Steve Davis on the end of local MLS broadcasts, the changing media landscape and the TV analyst's craft

Steve Davis, FC Dallas' color commentator for its local TV broadcast since 2018, grew up in Dallas and joined the Dallas Morning News' sport section after he graduated from the University of Texas in 1991.

Davis, who has covered six World Cups, became a roving, freelancing soccer journalist after the 2006 World Cup. He was a correspondent for Soccer America in the early days of MLS, reporting on the Burn and doing player ratings on its home games.

Working in soccer media over the years, he says, has included a lot of love and heartbreak.

It’s looking like a dose of the latter for Davis, Mark Followill, his partner in the Dallas broadcast booth, and the rest of the local MLS broadcasters whose futures are up in the air with MLS’s TV deal with Apple kicking in next season. 

“If you're in media and don't understand that it's always changing and evolving, you're in the wrong business,” says Davis. “We heard about the Apple deal before most people and I'd always say, 'Man, I don't know [what’s going to happen] and I'm not going to spend a second worrying about it, because there's nothing I can do about it.”

SOCCER AMERICA: You started out your soccer media career as a writer. How did you get into that?

STEVE DAVIS: Oh gosh. I don't think anyone's ever really asked me that. Like most people in the business, I was into sports as a kid and played all of the games in the neighborhood.

I grew up in a largely Latino neighborhood, so it was largely soccer. I was also the nerdy kid who walked to the drugstore and spent my own 15 or 20 cents on a newspaper. Especially on Fridays and Saturdays. I was always looking at the standings, every day, and just sort of got into journalism in high school and kept going from there.

SA: And then you learned that people will pay you to write about soccer.

STEVE DAVIS: And then later you learn that they don't pay you a lot. So it's a process. It's like women, or guys, or whatever you like: it's a process of love and heartbreak, love and heartbreak. Back and forth.

SA: Transitioning from writing to broadcasting is a pretty big shift. What was that like?

STEVE DAVIS: It's a ridiculous shift. What I always say, Arlo, is that life without a backspace key is a lot different. 

I was never the guy that wanted to be in broadcasting or on TV. A lot of people who get into media angle towards that. But I just wanted to write. Being a writer got me to six World Cups on four different continents. I got to see three different World Cup finals in the stadium. The writing was really what I loved.

But media in this country has been shifting for 20 or 25 years. As I was in newspapers, I did appearances on coaches' shows, sports talk shows on TV and radio.

In 2011, the late great Bobby Rhine died, and he had just started a weekly soccer radio show with Marc Stein, called ESPN Soccer Today. Marc invited me to take his place. 

I guess I totally didn't stink at it so FC Dallas asked me to come in and be their radio voice. That was in 2014. They had piece-mealed out the analyst job in the TV booth and decided they wanted someone there a little more permanently. 

They asked me to move over from the radio side and be in the TV booth. I had done some Dallas Cup games on TV so I wasn't a total rookie. But there I was in 2018 in the TV booth and it was one of the life moments, like, 'What happened here? What's going on? Where am I supposed to look? Where do I put my hands?

SA: Where are you supposed to put your hands?

STEVE DAVIS: Mostly stick ‘em in your pocket. If you ever get on TV, put a piece of paper in your hand — fold it up like you got notes on it, and just the physical act of holding something gives you something to do with your hands. So you're not thinking, 'Crap! What do I do with my hands?'

SA: With a writing background, did the craft of broadcasting come easy to you?

STEVE DAVIS: Yeah, well, like anything in life you should work at it and practice and get feedback. Whether you're a podiatrist or a pipefitter. 

It's a process of the cringe of watching yourself and realize, 'Hey, I need to be shorter there, or I need to enunciate a little more here.' The information is the same, basically: in media, basically, you want to share the right information with the right framing and the right context at the right time. It's similar. 

Now, the difference is that in writing you get to think about it a little bit and you can be a little more indulgent. But on TV, man, you gotta think of it quickly and you have eight seconds to say it. So you hope it's the same — but it's a work in progress. I was working with Shaw Brown — the best TV soccer producer in the country — and he told me once, 'Steve, don't open your mouth until you know what you're going to say.' 

He'd go over games with me and he'd say, 'See, here you're talking yourself in a circle because you're still trying to figure out what you're going to say. I know what you're trying to say but you took 15-20 seconds trying to say it and it should've been seven.'

SA: Being the analyst counterpart to the play-by-play person, has the way you analyzed games changed since you were a writer? Do you process soccer games differently?

STEVE DAVIS: That's a good question, man. Yes and no. It seems like as a writer, I was looking for more individual traits in certain players. You could go back and say, 'Hey, I think this guy's body shape isn't what it should be.' 

As a broadcaster, you gotta try and spot those things too, but I think it's probably more important that you're looking for the bigger tactical themes in the match. Is one team overloading one side? Is the right back getting forward more than the left back?

Steve Davis (left) and Mark Followill have been FC Dallas' English-language broadcast team since 2018. Both are Dallas sports institutions. Davis covered soccer for the Dallas Morning News before pivoting to radio (ESPN Soccer Today and FC Dallas games) and then television. Followill has been the Dallas Mavericks’ TV play-by-play announcer since 2005.

SA: How’s it been celebrating the work of local MLS broadcasting crews? What’s the mood in the press box?

STEVE DAVIS: Yeah ... I gotta tell ya, for me, this sounds cliche, the game is always the thing. It's always about the soccer and it shouldn't really be about the broadcasters. 

I'm not somebody who's 100% comfortable with attention focused on me. It's been very nice and sweet, but the other thing is that the media land beneath our feet has been shifting for years and years. In media, you have to know that. We knew about the Apple deal before most people and knew what it meant. 

In conversations with other broadcasters — we always try to share information before games— we'd talk, 'What are you hearing about this? What's going to happen to us?'

And I'd always say, 'Man, I don't know, and I'm not going to spend a second worrying about it, because there's nothing I can do about it. If you're in media and don't understand that it's always changing and evolving, you're in the wrong business. 

So everybody was celebrating each other recently — the connections with the fans, that part was special — all along I had another game to broadcast and wanted to make sure if it was the last one I'm doing I don't want to screw it up.

SA: How does the Apple deal with MLS speak to the shifting media landscape that you alluded to?

STEVE DAVIS: The media landscape in general has been changing for 25 years. The soccer media landscape is kind of a window into that change. Maybe it's a bigger window because it's newer, more dynamic in its growth and movement because it's starting from further back.

It started with the development of regional sports networks. It was 2006 and I could kind of see that change coming. You knew then that newspapers had lost a lot of their influence.

At that point, I was lucky enough to be at the Dallas Morning News — I got there right out of college. It was a great sports section and I had been there 15 years, but I could see that it just didn't have the impact and community that it once did.

I'll tell you a quick little story. I was on a train from Hamburg to Frankfurt at the 2006 World Cup. The U.S. team was based in Hamburg and I was going to a match in Frankfurt. I got a call from my editor at the Dallas Morning News, telling me that there were going to be buyouts offered.

In that moment, on the train, I made my decision right there, because I knew I wanted to leave newspapers. I was thinking, 'They're going to pay me to make a jump that I wanted to make anyways?' So I knew as soon as I got back from the World Cup I'd accept the buyout.

SA: What’s Apple’s plan to broadcast these games?

STEVE DAVIS: I do have some information, but I feel like that is their story to tell.

SA: On the balance, is this Apple deal to broadcast all MLS games a good thing?

STEVE DAVIS: Not to fence-sit on you here, but it is to be seen. I think the money is great and that's just modern sports. TV dollars are critical to growth. It's tough that we're losing local broadcasts because that's a real connection to the fans. I'm aware that national broadcasts are the way the NFL has done it a long time. I'm also aware that the NFL is a completely different animal to MLS, NHL, and even the NBA.

We've seen the model work in the NFL and I think it'll be OK [in MLS]. But people a lot smarter than me are trying to figure it out. We just gotta let it play out and see what happens.

SA: What does MLS lose with its termination of local broadcasts?

STEVE DAVIS: Local knowledge. People who understand a club's history and historical relevance to what's happening on the field. It's impossible for 12 broadcast teams to know as much about every team as the local broadcasters know. They're able to tell you stories about their teams and know the tendencies and personalities in a way that national broadcasters just aren't going to be able to.

Maybe the top broadcasting teams are going to spend enough time with teams from the top markets — the LA Galaxy or New York Red Bulls, for example. But are they going to know the real personalities of the teams like Sporting Kansas City, Portland or Dallas?

And I think that's what you lose. The big markets are going to be happy with what they see. I do wonder if a place like Columbus, or the new team in St. Louis — are they going to miss hearing broadcasts from their team's particular perspective?

SA: How have you seen FC Dallas grow (or not) through the years?

STEVE DAVIS: I'm not breaking any news here, but there may be 6-8 guys who either came to the FC Dallas academy or played or play for FC Dallas on the plane to Qatar. 

[Editor's Note: Chris Richards, Ricardo Pepi, Weston McKennie, Jesus Ferreira, Kellyn Acosta and Reggie Cannon all played at the FC Dallas academy. Walker Zimmerman played for FC Dallas from 2013-17 and Paul Arriola currently plays for Dallas.] 

That's where this club has grown and it's where they've planted their flag, saying, 'This is going to be our thing.' That was mostly Oscar Pareja along with Luchi [Gonzalez]. Like anything in life, it doesn't really matter what you emphasize, just be good at whatever it is. And they emphasized the academy, put a lot of money into it and it has paid off for them. 

Has it paid off for them in terms of trophies? We can have a good debate about that. In terms of developing players? If the U.S. national team gets six to eight guys who have an association with FC Dallas, those are numbers you see at clubs like Bayern Munich with Germany, or Real Madrid with Spain.

SA: On a scale from 1-10, how confident are you that the USA will make it out of its group in Qatar?

STEVE DAVIS: Ummm. [Long pause]

Six and a half?

I don't think the team is in a great place individually. And you don't get a lot of time at the World Cup to get yourself right. Clearly, in this particular World Cup, you don't get any time at all. All of that is a concern.

The caveat is that the group is one that we should be just OK in and be able to get out of it. If we're just OK, they'll get out of the group. What we saw from the last two friendlies — I'm not 100% convinced that they're even OK. I'm worried that too many key players, individually, just aren't in good places right now.

Top Photo: Jessica Tobias. Bottom Photo (Jesus Ferreira): Matthew Visinsky/Icon Sportswire

5 comments about "Steve Davis on the end of local MLS broadcasts, the changing media landscape and the TV analyst's craft".
  1. Ben Myers, October 17, 2022 at 2:43 p.m.

    Some other local MLS broadcasters  have to be just as mediocre as the ones who've broadcast my local NE Revolution for years.  They did the Revs no favors.  If their broadcasters were half decent, I could have stomached the relatively poor play of MLS compared to the better European pro leagues.

    Now we will have to see MLS matches via streaming?  MLS has shot itself in the foot.  One must wonder how many MLS fans will race out to get the Apple streaming service.  And so MLS viewership will drop off, while, at the same time, the NFL caters to its rabid fan base, with the NBA and MLB close behind. 

    Garber and Co and the oligarch team owners need psychiatric help, or maybe some actual media savvy consultants.

  2. humble 1, October 18, 2022 at 8:45 a.m.

    Mr. Davis crefully words his replies so as not to burn bridges. MLS is taking the money, but also a big risk.  NYCFC cannot put 10k buttd in seats for playoff game, many many markets struggling as well with attendance. With the Apple deal, they further decouple broadcast from already disintersted fans. This is not Amercan football with NFL on Sunday and and NCAA on Sat, In my market there are many games I can watch on TV.  Also in my market the fastest growing soccer segment, hispanics, have their own pro leagues that they prefer over MLS.  One of the keys for English Premier League viewing success in USA is keeping stadiums full.  Dropping the local broadcast maybe has no effect in New England, in my market, we had decent locals for English and Spanish.  Maybe the Spanish carries on, not sure what they did there.  I also follow RSL and they are dropping Brian Dunseth, a beloved figure, at a time when the franchise is at a crossroads. Good luck for MLS. One word to describe this move, for me.  Stupid.

  3. humble 1 replied, October 18, 2022 at 8:47 a.m.

    Excuse me it was Red Bulls not NCYFC that was playing in half empty stadium.

  4. Greg Gould, October 18, 2022 at 9:46 a.m.

    I've slowly started to follow and watch more MLS but not to the point that I would PURSUE it and PAY for it. Hope it works out for them...

  5. Wooden Ships, October 18, 2022 at 2:17 p.m.

    Losing local broadcasting teams will make identity more difficult I feel. Will streaming crews hang around, even know stuff about their assigned teams, communities, history, flavor? How much money new talking about? As it is, the color guys don't provide much technical insight to begin with (many of our former players) they can provide the pulse of the community. I'm no longer near an MLS or USL market, but with St. Louis City beginning next year it must be a little unsettling as we've had historically the best soccer journalism-broadcasting in the country. 

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