What is the value of having a soccer analyst on the pitch? It's a question MLS viewers will soon be able to weigh in on as NBC's MLS coverage begins Sunday at 3 p.m. ET on the NBC Sports Network.
While game announcer Arlo White will reside high above arenas this season, analyst Kyle Martino will be stationed on the field in what the network is billing as its "Between The Benches" reporter. NBC Sports executives worked with MLS officials to construct a special on-field podium for Martino, where he will have a monitor at the ready that affords him the traditional camera angle from above the field.
"In hockey, we do a majority of our games now with one person up in the booth and one person inside the glass, between the benches, and it works flawlessly," said NBC Sports and NBC Sports Network executive producer Sam Flood.
"Rather than being five stories above the playing surface, one person is supplying the information in real time. You're hearing what's being said on the bench, inside the field of play, and there's a huge advantage to that. When we launched this in hockey, the Canadians made fun of us and said what a dumb idea. Guess what? It's the template that everyone uses now in hockey. Hockey Night in Canada has a person inside the glass. TSN has a person inside the glass. So what was first thought of as a wacky idea from Americans turned out to be the gold standard for covering hockey."
"This is definitely not a gimmick," said Martino, a former MLS midfielder who has worked for ESPN. "This is a way to make sure I still have that tactical view by giving me a monitor that still gives me a booth view. I've called games off a monitor before, but the advantage with my field level vantage point, I can bring the tactical analysis of breaking the game down on formation, the back line being too high, or the midfield playing too deep. I'll be able to give that [analysis] along with hearing [Galaxy coach] Bruce Arena yelling at Landon Donovan to stay a little wider or hearing Landon Donovan yell into David Beckham , 'Try to hit that first touch to me.' I'll be able to see these one on one individual battles, and be able to grab more information than I was able to grab when I was up in the booth."
While Fox Soccer Channel had carried MLS since 2003, the network's primary focus had always been on its heavy inventory of international soccer, particularly the English Premier League. So now comes NBC, which clearly wants to earn the respect of American soccer fans as its three-year contract with MLS kicks off this month. The network is televising 41 regular-season league matches (38 of the games will appear on the NBC Sports Network) in 2012 and five playoff games. ESPN, the league's other TV partner, will air 20 MLS games during the season, including 11 on ESPN2 and nine on ESPN. Its season opener comes March 12 with Portland hosting Philadelphia, a game that also marks the MLS regular-season debut for ESPN's new lead match analyst,Taylor Twellman.
As part of its regular-season MLS coverage, NBC will air a 15-minute pregame and postgame show at the site of its games. Those shows will be hosted by NBC Sports Talk host Russ Thaler and will include Portland Timbers analyst Robbie Earle, as well as Martino and White. According to NBC Sports executives,The pre- and postgame shows will focus on hot topics around the league, key matchups, player interviews and not be dependent on highlights.
Pierre Moossa, the coordinating producer for NBC's MLS coverage and a longtime staffer on Sunday Night Football and NBC's Olympics coverage, said that in discussions with the the league, his network made a strong pitch for access to pregame interviews. For example, viewers will hear from New York Red Bulls striker Thierry Henry immediately after his warmup for Sunday's game at FC Dallas. And with soccer having a huge presence in social media, Moossa said that during the season the broadcast would be heavily involved in Facebook and Twitter, and the hashtag (#MLSonNBC) will appear on the screen.
Moossa said Martino and White did two rehearsal games last month in Orlando and that the new pairing showed good chemistry (not that a sports TV executive would ever say otherwise). "About 10 minutes into the [first] rehearsal game, we looked at each other and said, 'Why do we even need to do more?'" Moossa said. "These guys have a good feel for each other and the back and forth between them is excellent. Let's be honest: Even if they are next to each other, people are going to step on each other. That's not the end of the world. I feel like the advantage of having Kyle on the pitch will overweigh him being next to Arlo."
Asked by SI.com for an evaluation of how ESPN and Fox have broadcast soccer in this country, neither Flood nor Moossa would do so. "We are concerned about what we plan to do moving forward," said Flood, channeling his inner Ambassadorship. "Obviously, a lot of people do a lot of hard work and do some great shows out there."
No matter how the Martino field experiment plays out, NBC has landed a gem in the Englishman White, who was previously the voice of the Seattle Sounders. Said SI.com's Grant Wahl of the broadcaster: "There is nobody better in America at calling a game."
"I have been the blessing for HIV and I have really been the curse for it. The blessing, because of the awareness level, I've raised millions of millions of dollars. I've been fighting for people who have been living with the virus.
Then, people say, if I get it, I can be like Magic Johnson. No, the virus acts different in all of us. So just because I am doing well with HIV, if you get it, that don't mean you are going to do well. That's where the curse comes in. They see me doing well and now people are not protecting themselves, and not doing what they are supposed to do." -- Magic Johnson
The story of Earvin (Magic) Johnson has been told many times in many forms, but The Announcement, a powerful 77-minute film that airs Sunday at 9 p.m. on ESPN, feels fresh and revelatory. The title of the documentary refers to the Nov. 7, 1991 press conference when Johnson, then 32 and a five-time NBA champion for the Lakers, announced to a global audience that he was HIV-positive and would be retiring from the NBA. For people of a certain age, it remains a cultural touchstone: They remember where they were when Johnson spoke his words from the Great Western Forum that afternoon.
Johnson narrates the film, and at times, especially at the beginning of the film, he comes off wooden because he's clearly reading from a script. But the viewer ultimately adjusts to Johnson's pitch and tone and the documentary roars with poignancy, beginning at the 20-minute mark when director Nelson George starts painting the scene leading up to the announcement. We hear from Dr. Michael Mellman, the Lakers physician and Johnson's personal physician, who ultimately gave Johnson the news that he had tested positive for HIV, and how Johnson felt upon hearing the news in Mellman's office. "You are sitting there like you didn't hear it," Johnson says in the film. "Just for that moment, my life just changed... All I heard was a death sentence."
Wife Cookie Johnson, who has rarely spoken on this subject, does so with impressive composure in the documentary: Her husband's diagnosis came three days after she learned she was pregnant. "First, my thought was him," Cookie Johnson says. "Then it was me. Then it was, "Oh my God, the baby." Ultimately, a second test confirmed Johnson had contracted the virus but his wife had not.
The documentary does not delve with any depth into Magic Johnson's sexual promiscuity, but Cookie Johnson does say she did not focus on how her husband contracted HIV, but rather on his future. "If she had left," says Magic Johnson, "I probably would have died."
Near the end of the documentary, Karl Malone is interviewed, and it proves to be among the most honest moments of the film. Malone famously went public with feelings that were not uncommon at the time among people in the NBA. "The fact of the matter is, if you got the AIDS virus, it will be hard for me to play as hard as I am capable of playing," Malone said at the time. "And if people can't respect my decision, that's tough."
NBA Entertainment, as it did for the terrific Once Brothers documentary, provides some fantastic archival video, including Knicks coach Pat Riley working out a then-retired Johnson on the floor of Madison Square Garden. Additional interview subjects include James Worthy, Chris Rock, Arsenio Hall, Lakers trainer Gary Vitti, Dr. David Ho and Andrea Williams, an AIDS activist and the sister of the director. "It's a film about advocacy and bringing Magic's story out here, I hope the film will have an impact on getting dialogue about the virus," George said.
Why did Johnson want to do the film? Lon Rosen, Johnson's former agent, who is the executive vice president of Magic Johnson Enterprises, said at a screening in New York that Johnson, now an ESPN analyst, wanted the platform to get the message out about HIV, which has fallen from the front pages of American publications. "It was the 20th anniversary last November and he figured let's talk about it now," Rosen said. "This is a difficult story for he and his wife to tell and they have never been this open publicly. When ESPN came to him, he first said no. It took a number of conversations to convince him, and when Nelson [George] came on board, he finally felt comfortable."