Arlo White managed to become a major part of the Seattle Sounders community in just two seasons with the team. (Photo courtesy of Christopher Greenwood)
When news first broke that NBC was pursuing Arlo White to be their soccer play-by-play voice for the upcoming season, many of us were in denial. By the time it was formally announced on Wednesday, it made perfect sense: This was a chance of a lifetime.
But whether or not Seattle Sounders fans could understand the move, it doesn't mean it hurt any less. In just two years, White had become a huge part of the Sounders community and whoever replaces him will have huge shoes to fill.
At least part of what endeared White to us was his accessibility. True to that, White granted Sounder at Heart an extensive interview on Wednesday that we've decided to present in Q&A format. This is Part 1. Part 2 is here. Part 3 (yes, there's three parts) will be released on Friday morning.
Before our interview, though, we had to exchange several emails. The thing that struck me was that his email signature still read "Broadcaster, Seattle Sounders FC." That observation prompted my first question:
Question: Do you feel this job has defined you as a professional?
Arlo: It's an interesting question. I would imagine that for the foreseeable future, at least until a replacement is announced, I will still be regarded as the Sounders announcer. In terms of it defining my career, there's no question about it.
We've come a long way in two years. It's incredible really. I joined the club at just the right time. I had done all my research on it. As I've said repeatedly, there were a lot of raised eyebrows back home from my friends with the BBC. You have to remember I was on national radio for nine years and I had my own show. I was at Premier League games every week and was talking to the biggest names in UK/EPL soccer. A lot of people questioned what I was doing.
But I had done my research and and knew how big of a deal the Sounders were in the city of Seattle and how big a splash they had made in Major League Soccer. Coming for the two games I did in the first season just reinforced that. I knew that if I did the job well, was diligent, worked hard and took all my work ethic that had proved to be successful in the BBC into this job, that there was a fair chance that I would be good at it and successful at it. I just hoped people enjoyed the work.
What actually happened exceeded all my expectations. I never expected for the feeling and the bond with supporters to be as strong as it was. You can hope, but you never know until you experience it. It's been overwhelming, absolutely overwhelming. It's a wretch, there's no question about it. But it's one of those things where I didn't go looking for the job, the job found me. It was one of only maybe two jobs in the Untied States that would have ever taken me away, but it's happened and I'm massively excited about it. I'm humbled by it. But the environment that we all created together in Seattle made it all possible and I'm looking forward to coming back. And to an environment where I'll be welcomed is the icing on the cake. I just hope we get to have as many Sounders games as possible.
Q: Was one of those other jobs that would have torn you away calling NFL games for ESPN or something?
Arlo: (Laughs) No, no I have absolutely no ambitions to be a NFL announcer. If there's any goodwill that I may have built up with any audience, it would soon shatter in three minutes of the first quarter. The NFL was wonderful to do for the BBC, and it may happen again in the future, but not for an American audience. I have no aspirations to sully American football broadcasting like that. It's all about the soccer for me.
Q: You seem to have adopted an American lexicon to a pretty healthy degree. I assume you've seen some of the comments about British announcers getting American jobs. Do you have any concerns about bringing yourself to a national audience?
Arlo: I do pay it mind. You have to take everything into account. I adopted a certain style in Seattle, and NBC and Major League Soccer have been impressed enough to call me into this national job. Unless told otherwise, I would assume that the style I adopted with the Sounders is the kind of thing they are after.
Now what people need to remember is that my assimilation with U.S. culture happened an awfully long time ago. I first came over here -- and this is what first sparked my fascination with the country -- in 1986 when I was 13. I spent two weeks with my family in Chicago, went to various sporting events. I think I've betrayed a fondness for the Bears in the past. I was always following American sports, staying up late at night listening to the Armed Forces Radio and Television Service broadcasting out of Germany, so I'm familiar with American culture and American language.
When it comes to soccer/football, there was always going to be a bit of a jarring because there's a language of the game that I understand. There's a certain softening that I needed to use to adapt to an American audience. I'll still say "nil," I'll rarely say nothing. I wouldn't say outside back; to me they are a fullback. When I did NFL for the BBC, I didn't call the quarterback a throwing back. I didn't change the name of the position.
There's a key reason for that, and it's something some Brits don't get. Even on Twitter tonight, I was calling it soccer and Brit followers have said "but you know it's called football, right?" Well, there's a reason we call it soccer. Here football is NFL, gridiron, college, high school. You can sometimes stand by your guns, and say I'm not going to call it soccer, but you're being employed by an American team to broadcast to an American audience. So, adjust accordingly. I think it showed my desire to assimilate and I didn't have any problem calling it soccer whatsoever.
Q: How do you adjust your style for a national audience and finding that balance between being excited, but also not betraying some obvious bias?
Arlo: That's where my experience with the BBC will hold me in great stead. The watch words at the "Beeb" as we called it, objectivity, unbiased, neutral, that sort of national broadcasting ethos was what I was brought through with. To flip it around, to become a quasi-partisan broadcaster, was something that I had to learn.
If you listen to the earlier games, I was probably more pro-Sounders in 2011 than I was in 2010. But had I gone through to 2012, I still would have called an opposition goal with excitement and with emphasis because a goal is a key moment in any soccer match. I would never have just talked through a goal just because it was the opposition who scored it. A goal is too important and too significant to just pass off even if it is the opposition that had scored it.
Going to NBC is going back to national for me. So that's where that background of neutrality and that sort of well of neutrality will be dipped into again. And it's a change of mindset, but it's a change in mindset that was initially instilled in me during the first nine years of my broadcasting career, so I don't see any problems with that to be honest with you.
Q: Would you say that at this point in your broadcasting career that you are a Sounders fan?
Arlo: Because I'm joining a national broadcasting organization, for me to declare my undying love and passion for a certain team, on that level, it wouldn't really be the smartest thing. But I have displayed a passion for the club over the two years that I was in Seattle and the people have got to know me well enough that I'm not a phony and I'm not an actor. I had a tremendous amount of passion for the club and I believed in everything that the club was doing. I will always be tremendously fond of the club and its fans and everything it means to the city, the stadium, the staff, the players, the coaching staff, the journalists, the bloggers, the fans and everything about it, I will be tremendously fond of.
Now will they be the first score that I look out for? Of course. But will I take that into the booth? No. That's where I have to be a professional and draw the line. Of course, there's always going to be a part of my heart that will always look toward the Sounders.
I did that game for Fox Soccer. It was the one nationally televised game I did, and it was against Vancouver. Lo and behold, Eric Hassli scored that unbelievable goal -- and to this day, I can't believe it wasn't Goal of the Year (Belated congratulations to Darlington Nagbe). I think my reaction to that goal, you can hear inherent in that goal what it is to be a national broadcaster and that is to take joy in a piece of brilliance regardless of who scored it and who it was against. I think that is an example and a sign of things of how it will be next year.
Every broadcaster will have grown up with their players and their teams. You don't' get anymore parochial than English soccer where there are 92-plus professional clubs. You grow up supporting one of them through thick and thin and then suddenly you are a national broadcaster and you may find yourself calling goals against that team. It's part of the game. You grieve the loss after you put the mic down. You have to portray the game as neutrally and unbiased as you can do, and if you can'd do that you'll be found out and won't be in that position very long.
Q: Given what we just said, will it be harder to "call it down the middle" when you are invariably calling a Sounders-Timbers game?
Arlo: I don't mean this in anyway disparaging to the Sounders or their fans, but I have to be brutally honest: I have a job to do. Again, I have to be dispassionate in terms of one team or the other, but still passionate about the game. I actually want to do a Sounders-Timbers game. Last season, they were both on radio, and as much as I love radio and I came from radio, but the opportunity to do a Sounders-Timbers game either on the network or on NBC Sports Network, I welcome it with open arms because it will be a massive occasion and as a broadcaster, that's what you want. I welcome doing that game. I want do that game and I welcome all the complications that come with it.
In Part 2 of our interview, we'll discuss what went into his decision to take the NBC job, the "cult of the American broadcaster" and why pronouncing a player's name correctly is important, as well as some of your questions.