Sideline Blindside

An earlier post on this site, touched off by Stephen Curry’s injury in Game 4 against the Rockets, groused about the lack of valuable information coming from the sideline reports by Doris Burke. Burke supplied several break-ins to the broadcast to tell us exactly what we already knew: that Curry was hurt, that he was in the locker room getting treatment, and that he was questionable to return. Great. Thanks, Doris.

That performance was all too typical of today’s legion of sideline reporters: individuals roaming around the venue with a microphone, something close to carte blanche to interrupt the broadcast, and very little reason to do so. As John Oliver is fond of saying, How is this still a thing?

The DFR: MediaThe most obvious thing to point out about the explosion of sideline reporters in recent times is that an overwhelming number of them are women. This fact probably results from a perception among network television executives that having women participating on the broadcasts is a prerequisite to having women watch the broadcasts.

There’s a good chance that this reasoning is specious; even back in the day, when almost no women appeared on sports broadcasts, many women still watched their favorite teams.

Of course, there’s always the old standby for having women on the sidelines: so that the men watching the games can look at them. Erin Andrews has carved out a comfortable niche for herself, a career choice that certainly got a hefty boost from her blonde, all-American girl looks. Whether that explains the presence of all female sideline reporters is debatable; Andrews may obviously ring most men’s bells, but your mileage may vary if the reporter is Burke or Michele Tafoya or Pam Oliver or Rachel Nichols. Not all of them will appear on a magazine cover anytime soon.

Women should have their place in sports…[but] Including women in the broadcast just for the sake of having them there negatively impacts everyone involved.

Whoever the target audience may be–women looking for other women in their sports, or men just looking–the sideline reporter’s general worthlessness can not be overlooked. This lack of utility is bad enough on the national broadcasts; if you descend down the ladder to local sports coverage, things get substantially worse.

That’s natural and expected; local TV is to broadcasters what the minor leagues are for athletes–the good ones work their way up to the majors, the ones who aren’t so good stay in the small pond. But that’s not the least of it. Not only are local sideline reporters not as accomplished at their jobs, the sideline reporter movement has also spawned an even lower tier in the broadcasting echelons–people whose job it is to offer complete fluff without even the pretense of being informative.

The worst offender among these quasi-reporters commits her offenses right here in the Bay Area. If, somewhere in this world, there is a Mount Rushmore for worthless broadcasters, surely the San Francisco Giants’ Amy Gutierrez must be up there in the Washington position. Gutierrez–known on Giants broadcasts by her nom d’annoy “Amy G”–breaks in on the game coverage every so often to deliver her “reports” in her chipmunk-squeak voice, usually to shill some upcoming promotion, occasionally to tell an inane story about one of the Giants players that no one really wanted to hear. However, sometimes things really go off the rails. During one game few years back, Giants fans were treated to the spectacle of Gutierrez interviewing a baby–not a metaphorical baby; an actual infant. This also happened to be “Grateful Dead Night” at the park, so the baby interview was mixed into a pastiche of images from the park that included various Deadheads (looking exactly as you’d expect), shots of the full moon, assorted people in costumes (a staple at the carnival that is AT&T Park), wildlife in the form of seagulls (another AT&T staple), and–wouldn’t you know it–the occasional play from the game. I hadn’t seen anything that surreal since the last time I watched Un Chien Andalou.

Undoubtedly, fans from around the country have similar stories of the broadcast excess that seems to inevitably grow from the presence of these sideline “reporters.” Like me, many of you probably just want to watch the game, without all the nonsense the sideline reporters and “reporters” bring with them. So why are they there?

I think what is going on here is similar to the Vanna White phenomenon. Back in the day, when Wheel of Fortune redesigned their set to include video screens for displaying the puzzle’s letters, the show’s fans briefly went into an uproar, thinking that White–who had been on the show manually revealing the puzzle letters for several years–might be deemed expendable thanks to the new set-up. It turned out to be a tempest in a teapot (White has remained on the show for decades now), and a pointless one, at that. Just as the sideline reporter’s info could be read to us by the play-by-play announcer, Wheel’s letters could just as easily have been turned by invisible, backstage hands right from the start. (Wheel’s sister show, Jeopardy!, featured just such a slide card game board in the analog days, and no operator for the modern video screen board has ever been visible on the show.) White was never there to turn those letters in the first place.

So why was (and is) Vanna White there? Again, to give men something to look at, but that is hardly the whole story. Many of Whites most ardent fans are women; her presence apparently helps pull in women viewers. (Score one for those execs.) But having Vanna White on Wheel of Fortune also creates the illusion that there’s more going on than there actually is. White helps Wheel seems like more of a production than it actually is; something very simple and straightforward is given dimension and complexity and even a little grandiosity, where none of those qualities actually exist. So too with sideline reporters on sports broadcasts; after all, something really important must be happening if they need another reporter on the sidelines to cover it all!

But Vanna White just reveals letters in a puzzle, and occasionally stands next to some prizes, and says very little over the course of any given Wheel episode. Sideline reporters on game broadcasts are a regular part of the proceedings; they appear frequently, speak regularly, and have more than a tangential effect on the quality of the viewer’s experience. And, often, they look bad doing it.

I’m no feminist, but it doesn’t take Gloria Steinem to recognize that putting women in these mostly pointless roles on game broadcasts can have negative repercussions for women in sports. Their presence–and lack of value–makes it very easy to blame the irritating aspects of sideline reporters on the fact that women fill those roles. (To be fair, when men fill these spots they hardly contribute more than the women. On Golden State Warriors broadcasts this season, Rosalyn Gold-Onwude served as the sideline reporter and did a better job than the man she replaced, the hapless Rick Bucher.) If the idea here is to showcase women in sports, it seems to be backfiring.

What’s the solution? Frankly, I don’t have one. Women should have their place in sports, and that place should be earned in the same way that every other position in sports is supposed to be earned: on merit. Including women in the broadcast just for the sake of having them there negatively impacts everyone involved.

There you have it: a bit of info that doesn’t come from the sideline, nor the locker room, nor the broadcast booth–it comes right from the living room couch. Now, let’s see the broadcasters run with that report.


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