast."

© Jane Voigt Tennis 2013