This is one of the basic commandments of broadcast writing, but one of the most ignored.
Basically, beware of the verb "to be," which typically indicates the passive voice, because it suggests that something is being done to the subject, rather than the subject doing something. You should always try to write that the "player caught the ball," rather than "the ball was caught by the player." Active voice is shorter, more conversational, and more ideally suited to writing about sports action (think of the impact of such words as "slammed," "knocked," or "flattened"). Writing in active voice is easy, but is often ignored because it takes a little more time and creativity. The easiest way to convert to active voice is simply to turn around the sentence:
Passive: The game was over by halftime.
Active: The Lakers ended the game by halftime.
In situations where you can't turn the sentence around, you can change the verb:
Passive: LeBron James was in Chicago today.
Active: LeBron James visited Chicago today.
In such situations, remember that changing the verb should not change the meaning of the sentence. It's also permissible in broadcasting writing to simply drop the verb:
Passive: The Cowboys were busy in the draft today.
Active: The Cowboys busy in the draft today.
In some rare situations, it's simpler and easier to leave the passive alone, especially when trying to change it to active convolutes and confuses the meaning. But in most situations, using active voice makes for better, more memorable, and more conversational writing.
With a few minor exceptions, such as the ones noted earlier, writing for sports broadcasting should follow the rules of basic grammar. That means proper sentence structure, style, and word usage. Some of the more common mistakes made by sports broadcasters include:
• Pronoun agreement. The pronoun must agree with the subject, which can cause a lot of confusion.
Wrong: Pittsburgh has the ball on their 20-yard line.
Right: Pittsburgh has the ball on its 20-yard line.
Always remember that a team, group, or city referred to as a singular is an "it." More than one player, team, or group is a "their or they" ("The Steelers have the ball on their 20-yard line").
• Attribution. Attribution always goes first in broadcast writing, while newspaper writing puts it second. Since the listener or viewer only gets one chance to hear the information, it's important to.know who's saying it.
Wrong: The Rangers need a complete overhaul in the off-season, according to general manager Glen Sather.
Right: General manager Glen Sather says the Rangers need a complete overhaul in the off-season.
In the first sentence, the listener can't immediately tell who has the opinion and might attribute it to the sports anchor.
Words and Numbers
Keep in mind that you're trying to communicate a story or idea. Using words the audience doesn't know or understand slows down and impedes the communication process. This isn't a call for simplistic or monosyllabic words, but merely a reminder that your writing will really hit home when the audience knows exactly what you're trying to say.
Wrong: Experts say Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis prevaricated to police.
Right: Experts say Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis lied to police.
Wrong: Greg Maddux will make $11,555,432 this season.
Right: Greg Maddux will make more than eleven and a half million dollars this season.
Is it really important to know exactly how much money Greg Maddux makes or is it more likely that too many numbers and figures will simply confuse the audience?
Is it better to say that Howard Cosell was erudite or that he was well educated and well spoken? Ironically, Cosell's use of big, complicated words may have been a factor in why so many viewers disliked him. And while it may have been part of Cosells act, in general, talking down to an audience is disrespectful and ineffective.
It's not just a matter of simple words, but using them in the right way. Too many writers try to get too complicated, with the result that the viewer suffers from information overload. Baseball author Bob Marshall points out the difference berween fellow baseball writers Roger Angell and Roger Kahn. "Angell's stock-in-trade is the fivecomma sentence. There is usually a clause of explanation and a clause of history that is more important than the verb. Where Angell's sentences are languid and lazy, Kahn's are short, choppy and dripping with drama."
Angell: "The umpires, who were on strike for higher wages last spring, worked the spring games as usual this year, but some of rhem appeared to be feeling a mite irritable for the preseason, when games are conducted in a lighthearted, almost offhand fashion."
Khan: "On a warm August night, in a southern Ontario town called Guelph, a dozen Americans are playing hockey. There are no commercial interruptions. There is no crowd. We begin, George and I, to define sport."
While Roger Angell is a delight to read, his style does not translate well to broadcasting because it would overwhelm the audience. Instead, sports broadcasters should strive for Roger Kahn's sense of economy and simplicity.
Read more by this author in the Special Issue: Sports Broadcasting coming early August!
Brad Schultz is an assistant professor and head of the broadcast sequence in the journalism department at the University of Mississippi. Prior to entering academia, he spent fourteen years in local television and has experience as a sports anchor, producer, reporter, photographer, editor and writer. He covered the NFL, NBA, major league baseball, PGA, NCAA, and Indy 500 among other events. Dr. Schultz is the editor of the Journal of Sports Media and has published several articles and conference papers on local sports broadcasting.