Ever since I started watching soccer on English-language U.S. television regularly in August 1994 (as a replacement for Major League Baseball, which had a player strike and had to cancel the World Series that year), I have always believed that the development of home-grown North American sportscasters is one small but essential element to the growth of soccer as a televised sports entertainment product.
Through the 13 years (1995-2007) I spent running soccerTV.com, the 5 years (2002-2006) I spent on the voting panel of the Fútbol de Primera Radio U.S. Player of the Year Award, and through several freelance sports reporting opportunities (the last soccer match I covered was Match #2 of the infamous “loser goes of business” 2001 Major League Soccer (MLS) Semifinal series between the San Jose Earthquakes and the Miami Fusion), I have interacted with North American sportscasters and sports television executives who are involved with soccer coverage.
Over the years, I have gone out of my way to offer unsolicited, constructive advice to these professionals, starting in late 1994 when I left two messages in the voice mailbox of an ESPN play-by-play announcer who had difficulty pronouncing French and German names during UEFA Champions League telecasts, continuing through the past decade (example), and more recently to several Canadian broadcasters who were involved with the production of FOX Soccer Report from Winnipeg, Manitoba.
For the first time in 21 years, I have finally noticed what I believe to be a team of home-grown North American soccer broadcasters who can match the quality of many British-born announcing teams.
I watched the FOX Sports 1 broadcasts of both the San Jose Earthquakes vs Real Salt Lake and the Seattle Sounders vs Los Angeles Galaxy MLS matches on the past two Sundays. Even though neither match was what one would consider to be an example of the so-called “beautiful game,” I watched both matches live in their entirely because I wanted to listen to what the broadcast team of John Strong, Alexi Lalas, and Julie Stewart-Binks had to say.
Ever since John Strong started broadcasting soccer at the national sports network level a few years ago, I have noticed the quality of his play-by-play commentary. When FOX Sports President/COO/Executive Producer Eric Shanks experimented with Gus Johnson in 2013, I emailed Mr. Shanks the following:
“While I fully understand the reason you assigned Gus Johnson to call high-profile soccer matches (and I respect Johnson for taking on reputation risk by venturing into soccer), FOX Sports already has an American soccer announcer that the hardcore audience likes and respects: John Strong (who calls CONCACAF Champions League and UEFA Europa League matches). I know several die-hard American soccer consumers (including but not limited to British-Americans), notably WorldSoccerTalk.com publisher Christopher Harris, who like what Strong has brought to the American soccer community: a young professional broadcaster who works hard and respects the audience.”
To his credit, Mr. Shanks listened to his audience. He and FOX Sports EVP of Production John Entz signed John Strong to an exclusive agreement in January 2015 and assigned him to call high-profile soccer matches originating from stadiums in North America, including MLS, the CONCACAF Gold Cup, and the upcoming high-stakes CONCACAF Cup encounter between eternal rivals USA and Mexico.
As for Alexi Lalas, he has continued to deliver sharp and opinionated analysis since he arrived at FOX Sports in January 2015 after spending the past decade working for ESPN. Even if one were to disagree with his analysis or his opinion on certain topics, one would have to respect his fearless approach to soccer broadcasting, the same fearless approach he brought to the pitch when he played as a defender on the U.S. Men’s National Team during World Cup USA 1994.
Finally, to Julie Stewart-Binks, who cut her teeth as a sportscaster while she worked as a sports reporter and weekend sports anchor at CTV affiliate CKCK-TV in Regina, Saskatchewan. Having watched many of her sports reports (on her YouTube channel) for CTV and sister sports TV network TSN, I noticed her range of sports knowledge, her TV production stills, and her work ethic right away, as many of those reports were “one-man-band” efforts in which she worked by herself without a photographer or a field producer.
However, “JSB” had one major flaw, which she had to correct before she would be able to succeed at the national sports network level. In what was probably her worst performance of her career, she mispronounced at least 7 names during her only on-camera appearance on FOX Soccer Report from Winnipeg a few months before she moved on to CKCK-TV:
I understand that her on-camera performance on FOX Soccer Report cost her an opportunity to interview and audition with a niche start-up U.S. English-language soccer-centric sports TV network in the middle of 2012.
Fortunately for “JSB,” she landed in August 2013 at FOX Sports 1, a much bigger start-up sports TV network which offers a wider portfolio of sports TV products (most notably ice hockey, a sport which she grew up with as both a player and a spectator) that fully utilizes her versatility and range. When given the opportunity to be a touchline reporter, JSB studied enough soccer over the past two years to be able to ask coaches and players intelligent questions to the point where she has earned the respect of tough, but fair critics such as myself.
In my opinion, John, Alexi and Julie have now established themselves as the top home-grown North American soccer broadcasting team. As long as they continue to respect their audience, as long as they continue to work hard, and as long as they continue to raise the bar with each performance, they should remain at the top for years to come.
Many of us will have a choice of watching the USA vs Mexico CONCACAF Cup match on either FOX Sports 1 or Univision this Saturday October 10 (kickoff at 6:30pm Pacific/9:30pm Eastern.)
In the past, I would have chosen to watch a match of this magnitude on Univision in Spanish.
I will be watching FOX Sports 1 this Saturday.
Before you make your choice, please watch the “highlights” of the FOX Sports 1 broadcast of the Seattle vs Los Angeles MLS match from this past Sunday, and then decide for yourself:
About the author: Oliver Tse operated Oliver Tse Management Group in 2006-2009 to secure poker-related product endorsement opportunities for poker players and broadcast talent. Among his clients were 3 players (including the eventual champion) from the 2007 World Series of Poker (WSOP) Main Event and the first female sportscaster on U.S. Spanish-language television. He founded soccerTV.com in January 1995 and was responsible for every aspect of the business, most notably conducting direct Internet marketing campaigns for major clients including FOX Sports/FOX Deportes, ESPN/ESPN Deportes, and GOLTV, before he sold the assets of the business including Internet domain names and trademarks in an auction in 2007. He can be reached via LinkedIn.
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