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Why NBA Broadcasts Have Evolved from Sport to Storytelling

Why should the action be understandable when it can be sensational instead?

Portland Trail Blazers v Utah Jazz Photo by Alex Goodlett/Getty Images

NBA broadcasting, including that of the Portland Trail Blazers, has changed over the last decade. We live in a highlight reel, controversy-intense era. Logical description of the action has taken a back seat to subtle sensationalism. Is this a bug or a feature of NBA broadcasts? That’s the question in today’s Blazer’s Edge Mailbag.

Hello Dave,

My question concerns the Blazer telecasts. I have disliked the Blazer telecasts for some time because of their approach to replays. I can tolerate some of the “homer-ism” of the commentators, but the replays are often of Blazer baskets which have nothing to do with the play which just happened. The in-game experience is quite different as the overhead screens usually show the previous play, such as a shot, foul, or referee’s call. The effect on me is chilling; instead of staying in the game moment and getting a better view (or multiple views) of what JUST HAPPENED, the broadcast takes us back to review a shot from a minute or two before. This typically leads me to mute the t.v. Do you think there is any chance the newly hired telecast production manager will give those of us at home a more “in arena” experience?

Thanks, Kacee

Broadcasts have shifted away from technique and more towards storytelling. Broadcasters and the people who pay them are less concerned with the sport itself than with selling the sport by translating it into the experience of the audience. That happens on an emotional, experiential level as much as a cerebral, logical one.

If you watch the 52nd and 53rd points of a game, understand how they flowed from the play prior, and see clearly how they set up the 54th and 55th, you’re probably a knowledgeable sports fan, engaged with the product. Two things remain true:

  1. You’re going to keep watching the game no matter how it’s presented.
  2. You’re not going to be explaining that point progression to any of your friends. If you did, they’d roll their eyes and consider you a boor.

If a Shaedon Sharpe dunk brings you out of your seat, however, that just means you’re human...a very excited human, at that. Even if you wouldn’t normally watch games, you’re going to come back to search for that feeling again. You’re also going to share it with your friends and paste it onto social media. That moment is going to turn you into a devotee and an ambassador for the game.

Not every play is a Shaedon Sharpe dunk, but the more broadcasters follow the Sharpe Dunk pattern—generating the feeling of a play, creating opportunity for you to tell a story about it—the more chances they have to attract and send out those evangelists.

How and when replays are shown is part of the equation. When there’s a “moment”, your broadcasting directors are going to make sure that you see it, then re-see it, milking all the excitement and exposure out of it as possible. Order of events and in-arena action are secondary. Show that dunk, man. That’s where the money is.

The description of the game is another. It’s going to be much more fruitful to argue the merits—or demerits—of a call than to show the free throws that ensued or a player dribbling down the court after. The more emotion spilled into a moment, the more residual emotion spills out to, and through, the viewer. You’re going to see broadcasters hyping up the action, describing it in vivid and controversial ways, because those are the impulses inside the viewer they’re hoping to tap into.

This will be true across sports in general. It may be especially accentuated in Portland right now because of the team’s situation.

Describing the action A to B to C in a logical, orderly manner assumes it means something. You don’t take a journey without purpose, especially if the trip involves paying attention and calculating.

What do two more free throws mean to the Trail Blazers lately? If they’re lucky, maybe winning a game. Since victories have become few and far between, often it’s not even that. But even if it were, what does winning another game mean? They’re not going to the playoffs, nor would they succeed if they got there. It’s just more or fewer lottery balls.

If the Blazers were perpetually in championship contention, a random third-quarter play in January would mean a whole lot. Absent that global, progression-of season and status-in-league meaning, we have to invent some reason for watching. Excitement and controversy serve as substitutes. So you’re much more likely to find broadcasters leaning on such things at this juncture in the team’s evolution than you would be if the play—and results—merited more.

The impulse towards entertainment and storytelling isn’t going to change anytime soon. The status of the team—though a lesser factor—might someday. At that point, maybe we can see whether broadcasters and viewers hang more to a logical progression through the action. Until then, I wouldn’t hold my breath.

Thanks for the question! You can always send yours to and we’ll answer as many as we can!