A frank conversation with NBC Sports' Kyle Martino about the state of soccer in America
Over the last few years, NBC's Kyle Martino has become one of the top television voices in the American soccer community.
A frank conversation with NBC Sports' Kyle Martino about the state of soccer in America
Over the last few years, NBC's Kyle Martino has become one of the top television voices in the American soccer community. The former Columbus Crew and Los Angeles Galaxy midfielder was a well-known creative midfielderin Major League Soccer in the 2000s, and made the transition to broadcasting after injuries cut his playing career short.
Many of you probably remember Martino as the color analyst for Philadelphia Union local broadcasts in 2010, the team's inaugural season. He has come a long way since his early struggles to nail down the pronunciation of Sébastien Le Toux's last name.
Martino had already started calling games for ESPN when he joined the Union's TV crew. His national portfolio expanded further in 2010, as he called MLS games on TV and the World Cup on radio. He later moved to Fox Soccer, then joined NBC last year.
Union fans are fortunate that three of the four color analysts in team history have gone on to flourish at the national level. In addition to Martino, Alejandro Moreno - who currently mans the PPL Park booth with J.P. Dellacamera - and Taylor Twellman have become mainstays at ESPN.
Martino's role with the Peacock family is expanding dramatically this week. He'll be one of the studio analysts on NBC's English Premier League coverage, alongside host Rebecca Lowe and analysts Robbie Earle and Robbie Mustoe.
You might already have seen Martino's EPL debut. Last week, he joined Lowe for a whimsical "Pick Your Team" season preview show aimed at Americans who are new to the sport. The show was filmed at the Football Factory at Legends bar in New York, one of Manhattan's most famous gathering places for soccer fans.
Martino will also continue to work MLS broadcasts, rotating in the analyst's role with Robbie Earle and Robbie Mustoe. NBC's deal runs through next season, so you'll still be seeing him at PPL Park and other venues across the country.
On Saturday night, Martino came to town for the Union's game against D.C. United. We spent a good half hour together talking about the state of soccer in America and how it can grow.
The transcript is pretty long, but I think you'll be impressed by Martino's candor and detail.
What does it mean to you to be the only American-accented voice on NBC's Premier League commentary team?
I think it's very important. If it wasn't me, I would have been rooting for another American voice. Because with the soccer IQ of our fan base and the growth of this game in America, it's definitely time for the American sports market to take ownership of and have equity in the game of soccer - and not just domestically.
The expats who live here are always very sensitive about Americans covering their league, and I completely understand the passion and how protective they can be. It's almost as if that league's their baby, and they're very sensitive about who comes in and talks about it and who's involved.
But one thing I've noticed recently is that as sensitive as some of the expat audience - that hard-core soccer fan audience - can be, they've been really good to me. They have embraced me being an American voice covering the EPL.
The perfect example was this show that Rebecca Lowe and I just did. It's a very dangerous topic: a sort of tongue-in-cheek explanation of each club, and introducing it to a not-hardcore, newcomer Premier League audience. It was received really well.
I think for the first time, we're getting really close to it not mattering what a person's accent is or how they sound. It's the content coming out of their mouths. That should be the level which any TV personality who's going to be on one of these leagues should be measured by.
There's always going to be sensitivity, and that's going to continue for a long time. There's no way in the foreseeable future that there's going to be everyone on the expat side of things embracing the American-izing of their game and their league.
But I think what NBC has been really smart about is to not try and change what has been done, whether they are familiar with watching it on Sky Sports [in the United Kingdom] or different networks.
That is to not change what has been done before, and re-write the book on how to cover the Premier League, but to stay true to the authenticity and history there. And add some of these little aspects that NBC is known for when it comes to storytelling.
That's the familiarity the American fan has when they watch the NFL, or Major League Baseball, or the NBA. Some of those little nuances and ways to cover the game, and to bring [EPL coverage] to the next level without dumbing things down or making it a sport it's not.
I think that little dance is a delicate one that everyone has tried to do. So far NBC has done such a good job of getting that right, and for them to give me the nod as the sole American voice on the broadcasts is a tremendous honor, and something I'm going to take very seriously.
I've been really surprised by how receptive the expats have been to the work I did on that Premier League club guide show. It's such a sensitive issue, and one that's been very difficult for American analysts to come in with.
I look to my left and I've got two British-accented guys [Earle and Mustoe] who are there not because of their accents, but because they are two terrific analysts. I love the fact that NBC had a bunch of choices for people they could have brought on to the broadcast, and they picked guys who they thought could deliver the analysis the fans deserve.
They understand that it's important to have an American on there. But I'm not on there just because I have an American accent, just like they're not on there because they have British accents.
You talked a moment ago about the particular nature of English soccer fans, especially the expatriates in this country.
There's a streak in parts of that community and parts of the English media which argues that American fans are somehow inherently lesser when it comes to consuming English soccer. I don't want to say they aren't allowed to be fans, because that's too strong, but I think you know what I mean.
You're absolutely right. When I first started covering the Premier League for Fox, at times there was this idea that you sort of need to earn your right as a fan to be part of it. I've been a fan of the Premier League since I was little, and the fact is that we're trying to grow the game in this country.
You would hope that hardcore fans, whether they be expats or not, would embrace and roll out the red carpet for people who want to get to know and love this game like they do.
So the trend I've seen towards some of the expat and hardcore audiences accepting me more - maybe giving me a hard time at the beginning but letting me pass once I earned my right with them - I hope they're not as critical in allowing the American fan to come in and enjoy the league as much as they do.
There's this insecurity and inferiority complex in American soccer fans that started with the idea that they didn't feel welcome in that community. And then it was perpetuated with mainstream American sports fans, where they thought "Maybe I'm not to the caliber of these fans, or maybe I haven't earned my right to be a fan of the Premier League."
I think what NBC is trying to do - this Keep Calm and Pick Your Club campaign, for example - is to make it a little less intimidating for fans to come in and join.
Some of the supporter groups in New York City that I've been able to sit down and talk with have been there since the start. They are diehards. They tend to be that group which seems intimidating.
But they are very open to the idea of growing the Premier League in the biggest sports market in the world, and they are starting to accept that you don't have to be born a Liverpool fan or have gone to Goodison Park to support Everton, to wear the jersey and get in the bars or sit in your living room and do chants, and say that you're a fan of that team.
So I think it still has a little bit of a ways to go, but it's exciting to see that some of those barriers that used to be impenetrable in the past are starting to come down, as America is taking equity and ownership in soccer - and not making it look and feel like something that's imported, and isn't ours, and we don't deserve to be fans of it.
There are lots of amateur sociologists in the American soccer community, and I'm certainly guilty of that. I have seen that there is something in that exclusivity of being in the hardcore Premier League fan base in the U.S. that those fans really like, and use to claim superiority over others in some ways. A lot of other people have seen that too.
And to be honest, I've seen it at times with the hardcore Major League Soccer fan base too. Some people don't quite want MLS to go fully mainstream, because it's their little thing.
Yeah. You see that across many different entertainment platforms, whether it be music or film or art or soccer. There's that sense of it "staying true" and "not selling out."
When I get criticized by people on Twitter, I love that. It would upset a lot of people, but it shows me that those people are passionate about their team and protective of their team. They live and die next to their teams.
I would hope that if they love their teams that much, they would be excited that there are other people who want to get to know their teams and love them as much as they do.
I don't think it lessens the quality of the image of the team, I don't think it lessens what you're doing and what you support, or depreciates the years that you've put in supporting a team. I think it only adds to the intensity and love and exposure of some of these clubs.
That idea and that attitude will always exist, like I said before. There will always be people who don't want an American voice on the Premier League. There will always be people who don't want American fans to join their group. And I'm not even picking on expats, that happens in our community with our fan bases. So it exists everywhere.
One thing is for sure, and it's definitely one of the things NBC is trying to do. Soccer is growing in this country, but the ratings on TV are not where they need to be. One way they start to grow this thing is to make it less intimidating, and to find ways to think outside of the box to invite people to come in.
The perfect example is the Gus Johnson experiment [with Fox making him their lead soccer play-by-play voice]. Before he had even grabbed a microphone, people were already criticizing him. They hadn't heard anything that he did, but just the fact that he wasn't considered a "soccer guy" really upset a lot of people.
But you know what Fox was thinking: here's a voice that a lot of American fans are familiar with from other sports, and they might not have crossed over to start to become true soccer fans. If it gets any of those people to convert over and give it a shot and listen, all it takes is that first hook. Once you see this game and once you feel invited into this game, you can fall in love with it.
Some of these ideas maybe are taking two steps backward before taking one forward, like Dave O'Brien and Jack Edwards [calling the 2006 and 2002 World Cups on ESPN, respectively].
Of course some of these ideas won't work. But no one is thinking of these ideas as ways to completely change this game and make it look nothing like it has looked for the last two decades, as you've been following it and have fallen in love with it.
All of these ideas are to try to get American fans - I used the words equity and ownership before - to feel like it's theirs, to not feel like it's some foreign import that they don't appreciate or understand, and to feel overwhelmed or intimidated by.
Here's a more practical question. When NBC first announced its commentary team for Premier League coverage in April, you weren't included. I knew that discussions were underway to bring you on board, and reported that during NBC's Premier League upfront presentation.
It took a while, though, for NBC to deliver official confirmation of your role. Why was there a delay?
It's funny, in the world of social media it's impossible to keep true secrets. From the beginning - when they first got the rights - NBC came to me and said they wanted me to be a part of the Premier League coverage.
The delay was caused by two things. One was the business side of things: we had to work through my contract, because I was contracted only through the MLS package and not EPL rights.
But the bigger delay was that as flattering as it is and as much as an honor as it is to cover the Premier League, I balked at it a little bit. I hesitated because I put a lot into Major League Soccer, and it's very important to me. It's the league I grew up in. I care very much about any way in which I can help grow this league and be an ambassador, and help get this league to be one of the top leagues in the world.
Just like in my playing days, I am fanatical about my preparation and the work I put in to be a better analyst. Even though it has been going well for me so far, I still have a long way to go, and I can still get a lot better.
It is such an undertaking for me to do the analysis I want to do on one league that I was worried that if I went on to do the Premier League, it would just be too much. I wouldn't be able to be as good as the fans deserved.
It took some working out, and I give Pierre Moossa [NBC's lead producer for soccer] a lot of credit for understanding and appreciating my concerns. We figured out a way to make sure that Robbie Mustoe, Robbie Earle and myself can deliver the high level analysis that we think the fans deserve while doing both leagues, and not letting one take away from the other.
Finally, when we got something in place where I felt comfortable I could do the job that I wanted to do, that's when they made the announcement.
I know quite a few people at NBC at this point, and everyone knows NBC's strong tradition of high standards for talent and production. So I would think I would think they took your initial answer, not wanting to give short shrift to existing work, as a positive thing.
Yeah, they did. That's why the relationship has been going so well.
They are the TV version of the athlete I used to be. I wasn't earmarked to be a professional soccer player. I wasn't the fastest or the strongest, and I weighed 130 pounds soaking wet. I just worked on it non-stop. I was in love with it and I had to get called in to dinner 24 times - which is probably why I was so skinny, I missed most of those dinners playing outside. They are the same way when it comes to TV.
My concern was based on the fact that I wanted to be the best I could be at my job, and I was worried that I couldn't be the best with this great opportunity they were offering me. I think that was the type of pushback they were looking for from someone who's serious about becoming a very good analyst. Hopefully I can make a long career at this.
Let's turn more towards MLS. The league's television ratings are way down this year, and there are some people out there who are nervous about that. Later this year, negotiations for the next round of broadcast deals after the current ones expire in 2014.
NBCSports.com's Steve Davis wrote a terrific piece on Saturday that really laid bare all of the issues MLS faces in those negotiations. One of the biggest talking points is that while ratings would improve with exclusive broadcast windows - and networks want to offer them - MLS teams want as many Saturday night games as possible because they sell more tickets that way.
The proverbial horse has not been beaten to death yet, and won't be until this all gets resolved somehow. What do you think the answer should be?
It's tough with that division between television and MLS. There was a great meeting at NBC Sports' headquarters in Stamford, Conn., recently with NBC Sports president of programming Jon Miller and some of the big dogs at NBC, and some of the executives at MLS.
I can't divulge too much of what they said in their brainstorming, but I can say that exact conversation came up. The gate ends up being important to MLS owners because it's one area where they make a lot of their money. They are reluctant to change the schedule in a way that would affect their numbers through the turnstiles.
The argument - and I think that's what you're alluding to - is that the money in the Premier League comes from TV rights, and the rights fees derive from ratings.
Not just in the Premier League, but in just about every soccer league in the world. And in all of the big American sports too.
Absolutely. The view that turnstiles are important to MLS is near-sighted. It's missing the moon for the finger pointing at it. But the other side is that you don't want to be watching games where the stadiums aren't full.
So there's definitely a balance of making sure you get a time slot that everyone can count on - because even the hardcore fans who watch MLS every weekend aren't sure when that game is going to be on.
They need to count on a "Soccer Night in America" [which Fox did when it had the MLS package NBC now owns]. That's one initiative that NBC and MLS were talking about. To find a way to guarantee that there's a lot that doesn't compete against some of the other major sports, that allows the teams to still fill the stands, but starts to chip away at a problem that has definitely been consistent since the start of the league.
There's success with attendances going up, and money spent on players going up, and quality going up. TV ratings need to start reflecting that. They have been, but not with the sort of growth that Major League Soccer needs if in 2020 it wants to be one of the top leagues in the world.
The TV side of things is definitely going to be what ends up pumping money into the system so they can continue to build quality.
But the good side of that is the bar has been raised in the quality of broadcasts. When I grew up watching soccer I couldn't find anything on TV that was in English. I watched [Serie A on] RAI in Italian on Sunday mornings. The fact that there are now three major networks with high quality broadcasts, continually pushing each other to raise the bar, is great.
We just need to make sure that all those other things and strategies are in place to continue to grow this league and get eyeballs on it. I think one way NBC is doing that is with the purchase of Premier League rights, and having lead-ins that push eyeballs towards Major League Soccer.
The next question I would ask is right along those lines. How does MLS get the fan in Columbus to watch the Seattle Sounders play Real Salt Lake, and how do you get the fan in Seattle to watch the Philadelphia Union play D.C. United?
You do it with stars and stories. The Clint Dempsey thing is the first big move in that direction. It's funny - everyone has asked me for a long time who my team in the Premier League is. They're always shocked by my answer, though I don't know why. You ask any player, and players don't follow teams. They follow players.
Bolton Wanderers was my team growing up because of [Nigerian midfielder] Jay-Jay Okocha. I loved watching him play. Bolton wasn't a team you could find on TV very easily, so I had to wait week in and week out for a game.
Fans in MLS are all fans of the U.S. national team, and when you have a star like Clint Dempsey playing in Seattle, I promise there are fans from other teams and other supporters groups tuning in who wouldn't have otherwise. They just need to take that and run with it and continue to build it.
Here's a corollary question to that, and it's probably an even harder one to answer. How do you get all those fans of Premier League teams you met at the Football Factory at Legends to get on the PATH train and go down to Red Bull Arena?
There's an interesting problem going on with this. The quality of MLS has out-paced its reputation a little bit. A lot of those fans haven't checked back in to really see how good the soccer is at times in Major League Soccer.
Especially if you've been watching the New York Red Bulls lately, with the crazy games they've been having. They are dramatic and exciting - you only have to go back to that Real Salt Lake game [on July 27] where they won, 4-3, with two late goals. There are incredible games going on.
There is definitely a reputation to battle, as a lot of these fans at the Football Factory don't think Major League Soccer is a good league. Yet you ask Thierry Henry or Tim Cahill what they think of Major League Soccer and they were extremely surprised [when they arrived] with the quality and physicality of this league, based on the reputation it had.
So here are players who have played all over the world and will sit here and tell you that Major League Soccer teams can hold their own in the middle to bottom of the Premier League table. And no one [else] thinks that. All the people at the Football Factory think that Major League Soccer wouldn't be able to stay up in the [English second-tier] Championship.
There's definitely a problem with the reputation and the perception.
And then the other side of things is what I said before: fans follow stars. No one can argue that David Beckham didn't bring eyeballs to the stands while he was here. I grew up going to Giants Stadium watching the MetroStars play there in front of 12,000 people. Then I was playing a professional soccer game in Giants Stadium with David Beckham next to me and there were almost 72,000 people there.*
It definitely works. But it's not an answer where Major League Soccer at this point can go do what the [former] North American Soccer League did, which is go buy all the stars and spend a ton of money, and take a huge gamble and hope that will be what pays off in getting ratings up and TV revenue in, so that you can sustain a top-heavy system.
* - 66,237, to be precise. It currently stands as the third largest crowd in MLS history for a game that was not part of a doubleheader.
Some people would argue that if you spend money you don't have yet and you don't end up making it back, you could lose that gamble.
If Don Garber has proven anything - and of course there have been mistakes along the way - it's that not swinging for the fences means you don't strike out as much. He hasn't been swinging for the fences. He's been making very smart, educated bets, and a lot of them have paid off.
No one can sit here and argue that Major League Soccer isn't successful. Just look at the announcement of four new expansion teams [by 2020]. It's five if you include New York City FC, with its $100 million expansion fee. That used to be $10 million. There are many different ways to measure the success of Major League Soccer.
But it doesn't matter how many of those you add up. The television ratings will always be the hardest and most important measurement of the success of this league.
My last question is one that probably won't surprise you, but it's a big one to go out on. NBC has won a lot of acclaim for the quality of its MLS broadcasts, and a lot of fans want to see the company extend its rights deal for another cycle.
But there is realism about the network's low ratings, and about how that affects their decisions going forward. Add to that the many deals NBCSN has struck for other sports over the last year, most notably with NASCAR, and there has been a lot of chatter recently that NBC likely won't re-up with MLS.
What can you say at this point about where things are headed?
If I'm going with my gut, I would say that NBC would re-up. But obviously a lot goes into that. Only Jon Miller knows, and only time will tell.
When we have these meetings at NBC and they are talking about the Premier League and Major League Soccer, they are talking just about soccer. They want to be in the business of soccer. If you're a betting man and you were going to buy stock, you'd buy stock in Major League Soccer because of its upside and potential.
Buying into the Premier League was definitely strategic in helping to grow the Major League Soccer audience. They noticed that we had our best numbers for MLS when there were lead-ins from Olympics programming. Fans kept watching and we converted a lot of sports fans into soccer fans.
The idea now is to do what you said - take the hardcores, the Football Factory fans and make them Major League Soccer fans.
They are watching the Premier League every weekend, and right afterward comes a Major League Soccer game. Everyone hangs around and continues to watch, and gets to know a league that they might not have been familiar with, and gets to appreciate to know a league that is a lot better than they give it credit for.
So that was by design, and a very smart play by the NBC executives. I don't think they would have done that if they were planning to just drop MLS off.