Even in 1974, Bob Costas’ voice was distinctive.
The broadcaster was just starting his career, calling Spirits of St. Louis American Basketball Association games and hosting a sports call-in show on KMOX radio. An equally young Bill McDermott recognized his voice as they shared an elevator. McDermott asked Costas to critique tapes of himself announcing St. Louis University soccer matches.
Costas said he knew nothing about the sport. But he knew the craft of announcing. He gave McDermott a few tips, and became a mentor.
Costas’ advice paid off. McDermott went on to call ESPN’s first-ever college soccer game, in 1979 (SLU vs. UCLA); the first five years of MLS, and the 1998 World Cup, on ABC and ESPN. He’s covered every World Cup since 1970, on radio or television.
He’s been the voice of St. Louis University soccer since 1972, on radio, TV and the public address system. Of the Billikens’ 400 or so home matches in that span, McDermott has missed only about 15.
Unlike Costas, who calls everything from football and golf to boxing and horse racing, McDermott is a soccer-only announcer. That’s not surprising, given his St. Louis roots. The city was a soccer hotbed throughout the early and mid-20th century, home to immigrant clubs and a thriving Catholic Youth Council program, where McDermott began in first grade.
He played three years of varsity soccer at SLU (freshmen were not allowed to compete). He helped the Billikens win national championships in 1967 and ’69, and was already eying the announcer’s booth. In 1967, his U-19 club team won the Missouri state cup. Preparing for the McGuire Cup national championship, they watched “Goal,” the official film of the ’66 World Cup. Nigel Patrick’s narration captivated him. McDermott told friends: “I want to announce World Cup games.”
Five years later, after earning a degree in communication design from the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts, he returned to SLU as associate athletic director. St. Louis television station KPLR planned to televise a North American Soccer League match between the Stars and Dallas Tornado, at Texas Stadium. They asked athletic director Larry Albus to recommend a color commentator to work alongside noted play-by-play announcer Frank Glieber.
“He knew nothing about soccer. I knew nothing about TV. We were perfect together,” McDermott recalls.
That opened the door to being hired as public address announcer for Stars home games. (They moved to Anaheim, and became the California Surf, in 1978.) He added PA duties for his alma mater that year too.
The 1969 NCAA Division I champion Saint Louis University Billikens. Bill McDermott is front row, fourth from left.
Fifty years later, McDermott’s enthusiasm is undimmed. “I love all of it,” he says. “The ability to see games outdoor and indoor, college and pro; to travel ... it never gets old.”
Among the highlights: serving as sideline announcer for the inaugural MLS game in 1996. The scene was San Jose’s Spartan Stadium, where as a college senior McDermott had won a NCAA national championship. “I never imagined I’d be back,” he says. “And certainly not in that role.”
His World Cup experience extends beyond the broadcast booth. In 2006, he hosted XM Satellite "World Cup Today" morning show, leading up to the matches. “Our producers let us talk about whatever we wanted,” he says. “We did a lot of history, and had a lot of fun.”
McDermott spent 10 years doing Columbus Crew matches. He’s worked for other MLS clubs too, including Houston and Kansas City. Watching the league grow has been “very gratifying.”
That growth extends to McDermott’s hometown. Next year, the top tier of American soccer returns to the city that was once synonymous with the U.S. game.
The other day he visited Centene Stadium, the $458 million soccer-specific park minutes from downtown that will be the home of MLS expansion franchise St. Louis City SC. “My God!” he says. “There’s no other soccer venue in the country like it.”
He plans to continue covering soccer as long as he can. “I’ll know if I’ve lost my fastball,” he says, mixing metaphors. “If I can’t recall facts, I’ll hang it up.”
But – many years after growing up in one of America’s few soccer hotbeds — McDermott still enjoys watching the game grow nationally. “There’s a staggering number of players. Soccer is embraced everywhere in this immense country. People demand to see more and more of it. There’s no end in sight.”