What it takes to be a sports announcer

Travis Demers is pictured above, (left) along with myself (Jack McArthur) in the middle, and Chad Doing (right) at the KGW 8 studio on February 19, 2020. Photo by Kyle Nishida.

Being a sports commentator takes a lot of hard work and a love for the game, along with professionalism and timeliness. A commentator needs to have strong memorization skills in terms of athletes’ last names. Retention is a key skill that you’ll need to succeed as a sports commentator. On top of knowing the starters from each team before the game, your attention to detail also needs to be top notch. You need to be aware of any players that are sitting out of the game, because of an injury or other personal reasons. Another important thing to keep in mind is how the teams that are playing are doing overall: their records, along with star players performances from past games. 

There are two types of announcers. There is the PBP (play-by-play), who is considered the main one, and there is also the color. The color announcer gives insight and statistics, while working with the PBP.

In order to be a successful sports announcer, you have to have a broad knowledge of sports. Being descriptive and attentive is also very important. Instead of calling the athletes by their full names, referring to them by their last name a majority of the time is better. Instead of being bland and saying “Wagner passes it to Roe who makes the three pointer,” saying “Senior guard Cayden Wagner swings it to Jake Roe who sinks the corner triple to put Franklin up 3 with 2 minutes left in the 1st half,” is much more descriptive. I’ve done sports commentary for the past two years, and I’ve learned a lot from commentators that I look up to, including Travis Demers, Bill Schonely, and Mike Breen. As former Trail Blazers commentator Bill Schonely said, “The phone will never ring. You have to make the phone ring. If you want to go somewhere else, then make the call yourself.” Schonely was the original PBP announcer for the Trail Blazers for 28 years. He created the famous phrase “Rip City.” I had the opportunity to interview Bill Schonely in 2019 and it was an experience I will never forget. 

I also had the opportunity to commentate the senior staff game last year, and this year I filmed and commentated every game for Franklin Varsity men’s basketball. I also shadowed Chad Doing (Portland Trail Blazers sports radio host) and Travis Demers on February 19, 2020. I was fortunate enough to be on-air for ten minutes. Chad Doing and Travis Demers host a Trail Blazers talk show, called Rip City Drive with Travis and Chad. It’s on NBC Sports Northwest and on Rip City Radio (620 AM), weekdays from 3-6 PM.

According to current Trail Blazers play-by-play radio announcer and Rip City Drive with Travis and Chad host Travis Demers, there are a lot of factors that go into being a successful sports announcer: “Preparation is as important as anything. You can’t prepare enough for a broadcast, whether it be as a play-by-play announcer, or a talk show host. When you crack the mic to call a game, you should have as much of an understanding of both teams as possible.” Demers described how it’s important to get pronunciations ahead of time, and to try to learn the players. “It’s a lot easier in the NBA when you know the players, but for high school sports it can take more prep,” said Demers. “Try and get as much stats and information ahead of time as you can. Confidence is really important. If you don’t sound confident on the air, you won’t be focusing enough on the action. You’ll be trying not to make mistakes – that’s also one of the reasons prep is so important.” Demers also described how getting reps is also really important. “Nobody is great the first time out. The more reps you get, and can figure out what works and what doesn’t, the more comfortable you’ll get with yourself as a broadcaster.”

Including college radio experience, Demers has been a sports commentator for 20 years. This is his first full season as the radio play-by-play announcer for the Trail Blazers. Demers can be heard on 620 AM on the radio, for every Trail Blazers game. Demers filled in for Brian Wheeler for one preseason game in 2017, and filled in for 57 preseason, regular season, and post season games in total for the 2018-19 NBA season. Demers didn’t start his commentating career with the Trail Blazers—he used to commentate high school basketball games for the OSAA(Oregon School Activities Association), along with college basketball and baseball games for the University of Portland years ago. Demers put in countless hours and years of hard work to get to where he is today. He used to work for numerous other radio stations, including 1080 The Fan as a board op, then producer, and eventually host, update anchor, and play-by-play announcer from 2003 to 2011. Demers also worked at SiriusXM from March of 2011 to June 2012. In 2015, he started as a host at Rip City Radio, and was also the assistant program director there from 2016-2019.

“If you can name a job in radio or television, I’ve probably done it over the last 17 years,” Demers told me. Demers grew up listening to commentators Marv Albert and Mike Breen: he heard them call New York Knicks games on the radio.

According to Demers, one thing that people don’t understand about sports commentary is that it’s a lot of work. “People just think you just crack the mic and talk. There’s a ton of prep that goes into broadcasting a game, or doing a talk show. Just because my show is 3 hours long, doesn’t mean that I have a 3 hour work day.” Demers described how there’s a lot of prep for doing play-by-play commentary for a Trail Blazers game too: “A lot of my prep is done before I ever show up to the arena, usually a few hours worth per game, and I show up a few hours before tip off.” Although a normal home Trail Blazers game at the Moda Center doesn’t start until 7:00 PM, Demers gets there around 4:00 PM to prepare.

To go into sports commentating professionally, you’ll need a bachelor’s degree in broadcasting, or in journalism and communications. There’s a lot of unseen work that goes into being a sports commentator: it takes a lot more effort and preparation than people think. One thing that I’ve learned from both Bill Schonely and Travis Demers is that if you work hard, and are dedicated, anything is possible.

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