Will Jenn Hildreth be the first woman to call Major League Soccer (MLS) TV play-by-play?

By Oliver Tse
Email: workingnow88@workingnow88.com
Twitter: @workingnow88

Published on January 21, 2018, Updated with corrections on January 25, 28, and February 15, 2018

February 15, 2018 Update: As expected, Atlanta United FC introduced Irish-American sportscaster and beIN Sports USA/beIN Sports Canada host/anchor Kevin Egan as its new primary television play-by-play announcer on regional telecasts airing on FOX Sports South. Egan called 5 Atlanta United FC matches in March-June 2017 prior to the arrival of Alan Green, who chose to step down in January. No announcement yet from Atlanta United FC who will fill in for Egan as play-by-play TV announcer if or when he is unavailable to Atlanta United FC due to his commitments with beIN Sports USA/beIN Sports Canada. Also confirmed: former Los Angeles Galaxy defender Dan Gargan, who currently lives in St. Louis and works as a youth soccer coach and administrator, will return to Atlanta United FC as its regional TV expert analyst/co-commentator for his second season.

Photos of 6 American women who broadcast FIFA Women’s World Cup Canada 2015 matches for FOX Sports from the booths in the stadiums (clockwise from upper left corner): play-by-play announcer Jenn Hildreth; analysts/co-commentators Kyndra de St. Aubin, Danielle Slaton, Aly Wagner, Cat Whitehill, and Angela Hucles. De St. Albin (booth-level match analyst for Minnesota United FC), Slaton (field-level match analyst for San Jose Earthquakes), and Wagner (off-monitor match analyst and studio analyst during FIFA Confederations Cup Russia 2017 for FOX Sports) have successfully crossed over to broadcast men’s professional soccer on U.S. English-language television. Will Hildreth be next as Atlanta United FC is looking for a play-by-play announcer for its 5 regional telecasts on Wednesday nights in 2018? (Photos courtesy FOXSports.com)

ATLANTA – One of the stories of 2017 in the world of professional soccer was U.S. Major League Soccer (MLS) expansion team Atlanta United FC. The new club, owned by Home Depot co-founder and National Football League (NFL) Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank, set multiple MLS attendance records, including two crowds of over 70,000 patrons at its new Mercedes-Benz Stadium in downtown Atlanta.

In 2017, Atlanta United FC sold over 886,000 tickets to happy customers who took advantage of “fan-friendly” prices for food and beverages sold at the concession stands. The patrons watched a team that played a fun, fast-paced, and relentless attacking style featuring crisp and skillful passing.

Graphic: the concession stand menu at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta (Courtesy AMB Sports and Entertainment Group.)

Blank has spared no expense in building what is arguably the best MLS franchise, as he authorized Atlanta United FC Vice President/Technical Director Carlos Bocanegra and Vice President of Soccer Operations Paul McDonough to spend millions of dollars in player transfer fees to purchase the rights to young South American players who have the technical skills and vision to play the fast-paced passing game favored by Atlanta United FC’s Argentine head coach Gerardo “Tata” Martino.

One such player, Paraguayan midfielder Miguel Almirón, won the 2017 MLS Newcomer of the Year award.

For the 2018 season, Atlanta United FC has acquired another young South American, 18-year-old Argentine midfielder Ezequiel Barco, for a transfer fee of $15 million. Barco, who scored the decisive goal during the 2nd leg of the 2017 Copa Sudamericana Final for Argentine side Club Atlético Independiente, reportedly declined to accept his 10 per cent share of the transfer fee so that Independiente can use the money to purchase and construct 2 artificial turf training fields.

Blank spent lavishly to build a state-of-the-art training center for Atlanta United FC in Marietta, Georgia. The training center is designed to fully integrate Atlanta United FC’s youth academy teams with the MLS Atlanta United FC “first team” and the United Soccer League (Division 2) affiliate team Atlanta United 2 (which will play home matches at Coolray Field, a minor league baseball stadium in Gwinnett County, Georgia.)

Blank also spent more money on video production of Atlanta United FC content, both linear television and digital, than any other MLS franchise. Every Atlanta United FC regional TV broadcast in 2017 had a 3-hour window, with a 30-minute pre-match show and a 30-minute post-match show. Blank spent money to fully staff every regional TV broadcast with 3 on-camera personalities: a play-by-play announcer, an expert analyst/co-commentator, and a host/reporter. Unlike a majority of MLS teams which assigned their commentators to a local TV studio to call away matches off a video monitor to save on travel cost, Blank spent money to fly all 3 on-camera personalities to the stadiums for all Atlanta United FC away matches that were scheduled for regional TV broadcasts.

The executives running Atlanta United FC, led by British-born former Tottenham Hotspur FC executive Darren Eales, made many sound decisions and did many things the right way in 2017.

But no one is perfect. In an industry with customers who are both demanding and fickle, one mistake made by one executive can undo years of hard work by dozens of people.

Eales made one serious error in 2017 when he chose to hire his primary regional television play-by-play announcer on impulse, without doing enough due diligence, after he was interviewed by 64-year-old BBC Sports Radio host and play-by-play announcer Alan Green for a sports talk program. A native of Northern Ireland, Green had over 40 years of experience broadcasting “football” matches on radio in the United Kingdom (including over 25 years as the lead play-by-play voice of BBC Radio Five Live), but had very limited television play-by-play experience.

After taking a 2-week break from his last match broadcast (of the 2017 UEFA Champions League Final between Real Madrid and Juventus on June 3, 2017) on BBC Radio Five Live in the United Kingdom, Green arrived in Atlanta on June 17, 2017 to call the Atlanta United FC vs Columbus Crew MLS match for a regional telecast on FOX Sports Southeast.

Green was unprepared for the adjustments he had to make before he broadcast his first MLS match for American television, as he failed to meet 3 very simple expectations most American viewers of televised soccer expect from English-language play-by-play announcers:

  1. Pronounce the names of players correctly as a matter of respecting the players and the viewers. Viewers of English-language soccer television in the U.S. represent over 200 nationalities as the U.S. is a multilingual, multicultural society. Green mispronounced several names, notably names of Latin American players, by placing the stress on the wrong syllables.
  2. Identify the players, especially goal scorers, correctly. Green misidentified the player who scored Columbus’ only goal as “…mehr-ROM, I think…” Columbus forward and Iraqi international Justin Meram, who prefers to pronounce his last name “MER-rum”, did not score the goal. Argentine forward Federico Higuaín did.
  3. Minimize verbiage. The best English-language sports television broadcasters, British or American, male or female, Association Football or American Football, understand that television is NOT “radio with pictures”. They use as few words as possible to describe the action, let the video and the natural sound do most of the talking, and know how to set up their match analysts/co-commentators to do their jobs. Green was using way too many words, as he called the match essentially for “radio with pictures” instead of television.

To the credit of Atlanta United FC Director of Digital Media and Broadcasting Matt Moore, he assigned a “spotter” to the broadcast booth to assist Green with player identification starting with Green’s second television broadcast (DC United vs Atlanta United FC on June 21). Furthermore, Moore reduced Green’s workload by removing him from the pre-game and post-game shows so that Green can fully concentrate on his television play-by-play. Green struggled throughout the 2017 MLS season, but he had improved considerably by the time he called his final Atlanta United FC MLS match in October.

On January 9, 2018, Green reached out to SportBusiness.com reporter Bob Williams, who reported via Twitter that Green had decided to step down as the primary television play-by-play announcer.

Eales and Moore now have the opportunity to fix the one thing that Eales got wrong a year ago.

The prohibitive favorite to become the primary television play-by-play announcer for Atlanta United FC regional telecasts in 2018 is Irish-American sportscaster Kevin Egan, who called 5 Atlanta United FC matches on FOX Sports Southeast in 2017 before Alan Green arrived.

Egan, who usually works Monday-Fridays as host of the sports news program The Xtra on Miami-based beIN Sports USA and beIN Sports Canada (both of which are owned by Qatar Investment Authority), will be available to call the 13 Atlanta United matches on Saturdays and Sundays that will be televised on regional sports network FOX Sports South.

Egan is very well-liked by Atlanta United FC supporters and he has shown that he knows how to call soccer play-by-play for television. I have been impressed with Egan’s work over the past 5 years and I fully recommend that Eales and Moore hire Egan to be the new primary television play-by-play announcer for Atlanta United FC.

But what about the 5 Atlanta United FC matches listed below (1 home, 4 away; home team is listed FIRST on soccer schedules) to be played on Wednesday nights in 2018 which will conflict with Egan’s assignments at beIN Sports USA and beIN Sports Canada?

  • Wednesday, May 9 7:30pm ET Atlanta United FC vs Sporting Kansas City
  • Wednesday, May 30 7:30pm ET New England Revolution vs Atlanta United FC
  • Wednesday, June 13 7:30pm ET Columbus Crew vs Atlanta United FC
  • Wednesday, July 4 8:30pm ET/7:30pm CT FC Dallas vs Atlanta United FC
  • Wednesday, September 19 10:30pm ET/7:30pm PT San Jose Earthquakes vs Atlanta United FC

Presumably, Egan can swap assignments with colleagues at beIN Sports USA and beIN Sports Canada so that he can be available to call Atlanta United FC on some Wednesday nights.

But will Egan make himself available for all 5 Wednesday night Atlanta United FC matches? Not likely in my opinion.

Will Egan give up hosting the studio show for Match Day 1 of the Group Stage of the 2018-2019 UEFA Champions League, arguably the greatest club soccer tournament on Earth, on beIN Sports Canada on September 19 so that he can spend 12 hours roundtrip on airplanes between Miami and San Francisco in order to call an MLS match from San Jose, California? I doubt it. Every television broadcaster who chooses to broadcast international soccer lives to broadcast UEFA Champions League, and Egan is no different.

Also, will Egan choose to go on the road on July 4 to call an MLS match in Dallas instead of hosting The Xtra on beIN Sports USA and beIN Sports Canada from Miami so that he would have time after the show (which ends at 7:30pm Eastern Time) to take his family out to enjoy Independence Day activities? Hmmm, would you think that Mrs. Egan might have a strong opinion on what assignment Kevin Egan should choose to work on Independence Day? I would think so.

So who will be available to call Atlanta United FC matches, especially on Wednesday nights, on FOX Sports South when Egan is not available?

What’s working: HIRE LOCAL

One hiring practice employed by professional sports teams that has worked in the past, is “working now”, and will work well into the future is to hire announcers with local ties for local and regional broadcasts.

Perhaps the most successful example of “hire local” was native New Yorker Vin Scully, who was hired to call play-by-play by the Major League Baseball (MLB) franchise Brooklyn Dodgers in 1950. Scully moved with the franchise when the Dodgers relocated to Los Angeles in 1958 and stayed with Dodgers for 67 years before he retired in 2016.

Two of Scully’s memorable calls over his 67-year career were the 715th career home run hit in 1974 by Atlanta Braves outfielder Henry “Hank” Aaron (who became a sales executive for CNN Airport Network after he retired from baseball), and the walk-off home run by Los Angeles Dodgers outfielder Kirk Gibson to end Game #1 of the 1988 World Series.

Even though Scully was primarily known for baseball, he was a versatile sportscaster who knew how to adjust his style to call other sports, notably the NFL, which required him to reduce his verbiage. Scully called the play known as “The Catch”, which marked the beginning of the San Francisco 49ers “dynasty” of the 1980s, for CBS Sports.

After Scully retired, many observers regard another English-language baseball play-by-play announcer with local roots as the best local television broadcaster for that sport. When Baltimore Orioles owner Peter Angelos chose not to renew the contract of Jon Miller after the 1996 season, the San Francisco Giants brought Miller home in 1997. Miller has been working for the Giants for the past 21 seasons.

Known for authentic pronunciation of names of players in their native languages, Miller has continued to study and refine his craft. After noticing that the demographics of baseball consumers have shifted in recent years with more English-dominant Hispanics, Miller experimented with calling home runs hit by Hispanic players with two Spanish words “¡Adios Pelota!” (Translation: Goodbye baseball!)

Miller decided to expand his use of “¡Adios Pelota!” to call home runs for every San Francisco Giants player after he noticed that viewers were mimicking his calls and merchandise with the words “¡Adios Pelota!” became available for sale.

Photo: Jon Miller tribute T-shirt with his signature home run call ¡Adios Pelota! (Courtesy cahutec.com)

In the case of Major League Soccer (MLS), one of the original 10 franchises which started play in 1996, D.C. United, hired college soccer television play-by-play announcer and WTOP-AM radio sports news anchor, Maryland native Dave Johnson, to call regional television play-by-play prior to the start of the inaugural season. Johnson’s signature goal call “It’s in the net!” has been mimicked by viewers over the past 22 years, and he has become the most recognizable ambassador of the D.C. United brand. Johnson is expected to return to D. C. United for his 23rd season in 2018 as D. C. United will move to a new stadium, Audi Field, in July.

More recently, FOX Sports (U.S.) soccer broadcast consultant Ben Grossman used the “hire local” strategy to hire a booth-level expert analyst/co-commentator and lead brand ambassador for expansion MLS club Minnesota United FC prior to the start of the 2017 season. Grossman, who is a minority owner of Minnesota United FC, hired the best available professional sportscaster with soccer television analysis experience and local roots regardless of gender, Kyndra de St. Aubin, who was the analyst on the #2 broadcast team during FIFA Women’s World Cup Canada 2015 on FOX Sports.

De St. Aubin, who left the Minneapolis-St. Paul area after she graduated from the University of Minnesota to be with her husband, jumped at the opportunity to return home to become the first second woman to work from an MLS television broadcast booth after spending 14 years in Milwaukee and Phoenix. Needless to say, this 37-year-old mother of a young daughter has found her “dream job” and one would expect her to stay with Minnesota United FC for the next 20-25 years.

(Correction: 1999 Women’s World Cup Champion and 3-time Olympic Gold Medalist Julie Foudy was the first woman to broadcast an MLS match as a match analyst/co-commentator when she called the San Jose Earthquakes vs Los Angeles Galaxy match for ESPN2 on June 30, 2012.
Video highlights via YouTube.com )

Local candidates for Atlanta United FC television play-by-play

One obvious candidate for Atlanta United FC television play-by-play assignments with Atlanta roots is current was former Atlanta United FC radio play-by-play announcer Adam Schick, who commuted from his current home of Gainesville, Florida to broadcast all Atlanta United FC matches on radio in 2017.

Update: Adam Schick announced via Twitter on January 25, 2018 that he will NOT return to Atlanta United FC in 2018.

However, one can observe from Schick’s demo reel that he is not ready to make the transition from radio to TV, as his employs a “radio with pictures” style by using too many words to call women’s college soccer matches for SEC Network:

Another candidate, who has lived in Atlanta for the past 22 years and has worked in Atlanta for the past 18 years, has the most soccer television play-by-play experience among all candidates with local ties to Atlanta, regardless of gender.

Long Island, New York native Jenn Hildreth arrived in Atlanta in August 1995 to study at Emory University, where she majored in journalism and played 3 different sports including soccer as a goalkeeper. She stayed in Atlanta after graduating in 1999 to work as a sports reporter for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution newspaper, and she migrated to television in 2001 when she hosted a high school sports highlights program.

A 40-year-old mother of two daughters, Hildreth is best known to sports fans in the Atlanta television market as the dugout reporter for Atlanta Braves baseball games on regional sports networks FOX Sports South and FOX Sports Southeast, a role she gave up after the 2015 Major League Baseball season to concentrate on her play-by-play assignments.

Hildreth began working for regional sports network FOX Sports South in 2005, where she was the primary expert analyst/co-commentator for Southeastern Conference (SEC) women’s college soccer. Her work as an analyst during Women’s Professional Soccer (WPS) telecasts on FOX Soccer Channel in 2009-2011 was mediocre at best, as her performance drew the ire of many viewers who vented their frustration on Internet bulletin boards and social media.

Hildreth put in the time and effort to transform herself from mediocre soccer television analyst to respected sports television play-by-play announcer starting in 2012. By 2015, Hildreth’s work was judged by FOX Sports (U.S.) World Cup executive producer David Neal to be good enough to call play-by-play of FIFA Women’s World Cup Canada 2015 matches, including the Japan vs England semifinal match. Hildreth was paired with de St. Aubin throughout the 2015 Women’s World Cup.

Video playlist (at YouTube): All 3 goals from the Japan vs England semifinal match from the FOX Sports broadcast of FIFA Women’s World Cup Canada 2015. Commentators: Jenn Hildreth (play-by-play), Kyndra de St. Aubin (analyst)

Hildreth remained paired with de St. Aubin when they called the finals of the 2015 and 2016 National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) seasons on FOX Sports:

When the NWSL received an equity investment from A&E Networks prior to the start of the 2017 season, the NWSL switched its national television broadcasts from FOX Sports to Lifetime. The NWSL retained Hildreth as the play-by-play announcer of its weekly Saturday afternoon national telecasts. Hildreth was paired with a new broadcast partner, former US Women’s National Team midfielder and 2-time Olympic Gold Medalist Aly Wagner, who has quickly built her reputation as one of the sharpest soccer analysts in the English-speaking world regardless of gender or nationality.

A 37-year-old mother of 4 young children (triplet 5-year-old boys and a 2-year-old girl), Wagner was superb when FOX Sports assigned her to the booth as a match analyst/co-commentator for 3 men’s international matches during FIFA Confederations Cup Russia 2017. She is widely expected to become the first woman in the English-speaking world to be assigned to the television broadcast booth as an analyst/co-commentator for a men’s World Cup match during FIFA World Cup Russia 2018 on FOX Sports.

Video link (at YouTube): Highlights from the Cameroon vs Chile match from the FOX Sports broadcast of FIFA Confederations Cup Russia 2017. Commentators: John Paul “JP” DellaCamera (play-by-play), Aly Wagner (analyst)

Wagner’s unique perspective as a former player on the correct mental approach to the 3rd place match (she won FIFA Women’s World Cup bronze medals in 2003 and 2007) makes her the most qualified analyst at FOX Sports, regardless of gender, to be assigned to the booth to call the 3rd place match of FIFA World Cup Russia 2018.

With Wagner as her new NWSL television broadcast partner, Hildreth continued to improve her play-by-play. Hildreth was at her best during semifinal #1 of the 2017 NWSL season, in which she and Wagner called the Portland Thorns vs Orlando Pride match in front of a large home crowd from Portland, Oregon:

What will happen in the next 40 days?

For the record, I do not know any of the people I mentioned above with the exception of D. C. United television play-by-play broadcaster Dave Johnson. Furthermore, my interaction with Jenn Hildreth has been limited to social media, namely Twitter.

I am an outsider who left the agency business in 2009. I have only represented one sportscaster during my time in the agency business, and she was a pioneer in the coverage two different products involving male competitors (Major League Soccer and World Series of Poker) in two different markets (U.S Spanish-language and Spanish-speaking Latin America), which meant she was the target of verbal and Internet abuse from viewers and colleagues because of her gender. I have no desire to return to the agency business, as I have moved on to another profession.

However, many professional and recreational activities I have been involved in over the past 25 years, regardless of industry, had one thing in common: I had to observe and study people in order to make correct decisions, often with incomplete information, for both myself and for my clients. One example of me having to make correct decisions with incomplete information under pressure took place in front of television cameras in June 2006:

In this situation involving Jenn Hildreth and Atlanta United FC, the time for Hildreth to act quickly and decisively is obviously NOW. She and her agent, Evolution Media Talent, have to make the first move by contacting Darren Eales and Matt Moore directly to express her strong interest in calling television play-by-play for Atlanta United FC when she is off duty from calling play-by-play for NWSL on Lifetime.

To maintain good public relations under media scrutiny, one would fully expect Eales and Moore to invite Hildreth to the Atlanta United FC training center in Marietta, Georgia for an interview when Hildreth has an off day from her college basketball play-by-play assignments in the next 2-3 weeks. Furthermore, one would reasonably expect Moore, who is the father of two daughters, to be curious enough to want to interview Hildreth face-to-face.

Eagles and Moore have about 30 days before they finalize their lineup of television broadcast talent for 2018. There is no need for them to make hasty decisions on impulse.

They have time to interview candidates including but not limited to Egan and Hildreth, speak with references (in the case of Hildreth, her references would include FOX Sports World Cup Executive Producer David Neal, ESPN Networks soccer Coordinating Producer Amy Rosenfield, and NWSL on Lifetime Executive Producer Michael Cohen), and assess the risk vs reward of hiring a woman to call television play-by-play of Atlanta United FC matches.

Only one woman in the English-speaking world has ever been hired to call television play-by-play of men’s professional soccer matches. In 2007, British sportscaster Jacqui Oatley MBE was assigned to the gantry to call play-by-play of English Premier League matches for edited, tape-delayed presentation on BBC One’s Match of the Day.

Oatley, a 42-year-old mother of two children, had to deal with sexist abuse from Internet trolls, mostly men and boys who behave like “Neanderthals”, over the past 10 years because of her gender. According to the Guardian newspaper, Oatley had to forward to the police a death threat from one man who threatened to come to her home to “cut” her. She was also repeatedly trolled on Twitter by a 17-year old male soccer referee (she forwarded the evidence to the headmaster of the school he was attending as well as the English Football Association.)

Will Eales and Moore be prepared to deal with Internet abuse themselves if they were to hire Hildreth to call play-by-play of an Atlanta United FC MLS match on regional television?

Also, how will the most fervent supporters of Atlanta United FC, including those who occupy “The Hype Depot” supporters section, react if Eales and Moore were to hire Hildreth? How many season ticket holders would cancel their season tickets?

Also, how many sponsors of Atlanta United FC would “move in a different direction” at the end of their sponsorship contracts if Eales and Moore were to hire Hildreth? Conversely, how many new potential sponsors would want to sign on with Atlanta United FC because Eales and Moore were willing to hire Hildreth?

Eales and Moore will have time to access and quantify the financial impact before they (and Arthur Blank) are able to come up with what they believe to be the correct answer to the following question:

Is Jenn Hildreth the right person to be a television play-by-play announcer and brand ambassador for Atlanta United FC for the next 20-25 years?

Many people will monitor this situation closely in the next 40 days, including influential media outlets in the Atlanta area that cover Atlanta United FC (notably the Dirty South Soccer blog and the Soccer Down Here radio shows, as well as Atlanta Journal-Constitution sports writer Doug Roberson), journalists of both genders who have covered the subject of women who recently broke through to broadcast men’s sports on television as play-by-play announcers and game analysts in the U.S., and the small sorority of women who have experience calling play-by-play of men’s sports for television, lead by 50-year-old Beth Mowins, who called preseason games for NFL Oakland Raiders for 2 seasons before getting her chance to call 4 regular season NFL games for ESPN and CBS Sports in 2017.

As for Hildreth’s colleagues including her soccer broadcast partners, notably de St. Aubin and Wagner who have crossed over to broadcast men’s professional matches as analysts/co-commentators, as well as the other members of the sorority of women who have called play-by-play of men’s sports besides Mowins notably Lisa Byington and Kate Scott (both of whom along with Hildreth are under consideration by FOX Sports to call play-by-play of FIFA Under-20 Women’s World Cup France 2018 and FIFA Women’s World Cup France 2019 matches), they do have a vested interest to see one of their peers potentially capitalize on this unique, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. One would believe that Hildreth will welcome any advice from her colleagues as she prepares for her interview with Eales and Moore.

In this age of social media, Atlanta United FC will break the news itself via its social media accounts, one way or another, in the next 40 days. All interested parties will monitor those social media accounts for further developments.

About the author: Oliver Tse operated Oliver Tse Management Group in 2006-2009 to secure product endorsement opportunities for poker players and broadcast talent appearing on televised poker events such as the World Series of Poker (WSOP), the World Poker Tour (WPT), and the NBC Sports National Heads-Up Poker Championship. Among his clients were 3 out of 9 players at the 2007 WSOP Main Event Final Table airing on ESPN (including the champion), the first woman to win a mix-gender WPT event (at the 2008 WPT Celebrity Invitational), and the first female sportscaster on U.S. Spanish-language television who made a successful career switch to poker announcing and hosting and became the original “Voice of Poker in Latin America.” Tse’s clients were deployed as brand ambassadors to emerging international markets for poker including Germany, Russia, Brazil, and Mexico. From 1995 through 2007, Tse founded and operated soccerTV.com, an Internet-based marketing business of televised soccer products for clients including ESPN, FOX Sports, and GOLTV. He holds a master’s degree in Financial Engineering from the University of California at Berkeley’s Haas School of Business.