The remarkable thing about sports commentators is that regardless of how they’re perceived by the public, they’re likely to stay on for years and years as long as someone at the network believes in them. There’s very little change in the top ranks despite waves of criticism, which is why the likes of Phil Simms, Tim McCarver and Cal Ripken have hung on for years and years regardless of public protests about them. That’s what makes Fox’s move this week to replace Harold Reynolds and Tom Verducci with John Smoltz in their lead MLB on Fox booth so unusual; it’s a non-age-related shakeup of a network’s top broadcasting team. That’s one area where Fox is actually being different, and they deserve plenty of praise for that.
Of course, Fox made the decision to go with the three-man booth of Joe Buck, Reynolds and Verducci in the first place, so they put themselves in this position to begin with. There was plenty of evidence before that decision (following McCarver’s retirement at the end of the 2013 season) that Reynolds was not a good fit as a color commentator, and that three-man booths were problematic in general. Reynolds certainly proved that to be true, from his old-school baseball persona to his comments on Canadians and foul balls, and he improved the broadcast by his disappearance during Fox’s World Series technical difficulties. Meanwhile, while Verducci had done great work for Fox as a reporter, shoehorning him into the main booth with Reynolds and Buck always felt awkward. Still, Fox’s willingness to admit this wasn’t working and shake things up is remarkable; most networks have stuck to their top announcing teams regardless of criticism, so a change here is unconventional and appreciated.
Going with Reynolds and Verducci in the first place wasn’t the smartest move, but hopefully other networks can learn from how Fox has handled that. They saw the struggles of the three-man booth and the criticism it drew, they had an opportunity for a clear upgrade with Smoltz, and they leapt at it, rather than stubbornly insisting their initial decision was right and viewers would come around. In some ways, this is similar to the mutual decision to end their Gus Johnson-on-soccer experiment; many networks would have persevered with trying to shove Johnson down soccer fans’ throats, but Fox eventually figured out they were better off walking away from that idea. This is something broadcasters in general would do well to embrace; trying unconventional analysts or approaches isn’t bad, but it’s valuable to pay attention to the criticism and make changes when things don’t work out, rather than just stubbornly sticking to your guns. Fox showed rare flexibility here, plus a genuine desire to improve their broadcasting product, and hopefully that will become a trend others follow.