In an exclusive sit-down interview with Tim Howard and Stu Holden, the two former US Men’s National Team players discussed with World Soccer Talk a variety of topics related to TNT’s coverage of the UEFA Champions League.
Specifically, Tim Howard and Stu Holden addressed:
• Their thoughts on TNT weaving a lot of basketball into their soccer TV coverage,
• What makes B/R Football different on TV than FOX Sports and NBC Sports,
• The chances of Tim Howard and Stu Holden working together again after TNT’s contract ends, and
• How they’ve tried to balance the TV coverage from the mainstream to hardcore audiences.
Both Tim Howard and Stu Holden opened up quite a bit to share their opinions, which will give a lot of soccer fans a better understanding of why and how their coverage of the UEFA Champions League is different than anything we’ve seen before.
TNT’s coverage of the UEFA Champions League continues through May 2021.
Christopher Harris: How different is it working for B/R Football versus say FOX and NBC in terms of your experience? Is it a different feel to the environment of working for Turner and TNT and B/R Football than it is for those other broadcasters?
Tim Howard: Look, I think it’s hard to compare, to be quite honest. When B/R and Turner got the rights to the Champions League, they wanted to do it right. And that’s why they brought the talent in that they did and the production levels are incredibly high. Again, it’s hard to compare other than the fact that we wanted to give the American audience a new outlook on what European football could be, and I think we’ve done a good job at that.
Stu Holden: I think having worked on the Champions League for FOX previously, it’s definitely a different philosophy in the way that we’ve been covering the game. I think with B/R — and mixing that with Turner and their long experience in TV and things like Inside The NBA, which is one of the best shows on TV. B/R is geared towards a younger audience and very social media driven. I think trying to marry the two has been an interesting challenge but also one I think that we’ve enjoyed because it’s allowed us to have some creativity. And not that one way is right and one way is wrong but having covered it at FOX, it’s a little bit more editorial based.
And this one I think has allowed, in a different way, personalities to show a little bit more free flowing. I think we have a lot of input in how the show is put together. And for me personally, it’s been fun. I felt like I’ve grown, that we’ve all grown together as a group and the chemistry on-air with the more shows that we do. And I personally feel from year one to year two, it’s almost been night and day. And how we’ve been able to put the product out on-air.
Christopher: I think it seems like a lot looser. So it doesn’t seem to be very teleprompter driven. It seems to be unrehearsed, almost unscripted. Is that by design?
Tim Howard: I think it’s by design and what it allows us to do is to freestyle and get our personalities out there. We all have the soccer knowledge. The game itself will give us the answers and the clues. But from being non-scripted, it just gives us an opportunity to showcase who we are and give our experiences as it lends itself to Champions League.
Stu Holden: It’s a fun process. I think in the beginning you look at, as we head into a match day, we put together a structure and we have an idea of what we want to talk about in each block. And everybody’s contributing ideas and we pull video and we have stuff that I think are the main key points that we need to make sure we’re getting every single week. But then beyond that, it’s we’re going to leave four or five minutes for you guys to chat.
And if Tim wants to go, if Mo wants to go, I don’t know what they’re going to say. They don’t know what I’m going to say. Kate doesn’t know. Kate knows what we’re all thinking coming in. But it’s not like we’re sharing each other. And I think that’s where you get the most genuine conversation, which is what we want to be. We don’t want to be a rehearsed. This is ABCD, you go, I go, we go. I want to react off of what Tim says. And if I don’t agree, I won’t agree with him, but if I do and then I’ll add. And I think that’s where you produce the most genuine and authentic moments that the viewer can relate to.
Christopher: It seems more spontaneous. Sometimes there are flubs because it seems to be more live, but there’s more of a human aspect to it. Whereas some other broadcasters are very… reading off teleprompter and it feels very robotic.
Tim Howard: Well I think what we do ultimately, we are friends off camera as well and we talk about soccer off camera. It’s basically taking the chat that we have in the car or on the airplane or in on our chat groups and just putting a camera to it. It’s all very organic and holistic and we think that it just flows better.
Stu Holden: And I think you see a lot of times we’ll either be laughing, coming out of break or going into break. And it’s weird because you have to remind yourself when you’re talking to an audience on TV they’re not… You can’t be so inside jokey, but still you want them to see that you’re having a good time because that’s who we are, that’s what we’re doing. And it is a reminder at moments when we’ve been cracking a joke at each other and it’s three, two, one.
But it’s okay to bring that on to air sometimes, I think because to your point flubs, people flub talking in real life. We do these things and I think it humanizes you a little bit more to the audience and they can see that they get to connect with you. And I hope that the viewers feel the same way we do about, especially year two and obviously it’s a little disappointing that it won’t be beyond year three. But we haven’t changed the way that we view the show and how we work and all the work we are putting into it. We still have the same commitment.
Christopher: And year one seemed to be trying to figure out what worked, what didn’t work. Year two, it seems to be pretty solid and you have a quartet that’s in one studio that we know consistently. And then (looks at Tim), you’ve been able to be here on Tuesdays and Wednesdays which makes a big difference. I think that the end product is something much better.
Tim Howard: Well, I think that Stu touched on it… trying to marry B/R which is very social driven, which is what the new audience craves. That’s what America craves now, and that’s the younger generation who’s coming into this and starting to support the teams that they love. You have to figure out your footing on how you marry those two things. And I think we’ve done a good job of that. But ultimately that was going to take a little bit of time.
Stu Holden: Right. And adding to what Tim said, I like that B/R and TNT have put themselves out there, especially in year one and said, “Let’s try something.” At the end of the day people get so up in arms about… Okay, we tried the two studios and it was a challenge for all of us, it wasn’t great at times. We tried to go very social driven and I think we’ll be honest and open about the fact that we made mistakes, but we’re trying to do the right things. I don’t get the anger that people have some times of like, “Oh, how could Turner do this? You’re ruining the game we love.”
We’re all covering the sport, we’re just trying to bring something a little bit fresh and new. And I would say, and also give credit to the people behind the scenes in that, recognizing that some of that didn’t work and coming back. And I think finding a happy medium between what works on TV and what works on social and still trying to have social and fun light elements. But still paying most important to what actually matters most, which is at the game. None of us are bigger than the actual game itself. It’s about adding color and analysis where we can to make this feel bigger.
Christopher: And personally, I think some of the angst or some of the criticism came not so much from the coverage, but more so in terms of not all the games being on TV. With FS1 and FS2, you could guarantee that the games would be on TV. Here you’re forcing people to change, to go to B/R Live for some games.
Tim Howard: No one likes change we’re human, everyone fights back against change. But the fact of the matter is this is where our viewership is going. And we all do it.
Stu Holden: I have 90 subscriptions now, I think. (laughs)
Tim Howard: It was back when people got cellphones, I would never get rid of my house phone. Now no one uses a house phone and now it’s all about cable. All of my friends go, “I’m not going to pay for cable. And I’ll just get everything and stream it online.” That’s the way it’s going, so you can push back but ultimately we’re doing the right things in terms of where we’re getting and where we’re putting our content.
Christopher: What are your thoughts about the way that Turner’s woven in basketball into soccer coverage? Talking about comparisons between Sadio Mane and some NBA players. The recent interview with Neymar, the first two questions were basketball related. It’s heavy into basketball.
Tim Howard: Well again I think when we talk about Turner using basketball as a balance. We love the fact that our sport is a crossover sport. We love the fact that Steph Curry is going over to Paris and getting presented with a jersey and taking his time to watch soccer because he loves soccer. Those are the things that should be celebrated.
This is a global game. There’s a bunch of purists out there who may not like that. But the fact of the matter is it is cool. Soccer is cool. It was in the doldrums 30 years ago and now it’s… the biggest athletes in the world either are soccer players or want to pal around and rub elbows with soccer players. So like that’s a good thing.
Stu Holden: And I think Tim you used a key word there, purists. And I think soccer purists, I would consider us all soccer purists. We’ve all loved the game, we’ve followed it, we’ve watched it, we know the ins and outs. And I think we have a tendency to not want to let other people into our game, this is how we know it. But the reality is this, soccer is, it’s still an emerging sport in the United States. You look at viewership across NBA, NFL, baseball, they’re all substantially higher than where soccer is right now. Even though the Premier League are doing great numbers and Champions League Final, et cetera.
But it’s still a fraction of, I think of what it can become. And to draw new fans into the game, I think you have to find touch points culturally. Touch points among pop culture where you look at basketball and there is a lot of cross over. I don’t know about you, Tim, but I’ve met other athletes from other sports that will watch soccer and they know it, but they don’t know it to the level that we do, but that’s okay. It’s our job to educate them in a friendly way.
Expose them to the sport in that type of way and still not shut that viewer, that hardcore viewer out of the conversation. And still talk to them in a different way where you’re doing your tactics and your video breakdowns, et cetera. And I think it’s important to try and talk to the larger fan base and a guy that might be switching it on at the bar and saying, “Oh, cool. Neymar likes soccer, basketball” Yeah.
Christopher: Especially when it’s TNT, it’s not on a sports channel. It’s an entertainment channel.
Tim Howard: Yeah. Sure.
Stu Holden: Yeah.
Christopher: Do you think there’s any chance you guys might work together again in the future for the same company once the Champions League is over with?
Stu Holden: I hope not. (laughs)
Tim Howard: What he means by that is, he’s desperate. (laughs)
I mean you never know which way the wind’s going to blow. But, of course when you look at myself and Mo and Kate and Stu we all have history and so anytime you can work with good people if you’re open to that opportunity, without question.
Stu Holden: And I think for me, having now been in TV for six, seven years and working with Alexi and guys like Warren Barton, Eric Wynalda, the guys that I didn’t play with. It’s been fun for me.
A number of younger guys are emerging in the TV world and I love working with all the other guys. There’s a nice blend of some old and some new and it just provides a different type of perspective and I think different type of on-air chemistry as well.
Christopher: How hard is it to know that you’re losing the Champions League but to stay at the same level of the analysis and watching the games and providing some great content or great stories, something or what opinions?
Tim Howard: It’s not difficult at all. We love this game. We love talking about it and pontificating over it. And again, we love football. It’s silly to call it a job because we enjoy it with it. We don’t control the business side of things. We don’t control how that operates. When we show up, we’re passionate about it because we genuinely care. So it’s a really simple answer for me.
Stu Holden: I mean undoubtedly there’s a bit of disappointment when the news is announced because I think all of us have really enjoyed this experience. I know all the people that have worked so hard on it here at TNT. I’m not going to get into the politics of a three-year cycle with rights. It’s tough because you start to really invest in your product and we feel like we’re hitting a nice stride. And then you find out year and a half later the product is going to be gone from the network. But to Tim’s point, it doesn’t change the way… None of us are walking in here and saying, “This is our last year and a half, who cares? Let’s not do the tactical analysis and let’s just throw the games up.” No, that’s not the case at all.
I mean, as a football fan, I would be watching this regardless. I’m fortunate enough to be able to cover this and this be a job. So, I consider myself lucky for that fact and who knows, hopefully we’ve all worked together again. Hopefully we all work again on this product at some point down the line. And the fact is in another three years, it’s going to be with somebody else.
Christopher: Right. It’s a small world.
Stu Holden: … Who knows where it will be.