When it comes to thought-provoking soccer analysts on US television, Kyle Martino is one of the best. As a former pro who is able to deconstruct a game and explain his observations to viewers, Martino wears his heart on his sleeve.
Having run for the office of President of US Soccer, Martino also knows the politics of the game in this country. But at the same time, he’s passionate about growing the game both through television, as well as the foundations he runs that are separate from his work for NBC Sports.
In this exclusive interview, Martino tackles a ton of topics from his thoughts about running again for the US Soccer presidency to the benefits of street soccer, as well as his opinions about LaLiga trying to play a league game in this country, and more.
Christopher: You bring a degree of analysis to soccer in the United States on television. Is that something that you feel has improved over time the longer you’ve worked with NBC Sports?
Kyle Martino: Listen, I think it’s no different than my playing days. You rise to the level of what you’re put in. And so I could go for a long time talking about development of youth players and what needs to happen to get the best out of a country full of incredible athletes and talents. I think television is the same thing of we’re new to my generation being the first being able to watch television and learn from commentators and have it in your language and fall in love with it and get the flow.
And in terms of either being at the stadium or being in the studio, it’s two things. It’s individually, reps — you need that to get good. And the next thing is being with a team that supports you and I cannot lionize and love my team enough for how much they’ve improved me as an analyst. How much of a team we feel organically. And if I’m being honest, that was there day one and we’re only getting tighter and more comfortable understanding the idiosyncrasies and the weaknesses and the strengths of each other and just support in another. I’m just lucky to be with the squad.
Christopher: And that’s the front of the house. In the back of the house, you have producers Pierre Moossa, Adam Littlefield and others. They seem to run a very tight ship. They’ve raised the bar for expectations. Is it difficult at times because they review every single line that you say. I mean, you have to feel the pressure? Sometimes?
Kyle Martino: I’ll liken it to Pochettino. Double days and high expectations. Sometimes you can fatigue and sometimes it’s hard to keep up those levels. The credit I give to Pierre and Sam Flood and Adam Littlefield, and by the way, the three dozen people around us from the edit team to graphics to research, everyone is seeing from the same sheet. Everyone is fitting into a template that is tried and tested across all sports. And so I think the two things that NBC did really well, they understood, we know how to tell sports stories. Let’s not deviate from that to be something we’re not. Then the next thing would sound contradictory, but it’s not, is let’s understand there are things we don’t know.
Let’s understand. We are new to telling these types of sports stories. Let’s try to do our best to protect the authenticity and tell sports stories like fans are used to hearing them. And don’t introduce gimmicks, but introduce just the nuance of how we tell sports stories and fitting into a model where there’s routine and every week you can be held accountable for deviating from the path or failing to keep up your own personal standards. That’s the kick in the butt. I’ll say that, definitely as an ex-professional athlete and every time I had a good coach around me, it was the perfect coach that wouldn’t let the standards drop.
Christopher: Right. So LaLiga is trying to get a league game played in the United States and they been trying for a couple of years now to do it. Are you for it? And do you think it should or could happen?
Kyle Martino: Well, I’ll say this with total appreciation for how hard it is for a domestic fan base to give up a home game, which is a very sacred and special thing during the season. Because you have season tickets, you go with your kids, your parents took you. It is a traditional, very special thing. But I think if anything, the Premier League coverage, not just ours but around the globe, it shows that there are people that will never make it to your stadium. There are people that love your club just like you do. And it would be amazing if they got the opportunity especially when a large portion of our citizens will never leave this country in it.
And it’s unfair that they would never get to go feel these special quality of seeing a high stakes, regular season game. And I know Charlie Stillitano and a lot of the guys that want to bring it over here, and unlike the ICC, that’s an opportunity to see the next stars (they have an ICC Futures program now).
But people will be disappointed because you don’t see Messi, you don’t see so-and-so, but I want to see who’s coming next. And that’s a different thing than being able to see Salah in the flesh when it counts. So, I’m for it. And as a club owner myself, I want fans in this country to fall in love with Mallorca like we have and I do think it’s important to have discourse with a fan base from that country to help them understand why we want to do it. It’s because we want to love your club and show how much your club means to you, to the rest of the world.
Christopher: So, what about Twitter? You’ve had a lot of experience with it — both positive and negative. What’s been your experience with it? What’s your opinion of it?
Kyle Martino: Like expressing views and stuff or in general, just the platform?
Christopher: Well, just in general as a platform. But, I mean you went off Twitter for quite some time, I think, and then you’re back.
Kyle Martino: And I’m kind of off again because I’ve transitioned my personal Twitter account to my foundations. But here’s where I’m at with Twitter and the real opinion could take a long time because it’s very nuanced. I think there are incredible qualities of a platform that connects so many around the world and gives information in live time. The danger and consequence of that is misinformation and trying to lead people in the direction that doesn’t allow them to make informed decisions on what they want to celebrate, what they want to be for, what they want to be against. And I think the inflection point of politics in sports that kind of stick to sports, which I’ve gotten more than most by venturing into that world, most athletes won’t. Sports is politics. It’s the last bastion of people with diametrically opposed positions sitting next to one another and celebrating something. And I get the feeling of don’t trespass this sacred ground with views. In humanity, it’s about standing for things you believe. So I think Twitter can be an incredible instrument for standing up for things that you believe in.
And now it being a platform that I’ve given to my nonprofit to tell stories that are much bigger and more important than me. That makes you feel special. And I will say that I’m someone that struggles with depression, and I used that platform to talk about it openly to help others. But sometimes it’s hard for me to be on a platform because if I’m not in a good place or not feeling good about myself, Twitter can be a close feedback loop that is not about communication or connection. It can be self-defeating. And it can be really harmful to someone if there’s vitriol and other things being passed their way. But at times, and I haven’t been there, at times I haven’t been secure enough to just shake it off. And it does affect you. And so I’ve just decided not to engage in the platform for my personal brand. I’m fortunate that enough people cared enough about what I was doing to now, whoever stays on the platform, care about the mission.
Christopher: So in terms of the U.S. Soccer presidency, is that something that you would ever entertain again in the future? I mean, I’m sure it was a learning curve in understanding how things work. But then we agreed with a lot of things that you said, the things we were fighting for. And some of the issues that we had with the current administration that are still there. It seems to be getting worse. Is that something that you’d be interested in?
Kyle Martino: The short answer is I hope I don’t have to because I believe there are many better candidates to run soccer in this country than myself, and I’m more than willing to stand beside them and do whatever I can to help fix the system that’s truly broken.
Listen, there are other great things that are happening in this country with our professional leagues and our youth leagues, of course, but we don’t want to throw the baby out with the bath water. I do not think that the government structure in our country, in terms of the Federation, is structured to solve the problems that it has created, whether through apathy or through legislation without education. And so I would never say never, but I’ve learned something after the election, there’s a lot you can accomplish outside of the pearly gates so to speak. I’m not someone that wishes Carlos Cordeiro fail or has any resentment for people who voted against me. I stand with anyone willing to grow this game and will forgive their mistakes if they show they’re truly genuine in their efforts. A lot of the stuff going on with U.S. Soccer right now really, really terrifies me because I think we’re getting more wrong now than we did in many ways before the election.
And my focus now is, I’m going to do what I can, unobstructed from the outside, without having to ask permission or be voted in to use my pulpit and my platform to scale a social enterprise mission that is a cog in a wheel of many social enterprise missions out there that are doing so much to mitigate the problem caused by the organizations or solve problems that U.S Soccer is not big enough or it doesn’t have the budget to solve themselves. And so I remain optimistic that there are many great people still within U.S. soccer and outside that eventually something has to give.
Christopher: And for those readers who may not be as familiar with your grassroots efforts, the foundation and everything you’re working on behind the scenes outside of NBC Sports, can you give us an insight into what it is and how it’s going?
Kyle Martino: Of course, and thank you very much for giving me the opportunity and let me just say, I know in your position it’s hard to carve out the space to tell very important stories because sometimes it can be a soundbite or a click bait world. So I commend you and others that are trying to tell really difficult long form stories right now, nothing more long form than me (laughs).
Over Under Initiative was an idea I came up with during the election when I realized the issues of consequences affecting this country have to do with the landscape being so far from the top of the pyramid, which is the largest part of our landscape and is sort of the unloved and forgotten. Many who are priced out of playing this game or never given an opportunity to fall in love with it to begin with.
And when I think of the density of population of these incredible kids in these cities with remarkable potential but myriad challenges that make them at risk youth, where obesity has tripled since the ’70s and all sorts of incarceration rates and drop-out rates and other things, that sport has been proven over time to reverse. We have to give these kids the gift of sport. And I’m one of the fortunate ones who came from blue collar background that eventually turned into (affluence). And I don’t have to apologize for my success because I worked very hard, but I know for sure there were many kids better than I was. Many kids more destined to be on the national team than I was. And along the way they dropped off. And as a competitor, I don’t like the idea that I didn’t get to compete against the best. And I promise you, many of the best either never played or stop playing at a young age.
And there’s a competitive spirit, well I do believe, honestly I won’t hide this, at a molecular level I think there’s no panacea, but we will watch our men join our women and win a World Cup in my lifetime. If we unlock the game in the streets, the urban areas that it lives and breathes all over the world. France is a team that just won the national team. Many of those players come from the same housing project, the same neighborhood.
Christopher: Street football.
Kyle Martino: Exactly. So for me, I’m not going hide. Competitively, I know we will move the needle that way, but more importantly, they’re refugees, they’re immigrants, they’re all low income communities right now that need the empowerment of sport. And soccer has been proven to lift these communities up. More than that, kids are dropping out of all sports right now. So I had to put my soccer hat down and say a multi-sport solution is the only way to have the rising tide lift all of these boats at the same time.
Christopher: So, if somebody wants to find out more information about your foundation, where’s the best place for them to go?
Kyle Martino: Yes, it’s Overunderinitiative.org.
We need volunteers. We need donations. We have nine city partners, and we’re going to be taking this system I designed, because no park would say yes, to any of the others out there that convert a court to a multi-sport space. And we’re doing that. But there are programs, we’re not programming, including Street Soccer USA, America Sports, Soccer in the Streets, South Bronx United. I mean these are endless. So we’ll do our best to shed light on the fact that we are one piece. Unfortunately, we’re a low cost piece with high impact. We need to also support the programs that keep these kids playing and getting educated.