Tales of Bittersweet Loyalty

That Yank Sounds a Bit Dodgy

July 8, 2011

Over the 4th of July weekend, Portland Timbers rookie midfielder Darlington Nagbe struck one of the goals of the season against Sporting Kansas City. After Nagbe’s fellow midfielder Jack Jewsbury served up a free kick which was punched away by Kansas City goalkeeper Jimmy Nielsen, the ball traveled directly to Nagbe’s right foot. He juggled the ball once, juggled it again and then struck a devastating shot into the top left corner of the net from outside the box. Thankfully for me, it was Portland’s only goal of the night.  My Sporting side won a 2-1 victory on the road, while I got the benefit of watching an enjoyable but harmless goal.

Watching the game from Kansas City, I heard the call from television announcer Callum Williams. He’s the 21-year old Birmingham native brought in this year from the BBC to be the voice of KC’s newly revamped Sporting franchise. A couple of days later, I happened to see the goal again online. That video was taken from Portland’s broadcast, and it included another British voice (presumably that of Robbie Earle, the English-born Timbers’ announcer). I also watched another contender for MLS goal of the season, this one struck by Vancouver’s Eric Hassli. Naturally, the announcing team (taken from a national Fox Soccer Channel broadcast) was also accent-tinged.

Was I offended at being exposed—during the celebration of our glorious Independence!—to a barrage of blatant outsourcing to our former colonizer? No. I was merely curious. At first I assumed there had been a concerted effort by MLS broadcasters to hire their on-air talent from overseas. An attempt to cater to some notion of cosmopolitanism among MLS fans? Perhaps. But then I realized that it might simply be the natural result of too many American soccer teams and too few American soccer announcers.

During last year’s World Cup, ESPN secured the famous voice of England’s Martin Tyler to be the lead play-by-play man from South Africa. This was after the network’s infamous use of Red Sox announcer (and soccer neophyte) Dave O’Brien in 2006. Fans were outraged that for the biggest tournament in the world, ESPN had to settle for a voice from baseball. But the lack of elite soccer broadcasters makes sense: There has never been any reason for an ambitious, talented broadcaster in this country to have anything to do with soccer. But as the MLS has expanded successfully in recent years to Toronto, Portland, Vancouver and Philadelphia, there’s an increasing demand for quality broadcasting talent made up of something other than retired MLS players.

All the same, I can’t dismiss the possibility that the prevalence of Brits is based as much on branding as it is broadcasting. In American culture, the English accent serves as a shorthand in and of itself. The clearest use of this shorthand is Hollywood’s mandatory accent rule of ancient Rome, which stipulates that anyone portraying a Roman must speak in an English accent. This doesn’t mean just hiring English actors. It means that non-English actors must fake an English accent. My personal favorite iteration of this rule occurred in Gladiator, when Russell Crowe (an Australian actor) used an English accent (to speak what historically would have been Latin) in order to portray Maximus Decimus Meridius (a Roman General), a character who the film tells us is actually from Spain.

But of course the point of the accent rule is clear: England had the greatest empire since the Romans, and the English accent conveys the breadth, grandeur and haughtiness necessary to stand in for Hollywood’s idea of ancient Rome.  (It’s also clear that however much of an empire America is, we still haven’t cracked the glass ceiling of Roman movie accents. How many more countries must we invade?)

For soccer in America, the shorthand of an English (or Irish or Scottish) accent is also clear: Guys with accents know a lot about soccer. And in a country where Cheryl Cole may have been fired by American Idol for her Geordie accent, soccer fans make up one of the few groups who are happy to hear an English accent because of the credibility it conveys. Yes, some of those fans are ignorant snobs who just think the accent “sounds better.” But most simply want to hear games called by people who understand the sport.

I don’t have a problem with the trend of British sportscasters in America. Yes, it would be nice if our country were able to provide enough homegrown talent to fill the broadcast booths, because that would mean that soccer is strong in America. And yes, I do hope that the talent being brought to the states is actually talented and not just a cultural branding strategy. (For what it’s worth, in my very limited exposure to Callum Williams, he seems perfectly well-suited for his job in Kansas City.)

Because soccer is still a niche in America, it’s easy to get people pissed off about it. Right now, half of our readers are probably pissed off that I’m writing about soccer at all. The other half are pissed off that I’m calling it “soccer.” Instead of lamenting our over-reliance on foreigners and our country’s lack of soccer expertise, I’ll say that I’m perfectly happy to have as many British broadcasters as we need to cover MLS. I’m less concerned about America’s lack of homegrown on-air talent than our lack of a homegrown striker.