Will NBC's new view of soccer really work?

As with Fox and ESPN, now we have NBC insisting on a Brit voice for its soccer telecasts. Arlo White will be their man -- there’s a nice American touch there, he was named Arlo for folk-singer Arlo Guthrie, but he’s from Leicester in England.

I’ve had plenty to say, none of it good, about the Brits used by Fox and ESPN, because in most cases it has been clear that they have been chosen solely because of their accent, and not because of any particular suitability for the job. Come to that, none of them seems to me any better than the leading Americans.

The case of Arlo White is rather different. Because he does know a thing or two about MLS, having been working for the last two seasons as the broadcaster for the Seattle Sounders. I’ve heard a lot of those broadcasts, and have found White to be one of the best MLS commentators around.

His knowledge of the game is more than adequate (I know, that ought to be a given -- but believe me, it is not, not even among all the inarticulate or over-articulate ex-players who clutter the booths these days). He identifies players quickly and clearly. And he maintains a level head.

Broadcasting for Seattle, the most successful team in MLS history at drawing massive crowds, must have been a situation full of the temptation to overhype everything, to play the role of the home announcer to the hilt.

Yet I never recall White doing this. I do recall him being level-headed and presenting an objective view of what was going on down on the field, even during heated moments.

As I say, that could not have been easy. Though there was one factor that greatly helped White to present a sharp, informative, but always up-to-the-second commentary: the fact that he was broadcasting solo. I’m pretty sure that all the times that I heard him, he was on his own.

What a difference that makes. No partner to yak with, to giggle with, to interrupt or be interrupted by, no embarrassing “competitive reminiscences” to use novelist Vladimir Nabokov’s apt phrase. And none of that deadly super-clever analysis that the experts delight in lumbering us with.

What a relief! But it was to be expected that NBC would provide White with a partner. It will be Kyle Martino, coming straight over from Fox, with his good looks, his TV smile, and his strong tendency to talk too much.

Maybe White can teach him to say less, and make it more meaningful. I don’t see why not. Constant -- and often quite silly -- analysis (and these guys prattle on during live action if you please) is what makes most telecasts such a pain in the neck.

We shall see. But there is one highly puzzling aspect of these telecasts. Let me quote from the NBC press release:
“Taking a page from NBC Sports Group’s hockey coverage, which employs an “Inside the Glass” analyst, Martino will be stationed “Between the Benches” during the games with White in the broadcast booth. From this vantage point, Martino will provide the fans with unique field level insight in addition to game analysis.”
Well, good luck with that Kyle. I’m not aware that any country anywhere -- countries that have been soccer telecasts for decades -- have had that shaft of brilliance descend upon them.

For a very good reason. Sitting at field level, on the halfway line, is probably one of the worst seats in the stadium for seeing anything clearly -- unless it happens right in front of you. Whatever Martino’s “Between the Benches” site may be called, it is decidedly not a “vantage point."

Much more like a disadvantage. We always joke when a coach is asked whether he saw a certain play, and he replies “I didn’t get a clear view from my position on the bench, I’ve got one of the worst seats in the house you know.” Plenty of times, he’s simply dodging the question, but he has a point.

His field level position means he has no overview of the game, cannot see positional play at all clearly, or make out patterns of play as they develop, or fail to develop. It also means that he usually has to view the action through a group of players, any one or more of whom is likely to block his line of sight. Perhaps worst of all, the halfway line position selected by NBC means that poor Martino will be around 35 yards distant from both penalty areas, where most of the crucial action happens.

I fear the worst. The only “action” that Martino will be near is the non-stop ranting and raving of the coaches. Fortunately, NBC will get under way with the Red Bulls’ Hans Backe, who is wonderfully serene on the sideline. And FC Dallas' Schellas Hyndman, also a relatively relaxed presence.

Maybe it won’t be too bad. But please, Kyle, spare us the “inside” chats with the coaches. You will surely have learned by now that they rarely have anything interesting to say. (Though a word or two with the referee wouldn’t be a bad idea, should MLS allow you that. Which they won’t.)  Good luck, guys!

17 comments about "Will NBC's new view of soccer really work?".
  1. Scott Nelson, March 10, 2012 at 1:59 a.m.

    I agree with the sidelines being the worst play to view a game. If you need proof look at poor Arsene Wenger. He's been missing incidents and altercations involving his players for years now.

  2. Tom Symonds, March 10, 2012 at 8:08 a.m.

    You're quite right, Arlo worked solo at SSFC. He had the added challenge of doing "simulcasts": his broadcasts going out over Radio and TV; making it difficult to balance giving an accurate radio description of the action without seeming to "talk too much" for TV. I also agree that Kyle is a "chatty Cathy" and I cannot imagine what keen insights will emerge from his position behind the fourth official apart from the obvious of telling us how much added time there will be before it is even posted! :) But good luck to's got to be better than the Miles and Sullivan production at FSC.

  3. Kent James, March 10, 2012 at 8:19 a.m.

    Arlo White must be pretty good if he's an English commentator and PG is okay with him. A commentator watching the game from between the benches is an incredibly stupid idea, for all the reasons PG lists. It does make you wonder if anyone at NBC knows anything about soccer.

  4. Albert Harris, March 10, 2012 at 8:39 a.m.

    A positive side of Martino "between the lines" though is that it leaves Arlo alone to call the action in the booth. Unless NBC lumbers us with yet a 3rd voice up there too. Let us hope not. A quality single call could perhaps convince the powers that be that a 2nd voice is unnecessary. Let us pray!

  5. George Gorecki, March 10, 2012 at 11:08 a.m.

    PG should have continued to cite the NBC press release regarding Between the Benches. The Canadian hockey broadcasters also thought that Inside the Glass was a stupid idea. Now they're doing it on Hockey Night in Canada. It has become a standard broadcast tool. Let's see how well BtB works before condemning it. To me, it shows that NBC is putting effort in making their broadcast stand out. If Martino doesn't talk too much, it could actually work. We can be glad that NBC didn't hire Sullivan or Dunseth away from FSC for this job.

  6. R2 Dad, March 10, 2012 at 11:35 a.m.

    What is Martino to do, annoy players trying to warm up? I can't see him adding any value unless he gets to wear the same headset as the officials--then there would be information worth hearing!

  7. Rudy Espindola, March 10, 2012 at 11:46 a.m.

    I hope Superman doesn't post a comment this time

  8. Gak Foodsource, March 10, 2012 at 1:34 p.m.

    I agree with Paul's assessment. I don't see how the analyst could provide anything valuable in this format. MLS needs TV networks to drive profits and increase exposure, and yet those networks who agree to broadcast matches are so unwilling to understand dynamics of soccer. By making the game's production more like that of an NFL game, NBC seems to think soccer will become more exciting to non-soccer fans. So in other words, they would prefer to trick fans into watching soccer than to educate them about why the game is worth watching. A better way would be to start offering the type of analysis that would educate non-soccer fans about the myriad things going on over the course of 90 minutes that they aren't familiar with. And as Paul points out, that type of analysis is almost impossible from the half field line.

  9. Jay Wilson, March 10, 2012 at 3:33 p.m.

    Sorry to disappointment you Paul, but player and coach access (like on field interviews) is a mandate for all MLS TV rights holders. They want to sell the players as well as the game. Eli Mannings pre-kickoff quick interview in the Super Bowl this year made a huge impression on MLS television execs.

    For what it's worth, I echo the opinion that field level is the worst place for a game analyst to be.

    But this probably won't make a big difference to the viewer since most American soccer analysts don't do a very good job of explaining soccer tactics. You would think after a lifetime of watching the NBA and the NFL these announcers would recognize the value of imparting knowledge on the subtle strategic aspects of the game to an American audience.

  10. Kraig Richard, March 12, 2012 at 8:04 a.m.

    They are certainly no Ray Hudson.... I cant belive you did a whole article about commentators. I was thinking of writing one about a couple Brits on FOX this week-end.

    Those commentaters were so horrible on such multiple levels, particularly their near condoning of violence. Thanks for your take.

    Saw Ray play in FLA one summer vacation from college!!

  11. beautiful game, March 13, 2012 at 12:34 a.m.

    The article goes a little further than the bloggers suggest. Solo commentary is the best, less wind in the sails which lets the game speak for itself. Another matter is the video production of the game which is becoming a charade of cameo closeups of players clearing their nasal passages, players/refs walking around or those terrific closeups of coaches while the center of gravity, da ball, da players involved being spotlighted on and off as if the game needed another distraction. Winded commenatry and ping-pong video does nothing to accentuate the game except to take the natural rhythm out of it.

  12. Brian Something, March 13, 2012 at 8:53 a.m.

    Did Gardner really just praise a British announcer? Surely the apocalypse can not be far behind!

  13. Brian Something, March 13, 2012 at 8:55 a.m.

    It isn't really Martino's choice about interviewing the coaches in-game, though. All MLS telecasts, national and local, do that. They are the most pointless wastes of air time out there. I actually mute these. Lord knows why MLS thinks they're interesting.

  14. Rick Figueiredo, March 13, 2012 at 9:53 a.m.

    One thing did catch my interest immediately. Coach's having the worst seat in the house. Can't see past a few blades of grass sometimes unless you get up and walk around and then you are limited to like 10 yards each side of the field. And the coaches are supposed to be the pilots of the plane. Explain that logic to me Sherlock? Luxembourgo used to sit up in the booth with a radio for a while but communication and leadership on the bench is critical for instant decisions. In some of the english clubs I noticed seats in the front rows of the stands. Good idea. As for the announcers, can't remember who the brit is and Kyle is ok. He is so much better than Harkes that he actually in comparison survives. Sitting with the fans is plain and simple an insult to Martino and quite along the lines of "great american know how." Remember when Curt Gowdy used to call games? Wasn't he NBC. As to the brit accent, it makes sense. Americans are under the illusion that the brits still know more about the game then they do. True but that is not saying much. Don't you ever wonder if Paul Gardner actually takes the time to read any of our opinions about what he says? My guess is no.

  15. Fire Paul Gardner Now, March 13, 2012 at 4:47 p.m.

    Same pointless garbage recycled week after week, column after dreadful column. SA- please fire this clown now!

  16. Jay Wilson, March 14, 2012 at 1:12 a.m.

    OK, since you all seem to have strong thoughts about soccer on television, here's your chance to have your opinions heard. I am actively involved in the television production of MLS games.

    What would you do to get non-soccer fans into the fold via television?

  17. Albert Harris, March 14, 2012 at 9:03 a.m.

    If you're serious, Jay, reread your own post about having commentators, and I think White is a good one based on my one exposure to him, explaining the finer points of tactics to a non-soccer audience. If they can understand the infield fly rule and the wildcat offense, lord knows the concept of say, the false 9, shouldn't be beyond them.

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