Arlo White – NBC’s voice of the Premier League
- Credit: Archant
Nigel Powlson meets the Derby-based top sports commentator who’s talking soccer to the States
It may seem a long way from covering Mickleover Sports to becoming the voice of Premiership football for American fans but Arlo White always dreamed of being a top commentator and had the drive and determination to get there.
Arlo, now 40, is the leading voice of NBC’s live coverage of the Premier League in the United States, where the game is booming and where audiences for English matches are growing.
He was the main football voice for NBC at the 2012 Olympic Games in London, where he commentated on all of the US women’s national team’s matches.
Previously, he worked for BBC radio and commentated on the last World Cup and international cricket.
Working for NBC has fulfilled a dream that goes back to Arlo’s childhood when he used to commentate on fantasy games into an old microphone.
He says: ‘I had wanted to be a commentator from the age of six. There was a tape that was doing the rounds at my wedding of me commentating on a fictitious Leicester vs Derby game into my grandad’s hifi system.
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‘Leicester won 4-0 that day and Gary Lineker scored a hat-trick!’
For this Leicester City fan, based in Derby, the dream started with an away trip to lowly Bedlington, covering an FA Vase tie against Mickleover for BBC Radio Derby.
It turned out to be a bigger story than anyone expected and proving he could handle it gave Arlo a first step on the ladder.
He says: ‘I came to university in Derby and although it was a dream to be a commentator I just didn’t know the route into sports broadcasting. But it all changed when at the age of 24 I knocked on the door of the BBC Radio Derby sports editor Colin Gibson.
‘He asked me what I was doing that weekend and, in truth, I was going to London for a show with my now wife Lizi for her birthday. But sensing there was an opportunity I said I was completely free.’
So Arlo found himself with the less than glamorous job of travelling to the north east outpost of Bedlington Terriers to follow Mickleover Sports fortunes in the FA Vase.
‘My first ever football report was me telling Radio Derby about the spirit in the Mickleover camp, sitting on a rock in the car park at Scotch Corner service station,’ he says.
The game was abandoned due to a floodlight failure with Bedlington in the lead, which turned into a bit of a story and Arlo ended up doing more than he had anticipated. At the replay, Mickleover were winning when the lights failed for a second time, with accusations flying as to the real cause.
The FA ordered the game to be replayed at Mickleover and by now the story was capturing the imagination and Arlo was still being allowed to cover it by Radio Derby.
He says: ‘On the back of that, Colin asked me to cover Alfreton Town for the rest of the season. It was a great experience, learning how to craft voice pieces and how to broadcast and that was the start of it all.’
At that point it was not a full-time job for Arlo and his working life seemed to be getting further from his dream, so he and Lizi decided to take a break and go travelling, eventually landing in Australia at the time of the Olympics in 2000.
‘I managed to get experience on newspapers, magazines and doing commentaries, all working for free while holding down a day job working for a building company,’ says Arlo. ‘I did build up a portfolio and when I came back home I was determined to make a career out of it.’
Arlo narrowly missed out on a job at Radio Leicester but surprised himself by getting an interview at national BBC station Five Live.
‘I had to borrow the money to get the train down to London for the interview but it went phenomenally well and on the way back I got a call back telling me I had surprised them and I was offered a six-month contract. I almost dropped the phone and passed out. It’s the home of live sport in the UK in terms of radio. I called my mum and she was in tears.
‘Within three weeks I was sitting next to Nicky Campbell, being given a drum roll on his desk and doing my first ever sports bulletin.’
That was in 2001 and, although Arlo was part of the BBC team, he was still a long way from commentating on big games.
‘You have to earn your stripes,’ he says. ‘They have established commentators and although I was 27 I was still raw. But I did find I had an aptitude for it, controlling my nerves and finding my voice and then adding what I could when called upon. If you can hold your own with the likes of Nicky Campbell, Simon Mayo and Peter Allen then they like you and want you on their show. Only then do they ask you to do other things.’
Arlo put his hand up for cricket commentating and was delighted to be sent to South Africa for the cricket world cup. ‘That was in 2003 and I got experience of being at a major event,’ he says.
Arlo covered the Athens Olympics in 2004 but found himself moving away from football and by 2008/9 was becoming frustrated that he still hadn’t achieved his goal. ‘I had learnt my broadcasting craft but I wanted to turn it back to the six-year-old me and achieve my goal,’ he says. ‘It wasn’t happening at the BBC, so with the Seattle Sounders going into Major League soccer I took the opportunity to become the voice of that team in 2010.’
The irony was that after telling the BBC he was leaving, they asked him to commentate at six games at the World Cup.
It was a big decision for Arlo to take the Seattle job as it meant moving wife Lizi and twin daughters Amelie and Eva to America.
‘Initially I went out on my own,’ says Arlo. ‘But after the first season my wife agreed to park her career and we all went back together.’
Arlo first began working for NBC when the network picked up the rights to Major League Soccer and the family moved to Connecticut to be near the company’s head offices. Towards the end of that season, NBC snapped up the rights to the English Premier League.
‘It was unprecedented as NBC has never been involved in soccer before. But they paid $250m for three years’ rights and they asked me if I wanted to return home.’
Arlo admits the family were torn as they were enjoying life in America but the lure of being the voice of Premier League football in the USA was just ‘too good to turn down’.
‘We have deep roots in Derby,’ says Arlo, ‘despite me being a Leicester fan. Derby is a lovely place and we had never sold our house in Mickleover, so we came back.’
The girls, now six, go to Derby High School and Arlo was happy to help out at a recent careers event and talk to pupils about broadcasting and football. He says: ‘There are so many more opportunities for women in football than there were 10 years ago and I think, particularly in Derby, there seem to be more women and girls interested in football than I’ve seen anywhere else.’
Arlo says he’s now ‘thoroughly content’ but knows that TV rights are always changing hands and that may cause him to have to re-think at some point.
‘It’s a fiercely competitive business,’ he says. ‘I also think you always have to think about your next move as you don’t want to be the broadcaster that was left behind. There’s an almost excessive panic about the future but, without wishing to sit on my laurels, I’m very happy. We have a three-year deal and things are going very well. If NBC renew the rights and keep me in the chair terrific. If that doesn’t happen, who knows?
‘But right now I would happily broadcast the Premier League for NBC until I retire. For me, it’s the greatest job in the world.’
Research is the key to having the facts at your fingertips when covering a game, says Arlo.
He has a sticker system with four or five facts at the ready for each player likely to be involved in the match.
‘During the week, from Tuesday to Friday, I’m locked away in the office at home researching player after player so that when the big moment comes on a Saturday afternoon I have all the facts, whether it’s Wayne Rooney or a 17-year-old trainee who comes on as a late substitute.’
What Arlo doesn’t usually do is pre-plan what he’s going to say. ‘Generally I just wait for the moment and take it when it comes.’
He admires cricket commentator Jonathan Agnew. ‘To watch him work was an absolute joy.’
‘In terms of football I grew up listening to John Motson and Barry Davies, just brilliant. Clive Tyldesley is very good and Martin Tyler is the voice of the Premier League. John Murray and Mike Ingham, at Radio Five Live, I look up to as some of the best in the business.’
Football in America
There have been times when football has threatened to take off in America before but Arlo believes that this time there’s no turning back.
‘I believe I have been lucky to be at the cusp of something very big that’s happening over there. It’s not purely by accident. I went to America for the first time at the age of 13 on my own to visit relatives and went back after my A Levels for seven months. I have always been fascinated by the culture and I had followed the fortunes of football over there.
‘Saying that, I had never thought I would be able to earn a living in football in that country. But now it’s viable thanks to the advent of cable TV and because the game is growing amongst a younger, hipper audience.
‘Americans have been insular over the years but the internet in particular has broadened horizons. In a nation of 300 million people you can also be the sixth most popular sport and still be very viable. So it has its niche now. Wherever you go in the major cities, bars are packed with football fans. The marriage between NBC and the Premier League has also been so positive. NBC has thrown money at it and have done it properly. You ally that with a product as good as the Premier League and you have a winning formula and that’s what we have got.
‘The audiences are skyrocketing and the title is up for grabs and it all feels very special.’
The home grown Major League Soccer is also getting better every year, says Arlo. ‘I have a lot of time for it. The standard right now would be lower Championship but every year it gets better and the foundations are there. The clubs are building roots in the communities and becoming more important. Compared to the NFL, it’s still a drop in the ocean, but working in Seattle, where the average crowd was 44,000, you felt like you were at a big event every home game. So the future is bright.’