Christina Unkel has become the star of the show on CBS Sports and Paramount+’s soccer coverage.

Her manner of explaining referee decisions and interpretation of the laws of soccer has been the most effective on English-language television. Her presence on air has deepened our understanding of the rules. It allows the viewer to understand why referees make decisions. Others simply say whether a call was correct or not. 

Previously, Unkel worked a decorated career as a referee. That included stops in WPS and NWSL. She also served as a high-level referee and rules assessment panelist for both USSF and FIFA. After that, she pivoted to working in the media but also now works as president of Tampa Bay Sun, a new professional women’s team.

Back to the soccer coverage, her explanations and discussions of rules and interpretations of current directives are essential to CBS. They also benefited audiences when she worked for Fox during major tournaments.

“I see it as bridging the gap and actually explaining the education of the laws to viewers,” said Unkel.

Beginnings in media

Unkel had never worked in media before the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup in France. Still, FOX Sports had a producer who knew she might be available for the tournament. 

“In 2019 I knew I was going to be stepping off the (FIFA referees) panel. I didn’t think I’d enter the punditry world, but a producer that always came to the locker rooms took me kicking, dragging, and screaming to the 2019 Women’s World Cup for FOX Sports.” 

During the summer of 2019, FOX Sports aired both the FIFA Women’s World Cup and the CONCACAF Gold Cup. The latter was in the United States. Unkel was thrown into the fire as a rules expert during both tournaments. But her experience as a referee who worked high-profile games helped. She spent time meeting and getting to know both commentators and producers on the media side. 

“My first TV work was a World Cup then a Gold Cup. When I was officiating I did get to know all of the commentators and producers doing games. One, just to know them, and second truly everyone wants to speak with clarity about football to know the laws of the game. It helps to make the game better for everyone.” 

Accessibility to referees was always important to me when I commentated on matches, so I appreciate this approach. Too often commentators do not know the laws of the game or are not up on current directives. That can destroy in-match commentary. Quite frankly, any match has one or two calls that demand clarification and viewers’ understanding.

At CBS Sports, Christina Unkel has comfortably moved into a role where she is always around and on call for rules interpretations. And true to form, whenever there is controversy in a match, she can be seen on-air explaining to us why the referee or VAR official made the decision they did. 

Christina Unkel answers moments of controversy with CBS Sports

During the last UEFA Champions League matchday, controversy surrounded the match between PSG and Newcastle. Tino Livramento was charged with a handball in the area after a lengthy VAR review. In most leagues around the world, Livramento’s offense would not yield a penalty. That includes the domestic leagues the two clubs play in. However, in UEFA competitions, the interpretation is different.

“FIFA, IFAB comes with interpretations. Then there is an application, case law, jurisprudence, etc. The current interpretation has been a little further along than it needs to be. UEFA is not the governing body when it comes to the laws, but they are asking their referees to interpret this differently than IFAB. That’s where we are right now and we’re seeing a little bit of tension which is only causing more confusion.” 

Identifying the differences as a referee

This inconsistency justifiably confuses fans. Also, it forces Unkel and other FIFA officials to contextualize the games they are analyzing. Competitions and leagues are different in the same way as the cultures of different regions and nations. 

“It’s not easy. Sometimes when you’re a FIFA referee, when you’re outside the country, and when you come back, then you referee as a domestic referee. The number one thing people want is consistency, universally across the board.

“FIFA has this hard position of trying to make regulations and laws as well as applications so that all their member associations so everything that happens in Japan and Turkey is the same as in the US and [South America]. But when the rules get pushed down there are different people instructing it and implementing it everywhere. So maybe our culture or our game wants it to be slightly different.“

As viewers of the sport, we see the differences week in and week out. If you watch the Premier League and Bundesliga simultaneously on a Saturday morning, you witness dramatically differing interpretations of rules. It becomes even more pronounced if you watch leagues later on the same day from the Americas. Despite FIFA and IFAB’s best efforts to create a consistent structure for rules and interpretations, there will always be differences. 

“When you referee in CONMEBOL it’s not the same as referring in UEFA. We’d like to think it is, but it just isn’t due to customs and implementations. It’s very difficult. I always applaud the referees that can referee across the associations and confederations. Even FIFA and UEFA have their differences as we saw with the Newcastle (vs PSG) decision.”

More than just a referee

Simultaneously with her work at CBS Sports, Unkel has become the President of the new USL Super League club in the Tampa Bay Area. The Tampa Bay Sun will kick off in August 2024, just as the UEFA Champions League is starting back up on CBS for the 2024-25 season. 

Wearing multiple hats suits Unkel well and will further inform her ability to interpret the rules in an understandable fashion for viewers in the future.