CBS football show banter-chatting us all into the age of the hyper-pundit | Barney Ronay

Before anybody knew anything at all, around the same time a series of speculative bronze-age books were being encoded as the foundation of much organised human society, there was a theory that everything in the world was made from one substance.

There were different combinations of The Substance. But it was all essentially One Substance – probably, you know, God’s fingernails or the like.

And that pretty much solved the problem of what things were, clearing the decks for centuries of bloodthirsty argument over the precise meaning of the speculative bronze-age books, many of which continue with renewed zest to this day.

I think philosophers called this “Mono-ism”, but I’m not going to Google it to find out, partly as a small act of resistance to a modern adaptation of this theory, which states that all things are now destined to become a single substance once again, to merge into an endless hyper-consumable version.

Under Neo-Monoism food will gradually become just one processed “food” entity. All surfaces will be the same surfaces. Ideas and distinctions will merge, the hive-thoughts of the internet creating a self-replicating digital stew.

This doesn’t have to happen. There are seven billion of us. We have endless capacity to do other things and carry other voices. But there’s also definitely a KFC express at Urumqi International airport. The guy selling vape fluid on the road to the Babati Stadium is definitely wearing a Messi shirt.

And football, in its capacity as the world’s popular culture, also feels like it is very much in line with this mono-ism, moving ever closer to becoming single thing, a single noise. Fast forward to the end of this week and it seems clear that final form will be a one minute 37 second clip of Micah Richards laughing uproariously behind a lighted TV plinth.

Certainly the current round of Champions League fixtures felt like another rocket-fuel injection for the irresistible rise of the CBS studio punditry show.

This is by now something of a broadcasting phenomenon, not just a shouty viral media clip, not just an instant commentary on the news, but increasingly just the news. On successive nights this week the CBS coverage enjoyed an amazing production coup in the shape of some fourth-wall-breaking chatter between its own pundits and the people on the pitch.

Jude Bellingham and Luis Enrique both took the chance to banter on screen with Micah Richards over his pre-match predictions, which had proved to be wildly wrong. This in turn became clipped-up viral nuggets, and then printed newspaper stories as the Sun, the Mirror and the Express all carried different stories based on aspects of the CBS coverage, in the classic Watch-The-Moment-Kelly-McDonught-Tells-Brock-Dinglemarch-Exactly-Why-Etc-Etc style.

(Left to right): Kate Abdo, Thierry Henry, Jamie Carragher and Micah Richards during their CBS Champions League show from the Etihad Stadium on Wednesday. Photograph: Robbie Jay Barratt/AMA/Getty Images

This isn’t a criticism. Newspapers are increasingly pressed to produce this kind of content. The CBS banter-chat is highly consumable. But it is also a new dynamic, and an agent of change in the way these events are going to be styled from here. The age of the hyper-pundits is upon us, bestriding the stage, reaching on to the pitch and moving the pieces around. How did this happen? And is there any way of stopping it?

More to the point, is it actually a problem? The obvious answer is no. This stuff has become popular because it’s good. CBS has had the Uefa broadcast rights for only four years. The Covid shutdown led to Turner Sports pulling out of its own short-term deal. CBS picked it up a season early, and has now extended that coverage to 2030, presumably buoyed by its own success (this year’s Champions League quarter-final ratings are said to have easily topped two million).

The viral clips can be hard to watch, like trying to understand what’s happening at someone else’s very loud and shouty office party. But lest we forget football punditry was for so long an imposed affliction, sullen and grudging ex-pros delivering their lines as though being encouraged to talk about short corners and one-on-one situations in order to stay awake after accidentally taking an overdose of sleeping pills.

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As a breed football managers never really recovered from going on TV, developing ticks and mannerisms, unsure of what the televisual persona should be. So we got Graham Taylor looking owl-like and doomed, commenting on events with the rueful resignation of a man watching his garden shed collapse in a storm. We got the tender sadness of Kevin Keegan who will remain a fixed point, an iconography of headphones, anorak, face in widescreen, finger raised. Was Andy Gray any good? Nobody knows. Alan Hansen basically didn’t say anything at all for 20 years.

Gary Neville’s early Sky stuff was a trailblazer for a more forensic analysis. And the CBS coverage is clearly Sky-derived and English in tone – Clive Tyldesley does the commentary – with an added element of the US’s punchy and perky sport-argument culture.

The real stars are the studio team, led by Kate Abdo, who both anchors and does an excellent job of decoding what’s going on. Jamie Carragher is present in excited-uncle-at-a-wedding mode. A wry and clipped Thierry Henry offers balance. And Richards produces the defining background resonance, a portable noise buffet set at a pitch that is both soothing and moreish, and which in clipped-up form also just seems to blend perfectly into the background thrum of the internet.

Perhaps the most notable thing about all this is its influence. Other broadcasters have already changed a little in response. Sky has taken to projecting a vast amplified image of Neville looking worried on a gantry while other men in white-soled trainers have pre-match discussions on a lighted floor.

There is a sense other talking heads feel the pressure to get similarly involved in the product. Managers hitting back at TV pundits has become a weirdly common post-match feature. Pundits are presented as overtly partial, agents of online rage swirls. It isn’t hard to see why. Football is long, unruined by advert breaks, and hearteningly dull at times. Why not try to add new content?

And this stuff will naturally creep into everyone else’s eyeline, into the stories that are written, the opinions of fan-consumers, the content in your feed, all part of the homogenised oppositional blur.

Sports news has always had a mono-voice of some kind. For many years this was just one man saying things in a newspaper, the stentorian voice of the great Malcolm Cakebread, Chief Sports Fulminator of the Daily Everything, out there having all the views.

What we have now is clearly more varied and more nuanced. But there is also the sense that a glimpse of the future is being offered, the hand of US cultural imperialism at work, so very good at turning everything into the same sandwich, a place where all the Cokes are the same and all the Cokes are good. It is the ultimate destiny of elite sport to become just another high-grade streaming product, moving shapes on a screen, a whale-song of unceasing banter-tone across a lighted studio. We’re not there yet. But this is perhaps a taste of that final form.

The Guardian