nbc is banking on olympic soccer — michael cohen is hedging that bet
When we hear people talking about hiring staffs in American soccer, be it for front offices or broadcast booths, they talk about the need to hire soccer people. Well, you can’t say NBC didn’t do that for the Olympics.
Almost a month ago I received an e-mail from PartnersofNBCOlympics inviting me to become an “official partner” and share with my readers their extensive Olympic soccer coverage through the use of Super Widgets and RSS feeds embedded on my website. Uh, no thank you, but it drew my curiosity. The invitation hinted at an unusually bold marketing maneuver, a network prioritizing soccer (and Judo?). So it’s not just soccer they are pushing, but they are setting aside an entire channel for the sport. With rumors of ESPN looking into an all-soccer ESPN 3 (which I don’t buy), does NBC want to test the waters?
No one is going to answer those questions, and while I didn’t have much interests in the widgets, I was curious to talk to someone about the move. It could not have taken long for them to think of Michael Cohen, who overseas the production of Olympic soccer on the networks and cable channels and heads up the NBC Olympic soccer channel. It surely didn’t take long for me to realize I found the right guy.
Your resume is pretty extensive. NBC definitely sent me to the right person. I’m real curious to know how you ended up having such a hand in televised soccer in this country? Maybe start from college and we can work our way up.
I went to Queen’s College, majoring in economics. I had some opportunities to work part-time, for NBC actually, as a production assistant on the football pre-game shows during school. I was in New York, so I did that on the weekends. When I graduated ESPN was about 4 years old and they were looking for young kids to come up to Bristol, Connecticut, in 1984, and kind of just jump in. You could move up pretty quickly when you are at an organization like that. Several years later ESPN and ABC sort of became one under the Capital Cities umbrella and I was the first employee to move from ESPN to ABC. I went from doing college sports at ESPN, which were so enjoyable, and things like USFL football, to getting a chance to work as an associate on shows like Monday Night Football, Monday Night Baseball, Wide World of Sports. My first Olympics was 1988 in Calgary. I guess I got the bug in college. I was doing exactly what I wanted to do.
Where did soccer come in?
I liked soccer, but if you were a soccer producer before 1996 you didn’t work very much. I came up through the ranks at the networks. First at ESPN and then ABC. I was chosen as the first producer for Major League Soccer in 1996 on ABC and ESPN. While continuing in that role through 2001, in 1997 I added the role of consultant for MLS to help them develop a broadcast vision and develop their regional television properties. In the fall of 2001 Soccer United Marketing (SUM) was formed as part of Major League Soccer, and I was brought in basically full time to oversee the World Cup properties, MLS properties, and the U.S. Soccer properties. And we basically produced those games in association with ABC and ESPN. I was an executive producer. And because of my love for the Olympics I always carve out the ability to be free during those times. In 2000, it began to make sense for me to move in an exclusively soccer line. I was thrilled. I know a lot of people think it falls under the radar, but I was so thrilled to bring soccer onto the national stage on NBC in the 2000 and 2004 Olympics.
Before all of that, I worked on the first X-games in 1995 as a producer. Baseball and football and basketball. I guess you could say I got the itch to work in soccer at ESPN in 1989. There was some NCAA soccer. I had the opportunity to work on a production and it happened to be the famous overtime between Santa Clara and Virginia. The coaches of the respective teams was Steve Sampson and Bruce Arena. It was unbelievable, played at Rutgers stadium in what had to be 20-below with wind-chill. Guys were just battling it out on the field. I always kind of liked soccer, but that was great. And so anytime an opportunity came about I would try to do it.
My big interest is big events. I love creating, which is why it was fun to work on the first X-games and the first Pro Bowl selection show. So when MLS came about, it was soccer, which I liked, and helping to develop a new property for the networks. And then you had the big event with the World Cup. It all kind of just fell into place.
And finally, what is your role with the soccer coverage at the Olympics?
Well, this will be my eighth Olympics, and the third one where I will be involved with NBC and soccer. In 2000 and 2004, I was the soccer producer for the men’s venue, and this time it’s a little bit bigger role because of the scope of soccer at NBC. It’s not just overseeing men’s and women’s games on the networks and cable channels. Every game will be seen on the HD soccer channel. Even if the game is on regular TV, it will be simulcast on the soccer channel. [or streaming on-line]
The reason I was curious to speak with someone at NBC was that it just seemed like soccer was getting a lot of attention or push from you guys, from the channel to the website to widgets you can download to follow the games. This Olympics looks as if NBC is kind of banking on it.
Yeah. Absolutely. You’re not going to find a more extensive coverage in the history of soccer at the Olympics. It is 58 matches, all on TV. The last I read is they are looking to clear that soccer channel into 80 million homes. On various forms of media, from cable, satellite and phone providers.
Given your long history with televised soccer, where are we at right now in terms of the broadcast quality?
It’s two different questions. I think as a fan of the game you have to be thrilled with what you are seeing out there right now. You have to be thrilled by the amount of soccer that is on television. And you have to be thrilled about the quality of televised soccer you are seeing. I remember when I started to work on MLS in 1996 we were stuck with cameramen and director people that didn’t really know how to cover the sport. They might have known the sport, but they didn’t really know how to cover it. It’s not their fault. Kind of going back to my previous point, if you were a soccer guy before 1996, you weren’t working that much. So what we found in 1996 was guys that maybe did football or hockey, but we had to teach them how to do camera for soccer. We had to teach directors how to do tape. In 1997 when I moved to the league to help develop this, one of the first big things we did was build a database around the country. So if you went to Columbus, you had people that knew the sport. If they worked out they kept getting work. We ultimately created this database so wherever you go you knew who the best cameramen are.
Same thing with video tape operators. We studied shows in Europe, and games in Europe and Latin America and over the years what we did was find some very talented directors, some with major network and Olympic experience—two I can call out are Doug Wren and Michael Sheehan. They were committed to soccer, committed to finding the right people.
In the studies of Latin America and Europe in ’96, ’97, we noticed one thing. They were covering the game from way up top. It was commonplace to have 22 dots running around the screen. And that was acceptable television in a lot of places. Stadiums, especially in Europe, were built a long time ago and television was an afterthought. Cameras would be at 70 feet. That’s just the way it was done. Our first intent for coverage was we were never going to kill the coverage. When the ball is on the field we wanted to be on the field. But when that ball is out of bounds, we want to bring those faces home because its all about branding these people as stars, whether they are MLS players or Messi, or Zidane. The idea is to get these people with their jerseys and their faces and the logos on the jerseys, according to my sponsorship people, home. So when the ball went out we’d cut low. What that meant is we had to bring some cameras down to the field level. And also take the play-by-play cameras, which had typically been at 70 feet and bring them down to about 35-40 feet. You see it in Columbus Crew stadium in Chicago, Dallas, and Denver. It makes for more intimate coverage.
At first people started questioning it. People don’t like change. But now if you watch games in Europe you will see in the newer stadiums they are all coming down low. I think Chelsea is under 30 feet now. So we weren’t afraid to make changes even though we ruffled some feathers.
A quick story: At DC in the first year. They are playing at RFK stadium which holds well over 50,000 but wasn’t holding 50,000, you know maybe they had 16-18,000, and yet I had some cameras down low and I would get yelled at. Because people would say, ‘hey, you’re blocking these 15 fans.’ And I look at this big stadium and I say, ‘well, move ‘em.’ It was important to us to deliver the message home to the people all over the country—to make this game up close and personal. Now when we build stadiums for MLS, and we’re averaging over a stadium a year if you will, we sit down with the broadcast guys with a blank piece of paper with the architects and the first thing we do is decide where we want the cameras.
I think that has really significantly helped the coverage of soccer in this country and if you look around the world. The next thing we had to do and we knew this would take time, is develop announcers. In 1996, look are you a baseball fan—
I am. Atlanta Braves.
There ya go, well we didn’t have our Skip Careys. Or our John Maddens in football. The right guys were only going to come in my mind from guys who came from the field. Over time as guys would retire we would cultivate some of them on regional television and national television. Lots of times, we liked the guy so much we threw him on national television right away and some stuck, some didn’t. But we had a goal. I’m real happy with how that is developing. For play-by-play I think JP Dellacamera is one of the top guys in sports, not just soccer. I think he is one of the best announcers in sports. Marcelo Balboa, who will be the lead announcer for NBC, this guy did an amazing job at the 2004 Olympics. And I think he does a really good job on HD Net. And again, it has to be in the mold of guys like John Harkes and Marcelo and Brian Dunseth who is now doing well at Fox Soccer Channel. Guys like that have been on the field. They know this league. They know these players. We went from people doing the sport who weren’t really players, that can’t tell you what its like to put those cleats on and get dirty, but now we have those. And now we take those guys and turn them into broadcasters. We’re starting to see a lot of that happening. It’s positive. That is a big move for us.
And as far as the programming goes, I think what you are seeing is a change of attitude with network executives. Just take a look at this year alone. You have every MLS game being televised. Plus the Euros in which every game was covered. And now you get every game of soccer being televised at the Olympics. You’ve got tours coming through like Barcelona that are on TV this week. It’s a good time to be a soccer fan. I don’t think you have to hide behind walls anymore as a soccer fan in this country anymore. I really don’t.
So with all of that moving along positively in your mind, what is the next step?
The next step is the respect from the mass media. And that includes your highlight shows, where people still don’t know how to show highlights of soccer. It’s coming. Just like the editors and guys like yourself, a growing number of people at magazines and newspapers grew up with soccer. But that’s a long road. After the recent U.S.-Argentina match–without naming local television networks–I called a friend of mine at one of them and asked out of curiosity why they didn’t show any highlights from that incredible game. And they said because there was no goals. You’re gonna run into that. They chose not to show any of the great Tim Howard saves. But you move on. We’ll get there. It’s happening.
banner photo: microscopic dustmite by Darlyne Murawski from art.com