Media Circus: NBC's Rebecca Lowe on the Premier League, life in America
Whether discussing Arsenal or West Bromwich Albion, whether examining Chelsea’s Eden Hazard or Manchester City’s Edin Džeko, NBC Sports English Premier League host Rebecca Lowe has vaulted to the top of American sports television studio hosts thanks to her intellect and preparation on all things EPL. Perhaps the highest accolade a viewer can give a sports broadcaster is that the broadcaster knows his or her subject matter cold, and I’m certain I speak for most world soccer viewers when I bestow that commendation on Lowe.
Soccer fans have a legitimate claim at being the harshest broadcast critics so it is remarkable that the 33-year-old broadcaster has drawn near-universal acclaim from viewers and soccer writers for her work. NBC Sports management, recognizing it had a strong talent on its hands, tabbed her to be one of its daytime Olympic hosts in Sochi and she was terrific in the role. Last week I checked in with Lowe, born in West London and the daughter of longtime BBC presenter Chris Lowe, as she hit the 14-month mark of her employment in the U.S.
SI.com: How committed are you to working in this country for the long haul?
Rebecca Lowe: In this game you can only look rights contract to rights contract and I've found that out the hard way. I've settled into companies where after three years everything changes again and you have to move on. That is the business we are in and despite having been in it for over 10 years, it's still not the easiest to get your head around. But if you're in it — and it's a great profession to be in — then you have to accept it. I do though love working in the U.S. and in U.S. television just as much, if not more, than I thought I would. I love the work ethic, the commitment and the open mindedness that I have found. As for the future, it's too dangerous to look too far ahead!
SI.com: What has worked best on NBC's soccer coverage?
Lowe: I think a number of aspects have helped the coverage be successful. Having our own team of commentators in the U.K. at the biggest games allows us to feel a real connection to that fixture we are covering. We may be 3,000 miles away in a studio in Connecticut, but our eyes and ears are Arlo White, Graeme Le Saux and Lee Dixon, and what they can tell the viewer really enhances the content we produce. I also think giving the option to the viewer to watch any game they want is unique and a real service. But at the same time, if you choose to stay with us all day on NBC [Sports Network] and NBC, then you won't miss a single goal, red card or talking point because we bring it all to you throughout the day. Gone are the days when people avoid scores until they can watch a highlights show. What we provide is instant content and a developing narrative.
SI.com: What still needs improvement?
Lowe: We can always improve as a talent team, as a production and as a program. That’s been the message from the man who created the show, Pierre Moossa, and his assistant, Adam Littlefield. They hold us all to the highest of standards, which means there is never a moment when the foot comes off the gas. We review every show in great detail (the levels to which we all go to I think would surprise you) and our constant aim is striving for perfection. Whether perfection is possible, who knows? But that's what we aim to find every time we go on-air. We are incredibly fortunate to have a team on-air and off-air who are super close and care deeply about what we put on the television. It's quite a team to be a part of.
SI.com: How surprised are you that American soccer fans took to your work so quickly?
Lowe: If that's true then I am delighted and indeed surprised because I had no way of knowing how things would pan out. It was quite a jump for me going from a country where football (soccer) is ingrained to a country where it's not. Finding that balance talking to an audience, some of whom are as obsessed with football as me, and some to whom it's a new interest has been one of my biggest challenges. But I love a challenge.
SI.com: Your three-year contract with NBC covers the length of NBC's Premier League rights agreement. Regarding future years in the States, how would you rate your interest in working on the Premier League versus doing something else?
Lowe: I love football and the Premier League but that doesn't define who I am. I have a whole host of other interests. I am always open to new projects and going in new directions but I think football will always be a huge part of my job and career. And I am so lucky for that. It's a job many strive for, just like I did, and there's good reason for that. But outside of my job, I have many other interests in my life and within the TV world as well. My husband is always amazed at how much I know about all the other anchors and shows. But if it's your profession you should know these things. I am still learning about the American TV shows and how they all work and I'm fascinated by morning TV as it's quite different to back home. One day I'd love to host a baking show, although my NBC colleagues would be appalled. Apparently, my sugar-free chocolate cake was not a success. Faulty taste buds, if you ask me.
SI.com: How would you define your Olympics hosting experience?
Lowe: As one of the most interesting experiences of my career. I am lucky enough to have covered World Cups as well as European and African championships in countries as different as Germany and Tunisia, but Russia was fascinating. Not that I saw a great deal of it, but what I did see interested me. Also, I had a chance to witness how NBC does the Olympics. And that is like nothing I have ever seen; what an undertaking and with such a defined style and company-wide ethos. I loved seeing that at work. I was brand new so I absorbed everything; it was as much a learning curve as anything else, both in terms of the differences in hosting other sports to my studying of them.
SI.com: What other sports do you have interest working in?
Lowe: The Olympics left an impression on me, that's for sure. The variety and range of stories was something I loved. Human interest gets me. So I'd love to continue my work in that field. To be honest, I've never been in a position where I've had time to host many other sports because back home football is so all-encompassing that it's more than a full-time job. As my colleagues and bosses will attest, though, my NFL knowledge is second to none. I think I named 13 teams the other day. I've offered my services to Football Night in America. Just awaiting a call back. I’m sure they're just busy.
SI.com: Understanding you currently work for a competitor, how interested are you in who Fox Sports uses on-air for the 2015 Women's World Cup and 2018 World Cup and why?
Lowe: Of course I’m interested because I'm interested in anything that goes on in my profession, no matter what channel it is or in what country. It's also a pretty small industry so I will tend to know many of those used by other channels so it's nice to see what everyone is up to. Nosy, really.
SI.com: Why are you not on Twitter?
Lowe: Many reasons. I was on it a few years ago but after three months I decided it wasn't for me. It's not a medium that I'm comfortable with. There isn't enough privacy in this world as it is and I don't see the need to be so vocal or show my life off. It can be a dark place and I'm not convinced it's being used in the manner that it was created for. I am also not sure that it brings the best out in people. There is of course an upside and I do use it for news because I understand the benefits where that's concerned. We spend so much of our life on our phones; I don't need to spend more. It's a sort of parallel universe and I quite like the real thing. I’m a rarity I know and I come under a lot of pressure to go back on. But right now, it's not for me.
SI.com: How long did it take you to come up with your American accent?
Lowe: Well as you can tell by the pretty accurate nature of it, about two minutes.
SI.com: Are opportunities greater for women in your job in the U.S. or in the U.K., and why?
Lowe: I think there are more opportunities in the U.S. purely because there are more channels and more frontline sports. I see so many women on-screen over here, which is fantastic. Back home it is definitely improving. It has been a long fight I have to admit but now there are plenty of women presenting sports programs and I can't wait for the day when this is no longer a question.
THE NOISE REPORT
SI.com examines some of notable sports media stories of the past week:
1. The history of the Kansas City Royals is also the history of Denny Matthews. The 71-year-old broadcaster has called the team’s games since the inaugural 1969 season, introducing Kansas City baseball fans to the likes of Wally Bunker, Joe Foy and Lou Piniella.
"I was a year or so out of college in 1968, and I saw there were four new teams that needed broadcasters," Matthews said. "So I went to St. Louis with a little tape recorder, taped myself calling a Cardinals game and submitted it with my application. Buddy Blattner had been hired as the No. 1 announcer for the Royals and he was part of the process that selected the other broadcasters. They kept whittling it down and finally in December 1968 he called me and said I got the job. I was 25 when I first started. I asked Buddy later on why he picked me. He said he was impressed I was applying for a big-league job, he liked that I had played baseball in college and that I had done my homework about the players. He also said he could tell by listening to the tape I didn't have any bad habits. Hell, I didn't have ANY habits then.”
Only Dodgers broadcasting icons Vin Scully (66 years) and Jaime Jarrin (57) have called games with their current baseball teams longer than Matthews. Today, Matthews calls the first, second, fifth, eighth and ninth innings for the club’s radio broadcast. He travels to half of the road games during the regular season and attends all the home games. I asked him if the current success of the team has impacted his broadcast.
"I think so," Matthews said. "It is more interesting when they are winning. There are more positive stories to tell, there's a better feeling all over town, the area, the ballpark, with the front office people. It certainly is more fun when a team is winning but you can't let a losing team drag you down with then."
Matthews said he never attempted to copy another announcer but was influenced growing up in central Illinois listening to Harry Caray, Jack Buck and Jack Quinlan call Cardinals and Cubs games.
"If Kansas City has a baseball broadcasting style, I think it is a typical, Midwest laid-back style," Matthews said. "Obviously when people listen they can tell I am rooting for the Royals. I mean, they are paying me (laughs) and I have been with them for the whole shebang. But I am also trying to be accurate and fair. I'm not one who will rip on the team but also not slobber over them. I think I have a good feel for the game."
If the Royals end up winning the World Series, Matthews said he will not have anything pre-written for the final moment. He will simply say what pops into his head at the time.
"If I knew exactly what would happen, I might be able to write out a three- or four-sentence script that is fantastically clever," Matthews said. “But no one knows. I've always just gone with what pops into my head.”
Here’s Matthews’ calling the final out of the ALCS
2. Sensational work by ESPN features producer Terrell Bouza, director of photography Nathan Golon, editors Sean E. Stall and Pete Hollander (and excellent questions from NFL reporter Josina Anderson) on this terrific feature on the relationship between Browns cornerback Joe Haden and his younger brother Jacob, who is challenged to communicate verbally. Worth your time.
2a. Fox NFL Sunday insider Jay Glazer on why the Seahawks traded wide receiver Percy Harvin: “The breaking point was after this week against the Cowboys. He pulled himself out of that game. That’s when Seattle said, ‘Enough is enough.’ What people don’t know is that there were several incidents that led to that. For example, at the San Diego Chargers game, same thing, he didn’t get the ball enough early and pulled himself out of that game. The very first preseason game, Earl Thomas was taking reps over him as the punt returner, and he pulled himself out of that game. The last preseason game, after he had gotten in a fight with his teammate Doug Baldwin, he wouldn’t even go to that game. It got to the point where people inside that organization felt like they were walking on eggshells around Percy Harvin.”
2b. ESPN’s Cris Carter on Harvin: “For any player that has previous issues, there is always a moment in time that you get the chance to change or alter your history. It is all in your hand. There is always a fork, right on the road, that stops you and you have the opportunity to either go left and go about doing things your own way, or to go right and make the right decisions and try to do something special with your life. Percy Harvin is not a bad person, but he has had issues in high school, in college and now, with two professional teams. I’m not looking at the scheme, I’m looking right at Percy Harvin because it is really up to him. He is a phenomenal talent. Right now, this league, we have less tolerance for people with great athletic ability and the inability to work in an environment. Everyone should feel safe at work, especially, one of your teammates, who you trust.”
2c. The late afternoon window for Fox on Oct. 12, which included the Cowboys’ win over the Seahawks, drew 30 million viewers. That’s the most-watched NFL bloc on all broadcast and cable television since the Academy Awards in March. (Fox and CBS roll up the games in the late-window for their viewership number.) The game was also the most-watched NFL on Fox regular season Sunday broadcast in 19 years
2d. Not including this week, The NFL Today had averaged 3.6 million viewers, the highest viewer average six weeks into the season since 1998, the year CBS reacquired the NFL. It still draws a couple of million less than Fox NFL Sunday.
2e. The Jets-Patriots broadcast averaged 16.1 million viewers for CBS’ Thursday Night Football, which is currently the average viewership for the season through six games.
2f. Awful Announcing examined whether ESPN's Monday Night Football should have addressed Ferguson protests in St. Louis.
2g. Fox Sports pulled UFC announcer Mike Goldberg from a part-time play-by-play NFL gig. Here’s why.
3. ESPN said Florida State’s win over Notre Dame drew an 8.5 overnight rating on ABC, the highest non-BCS college football game on an ESPN-related net (thus, ABC) since Notre Dame-USC in 2012. (Last year’s Iron Bowl did an 8.6 on CBS for comparison.)
3a. The highest rated markets for Florida State-Notre Dame: 1. Birmingham; 2. Columbus, Ohio; 3. Jacksonville; 4. Indianapolis; 5. Dayton; 6 West Palm Beach; 7. Orlando; 8. Greenville-Spartanburg; 9. Ft. Myers; 10. Cleveland.
4. Sports pieces of note:
• Impressive reporting by ESPN's Shaun Assael in "The Shadow Life of Jim Irsay."
• SI’s Jon Wertheim and Ken Rodriguez profiled homeless high school athletes for last week’s magazine cover story. Terrific work.
• And here’s a powerful, short film on homeless athletes from SI Video.
• Enjoyed this excerpt from Bill Polian (and Buffalo News writer Vic Carucci) on why the Colts drafted Peyton Manning over Ryan Leaf.
• ESPN’s Wright Thompson, a Mississippi native, on his state’s sporting moment.
• SB Nation’s Spencer Hall on the state of Michigan football.
• Blake Griffin, on life with former Clippers owner Donald Sterling.
• Toronto Star reporter Brendan Kennedy had an excellent piece on the pay of minor league ballplayers.
Non-sports pieces of note:
• "To Siri, With Love: How One Boy With Autism Became B.F.F's With Apple’s Siri." A poignant love-letter from a parent worth reading.
• The final column of Winnipeg Free Press columnist Lindor Reynolds, who died of cancer last week.
• Take note of all the silence and declined comments here from NFL officials and staffers in this piece on domestic violence.
• Extraordinary work by NYT reporter C.J. Chivers on chemical weapons found in Iraq.
• Well done piece by a University of Michigan student on the burden of your own perceptions relating to skin color.
• Vanity Fair’s Buzz Bissinger, on the tale of a stolen Stradivarius.
•Esquire Magazine's Tom Chiarella had a revealing interview of how to interview Michael Keaton.
5. ESPN takes a lot of guff, and rightly so, when it comes to the company’s still-too-frequent-though-improved-habit of playing games with attribution on stories, the most laughable being the phrase “media reports” rather than give the specific source proper credit for a news break. But the same rules need to apply when similar things happen to ESPN. NBC News’ recent interview with Steven Elliott — the former Army Ranger who broke his long silence to ESPN in April about his role in Pat Tillman’s death — made zero mention that ESPN investigative reporter Mike Fish and enterprise/investigative producer Willie Weinbaum had reported this story extensively for years and were the reporters Elliott trusted to tell his story publicly.
The NBC script informed viewers that Elliott was "stepping from the shadows” to tell his story, which is absurd given ESPN’s Outside The Lines ran an extensive online and video piece on Elliott, who trusted the ESPN reporters to initially go public. This by no means diminishes the importance of re-telling Elliott’s story, especially for those service members suffering post-traumatic stress disorder, and kudos to NBC for investing the resources to travel to Washington state to examine Elliott’s current life. But they owed the viewer (and ESPN as a professional colleague) to cite ESPN’s role in bringing Elliott to the public.
5a. SI.com broke the news last week that ESPN has hired Chauncey Billups as an NBA studio analyst.
5b. ESPN college football analyst Lou Holtz, on being part of the first College GameDay on the road in 1993: “I remember vividly. I knew Lee Corso since 1961 when he was an assistant at Navy and I was an assistant at William & Mary. He said, 'Would you come to our GameDay set?' Now they didn't have it at the stadium. They had it up in the Joyce Center [at Notre Dame], which was just outside my office up one flight of stairs. I said, 'Yeah, after I get done.' So as soon as I get done, I go up there and they put the earpiece in and I do the interview. Now in my life, and I'm an old man and I’ve never had an earache in my life, but that Sunday my ears started hurting. Monday I had a very bad earache. Tuesday it was excruciating. They called the team physician. He came over and looked at my ear, took a pair of tweezers and pulled the ear piece that ESPN left in my ear out of my ear. That's what I remember about GameDay.
5c. The ESPN family of networks will air more than 1,500 men's college basketball games this season. Here’s the schedule.
5d. Ronit Larone, an NFL Network senior coordinating producer of studio production, was recently selected by the Los Angeles Chapter of Women in Sports and Events as one of the recipients of the 2014 Inspiration Award. The awards will be presented Nov. 20 in Los Angeles.
5e. Fox senior correspondent Pam Oliver fronted a worth-watching piece on NFL players who retire early.
5f. The Big Ten Network continues its foray into original documentary with Unbeaten: The Life of Brook Berringer, which examines the life of the former Nebraska quarterback who died at age 22 just days before the NFL draft when he crashed the two-seater plane he was piloting. The doc will re-air Monday at 9:00 p.m. ET.
5g. ESPN will air 131 women’s college basketball games across its network in 2014-15.
5h. CNN canceled Unguarded with Rachel Nichols as part of a cost-cutting move (the network cut its specialty news shows that were produced by CNN employees) that included the end of the line for Crossfire, Sanjay Gupta MD and CNN Money with Christine Romans. Nichols will continue at CNN as its lead sports reporter and work on Turner’s NBA coverage. Don't be surprised if she ends up doing some sports-related specials as well for the network.
5i. Last week NBC Sports Digital launched NBC SportsWorld, a new micro-site within NBCSports.com dedicated to longform storytelling including video.
5j. Do not miss this short clip from ESPN SportsCenter anchors John Buccigross and Scott Van Pelt.