For dedicated fans, it can be an unnerving experience. The nachos are cheesed. You’ve retrieved a fresh soldier from the fridge. You’ve settled in for a few minutes of halftime “analysis” (albeit the kind roared in demi-English by bull-necked jocks). Then, as if emerging from hypnosis, you realize they’re cutting to commercial and you’ve failed to register a single word. You’ve been fixed instead on the bit of saffron exploding from the breast pocket of the guy sitting second from left—a clapped-out defensive back whose patter has been drowned out by the sheer volume of his jacket. Good God, you think, squinting at his tie. Is that paisley?
A goal or runback can still light up a TV screen. But come intermission time, the athletic feats give way these days to miniature costume dramas, so desperate are the talking heads to grab the viewer’s eye. The effect is downright distracting. Santonio Holmes looked great three weeks ago when he ran back a punt for a touchdown, pacing his Pittsburgh Steelers to a post-season victory over the San Diego Chargers. But he paled next to Shannon Sharpe, a former tight end who appeared on CBS’s halftime panel in four-inch lapels and an indigo, polka-dotted pocket puff. Canadian broadcasts are not immune. On TSN and Hockey Night in Canada, fusty old network jackets gave way long ago to Italian cuts and shiny weaves. Now, the complexity of pinstripes and breadth of tie knots are enough to cause vertigo. If current trends hold, Don Cherry will begin to look tame.
To Warwick Jones, president of Coppley Apparel Group Ltd., the Hamilton, Ont.-based suit makers who supply clothing to TSN, this is a natural outcome of an increasingly crowded business. Since the late 1980s, the sports channels have proliferated, while individual broadcasts have become cluttered with bodies to ensure no second of airtime goes unfilled. To stand out, he says, a personality must use every means at his disposal, including flashy attire. “It’s been very quickly discovered by most of the guys that there’s value in looking good,” says Jones.
Consider too that sports broadcasters must frequently rub shoulders with professional athletes, whose ballooning pay packets allow them to indulge in pricey clothing. “It’s evolved over the last 20 years to a point where we’ve seen athletes now wearing designer labels and looking like a million bucks,” says Mark Milliere, TSN’s vice-president of production. “It became part of the culture of sport, and we’re part of the culture of sport.”
The danger is that the couture overshadows the on-air product, as increasingly seems the case in the U.S. Last year, Fox’s NFL coverage team donned fur tracker hats to fight the chill at a playoff game in Green Bay, Wis., provoking much hilarity among sports bloggers. The key, says John Mathioudakis, a clothier in Ancaster, Ont., who helps outfit sportscasters at TSN and Rogers Sportsnet, is to match fashion choices with each broadcaster’s on-air persona, allowing those retained for their colourful opinions to dress the part. The play callers closely associated with the network brand, says Mathioudakis, should keep their wardrobes to a dull roar. That’s why Matt Dunigan, the former quarterback, is free to play designated popinjay on CFL telecasts, while Chris Cuthbert, a play-by-play man, sticks mostly to dark jackets and tasteful ties.
Of course, this supposes that the commentators have something to say in the first place. Will Leitch, founder of Deadspin.com, has spent the past few years charting the vacuity of TV sports against the money invested in it, and developed a particular fascination with dandified sideline interviewers. “The job description seems to require only the willingness to travel, and the complete inability to ask incisive questions,” he says. No surprise, then, that such personalities fill the airwaves instead with colour and costume: it’s the only way to draw attention to oneself while remaining completely anodyne.
So where will the sartorial one-upmanship end? Last year, Men’s Style ran a top 10 list of the worst-dressed sportscasters, using images we can only hope represent the outer limits of sartorial taste. Bill Cowher, the former NFL coach who now works for CBS, appeared in a hideous mélange of pinstripes—fat, skinny, white and blue. Barry Melrose, who provides NHL commentary on ESPN, looked like he was trying to corner the market on brown. Leitch eagerly awaits the iconoclast who will make the ultimate, look-at-me wardrobe call. “Eventually,” he says, “somebody’s just going to go out there nude.”