BBC Radio 5 Live are on the hunt for the Young Commentator of the Year. If you’re aged 11-15, then you could have a chance to get behind the mic on some of Britain’s biggest sporting events.
But before then, it’s worth listening to the experts. We got in touch with 5 Live commentators Conor McNamara and Jacqui Oatley, as well as 5 Live boss Jonathan Wall, to find out just what it takes to be a top sports commentator.
Here’s what they had to say.
What’s your top tip?
Delivery is very important. If you ask people to pick their favourite moment of commentary, they’ll normally go for a moment where the commentator absolutely loses their head. But in general, the moment you lose it, the listener doesn’t know what’s happening. You’re just screaming into a microphone. You’ve got to be constructing sentences, pronouncing every syllable of every word. It’s onomatopoeia: the tone of your voice conveys what’s happening.
How do you prepare for a game?
My notes are derived from the football stickers I used to collect as a kid. When I was about nine, I had Panini sticker albums, and I would have a Team A and Team B in position. In my head I’d commentate on an imaginary game. As you can see from the main picture, now I do up my own stickers. Every player gets one with their key details: how many goals they’ve scored, how old they are, how tall, the teams they’ve played for, and any interactions they’ve had with this particular opponent. All that homework is done in advance, and the way I describe it is it’s like preparing for an exam. If you could bring in one piece of paper with you, how would you cram in the information you need? You’d have your own shorthand – triggers that stir a train of thought.
Why are there so many Irish commentators on the radio?
I definitely think having an Irish accent has been an asset for me working for the BBC. It’s difficult to quantify exactly what it is, but just having a different lilt, a different terminology, helps you to stand out. And that’s why it doesn’t matter if a kid has a particularly high voice or deep voice: to be different is a good thing, and accents give you a character and help to make you memorable.
What’s your top tip? Preparation is key: know the players you’ll be commentating on, because you won’t start at Old Trafford or Stamford Bridge. You’re invariably at non-league football with players you’ve not seen before. My first commentary was the Unibond League, Wakefield and Emley v Worksop Town. The commentary position was awful: I could hardly make out the numbers. That was probably as hard as it gets.
You were the first woman to commentate on Match of the Day. How was that?
I look back at my Match of the Day debut in 2007 with mixed emotions. I can’t pretend it was fun, because it wasn’t. Not because of the job itself. I was actually really looking forward to it until it became public knowledge a few days before the game. I’d been doing radio commentary for years, but there were so many misconceptions: that I’d been given a job ahead of all those blokes who would love to do it. People thought I was some girl in the office whom they’d got in just to tick a box. All nonsense. But I’m proud of the fact I got through it and kept my head.
Why do some people struggle with woman commentators?
Because a lot of people have grown up with mums and sisters who might not have been into football. When they hear a female commentating for the first time on TV or radio, in some cases there seems to be an issue with trust. People were saying I’d never kicked a ball, what would I know? Which was nonsense: I’d played for years, and a lot of my male counterparts hadn’t. And people asked how I could get passionate about football. Those things make me laugh: it’s just people who only have a few blokey mates. They need to open their minds.
Are you looking forward to girls’ entries?
I’d be really hugely disappointed if there were hardly any female voices when we have our judging sessions. I’d feel like I’d failed.
Any advice for girls?
There’s a reason why you’re applying, and that’s because you’re passionate about sport. You’re already halfway there.
You’re 5 live controller — what do you hope to hear?
The biggest thing about radio is that it’s all about picture-painting. You need colour – it can be just a few words, it doesn’t have to be poetry. Heavy rain, sea of orange: those little glimmers of light that take you there.
Does it matter what you sound like?
5 Live needs to reflect the sound of the UK. What’s been really interesting is the rise in women’s commentary voices. Sara Orchard has really come through; she was one of our Six Nations rugby union commentators this year. The female pioneers were presenters and reporters, but I’m hoping we’ll get a new wave of commentators. It will be fascinating to see what the balance is between boys and girls in this competition.
Did you ever want to be the next John Motson?
In 1986, when I was 13, I entered a Radio 2 Young Football Commentator of the Year competition. We all had to enter ten minutes of commentary on cassette, and I was the runner-up. A lovely guy called Jerome Sale, who’s now at BBC Oxford, beat me.
Why bring it back?
Because of technology nowadays, kids are used to recording themselves on their phones. If they’re anything like my son, they’ll love to do it. He spends all his time watching matches commentating alongside me. He’s been banned from entering, though!
BBC Young Commentator of the Year – how to apply
Do you dream of commentating on 5 Live? If you’re a boy or girl aged between 11 and 15, this is your chance.
To enter, select a football, rugby union, athletics or tennis clip at bbc.co.uk/youngcommentator, record yourself in action and then upload it using the online uploader.
The winner of Young Commentator of the Year will receive a trophy and will spend a day with Radio 5 Live at a sporting event, where they will have a chance to commentate on air. They’ll also get a behind-the-scenes tour of 5 Live and BBC Sport.
The competition opens on Friday 22 April, and closes on Saturday 7 May 2016.