Traditional commentary can sometimes be uptight, clichéd and – let’s just be honest here – downright boring. Luckily, there’s an alternative. ANT SIMS spent a few weeks gallivanting with the people from Test Match Sofa to see just what it takes to run a service that one day hopes to compete with the big boys.
Tucked away in central London, there’s a little studio where magic happens every time England plays cricket. It’s the home of Test Match Sofa, an alternative commentary service which provides ball-by-ball cricket commentary with a twist. Instead of the banalities of television and radio commentary, The Sofa commentators sometimes swear, have flippant and funny jingles for every player, and encourage their listeners to be interactive and Tweet their comments the show. There is crying, there is pining, there is drinking and there is insight which you won’t find anywhere else.
Test Match Sofa is the brainchild of Daniel Nocrross who, when he became redundant in 2009, decided to follow his dream and become a broadcaster. The door into “official” commentary is mostly shut for the man on the street. Commentary teams these days mostly consist of ex-players or coaches, and Norcross knew the only way he would manage to do what he had always wanted to was to do it himself.
"I've spent my whole life eating, sleeping, breathing and playing cricket. I wanted to share this love and this passion with other people, and I knew enough entertaining and colourful people who felt the same. I always knew that sport lent itself to entertainment. Not so much for the players, of course, but for those watching and listening it's entertainment," Norcross told The Daily Maverick.
"I've listened to commentary for years and I knew nobody was going to give me a job doing it. Commentary these days relies very much on ex-players, which I find a bit oxymoronic. Players play and broadcasters should broadcast and while there are some ex-players who go on to become fantastic broadcasters, the door for the rest is pretty much shut. Once the internet allowed the opportunity, it reached a point where I was thinking: why wouldn't I do this?"
So Norcross set up a makeshift broadcast studio in his apartment in Tooting, and Test Match Sofa was born – bang on time for the start of the Ashes in 2009. On the opening day in Cardiff, the Sofa arrived with a bang, drawing 5,000 listeners on day one after Stephen fry Tweeted about it. Back then, the Sofa relied on a £1 paywall, and many of those listeners ducked as soon as they were asked to cough up. To add to the Sofa’s woes at the start, they weren't prepared for the rush of site traffic – and, despite the hype, the first day ended up going down as a disaster. But as time went on, the Sofa ironed out the technical creases, and when England toured South Africa in 2009, it had established itself as a well-oiled alternative commentary machine. They'd discovered the power of social media and the kind of impact this could have on their broadcast – and they harnessed it.
The format, by then, had evolved and matured to more or less what we see today. There are four people on the mic at any given time: somebody dedicated to the ball-by-ball commentary, a summariser or a guest, somebody reading Tweets and somebody in the jingle chair. This can result in a lot of fumbling over each other, but when the team does click and things come together, the broadcast is superb and it’s a viable alternative for those who are trying to keep up to date with cricket whilst on the move. The Sofa has gone ahead in leaps and bounds since it first started in Tooting, and earlier this year, it was bought by The Cricketer magazine – something which hammered home just how serious the team was about being a viable alternative.
Norcross doesn’t believe the Sofa has to be the be-all and end-all for all listeners, though. Instead he hopes to simply provide entertainment for days when listeners feel like something a little different.
“I don’t think it’s a case of listeners must listen to this or that. It’s just like chocolate: you might like something with nuts in it on one day and something without nuts in it the other day. Sports broadcasting is a funny thing; it’s almost the only part of the entertainment industry which is a complete monopoly,” Norcross says.
“You get the radio and the TV commentary and that’s it – but those are both mediums and there needs to be alternatives in the different mediums, in my opinion. People who are listening to audio commentary are usually on the move, so why shouldn’t they be given a choice?”
Another important issue for Norcross is that often those who buy the broadcasting rights from different cricket boards don’t highlight the issues pertaining the those in charge of the game.
“I think what attracts people to us is that we're very clear about who pays our salaries. Listeners pay us by being ‘Friends of the Sofa’ and our sponsors pay us to market their products, and we are open and honest about that,” he says.
“Traditional broadcasters sometimes come across a bit monochrome in the sense that they seem to feel the need to say nice things about the people they bought the rights to broadcast from. It's less of an issue in football and rugby, but in cricket it sometimes seems that a certain independence in lost in terms of what is said on air. I think it’s a bit of confusion; broadcasters don’t know whether they are broadcasting for the board or for the listeners.”
Internet commentary overcomes this obstacle by not being at the ground. The Sofa relies on the TV to do their commentary, but they themselves say what they see and feel – however flippant.
“Because we don’t have to worry about the possibility of losing the right to broadcast, it does mean our commentary is sometimes a bit more passionate and less careful. It also means that we’ll sometimes make mistakes because we react in the moment. As long as we’re honest about making mistakes, I don’t see a problem with making them,” Norcross says.
The programme can also serve as a vehicle for young broadcasters and producers to cut their teeth in a live environment, and gain experience they’d be hard pressed to pick up elsewhere.
“We have so much to offer for so many different people. We’ve even had stand-up comics come in and try out jokes on the programme. We can also help young cricketers who know they might not ever make it to the very top level to come and gain broadcasting experience.
“The BBC’s regional commentaries also helps with this, but in the current time of austerity, we’re not sure if they’ll be able to keep it going. We’ve had a few people come on to The Sofa and who go back and listen to the recordings so that they can improve, which I think is great,” Norcross says.
“I hope that as this grows, we can start providing viable employment for people who are genuinely good broadcasters, especially with the shelf life of commentators being so long. We want people who are obsessed and highly informed about cricket, but we also want people who will make our listeners laugh, because that’s one of the things we pride ourselves on.”
The list of guests who have previously featured on The Sofa is a rather illustrious one, ranging from people like comedian Mark Steele to former England international Graeme Fowler. Others include Colin Croft, Iain O’Brien, Henry Olonga, Rosalie Birch – the list goes on.
The team is unashamedly biased and takes particular delight in making fun of Australians. It can sometimes be unstructured when a wicket falls as yelps of delight or dismay echo over the microphones, but it’s something which adds to the charm, too – and Norcross believes that it’s something cricket fans from all over the world could enjoy.
“We don’t want to be seen as an English-manned operation. We’re not that entirely, we can give other people from other counties pleasure by crying when we lose – which is what we’re doing during this series against South Africa. But we also have a wide variety of voices; we try and bring on commentators from the nationality of whichever team England is playing against to add flair and flavour to the programme,” says Norcross.
Their community is one that's incredibly sticky and which can be really valuable to commercial partners. On days where it rained in the past year, the Sofa often boasted as many as 2,000 listeners, while numbers on days where there was play ranged from 5,000 – 13,000.
There is a possibility that the Sofa may have to revert back to a pay model. They are, after all, producing unique content. Whatever happens, though, Nocross reckons the more alternative services on offer, the better.
"I think there will be more commentary like ours in future and I want that. I want competition in the market in all across the world. It’s a good thing,” he says.
The great thing about The Sofa is that they simply love cricket – no matter what format or what league it comes from. The team lived one of its dreams on Sunday when they were allowed to commentate live from Lord’s on the Village Cup final. Every single player from each village team had a jingle, and the team commentated with as much passion and reverence for what some would consider a ‘nothing’ match as they would for a World Cup final or a crunch Ashes Test.
They might not rival the traditional commentary in the near future, but for now they are the best alternative when the umpteenth commentary cliché leaves you dying for something a little bit different. DM