Play by Play Strategies

Every sport has it’s own variants on successful play-by-play, but for each sport (as discussed in the pyramid), there are constants: giving of time and score frequently, description, recapping for your audience, developing storylines by discussing who is important and why it matters. It is essential to turn each broadcast into a story. This particularly applies to baseball, due to the slow pace of the game. Here is a look at some elements of the four major sports and what to work into your play-by-play:





Baseball is a unique game because of it’s slow pace. The announcer must be able to fill time between pitches with stories and anecdotes. For this purpose, I carry a notebook filled with stats and stories to use on on the air. When it comes to describing the action, here are the vital points to cover: 

Setting of the defensive alignments

  • Description of stadium dimensions
  • Description of weather and wind conditions
  • Notation of important locations
  • Description of the scene outside the stadium
  • Description of team uniform colors 
  • Descriptions about the city you are in 

In terms of calling the action, the simple rule of thumb is to describe what the ball is doing. On a foul ball, where is the ball hit? Left or right? Who makes the play? Does the fielder move to his left or his right? Where are the outfielders positioned? Who is warming up in the bullpen?

The essentials for baseball are the count on the batter (which should be reset after every pitch), outs, score, runners on, and inning. I make it a point to reset the scene constantly so there is no doubt in my listeners mind as to what is going on. And the use of statistics helps to paint a fuller picture as it enhances the action on the field. Statistics should be used to support the action on the field as it is happening. For example, if a batter is coming in to pinch-hit and a left-hander is coming out of the bullpen, it is relevant here to point out what that player’s average is against lefties. Also if you are heading to the ninth inning, it is useful to point out what the team’s record is when trailing after 8 innings. These are known as situational statistics. Regarding statistics, always ask yourself, ” If I were a fan listening at home, what would I want to know? “.

Another technique that a broadcaster uses in baseball, as in other sports, is called laying out. This is simply the technique of saying nothing and letting the crowd noise carry the moment over the air, especially on television, where the pictures tell the story. The great Dodger broadcaster Vin Scully did this when Hank Aaron hit his 715th career home run, surpassing Babe Ruth on April 8, 1974. After he described the home run for the audience, he simply said nothing and just let the crowd noise and the pictures show the scene for the viewers. A broadcaster should never force the commentary. If you have nothing to say, lay out until a salient point presents itself.

Football is the most complicated sport, in my opinion, to broadcast because of the sheer technical nature of the game. There are many complex formations and processes associated with the game. But it is a very enjoyable sport to broadcast. Football basics include down and distance, time remaining, score, ball carrier, and ball tackler. You must reset these essentials prior to each play, while also giving the score as often as possible.

When a play starts, locate where the important players are. On offense, who is the wideout? Is he wide on the left or the right? Who is in the slot? Who are the backs? What type of formation are they using? I? Wishbone? Split backfield? Check the defense. Are they in a 3-4 or a 4-3? Are they showing blitz? Are they playing man to man or zone?

Calling the play is fairly straightforward. Describe what the quarterback does with the ball, who made the tackle on defense, and how much yardage, if any, was gained on the play. ALWAYS RESET THE DOWN AND DISTANCE PRIOR TO EACH PLAY. Recite the score and time remaining as often as possible. It’s better to err on the side of too much rather than too little. On field goals, provide the distance of the attempted kick. Is the kick good? If not, is it wide left or wide right? Was it blocked?

Basketball is unique because of the frequent scoring. There is so much scoring that the score has to be updated after every basket. Basketball is a very creative sport for an announcer, and it’s fast-paced. The essentials again involve who has the ball and where it’s going. Is the player to the left or right of the lane? Is he stutter-stepping? What kind of pass is he throwing? What kind of defense do you see? Man to man or zone? Is it physical in the low post? Are there any mismatches on the floor? Describe the shots taken in great detail. Is it a jumper? A lay-up? A dunk? A three-pointer? Does a player pop out on defense to guard a point guard?

It also helps to anticipate strategy. What’s the foul situation? Is there a particular player who a team will try to foul? Know the free throw stats to help to anticipate strategy. The basics for basketball are score, time remaining, foul situations, and the time left on the shot clock.

Hockey is the fastest game on earth. Unlike baseball, you have very little time in between to talk. Because of the constant flow, you need to have sharp observation. Again, the first rule of thumb is to FOLLOW THE PUCK. Who has the puck and what is being done with it? Describe the shots. Slap shot? Screen shot? Backhander? Wrist shot? Does the defenseman dive to block the shot? Does the goaltender come out of his crease to challenge the shooter? Is there clutching and grabbing going on? Essentials for hockey include score, time remaining, penalty time remaining, and shots on goal. Describe plays that develop. Is it a 3-on-2? 2-on-1? (These are known as odd-man rushes). Is the defense playing a trapping style? Attention to details is very important.

You will notice that the consistent theme is to give the score often in any sport. At any moment in time, someone could be tuning in and does not know the score. Many announcers use an egg timer to prompt them to update the score. As previously stated, it’s better to give the score too much rather than too little. It is also important to vary your vocabulary in your description of your plays. Learn how to say things with a variance of words, while at the same time utilizing the principle of economy of words. Two great books that can help you accomplish this are the Baseball Thesaurus and the Football Thesaurus, written by Jesse Goldberg Strassler. Often times less is more, and this is especially true in TV work. You have the advantage of replays, monitors, and camera angles. On radio it’s about acting as the eyes and ears for your audience, painting a visual scene in the audience’s mind with acute sensory detail. On TV it’s about putting captions under pictures.