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Commentary on Commentary: A Report Card for ESPN's USA Climbing Broadcasts

An in-depth look at the keys to good climbing commentary—and how ESPN is faring.

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The Combined Invitational in January was the first USA Climbing event to be broadcast by ESPN.Jonathan Vickers, Courtesy USA Climbing

It seems like just yesterday that ESPN and USA Climbing sent the climbing world into a tizzy with the announcement of a multi-year broadcasting partnership. Climbing fans have now witnessed three large-scale events under that coupling—the Combined Invitational in January, the Bouldering Nationals in February, and the Sport and Speed Nationals in March. There are a number of areas that could be discussed—such as the timing of the partnership, which left international fans without viewing access to the biggest American competitions, or ESPN’s history of getting on the climbing bandwagon whenever the sport is on the cusp of a boom period (see the X Games). But the most important development to the viewing experience is the presentation.

As ESPN lines up more climbing broadcasts for next season, it is worth analyzing how they’ve managed so far in five of the most important areas of on-air-commentary.

1. Detailed Play-by-Play

Grade: C+

Competition climbing lacks contrivances like goals and nets, so having a reporter that can explain the upward progression on the wall is the backbone of a good broadcast. USA Climbing’s implementation of a multi-zone scoring system last year was a big step in making the vertical progression more interesting. The organization gets props for that, as it deviated from that of the IFSC World Cup competitions.

But some points are lost in ESPN’s play-by-play commentators—a rotating cast with average-at-best knowledge of climbing. Commentators that preceded the ESPN era, such as stalwarts Brian Runnells and Chris Weidner, have not been utilized at all. Instead, Sam Farber, a broadcaster who usually covers basketball, football, and other team sports, called the Combined Invitational. Farber caught grief from climbing’s hardcore base for his frequent references to Cliffhanger. Never mind that the movie offers a fictionalized version of climbing; it is also a movie about rock climbing amid an effort to distinguish indoor/competition climbing as its own free-standing subset. Farber was not called back for subsequent event. Calling the 2019 Bouldering Nationals, as well as the Sport and Speed Nationals, was Sean Woodland. He delivered the action about as straight-laced as possible, despite innocuous blunders like referring to a chalk ball as a rosin bag.

There is something almost affable about a commentator’s ignorance when it comes to climbing nuance—and I found myself warming to both Farber and Woodland. I also wonder if there is a play-by-play freelancer out there who knows the sport and would better fit the role.

2. Active Promotion of the Sport’s History

Grade: B+

While the play-by-play commentators have varied from event-to-event, the color commentary for ESPN’s broadcasts has always been provided by Meagan Martin—and there could not be a better choice. Martin’s fame and pedigree were built on plastic and within the context of the USA Climbing youth and adult competitive tract. She is part of American competition history. She also has television experience and crossover appeal with the American Ninja Warrior fan base.

The problem with coupling Martin with play-by-play announcers who are unfamiliar with the sport, however, is that Martin has found herself carrying the play-by-play narration too. This leaves less time for her to insert her own expert observations related to all the trimmings: competitors’ training, travel, backgrounds, friendships, and rivalries. Panning out from Martin and her commentary companions for a moment to the profusion of global competitions being livestreamed (World Cups, CWIF, Climbing Escalade Canada Nationals, Japan Cup, etc.), newbie viewers could assume that large-scale climbing competitions are a recent development. Commentators rarely mention older competitions or contextualize older competitors with those of the current era. An exception to this was the 2018 Tristate Bouldering Series Championships, which featured legend Boone Speed as one of the commentators—a welcomed blending of comp-climbing’s past with its present. Commentary—especially from ESPN—would be right to connect with competition climbing’s storied lineage more often.

It is also entertaining when commentators indulge in a little Past vs. Present musing, as a way to educate new and long-time fans of the sport’s evolution. Basketball analysts have their perpetual LeBron/Jordan debate. Tennis commentators often compare intergenerational greats such as McEnroe/Sampras/Federer. How about Robyn Erbesfield-Raboutou vs. Alex Puccio for the greatest American competition climber ever? How would America’s speed climbing king of the 1990s, Hans Florine, do against the current speed record holder, John Brosler? Commentators should be the stirring the pot with these fun debates.

3. Useful Filler Content

Grade: A-

One of the most interesting accoutrements during last year’s Bouldering World Cup season was the use of computer-generated 3-D route maps. The maps allowed for detailed assessments of the boulders’ angles and holds and gave viewers a hint of what it might feel like to stand in front of the problems. Best of all, the route maps gave commentators something to talk about during lulls in the action. The Momentum gym in Lehi, Utah, used similar computer-generated mapping for a Better Beta video last year.

I had high hopes that ESPN would utilize something similar. After all, the television behemoth sustains itself with filler content; when an actual game is not in progress on the network, talking heads are breaking down every detail on a myriad of shows like SportsCenter, Pardon the Interruption, and Around the Horn.

Unfortunately, 3-D maps were not part of this year’s ESPN broadcasts. But on-screen scoring was portrayed more often at the two Nationals than it was at the Combined Invitational—which marked a significant improvement. And info-graphics showing tidbits like competitors’ hometowns were nice touches.

There was a lack of statistical filler, likely due to a lack of record-keeping of competition climbing data over the years—and ESPN can’t be knocked for that. For instance, what is the average difficulty grade of a world-class competition climb? What is the average time it takes to send a boulder at each country’s national championship? What is every American competitor’s “send average” (the number of sends divided by the number of attempts)? I would be surprised if anyone possesses that information. But such statistics—as commentary embellishments—would make for some phenomenal discussion points and further legitimize competition climbing in its current Olympic gleam.

One high point of each ESPN event has been the interviews with the respective chief routesetters. These diversions provide a fascinating insight into the nuance of setting and brought an awareness of setting to those new to the sport. During the qualification round of the Sport and Speed Nationals, chief routesetter Ryan Sewell sat in the commentary booth with Martin and Woodland for a good 10 minutes—not only chatting about the routes but also contributing commentary himself. It was a welcomed change of pace, as Sewell’s observations brought the routes to life.

4. Personalized Athlete Segments

Grade: B+

Remember when South Korea’s Jongwon Chon cited hamburgers as one of the secrets to his victory at the 2017 Vail World Cup? It not only provided a glimpse of his personality, but it also humanized him. He traveled across the world to climb and craved good, ol’ American food—kudos to him!

The recent competitions on ESPN have concluded with winners interviews, albeit without food references. These segments are the best way to close out a broadcast. Other ways the commentators could highlight athletes include providing insight about training habits and pre-climbing rituals—or, at the very least, mentioning heights and ape-indexes, as they did frequently at the MoonBoard Masters a couple years ago and recently at the Sport and Speed Nationals (where competitors’ ape-indexes were referred to as wingspans).

Meagan Martin’s ability to personalize the athletes has been an asset for ESPN. She has trained with many of the top American competitors and acknowledges their personalities as much as their abilities.

There are likely to be more profiling video packages as climbing molds itself to the Olympic-style of presentation, heavy on personal stories and crammed with ongoing narratives. Momentum has already filmed one such video on Nathaniel Coleman’s Olympic training, and there is a similar Black Diamond video that profiles Adam Ondra. It would be nice to see such vignettes woven into broadcasts going forward.

5. Impartial Analysis

Grade: A

Maybe it’s because climbing is so close-knit, or maybe it’s because livestream standards are laxer than those on television. Whatever the reason, it has long been common to hear climbing commentators reveal overt favoritism, usually in the form of nationalistic partiality.

There is a prime example in the livestream of the 2012 Bouldering World Championships, when French commentator Sheila McCarron admitted her support of French competitor Cecile Avezou “OK, I’m sorry, I’m going to be completely biased,” McCarron said as Avezou neared the top of a boulder, “I’m too busy grinning to be able to speak!” McCarron can be forgiven somewhat. She was voicing the event at a time when the sport’s landscape was quite different from now—livestreams were in their infancy. And authentic enthusiasm can be refreshing, as it was in this case. But bias too often creeps into commentary at all levels because training, mentorship, and the gym scene remain so insular.

Luckily, ESPN’s broadcasts have avoided favoritism and bias thus far—which has been quite a feat considering that Meagan Martin has coached several of the top competitors (such as Brooke Raboutou). Perhaps the fact that Martin knows most of the athletes has allowed her to favor no one in particular. And her play-by-play counterparts are not knowledgable enough to have any favorites.

Hopefully the ESPN broadcasts can help set a standard that other broadcasts will follow. Generally speaking, commentator bias during on-air analysis of most other sports is not a good thing, and going forward, it would not be for climbing either. 

Catch up on the 2019 competition season here.