“Is there an appetite for this much soccer?” An interview with NBC Sports’ Kyle Martino

By Phil West

SXSports is becoming an increasingly important facet of the behemoth SXSW Festival, which now takes over Austin, Texas (and a good percentage of the Twittersphere) for 10 days every March. And like last year, the NBC Sports Lawn — on the grounds of the Four Seasons Hotel, where SXSports programming is headquartered — is a perceptible part of the proceedings. Anyone heading to panels on Saturday morning could walk through glass doors adjacent to the hotel ballrooms where the panels were hosted, enter the NBC Sports Lawn, and happen upon a magical world.

Or, at least, a world in which you can enjoy a free beer, be gifted with various swag items from event staffers wearing Stoke City and Swansea jerseys for the first (and last) time in their lives, step into a not-quite-soundproof glass booth to do play-by-play on a Jamie Vardy goal that you can then email to yourself, and of course, enjoy the best of the Premier League as delivered to American audiences via NBC Sports’ excellent broadcast team.

But the FA (and the Premier League itself) didn’t get the memo.

Thanks to 6th Round FA Cup play, many of the Premier League’s highest profile teams were over on the Fox Soccer Channels this past week. If you spent the entire weekend watching just NBC Sports’ soccer coverage, you missed Diego Costa bite-nuzzling Gareth Barry in the bizarre closing moments of a 2–0 game singlehandedly won by Everton’s Romelu Lukaku, Anthony Martial saving Manchester United from elimination against West Ham with a well-placed toe poke in the game’s final chapter, and Watford’s 2–1 defeat of Arsenal (and the subsequent conflagration that was post-match Arsenal Twitter).

On Saturday, you didn’t even get league leaders Leicester (playing on Monday) or second-place Spurs (slotted into the early Sunday, post-Spring Forward match). You got Manchester City tug-of-warring to a scoreless draw against Norwich City, and then Stoke-Southampton and Bournemouth-Swansea, which turned out to be much better matches than those might sound on first reading.

But the NBC Sports Lawn also had Kyle Martino as an emissary from Stamford, Connecticut, where Rebecca Lowe, the Two Robbies (Earle and Musto), and Kyle himself are familiar, welcome faces to the growing number of American fans of Premier League soccer. We sat down with him between Saturday’s matches to ask a few questions about the network’s coverage of the league, now in its third year.

Did you set out to do something different with this year’s coverage from previous years — were there any tweaks, or is this a formula that you find is working?

The real focus was to not let up and keep doing what we’re doing. The mistake you can make is when you have a successful start and you get plaudits for it and people are excited about the coverage, it can sometimes inspire you and motivate you to go out of your comfort zone and try to do something different.

We’ve kept all of the qualities that make it work and we’re just making minor tweaks to complement what people already like. If we’ve learned anything from the feedback we’ve gotten from the audience, it’s “Keep doing what you’re doing.” If we can do something to give fans a little bit more, without affecting what they already like, we’ll add it. But if it’s something that would disrupt the chemistry of what we’ve been doing the last couple of years, it’s not getting put in.

Why is this working?

First, ambition. The ambition to cover every game. Initially, that was one of the big questions internally and externally, are we biting off more than we can chew? I don’t think there’s anything else like it in sports, where we take a game happening in another country, and cover it as intimately as we’re able to, and connect a broadcast team in England with one in Stamford, Connecticut and make it so seamless.

Externally, the thought was is there an appetite for this much soccer? Do people want to watch Norwich-Watford on a Saturday? What we’ve realized is, yeah, they absolutely do. And the soccer nerd and soccer lover in me loves that we’re getting good reviews and good coverage, but more importantly, there’s that appetite and demand for the game from the Manchester Derby all the way to these relegation games. That’s been the most fun — to see people engage. We give them more soccer than they could possibly need.

How integral is Rebecca to the team?

She’s the captain. She’s so integral to the team. People pick up on it, but you don’t really get a sense of how funny and incredibly intelligent and knowledgeable she is about soccer. These are tiny little windows that we’re having to fit things in. Even with those tiny windows, those parts of her character are able to come across. It’s only 1/100th of what she has.

We’re lucky because our job’s a difficult one, with the ambition of calling all these games. If we didn’t have someone as confident, competent, and compassionate as Rebecca Lowe, we’re in trouble. She’s the glue that keeps this whole team together. I think one of the things that makes the coverage work the best is that, and this sounds hokey, but we all love each other. We have so much fun together. It’s a family environment, we pick on each other, we laugh with each other, and that’s what you need when you work a 10-hour day. Nothing’s contrived or manufactured with us. It’s the way we think, the way we feel, and we hope that comes across to the audience.

Obviously, soccer audiences in the U.S. are getting more educated about the game, but what’s the balance you try to strike? Do you assume that everyone goes into watching games with knowledge, or do you try to demystify it a bit for those new to it?

That’s a really good question. I think the difficult dance in the past, and people have gotten this right and gotten this wrong, is there is a range of soccer intellect. What we’re trying to say, and it started with the whole campaign of ‘Pick Your Club’ and all that, is telling them you don’t have to be an honors student to attend this class. What we try to do is not talk down to anyone, but at the same time, educate.

I consider myself an expert in the game, and I’m still getting an education. I still watch games and learn things. So we try to not talk down to people, but at the same time, don’t make assumptions that everyone knows what we’re talking about. The difficult dance is don’t upset the hardcores by presenting the game in a way that dumbs it down, but don’t offend people that may be new to the game by talking to them like they don’t know what they’re watching. It is a tough balance, but I think Pierre [Moossa, NBC Sports soccer producer] and the production team and everyone else editorially has done a perfect job letting us know about the tonality of the show and how we’re doing.

Though Lowe will be absent from the Championship Sunday coverage this coming May 15 — she’s expecting a child and is due to give birth in late April — Martino, Earle, and Mustoe will be overseeing the 10-games-at-once coverage that could, potentially, approach the epic last-day finish of the 2011–12 season.