And The Fifty Goes To: AAL Broadcast Teams

On the eve of its championship game, Fifty Yarder takes a final look back on the pipeline that brought the AAL into our living rooms each Saturday night. In the first installment, DSBN Sports of Macon, GA got our Fifty for best sportscasting network. This week, we’ll assess the on-air talent who broadcast our games.

This past season, 35 games were streamed on YouTube by eight different networks. Cape Fear resurrected the old NFL experiment by going without a crew in its one regular season and one postseason broadcast, so they are out. Two other crews carried another 11 games on radio only. Each of the nine eligible networks used a lineup that stayed fairly intact, so this is a team award. As with our first installment, the full 4-football scorecard will be tucked away on the Fiffy Yarder website but here’s the executive summary.

Honorable mention: John Boone (PBP) & Clayton Jones (color), WPPB The Pulse, Upstate

The Dragons were the only team to broadcast with livestream video and on radio, but as viewers are prone to watch games rather than listen, this hurt the radio coverage. Produced by the Anderson Career & Technology Center, WPPB The Pulse covered every home and all but one away game in 2018, but they took down their archived content before the end of the academic year and were not available to restore it for a full listening. Nonetheless, their efforts have to be acknowledged.

#8 Eric Tabor (PBP) & Marquez Hodo (color), Havoc Network, Atlanta

Havoc ownership installed this pair of ex-defensive players for their final two broadcasts. In their first game together, Tabor claimed Hodo “knows a lot about both these teams,” and Hodo agreed, stating the Havoc originated in Albany but that he didn’t know much about that night’s opponent. It never really got much better. Hodo wasn’t sure what position Ryan McDaniel played and mispronounced the Havoc’s name throughout two broadcasts. I expected more in-depth analysis, particularly on defensive adjustments, but the crew was often unprepared and didn’t know any players on either side of the ball. Sorry guys, but poor preparation cannot be excused.

#7 Erik Houser (PBP), FB Live Radio, Jersey

Houser did five solo broadcasts this season and, while he performed credibly, the effect was one-dimensional. Broadcasts started just before opening kickoff, and no time was ever created to add depth to the game, such as team and player backgrounds or tendencies. One play-by-play guy can’t do it all so Houser followed the ball, having to let everything else go. If you wanted the facts of the game delivered in a professional style, this broadcast was good. Houser was far better at naming players during the course of the play than most AAL crews.

#6 James O’Brien (PBP) & Walter Dunson (color), Southland Sports TV, Atlanta

This was the original crew replaced in mid-season by Havoc ownership, but they worked together better than their successors. Unfortunately, they only knew big-name Havoc players and opposing quarterbacks. The crew was inconsistent at introducing themselves, and while the play-by-play was accurate, it wasn’t emotional. Dunson was a true value-add, enhancing O’Brien’s calls with his own insight, but there were too many Grudenisms like, “when the guy caught the ball.” There were also occasional moments when the two seemed confused about arena rules, particularly what was in and out of play. The enjoyment level of these broadcasts would have increased in proportion to the crew’s preparation.

#5 Luke Ruff (PBP) and Bob Fitzpatrick (color), with Michael Goodin (fill-in), Dragons Network, Upstate

This pair’s strength doubles as its undoing. Their broadcast bias would make Bob Uecker’s character Harry Doyle in Major League look non-partisan, but it is a quality I came to admire as the season went on. They were often infectious but at times insufferable with a fixation on unos and Rochelle Peebles’ kickoff return stats. These games had a collegiate vibe that is meant in a positive way, and the 17-year-old Ruff proved himself a diamond in rough with a set of pipes that is going to take him beyond Anderson, SC. His play-by-play was full and his institutional and league knowledge deep, but he wasn’t well-versed on opponents’ rosters and largely addressed Dragons players on a first-name basis. Fitzpatrick was too often a spectator rather than an analyst, and the back-and-forth between the two seemed choppy and banter-ish as both tended to speculate – usually incorrectly – about the upcoming play, but it created a casual broadcast that often worked for me.

#4 Brian Ackley (PBP) & Austin Walker (color), Saturday Night Football, Florida

With pregame, halftime, and post-game segments, Saturday Night Football productions offered a large canvas for a couple of talented broadcasters to paint, and this pair took advantage, showcasing in-depth knowledge of both Tarpons’ and opponents’ coaching staff and players, hitting on trends, weaknesses, and challenges. The play-by-play was descriptive and robust, with players being named as the plays developed. However, the exchange with color was often clumsy and many calls just ended in dead air. Play analysis was sparse, so I often knew what had happened but not why. The only other beef is that Ackley never introduced himself in four broadcasts. Given his talents, a little self-glossing was in order.

#3 Jeff Butler (PBP) & Ricky Irby (color), with Glenn Thomas (fill-in), Fox Sports 1340 AM, Richmond

This crew has been in place for all eight Roughriders games to date, making them the busiest in the league. They’re a radio broadcast team accompanying a livestream video, and although the coordination between the two mediums isn’t always seamless, it is between Butler and Irby. One picks up where the other leaves off in a verbal ballet that moves listeners seamlessly from the on-field play to its breakdown, although the analysis at times was more obvious than insightful. Pre-snap, they are among the best, calling out formation nuances and player and team tendencies. Another drawback is that, like most crews, their focus is on skills positions with not much emphasis on activity away from the ball.

#2 Russell Deese (PBP), John Kosater (color), and Hannah Jett Moore (SL), DSBN Sports, Georgia

There is no better fit of team and broadcasters than the DSBN Sports crew. Deese and Kosater are an earthy pair; you can practically hear the hickory bacon sizzling on the open fire as they deliver air-tight play-by-play and color analysis in a down-home style, so much so that their professionalism slips under your radar as you’re drawn in by that Georgian gentleness . .  . then, bam, you’re down on the field with the versatile Moore. Her stream of back stories flowed as endlessly as a bottomless cup of coffee at the local Waffle House. The inclusion of Moore as the league’s only sideline reporter gave these broadcasts a dimension no other had. She had every injury triaged and literally had ears into every play from her on-field spot. This team created a sense of omniscience for listeners as we were whisked seamlessly from booth to field throughout the night.

#1 Mackie Gallagher (PBP) and Gray Salter (color), SkyZhone Sports, High Country

You absolutely cannot do anything else when a Grizzlies broadcast is on TV because Gallagher and Salter command your full attention. That’s high praise given the barely-passable quality of SkyZhone Sports’ audio. Singly, they are among the top three in play-by-play and color, respectively. Together, they are the most polished, ready-for-the-next-level team in this space. With radio-level detail, their play descriptions and breakdowns make viewing unnecessary, and more than any other crew they know arena rules and clarify them the moment they are needed, a huge amenity for the numerous newbies adding to viewer ranks throughout the season. On any given day, either of our top two crews could be ranked best, but today Gallagher and Salter get the Fifty for best broadcast team.

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