Throughout the first few decades of sports broadcasting, the role of the so-called "sideline reporter" was relatively straightforward, and very limited. They were called upon to conduct brief player and coach interviews at various pauses throughout the action, and, if there were any player injuries, they were also tasked with trying to gather a report from team officials on the exact nature of the injury, its severity, and whether the individual's ability to play the remainder of the game was impacted.
Over the past ten years or so, a new concept of sideline reporting has emerged, and it has turned the individual stationed just feet from the action into a true part of the broadcast, instead of just some person who shows up for two and a half minutes before halftime, then disappears for the rest of the night. They now provide constant in-game analysis just like a typical color commentator, in addition to their interviewing responsibilities.
This expanded role is perhaps best seen in the NHL, where the "inside the glass" analyst has very quickly become a staple of national broadcasts in both the U.S. and Canada. Locally, the Flyers became the only NHL team to have a full-time analyst between the benches a few years ago when Steve Coates moved from the booth to ice-level.
The fact that these sideline reporters have now essentially become sideline analysts is why you're seeing fewer and fewer Pam Olivers and Bob Harwoods in favor of former players like Tony Siragusa and Darren Pang. It's why Fox Soccer, for example, decided to make the venerable Brian Dunseth a part of its Soccer Night in America broadcast team. Dunseth is usually positioned right next to the fourth official, and in addition to interviews, is often called upon during broadcasts to provide his opinions and analysis of what's going on just a few feet in front of him.
So it should have come as no surprise that when the Philadelphia Union decided to bring aboard a third full-time member to their TV broadcast team, they decided to pick a former player in Bob Rigby, whose experience allowed him to be as much of a sideline analyst as an interviewer.
Prior to this year with the Union, Rigby, who turns 60 next month, didn't have any real television experience. He does motivational speaking and other public speaking engagements, which surely has helped in the transition somewhat, but often nothing can prepare you for being in front of a live camera. To be sure, it's a big leap from speaking to few dozen or even a few hundred people sitting in front of you to an estimated 60,000+ watching in their homes and countless others watching in bars and restaurants.
To put it bluntly, Rigby wasn't ready for his first live television appearance on March 26 as the Union prepared to host the Vancouver Whitecaps in their 2011 home opener. Those few minutes were, in truth, a little hard to watch -- even though Rigby's comments appeared to be relatively scripted, and he was essentially holding the script in his hands. Credit J.P. Dellacamera and Taylor Twellman for handling the situation perfectly. Just before the match started, though, and after Rigby had made his way from the bowels of PPL Park to his broadcast position in one of the field-level seats just to the right of the Union bench, Dellacamera threw it down to Rigby to ask what he was seeing in terms of field conditions.
The same guy who struggled to string together three or four scripted sentences just five minutes earlier had no trouble answering the question off-the-cuff, and even having a little bit of back and forth banter with Twellman. It was kind of a strange series of events -- normally one might think it would be harder to deal with impromptu situations when you're nervous, but as Rigby proved over his first few broadcasts, it was the planned stuff -- broadcast openings, the pre-planned "keys to the game", halftime interviews -- that he was still adjusting to. His unscripted roles in the broadcast were no problem.
As Rigby has continued to become more and more comfortable in front of the camera (thanks in part to his co-hosting of the weekly State of the Union show on Comcast SportsNet/The Comcast Network), the Union have been using him more and more during broadcasts. They've even informally named his contributions; much like the Flyers refer to Steve Coates as "between the benches", Bob Rigby is starting to be referred to as "on the pitch". He's brought in now several times a half to discuss what he's seeing, what he thinks is working for the Union, what he thinks isn't, etc., and he's been brought into goal discussions, league discussions, and other things of that sort. Only seven MLS clubs currently have sideline reporters for their local television broadcasts, and among those seven, Rigby is the only one who is a former player, so credit the Union for trying something novel with their broadcasts.
This past Saturday, when the Union were in Colorado to take on the Rapids, Taylor Twellman was unavailable to be part of the broadcast, as he was with ESPN at Gillette Stadium for the USMNT-Spain match. Rigby stepped right into the role of primary analyst with little hesitation, and was able to keep up a good banter with J.P. Dellacamera throughout the match as the Union gained a 1-1 road result.
He, unsurprisingly, has a deep knowledge of the game, and while his knowledge of MLS and its players is still a work in progress, he's been able to give viewers insight into the match that they're watching. While Twellman's conflicts for the rest of the season should be relatively limited, it must be a bit of a relief for the Union to know that they have another fully capable analyst in-house who viewers will already be familiar with. The last thing the Union wanted was another year where their broadcasts' color analyst position looks like a carousel, as it did last year with Kyle Martino missing a full third of the club's local telecasts.
Rigby's broadcasting career may have gotten off to a bumpy start, but it looks as though the former Atom legend is gaining his footing on television, and Union fans can expect to see him on their TVs for some time going forward. In fact, it wouldn't be terribly surprising if, by the end of the year, Rigby finds his microphone almost always on, turning him into a true second color analyst for the Union from his pitchside location.