What’s worse – the brief fear that announcer Brent Musburger was fulfilling some sort of Mephistophelean contract in declaring “This is for all the Tostitos” before the game-winning field goal in Monday night's Tostitos BCS National Championship?
Or that, as the heated denials from Tostitos and ESPN seem to indicate, Musburger took it upon himself to shill for a major sponsor in the middle of a crucial game moment?
Musburger himself, a legendary announcer with a near-40-year career in sports broadcasting, must be reeling at how fast he has become a national punchline.
“Brent Musburger, Shilling for tortilla chips since 2002,” read the headline on Deadspin’s snarky post, which mostly featured a clip of the call (turns out, according to another clip unearthed by the Awful Announcing blog, Musburger used the same, terrible line nine years ago).
The Chicago Tribune lambasted Musburger for ruining an opportunity to guild a crucial sports moment with just the right line – a talent for which the best announcers are paid. Instead, the newspaper carped, his ill-considered quip managed to “suck drama from the moment with a superfluous plug” that left a “bad taste in all our mouths.”
The New York Times saved the outrage over the Tostitos line for the last paragraphs of its Musburger analysis, instead noting how the announcer was vague with facts, late with yardage announcements and sometimes called touchdowns early – only to see the play thwarted before a score was completed.
“It is clear he has veered from the factual precision needed to maintain his status as ESPN’s No. 1 college football announcer," the newspaper declared Tuesday.
Who knew a bad joke about a title sponsor could bring so much pain?
It seems, in retrospect, a classic case of an announcer getting in the way of the story instead of telling it.
He already had a seriously dramatic moment in place. With Auburn’s controversial quarterback Cam Newton, trying to triumph over missteps made earlier in Florida, poised to win a championship some observers feared could later be taken away by his father’s alleged attempts to get paid, the script was already set.
And, as we have come to expect for anything touched by football, the contest set viewership records, becoming the most-watched telecast in cable history with 27.3-million people tuned in. The high numbers unseated the previous record holder – the NFL game where perpetual un-retiring quarterback Brett Favre led the Minnesota Vikings against the Green Bay Packers in 2009.
Musburger’s misstep was only compounded by the irony of his comments before the game aired. Discussing his approach before the game with USA Today, the announcer predicted he’d be quieter than usual, noting “I think the bigger the game, the less you need an announcer.”
Insert rim shot here.
So let’s tally the damage: A crucial moment on cable TV’s biggest stage met with a questionable line that was nearly 10 years old. On the bright side, Musburger has given all students of the craft a textbook example of how not to handle anything resembling a classic moment in modern sports broadcasting.
Let’s hope that the avalanche of criticism coming Musburger’s way these days ensures we won’t be carping over the same line in 2021.
Eric Deggans is TV and Media Critic for the St. Petersburg Times and a 1990 graduate of the Indiana University School of Journalism. His work has also appeared in the Washington Post, Village Voice, VIBE magazine, Chicago Tribune, Detroit Free Press, Chicago Sun-Times and many other publications. He also writes a blog on media, The Feed, at blogs.tampabay.com/media.