Nick Webster, one of the pioneers at Fox Soccer Channel, recently joined World Soccer Talk as the new host of the weekly podcast (and the longest running soccer podcast on the planet).
Here’s our interview with Nick to learn more about what it was like at in the early days of FOX Soccer, as well as his experience as a coach and his insights about the beautiful game:
Christopher Harris (Chris): Nick, outside of your work with television and in media, you’ve been active in coaching soccer. How did you come into coaching, and what’s been your coaching highlights thus far?
Nick Webster (Nick): I began coaching as soon as I arrived in the U.S in 1987, and started off in Cal South, met a few people and began my coaching badges, starting off with the USSF D license, and through that I got a job at Occidental College as an assistant to Lowell Thomas and was his assistant for a year.
That was my first job and that led to a head coaching job at a high school in Mission Hills, called Bishop Alemany, where I was the head coach there for a couple of years. It was very challenging to begin with because you’re very young and it takes a while to learn the ropes of how high schools work in the U.S., and just the mentality of the players and how soccer is perceived in this country.
Through that, it led to some other positions at different high schools. I kept on taking my badges and got my USSF A license in 1994. I worked with the Amateur Athletic Foundation coaching coaches and just kept my experience going through different clubs, coaching men, women, girls and boys.
I’ve always maintained a love of coaching. In 1997, I got offered a position at Windward, which is a private high school here in L.A. The way the season pans out, it allowed me to coach while also doing my FOX Soccer work. It’s a great private school, they’ve always looked after me, so I always kept that job.
It just so happened that after I left Fox, the opportunity was still there to coach at the school, and start teaching and with more time on my hands, I started working with Eric Wynalda, with Cal FC, and we went on a big run in the U.S. Open Cup. The biggest highlight from a professional point of view was beating Portland, in Portland, with a bunch of kids, basically, against Portland’s full eleven.
It really was an incredible moment. I think there was about 8,000-9,000 fans there. It was a tremendous atmosphere. The game went into extra time and we pulled off the miracle one nil. As a head coach, I guess the outstanding moment would be winning a state championship in 2004 with the Windward team.
Once again, being big underdogs against a side from Carpinteria. It was all Latin American players and I think I had three club players on my team at the time. Somehow we managed to get a victory. Coaching has been my foundation, Chris. It’s the thing that, it’s my rock, it’s my anchor.
My love of football really transcends everything, and coaching is part of that.
Chris: How does that compare to the U.K. in terms of coaching at that level. Is there much of a difference at all? Is it comparable?
Nick: Yeah, it’s definitely comparable. I think at the professional level, working with Cal FC, and also, you know, I also helped Eric with the Atlanta Silverbacks a couple of times. The level of playing here in the U.S., it really isn’t that far from England. I would say that the American-based players — and that’s not their American nationality but they’ve grown up in America — are technically better than the U.K. players. I think sometimes they don’t tactically see the game quite as well, and they don’t have the football just flowing through their veins. It’s more of a, I’m not going to say hobby, because for some of these guys, they’re professional players.
I wouldn’t say they live and breathe the sport like the players I worked with back in England. Then when it comes to the high school level, I think the American kids are just as good as the English ones.
Once again, it’s a different mentality. Although, it is changing because of the amount of TV and the amount of soccer we see on the television screens here. When I first started coaching, none of the kids wore replica tops, and now at every practice there’s a Messi, there’s a Balotelli, there’s a Suarez. Everybody’s wearing the replica tops and especially during the World Cup.
I couldn’t believe how many kids went out and spent a hundred dollars on the U.S.A. shirts. I think America is definitely catching up, and in some cases, overtaking the U.K. in player development.
Chris: In terms of being a media personality, in front of the camera, during the Fox Soccer Channel years, do you think the coaching background helped, and is that something you would recommend for other talent, to have a foundation, or at least kind of go through coaching to help improve their analysis?
Nick: I’m not exactly sure, but I think being around the game and having to talk about the technical and tactical and physiological side of football, I think it really gives you a confidence for when someone does thrust a microphone or a camera in your face and ask you, tell us about the wingback situation at Manchester United and you’ve been through that conversation already.
I think it does help, but I don’t think it’s an absolute must. As we’ve seen from some of the pundits on TV, as long as you’ve got an opinion, that’s the only thing that really matters. I would say it’s a benefit, but not an absolute must.
I think the most important thing, if you’re going to be in that situation where you’re going to find yourself on TV, is to really believe in what you’re saying. It doesn’t matter whether it’s right or wrong, as long as you believe it and that’s the way it comes across on camera.
Chris: You’ve witnessed firsthand the growth of the game on U.S. television, in the U.S. and while there’ve been so many positives, which is usually what most people focus on, are there any areas of the game on U.S. TV or Internet coverage where you’ve been disappointed with the lack of progress?
Nick: To be fair, I think, and this is going to sound horribly egotistical, but nothing really replaced Fox Football Fone-In and while it might not have been the greatest show in TV, I think it gave the fans at home an outlet to feel like they truly belonged.
What I’m seeing now, the coverage is fantastic, but it really feels like it’s all about the experts. The former players, we know best. You at home really don’t know anything and you have to be constantly educated as to what’s going on on the screen.
If I had a magic wand and was the executive of a big TV station, I would definitely look to bring back a Fox Football Fone-In or a Soccer A.M., and actually put some money into it. That would be the key.
I think as good as Fox Football Fone-In was, our budget was minuscule and if we’d had a little bit more money to jazz the show up, I think it would have drawn in a lot more people. Overall, the U.S. needs to be more inclusive of the fans.
READ MORE: History of Premier League on US television
Chris: What was it like working at Fox Soccer Channel in those early days, and what are some of your most memorable stories from that time.
Nick: It was great. For me, it was an incredible ride. I started there in 1999, and I went to FOX Sports as an intern. They gave me a big box of tapes of UCLA basketball to go and log. I thought to myself, okay. I gave it a shot for a couple of days, and I said to myself, no, this isn’t for me.
As I was walking out, I saw a young lad by the name of Carlos logging a Manchester United game. I said to him, what are you doing here? He said, this is where, this is FOX Sports World, I work on the English Premier League show.
It was like the clouds parted, the music came, the sun came out, birds were tweeting around my head, and I said, listen, I’ve to to speak your your boss and so I got a, well, it’s not a job. I interned. I was the oldest intern in the history of Fox, thirty five years of age.
Within a few months, obviously, they knew that I knew something about the game of football, and I started getting different opportunities to work within the company, and then I got hired as a P.A. making seven dollars an hour.
The rest is history, as they say, and … I mean, it was great. We would get up so early Saturday and Sunday mornings, all file in and fly by the seat of our pants half the time, not sure if the feed was going to be right, whether the audio was going to be good.
The backroom stuff, really not knowing much about football, but knowing how to get a game on air. The crazy things would be not getting line ups until ten minutes into the game and trying to fumble your way through who was playing.
It was just a great time with a bunch of people who knew this was something new, this was something completely different. We were really stepping off a cliff and jumping into the unknown. We didn’t know how football, the Premier League, would be received and at that time, Fox probably had one of the greatest rosters of leagues in the world.
We had the Bundesliga, we had Serie A, we had the Eredivisie, and of course the Premier League. I think the only thing we were missing was La Liga, at the time. I cut my chops commentating on games from the Chilean first division.
It was a great time and the more we got into it, the powers that be decided we could start doing some on camera stuff. One we started developing our own talent and our own personalities, I think the channel really started to grow.
Chris: In the beginning, how many viewers were watching some of those games? Also, at what moment did you realize this was starting to catch fire and make an impact?
Nick: I think the viewing figures in the early days were pretty minuscule, I think for the big games. We were an upper tier channel on the radar, as well. You had to pay extra for it. I think for some of the big games we were looking at maybe 70,000-80,000 people, which, of course is absolutely nothing.
I think what the ratings never took into account were the pubs. For example, I remember going to a Man United vs Liverpool game. I was covering it for, I believe, The Telegraph. It was one of those insane kick offs, like at three o’clock in the morning. It may have even been earlier.
I remember the pub was packed. You couldn’t move. There must have been two hundred and fifty people at three o’clock in the morning in this pub watching this game. I always took the ratings with a pinch of salt. I knew they were bigger than they really were.
In terms of when did it really start to explode. I think the 2006 World Cup really helped. Yeah, the USA didn’t do particularly well, but I think at that particular point ESPN did a really fantastic job.
I think it was the first time they really, really went all out. Because of the time difference, obviously, in South Korea, it was pretty brutal with those one o’clock, two o’clock in the morning games, but with Germany it wasn’t so bad.
I really got a sense when I came back from Germany that football was here. There was no two ways about it. There was a real buzz and the fact that the Premier League now was the predominant league in world football.
Liverpool had just had just one the Champions League in 2005 in one of the most incredible games we’ve ever seen. All the big players were moving to England and we really got a sense that yes, this is it, this is football’s time. Of course, people say it’s always been football’s time.
My friend Eric Wynalda would love to say, football is the sport of the future. That’s where it’s always going to remain. I think since 2006 we’ve seen a stready growth in the viewership of the game and in just how the game is received here in the U.S.
Chris: Over the years, you’ve interviewed a lot of people and from the commentary behind the scenes, etc., for Fox and I’m sure for other media, too, but what was your most memorable soccer celebrity you met, and why was that?
Nick: There’s three interviews that really stand out in my mind. The first was in 2010. AC Milan were in town to play the Galaxy, and I had the opportunity to sit down with Clarence Seedorf for about two hours.
It was meant to be an hour long interview, but Clarence loves to talk, and he really is the most fascinating man you could sit down with. So intelligent, obviously speaks multiple languages, has won the Champions League with two different clubs, won it three times as a player and he’s not shy of telling you that.
He’s a real humanitarian and I think of football, honestly. You could literally talk to him for hours and hours on football and he was absolutely fascinating.
Of course, David Beckham, the great interview with him. This was in, I think, this could have been in 2010 as well.
He’d just come back from the long spell at A.C. Milan and we were going through the whole Landon Donovan drama with Beckham, and obviously I had some preconceived notions about how Beckham would be.
He’s all over the screens and you kind of want to go, “oh, I hope he’s a jerk,” but he is a very humble, great man. The Galaxy gave me ten minutes with him, however, David and I were having such a good time we ran over that alloted time period.
One of the cool things to talk to him about was just looking at his career. He was very open and forthright about things, so I would say, okay, talk to me about World Cup 1998. “There’s that great picture of you in Marseille sitting on the ball looking like a lost little boy.”
He really went into detail. He didn’t shy back and the cool thing about that interview, it was probably the first interview he’d done in America that was a football interview. It wasn’t a celebrity interview. I got tons of plaudits for that, which was really nice.
The nice part was to actually sit down with somebody and talk about the penalty against Argentina, the sending off against Argentina, winning the Champions League in the last minute of the game. It was so much fun, and David Beckham’s a great guy.
The last one would be Jose Mourinho. This was just a pitchside training interview, only lasted five minutes. The cool thing about it was that Fox wanted me to go down there and talk to him about the Galaxy game, and I thought to myself, who cares. Chelsea is playing the game, who really cares what Jose Mourinho thinks about the Galaxy.
I thought to myself, okay, I’m going to take a chance. Jose comes over and I say to him, “Jose, what do you love about football?”
You could see him take a step backwards because he couldn’t believe that it hadn’t been, “talk to us about Landon Donovan or David Beckham.”
It caught him off guard, but at the same time, immediately, there was this twinkle in his eye and you could see him saying, “now this is more like it. This is what I want to talk about. I don’t want to talk about the fluff of a game that means nothing. I want to talk about football that means everything to me.”
Chris: In those early days at Fox, were there any times when the future of the network was in doubt? Were there any thoughts of pulling the plug?
Nick: No, there was never a sense that the channel was going to go away. We never were in fear for our jobs. There was a commitment from up above, from Rupert Murdoch himself, probably, that they were going to spend money on acquiring rights.
If you look back now on the amount of money Fox paid for the rights, they paid peanuts. The channel itself made a ton of money. It was run on a shoestring. That was never a doubt and I think as time went on, we felt more and more comfortable.
I think that’s why Fox lost the rights to the Premier League. They got a little bit too comfortable. They thought the rights would always be theirs. They were the ones who produced and sold the Premier League, and it was their property by right.
I’d left the channel when the rights were lost and I remember speaking to a few people there, and they just couldn’t believe it. I could see that coming a mile away.
It was a big blow to the channel, and I would not be surprised to see them aggressively bid again next year.
Chris: Losing those rights certainly had an impact in terms of the future of Fox Soccer…
Nick: …Yeah, Fox Soccer went away. Without the Premier League, Fox Soccer was gone within six months. It went away so quickly but you’ve got to think to yourself, you need a star property. If you don’t have the Premier League, you can’t run a channel on the Bundesliga.
Chris: How big do you think the Premier League can get in the States?
Nick: That’s a fascinating question. You think to yourself it can’t get any bigger, and it gets bigger. I’m kind of, it’s a double edged sword for me because I do like to see the Premier League dominate the airwaves. I love watching the football from England.
At the same token, it does seem to be getting to the point where it’s going to eat itself. The money involved is just obscene. I think the gap between the players and the fans has never been bigger. The clubs are so stuck up their own asses it’s unbelievable.
It’s almost impossible to deal with them to deal with them now. Back in the day I remember going up to Nike and hanging out with Manchester United for a day and it was no biggie. Now, you’ve go to jump through hoops to get two minutes with anybody.
Is is going to get bigger? Probably. I believe that at some point the Premier League will disappear and we’ll go to a European League. I can’t see that being more than ten years away because there would just be so much money in it.
The top clubs will break away from UEFA and the Premier League, and do their own thing because I think that’s where the next step is, that’s where the big money is.
Chris: In terms of the World Soccer Talk podcast, what’s your perspective of what you’d like to bring to that on a weekly basis?
Nick: I think with the World Soccer Talk podcast there’s some great voices out there that can inform and more importantly entertain. Podcasts are a different beast. They need to have a real life and rhythm to them, and it helps having Kartik Krishnaiyer and Nate Abaurrea on there.
I think they both have a perspective of football that is a little different from most and I think they can offer some insight that will pique the interest of the listener.
I feel my role is somewhat of a ringmaster to listen carefully to what these guys are saying and provoke thought and develop some banter, and I think over time that’s going to happen. We’re in the early days, we’re still feeling one another out.
I see us in the next two to three weeks really developing a chemistry that’s going to give the listeners a lot of fun and reasons to tune in every single Monday to hear what we have to say about the world’s greatest show. We’re not talking about the Premier League, we’re talking about the World Soccer pod.
Chris: Any last thoughts?
Nick: If I had a message to any of your readers and listeners, it would be keep watching, keep playing, keep learning and share your passion for this sport. That’s what I do at the high school and club level with coaching these kids, is developing their passion for the sport so that when they become parents, they’ll do the same for their kids.
I firmly believe that at some point, I’m not sure when, could be twenty, thirty years, there will be critical mass and football will be the number one sport in the U.S. That’s always been my stated goal.
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