You clicked on this thinking, “WTF?!?!?” I’m serious, though. This isn’t clickbait. Let’s start with this:
There are really three ways we watch sports today.
1. We watch games intensely for teams we root for. For NBA, NHL, and MLB, this means watching on local channels with local announcers most of the time.
2. During peak days, we block out time to flip around and watch multiple games. For the NFL, the Red Zone channels help us do this. College football Saturdays often have fans flipping around chasing action (along with ESPN Goal Line). March Madness offers a similar robust amount of action that allows fans to stay engaged without eyeing specific games. Golf majors and the Olympics also sometimes fit into this bucket.
3. But the majority of watching live sports these days is basically because we like to watch something and we like sports and hence, we half watch whatever is on because we don’t really care that much. Often it’s just on in the background while you work, cook, talk with friends, etc.
ESPN is my go to, when I start going through the guide looking for something else. I often do 2-3 laps around the guide and DVR looking for something with ESPN on and even if I am sitting there locked in on watching a game on ESPN or whatever channel, if the game isn’t that exciting I’ll start doing stuff on my phone. Looking at Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, reading emails, going through Slack and our Google Analytics, and catching up on articles.
I hate myself for this because I feel myself becoming more addicted to mental stimulation of juggling my attention between multiple things. What enables it though is that by “half watching” sports, is that when the games does indeed become interesting we can stop whatever we’re doing and lock into whatever is about to happen or just happened.
Bucket #3 of watching sports is probably the majority of hours being watched of sporting events on national channels, and it needs a shakeup. People’s attention spans are decreasing, we’re becoming more addicted to our phone, we’re cutting the cord, we’re watching Netflix and more online video, and we’re increasingly paying more attention to things beyond sports like politics and videos of food being made on social media that you’d never cook yourself but want to eat. Watching a random game just isn’t as important as it used to be and even if we do, we’re less engaged with it.
That brings me to Bill Walton.
Jay Bilas reaction to ESPN going live on camera with a Bill Walton marijuana rant is priceless. pic.twitter.com/rJuw3OPyHK
— Will Brinson (@WillBrinson) January 10, 2017
Most announcers are selling their games to the audience. Isn’t this game exciting? Isn’t this sport exciting? These athletes are amazing! Did you see that? Doesn’t get much better than this right? Meanwhile my mind/your mind is elsewhere (work, chores, social media, etc).
Lately, I’ve often shifted boring games to my smaller TV which has sound muted and then putting on stuff on my DVR on my main TV so I can keep tabs on a game but watch non-sports. That’s if I’m in my living room and not working and “watching” a game where often I’m barely even aware of the score of what’s on in the background.
Bill Walton now discussing his travels to Yugoslavia and how the region is now 5 different countries. College basketball's box of chocolates
— Building the Dam (@BuildingTheDam) December 31, 2016
But Walton isn’t selling the game he is calling unless it truly is something you should be paying attention to. He’s being Bill Walton and that means he’s saying the most random and hilarious shit while a basketball game (or on Monday, a football game), is on and it’s awesome.
Let’s not pretend I should be giving a shit about game that I don’t really give a shit about. Stuff like the clips below adds a level of entertainment to a game that makes it that much more worth watching/listening to in the background because you’re getting an injection of ridiculousness that is not even tied to the game itself.
“Spark It Up, Snoop!”
“I have been milked”
“War on drugs is absolute failure”
“Blanket amnesty and let’s move on to the future”
When Walton is calling a game, I’m 1000% more interested in that game because I’m getting a sporting event and then I’m getting a blend of humor, political commentary, nature education, and so on. If the game sucks, at least I got solid dose of a colorful personality who entertains me. He’s like your friend at a party who doesn’t respect that this is a fancy baby shower or house warming and came over with a 40 and a blunt and with a random floozy he met at a bar last night. Hell yeah! This party sucks and I don’t know why I’m here or why I’m friend with these people and you being here makes it better and also makes me feel more normal for being here. Basically, someone who doesn’t give a fuck and you can take in small doses. One of the worst things in life is boredom, and with this friend or Walton, you’re at least not going to be bored regardless of the game action.
The problem though, is that Walton is not replicable, nor is he palatable with a lot of games and fanbases. In fact, I’d say a large chunk of the country wouldn’t be cool with Walton doing their games largely because of a combination of his politics and the fact that many fanbases want their games to have some level of reverence in terms of the broadcast.
For the Pac-12, it’s a perfect fit. The games are late, weed is legal, and the fans aren’t as uptight and obsessed as let’s say folks that root for Duke, Kansas, Indiana, and Kentucky. So while Walton isn’t the answer for every live sporting event and the fact he’s a bit of a unique talent in an unique fit, that model is there in that the right personality with the right assignments will allow the casual viewers to stay engaged and be stickier with sporting events that they’d likely tune away from or at least tune out.
It’s unlikely networks will find such fits for all of their properties (you could maybe argue Dan Dakich is somewhat of a similar fit with the Big Ten), but to stop the bleeding of engagement with meaningless games, networks need to inject entertainment into the broadcasts. Walton does that like no other commentator.