Sports fans have been led to believe that the broadcast booth is typically occupied by just two people—play-by-play announcer and former player analyst. But there’s more happening inside the booth than we see.
Originally Published on The Ringer
On Sunday, Troy Aikman had a funny experience in the Fox booth. Well, besides the thing with the lights. The man who stands at Aikman’s immediate right wasn’t there. Because of the coronavirus, David Moulton had been relocated to a spot behind Aikman, where he stood on his tiptoes to see the whole field.
Moulton is a spotter, a job that’s part football analyst, part announcer security blanket. In normal times, Moulton stands next to Aikman during every Thursday Night Football game. On Saturdays, he moves to CBS’s SEC booth, where he stands at the right of Gary Danielson. Then Moulton rejoins Aikman on Sunday afternoons.
“I know they don’t need me,” Moulton said of the announcers. “I kind of feel it’s like when you caddie for an elite golfer. You know that the golfer is going to be Top 3 in the world without you.” But the services Moulton provides—both editorial and emotional—are important. This summer, as producers reimagined the booth for the age of the coronavirus, they asked: What’ll happen to the announcers’ right-hand man?
For decades, TV has peddled a vision of the booth as a pair of announcers gazing over the field. This is pure illusion. “It’s a working kitchen at a diner back there,” said Joe Buck. Every announcer in Fox’s “A” booth—Buck, Aikman, even Mike Pereira—has an extra football brain within arm’s reach. Additionally, Buck has a spotter, Bill Garrity, and a statistician, Ed Sfida, stationed at his left; a stage manager, a camera operator, and a makeup artist stand behind the announcers. All told, there are usually 11 people in the Fox booth. NBC’s Sunday Night Football booth has more than 20.
Since the support staff dives out of the way of camera shots, viewers mostly see them by accident. During last year’s Florida-Georgia game, CBS caught a shot of Moulton in khakis and a long-sleeve shirt, scribbling a note on a card. “I turned to Gary and I go, ‘How much you want to bet I’m not in another shot the rest of the year?’” Moulton said. “We joked about it. Sure enough, when they reviewed the game, the network folks said, ‘Hey, really good broadcast. The fat spotter guy? Get him out of the shot.’”
Moulton, who is 54, broke into network TV by chance. In 2003, Danielson flipped on Moulton’s Fort Myers, Florida, sports radio show when he was caught in traffic. He was struck by how Moulton broke down a game that Danielson had called on TV that weekend. “I go, Wow, this guy knows a lot,” Danielson said. In 2006, he gave Moulton a one-week tryout in the CBS booth. Moulton has stood at Danielson’s right ever since.
Moulton’s job is different than that of the spotter who helps a play-by-play announcer pick out which player caught a pass or made a tackle. That spotter, along with a statistician, is a standard feature of every football booth. But if you’re a top-tier announcer, you get a second layer of expertise, paid for by the network. Cris Collinsworth is joined by a computer systems engineer named Andy Freeland. In his final years at NBC, John Madden’s right-hand man was his pal John Robinson, the former Rams and USC coach.
Good spotters pass from booth to booth like David Gergen traveled through presidential administrations. In 2015, Fox hired Moulton to stand at Buck’s right during golf events, giving him hand-written cards as players approached the tee. “It was instant love on my part,” Buck said. “I didn’t want to do anything without him.” Buck suggested that Aikman bring Moulton into Fox’s NFL booth. Moulton started doing Sundays in 2018 and added Thursday nights last year.
When he stands with an analyst, Moulton isn’t picking out insights at random. Like a professor’s teaching assistant, he’s looking for the kind of insights his boss would pick out on his own. “He knows what I like to look for, what my hot buttons are,” Danielson said. “I don’t want to get too crazy here, but it’s like quarterback-receiver.”
Let’s say Danielson thinks LSU’s ability to run the ball left is one of the game’s big story lines. As Danielson juggles replays, Moulton will nudge him when there’s a good spot to make the point. Danielson also likes counterintuitive ideas—like if the no-huddle offense, which fans are always calling for, isn’t working. Moulton will scribble that idea on a notecard and hand it to him.
“The fun part is, since we’re close, I can get frustrated with him,” Danielson said. “It’s almost like playing again. You can tell a guy in the huddle, ‘Not now! I got 10 things on my mind!’” Sometimes, Danielson will throw one of Moulton’s notecards in the air. A few minutes later, he’ll decide Moulton had a pretty good point, and they’ll scour the floor to look for the card.
On the night before this year’s Super Bowl, Aikman asked Moulton what stuck out about the game. Moulton said he was curious who Richard Sherman, the 49ers cornerback, was going to cover on third downs. Aikman liked the idea. So in the first quarter, when Moulton noticed Sherman lining up over Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce, he told Aikman, “Sherman on Kelce, Sherman on Kelce.”
Moulton refuses to claim authorship of any nuggets. “Spotters don’t want to take credit for anything,” he said. After all, the ideas he gives to Aikman and Danielson might be ideas they were already thinking of. “Gary and Troy watch their own film, they do their own notes,” Moulton said. “They’re doing 96 to 98 percent of the work. I’m just a helper is all I am.”
Even so, Moulton’s suggestions have to be correct. If he puts a faulty piece of information in an announcer’s mouth, Twitter blames the announcer. Like the time at the 2019 U.S. Women’s Open when Moulton told Buck that Lexi Thompson’s caddie was her brother. (They share a last name but aren’t related.) After Buck’s error was pointed out, Moulton realized they had five more commercial-free hours on the air together. “You just want to crawl in a hole and die,” Moulton said.
But such errors, Buck insisted, are few and far between. A good spotter inspires trust. If Buck is thinking of an idea, and Moulton suggests the same idea, Buck said Moulton functions as “a real-time spell-check.”
Moulton talks to announcers in different ways. Danielson is a visual learner, so almost all of his and Moulton’s communication in the booth is nonverbal. Moulton will point at the replay screen to note which defensive back got beaten on a play, or put an idea on a notecard. Last year, Aikman decided he wanted Moulton to speak to him through a headset.
Some of Moulton’s value is practical. At the two-minute warning, he reminds Buck and Aikman how many timeouts each team has. But the spotter’s job has an emotional component, too. Danielson said that being an announcer can feel like a comedian telling jokes to an empty room. Danielson can look at Moulton and see a fist pump or a shake of the head. “It’s someone having an audience,” he said.
A lot of announcers share a nagging fear. They will call a game well but miss something that sticks out to football fans on the couch. Fox and CBS have asked Moulton to be the ambassador to those fans.
During a game, Moulton might ask Aikman, “Why isn’t A.J. Green getting the ball?” Or he’ll ask Danielson: “That all-conference defensive end—why doesn’t he have any tackles?” That question can prompt the announcers to talk football in broad strokes. As Buck said, “To have somebody there to be that guy on your shoulder going, ‘Hey, Moron, step back and give the big picture’—that’s just golden.”
Network executives spent the summer praying football would return. When it was clear it would, they raced to make their booths as safe as possible. Marty Aronoff, ESPN’s octogenarian statistician, isn’t traveling to games this year. Neither is Mike Pereira, at least at the beginning of the season. The Collinsworth slide was replaced by a socially-distanced lurk. NBC even removed its traditional food platter.
Network types noted the irony: The top crews with the biggest headcounts had to make the biggest adjustments. In a series of Zoom calls this summer, executives and producers tried to figure out what to do with spotters like Moulton. Some of the changes amounted to mild inconvenience. On Sunday, Moulton wore a mask in the booth. It muffled his voice when he tried to talk to Aikman through his headset. So Moulton put his microphone inside his mask.
CBS, which broadcasts its first SEC game with Danielson on September 26, has a tricky proposition. Many college stadiums have tiny booths that make distancing all but impossible. Ideas have ranged from Moulton communicating with Danielson via computer to standing behind him with a laser pointer.
It’s not as simple as just moving someone like Moulton around. Football replays unfold quickly—Aikman is often looking at his replay monitor before Buck finishes calling a play. A lot of communication is based on feel and timing. Buck needs to feel when Aikman is ready to make a point. Moulton needs to feel when Aikman is free and can take a suggestion. In a socially-distanced booth, those feelings are being transmitted from 6 feet away or through a pane of Plexiglas. “I’m not going to bet on Moulton being able to scale Plexiglas,” Buck said.
Moulton also has his own health to worry about. On May 17, Moulton thought he was suffering from kidney stones. “It turned out to be a huge cancerous tumor wrapped around my kidney,” he said. Moulton’s left kidney was removed, and during his recovery, he lost 55 pounds. On the day we spoke, he underwent a scan that revealed he was cancer-free. “We’ll cross our fingers and wear a bunch of masks and hope to get through this year,” he said.
A lot of pandemic sports TV is about making a broadcast look and sound as normal as possible. When it comes to a right-hand man like Moulton, any change is more subtle, because viewers were never supposed to notice him to begin with. “A spotter feels like an umpire,” Moulton said. “You want to be part of the equation and yet at the same time forgotten at the end of the game.”
Originally Published on The Ringer