On any given day, I will probably turn my attention to the smorgasbord of content afforded by Sky Sports. The Holy Trinity, in my eyes, is none other than football, cricket, and F1. Much like The Powerpuff Girls, each brings something different to the table in terms of entertainment. Lately, I’ve been thinking more about how they also bring different aspects in terms of analysis.
There’s a lot of disagreement over what makes for the best analysis. Much like the perfect slice of toast, it all comes down to preference. What interests me is that Sky Sports have not chosen one shade of golden brown (or one Powerpuff Girl to mix metaphors), instead they seem to be playing a different game altogether. Indeed, Sky have made the move to mirror their audience. By this, I mean Sky have gone for the move of adjusting the style of analysis to ‘give the people what they want’.
The Differences at Hand
The easiest way to illustrate this is to point to what the three styles entail.
Sticking to the toast and Powerpuff girl metaphor, Sky Sports Cricket is certainly a soft gold slice/Bubbles. This coverage is gentle and friendly. To abandon the metaphors for a moment, what stands out is the increased focus on data and tape analysis. The recent LOI series against India was a fine example of this. On one day, the team broke down where you would bowl to Hardik Pandya in a bid to limit his destruction. On another, they dipped into the archives of a Freddie Flintoff v Jos Buttler feature to illustrate the changes in technique used for range hitting (it’s all in the wrists). The spirit is that of the ‘fun teacher’ who manages to be both well-liked and effective.
On the other end, is the more abrasive and crunchy toast (Buttercup if we’re keeping this up) which goes by the name of Sky Sports Football. Where SSC is analysis, SSF is theatre. That’s not to say analysis is non-existent, they do love drawing lines on a giant touchpad, but simply that it’s not weighted quite so much. Instead, you have a greater helping of animated conversation from Neville and Carragher, or mildly tense exchanges between Keane and Redknapp. This is for the purpose of entertainment. The addition of Micah Richards is a fine example of this. Richards’ infectious laughter is a wonderful contrast to some of the unhappy campers. Sky Sports want their football coverage to be a conversation starter, something to get the drama rolling.
Stuck in the middle, so medium toast and Blossom by default, is Sky Sports F1. What happens here is pretty clever, they go for effectively a 50/50 split. At first instance, this can be seen in the commentary box. Where Crofty adds shouting, Brundle adds opinion and explanation. Depending on the phase of the race, you can probably guess what you’re getting. Turn 1 shenanigans? Crofty cranking up the decibels. Hot lap? Brundle talking you through it. Overall, the comms lean towards creating a sense of spectacle. This is balanced by the SkyPad. Indeed, this is where Sky get nerdy. You get all talk of steering wheel adjustments, braking points, racing lines, it’s enough to get you all hot under the collar. The game on this channel is a balancing act. Walking the tightrope to avoid falling into the pits of pure analysis or pure theatre.
So why? Why bother making your channels have significantly different tones, after all, it’s just sport?
One answer is that it’s about recognising the needs of different audiences. Different fans are looking for different things.
Football seems to have an inescapable bondage with making everything a matter of life and death. It’s also the sport that dominates pub viewing. So, the coverage makes a move to reflect this. To its detriment, football on TV tries very hard to make their presenters seem like ‘the lads’. The hard proof that this is a stylistic choice, is that the same pundits can play a totally different role on overseas broadcasts or online. On TV, you’ll probably hear Ashley Cole talk about hard work and wanting the ball. On Twitter, you’ll see him talking about the importance of footwork drills in helping you keep up with your opposite number.
Similarly, cricket and F1 mirror what they believe their fans are. Cricket sees its fans as wanting some slightly meatier analysis, an extra pitcher of CricViz for the table if you will. F1 thinks it has two fans. The traditionalist who wants excitement, and the obsessive who wants techy details about rake height and front wing elements.
Of course, these are massively broad strokes. Within these decisions comes a heavy helping of generalisation. At the end of the day, it comes down to an attempt to cast the widest net possible. On all of the channels you’ll see elements that I’ve attributed to others. Sometimes it’ll be Rob Key stating that his gut feel about Jos Buttler playing down the order in a T20i is wiser than the stats. Maybe it’ll be Jamie Carragher highlighting the importance of considering non-penalty goals as opposed to total goals.
No description can be totally neat, but you can see the different angles of coverage taken.
The Importance of Good Analysis
Well then, what’s the right answer? Surely there is one style to rule them all. Anyone who has ever spoken to me (though that’s not very many people actually) knows that I’m a firm backer of analysis resting on data rather than drama.
Don’t get me wrong, sometimes Roy Keane slandering David de Gea does tickle the right spot, but you can only hear that one team ‘wanted it more’ so many times before it crushes you a little bit. Effort is very rarely the difference when it is elite athletes we are talking about. It’s ironically low effort punditry to suggest every single victory comes down to caring more.
In my dream world, pundits probably wouldn’t be someone who’s just there because they played football quite well. They would also have to be good at punditry. We came close to this during the England v India white ball tour. For a happy 25 minutes or so, the Sky team were but a blazer and chino wearing vessel for CricViz and their infinite wisdom. It’s safe to say this because the analysis that they provided on TV was exactly what CricViz had earlier shared on Twitter.
Whilst, of course, it is mildly amusing to see them just repeating stuff, I have no problem with it simply because it creates better analysis and presentation for the average viewer.
Many cricket viewers on Sky are not keeping up with TheCricVizAnalyst on the regular, it’s no harm for this bridge to be crossed.
The reason I feel so strongly about this, is because there is a really good argument that in-depth analysis can enhance the viewing experience. For example, if the coverage highlight that Jason Roy has issues opening against left-arm spin, then it becomes an event when Roy is faced with it. If you can adequately explain why something is a battle to watch, it becomes a big deal when it actually happens.
The argument is that, as a more dynamic game, it’s harder to analyse match-ups and flashpoints like this in football. I think this is a load of tosh. There are endless possibilities for similar analysis on football. For example, you could highlight a Right-Back who regularly gets beaten around the outside. In doing this, it makes it more exciting when a 1v1 occurs and you know that there’s a weakness to be exploited.
A lot people think heavy use of data and tape makes sport overly-sophisticated and dense, I think it can only make it better.
I predict that over time, all sport coverage will become more about the nitty-gritty. This is because of the constant growth of alternative analysis. In the past, you had TV and newspapers. These are closed circles with the ability to set the agenda. Now, Twitter has changed this.
Anyone can sign up and start talking about what they’ve just seen. Threads which look at patterns of play and tactics can amass thousands of impressions and interactions. There is an audience looking for something else, and there are people happy to supply.
The earlier CricViz comment is an example of how this can bleed over to TV. Sky recognised that people were lapping up content, so they put it on TV. To a lesser extent, this also happened when Sky started displaying xG for football games (although they all awkwardly refuse to ever actually talk about it).
As the appetite changes, so too will the menu. Over time, fans will have more avenues of information, and it’s down to TV to read the room.