He is known by everyone who roots for the Sounders at CenturyLink, but he can walk around the stadium and the city without being recognized by virtually anyone. You’ve heard his voice a thousand times in pregame and after every Sounders goal.
His is the voice that greets you as you enter CenturyLink Field. He leads us in player introductions and ecstatic goal celebrations.
Your Sounders stadium announcer:
In the midst of the COVID-19 stay-at-home order, Woollard took the time to virtually sit down with me and chat about the Sounders, working from home, dealing with an extended quarantine, and the future of soccer.
With no better place to start than the beginning, how does one go from a childhood in England to being the stadium voice of an MLS team?
Born and raised about 60 miles north of London, Woollard spent his childhood living on a family farm. His university studies took him to Durham, in the north of England, after which he settled for a while in Birmingham. He claims no particular allegiance to any English football clubs, but his time in Birmingham does leave him with some connection to Aston Villa.
As a teacher, Woollard realized he could travel the world and find work in pretty much any English-speaking country. This led to him living and teaching in the Cayman Islands for several years before it brought him in the Seattle area. So that is how he got here, but what about landing the job as the stadium voice of the Sounders?
That journey started in 2007, when Woollard was hired to do a commercial for, of all things, Pacific Cod. The set-up was a group of British men sitting in a pub bemoaning the declining Atlantic Cod fishery. The punchline was that there was still plenty of Pacific Cod to be fished. So, fish and chips for everyone! The studio producing that spot was the same one used by both the Seahawks and Sounders at the time, which led to a chance to audition for the stadium announcer position before the Sounders’ inaugural MLS season in 2009. While he didn’t get the job that season, he did get called in to fill in for one match. In 2011 he was called back to audition once again, and he’s been in the booth ever since for all but a couple of MLS matches (both, oddly, against the Houston Dynamo).
The gig isn’t just a job for James. He’s been a member of ECS and Gorilla FC. He travels to away matches when he can. He is a true fan of the team, and having played an active role in so many matches, he has seen just about every important moment in modern Sounders history.
When asked about his favorite match memories from CenturyLink, Woollard doesn’t hesitate with his list.
“[Steve] Zakuani’s return in 2012 stands out for sure,” he said. “Marco Pappa’s goal to clinch the Supporters’ Shield, even if not technically great, was an important and exciting one. At the time that was the most significant match we had played.
“As far as other matches go, even though it wasn’t the result we wanted, the 2018 playoff match against the Timbers was just a great back-and-forth game. Very good soccer. Raul’s stoppage-time goal was just so significant and you feel the passion for the team and the moment when delivering that announcement in the stadium.”
My personal favorite is the time James was announcing Harry Shipp’s goal against New England in August 2019 and Lodeiro scored halfway through the announcement.
“I’m lucky to have my spotters in the booth with me, literally passing me scripts to read. They track everything for me.”
But of course, nothing can compare to Victor Rodriguez scoring in the MLS Cup in 2019.
“That was just an electric goal,” Woollard said. “The energy in the stadium was incredible. That’s when I think we all knew we would win, but I didn’t relax until the third goal went in from Ruidiaz.”
We’ve all been reliving Sounders memories during the stay-at-home order, and Woollard has been watching the classic match replays on Saturday nights. I asked him what he notices about the quality of play between now and when he started as stadium announcer.
“We’ve always had exceptional players,” Woollard said. “Kasey Keller in his prime was every bit the keeper Stefan is. Montero was a just an amazing firecracker of a player. We had a young Ozzie Alonso. We had a lot of great players, but you can’t deny the overall improvement in the quality of play over the years. And now we have several true superstars. Nico Lodeiro, João Paulo, Ruidiaz, Jordan Morris. These guys are truly spectacular players at any level.”
At this moment we both pause. There is a moment of quiet on both ends of our virtual meeting as I think we each realize how much we are missing what would have been an amazing season for the Sounders.
Of course we are all passing the quarantine time with a lot of television, as well. In March I read a tweet from Woollard about the Netflix docu-series Sunderland ‘til I Die. The show chronicles the relegation of former Premier League power Sunderland. As someone who fantasizes about relegation in American sports, I couldn’t wait to get his take on how that would go over in the states.
“I went to university in Durham, which his only about 10 miles from Sunderland,” Woollard said. “They were a top team in the First Division for a long time and later were promoted to the Premier League. What the show really gives us is a look at those fans, the supporters of the club, and how passionate they are. Even as the team gets sent down, the passion remains.”
Woollard pauses here and reflects back on the Sounders.
“We get to see inside the homes of those [Sunderland] supporters and see the commitment to the club. I get to thinking that Sounders supporters are probably the same. Getting tattoos of their favorite players or moments, living for match days. Traveling to away matches. The support and passion of the fans is what makes my job special. I’m not just saying things to a passive audience. We get to connect, we get to work together. And I sit on the ‘fun’ end of the stadium, right there near the ECS. It’s exciting.”
Spoiler alert: the Sunderland team gets sent down not once, but twice in two years. Each relegation reduces the available funds for player salaries and other aspects of the club, which for a huge Premier League club like Sunderland can cause major problems. The training infrastructure, stadium costs, and player salaries all have to be slashed, making relegation a particularly vicious cycle.
Still, relegation adds a level of excitement and intrigue at the bottom of the table. Could we see it in the US?
“From a fan’s perspective, Pro-Rel is a double-edged sword: it is so exciting to see your club promoted, but devastating to see it relegated,” Woollard said. “Since it is not a common feature of American sports, my guess is it would take a lot of getting used to! That said, I do believe American sports has always had a version of Pro-Rel…of players, rather than clubs. The ability to go from the USL to MLS — as shown by Nouhou and Danny Leyva, for example — means there’s an opportunity for players to excel at the highest level and it gives fans a chance to watch the best up-and-coming talent. The American system is different, but it works to ensure a high-quality product on the field.
“The show does illustrate the importance of local ownership. When the new Sunderland owners come in, from the south, they don’t fit in with the locals. They don’t mesh with the working-class city. In Seattle we’re so lucky to have committed, passionate local ownership. You can’t overstate how important it is to have someone like Adrian Hanauer as majority owner.”
Aside from watching Sounders replays and watching Netflix shows, I am genuinely curious how Woollard passes the time on lock down.
His “real” job is as a school administrator on the east side, so he is still able to do his job from home.
“The technology is working, and I can do my work from here, but it’s just such a different experience for the kids and the teachers.”
Teachers at all levels have had to do so much work to pivot to teaching in a way that doesn’t feel natural, that doesn’t tap into the skills they have developed in the classroom. We’ve all had to adapt to this new reality, but it’s hard to deny the pressure that was put on teachers to completely change how they do their jobs on very short notice and under a lot of pressure.
If you miss hearing Woollard’s voice in the stadium, you’re in luck. For the past several weeks he has been reading books aloud and streaming it on his Twitter feed (@BritVoxUS). I tuned in nightly to hear him read The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. He is currently reading a book that shall not be named. I can’t recommend the experience enough.
For Woollard, the readings are a way to stay busy, and also to practice his craft.
“Like the players, I think, if you don’t keep working on your skills, they diminish,” he said. “And live book reading is a very challenging thing. It’s hard to do without messing up.”
James, we’ll take it, “mess ups” and all.
He is also passing the time like the rest of us, easing back into hobbies, being outside on hiking trails and in the yard with the his new puppy, Griffin, and just generally trying to keep busy.
Finally, I ask for any parting thoughts or words for the fans.
“This is a job that I’m very blessed to have and never take for granted,” he said. “When I began I literally had no experience doing this. I’m very lucky to have this gig. It’s weird to think that my voice is associated with the Sounders and is part of the fabric of the matchday experience. It’s also nice that it’s my voice and not my face, so I can remain pretty anonymous.”
Where do we go from here?
“I can’t speculate on whether we’ll be playing in empty stadiums or what MLS will look like in the near future. I just know I would like to see some games, regardless of how it works out.”
Us too, James. Us too.
Woollard is recording voicemail messages for fans right now. Follow him on Twitter (@BritVoxUS) and contact him for details. What could be better than having the voice of the Sounders screening your calls for you?