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NWSL livestream commentary is a work in progress

A behind-the-scenes look at NWSL broadcasting standards

You’re watching an NWSL stream, and then it happens again: some basic slip-up from the commentator, some basic fact gotten wrong or name mispronounced. We’ve gotten things like “Fishlocker” and “Nagasoto” and the always classic “Hore-ann” and mix-ups like rookies having full seasons suddenly added to their careers. Sometimes commentators aren’t particularly good at some of the skills that make for a smooth listening experience, like knowing when to let the game breathe or giving the right kind and level of detail on a play. Some fans just mute streams altogether.

Part of the league’s ability to market itself as a serious professional sports league is its production value. It’s important to be able to present a polished product that can meet industry standards. But good product requires good investment, and after one former NWSL player tweeted about the low compensation offered to livestream commentators, it seemed like a good time to look at what it’s like behind the scenes of NWSL’s livestreaming commentary setup.

For this piece I spoke to Evan Silverman, executive vice president of digital media at A+E Networks; Morgan Conklin, production manager for NWSL on Lifetime and livestream game analyst; and Caroline Stanley, former Orlando Pride goalkeeper and current GK coach at University of Tulsa.

The setup

Vista Worldlink is responsible for the production of NWSL games that stream on the go90 platform. “Verizon has exclusive domestic streaming rights to all non-national games,” said Silverman. “So obviously we have the Lifetime game of the week, and every other game Verizon and its go90 property is the exclusive streaming partner.” Silverman said that NWSL Media, the joint venture between the league and A+E Networks which manages the league’s digital assets (not to be confused with the NWSL Media Association, an independent group of journalists covering the league), contracted with Vista to produce the games, which are distributed on go90.

Morgan Conklin came to NWSL through Vista’s coverage of USL. She moved to Ft. Lauderdale, where Vista Worldlink’s studios are set up, to work full time with USL and picked up extra NWSL games as her schedule allowed.

“There are six studios that also have six control rooms that are obviously wired to go with them,” said Conklin. “And the control room is pretty much like what you would see in a truck. Maybe not as advanced, but it has all technical equipment that’s obviously able to produce a game. And then in our booths… we have a program monitor and we have the ability to contact and get in touch with our control room and work with our producer who is in our ear at all times.”

Conklin confirmed that the play-by-play announcer and analyst assigned to the games that stream on go90 watch the same thing that fans see for their calls. The director and producer in the control room can see all the cameras, and the stream goes out on a short delay, but the commentary team is watching the program feed.

Average game prep for Conklin includes a phone call with the coaches a couple of days ahead of whatever game she’s analyzing, watching the teams’ most recent games, going through old notes, and reading up on recent media coverage. She said she picks the minds of Lifetime broadcast duo Jenn Hildreth and Aly Wagner when she can, asked for advice from Kate Markgraf after she called the USL Cup final, and looks up to longtime sports telecasters Holly Rowe and Doris Burke.

The talent

Vista’s executive producer Michael Cohen reaches out to regional and national networks to recruit the on-air talent. Through a league spokesperson, Cohen indicated that they look at former USWNT and NWSL players, college coaches, and current and former college players who “have broadcasting experience and/or express interest in calling games.”

One of the players who expressed interest was Caroline Stanley, who has spent time as a goalkeeper with the Seattle Reign, Sky Blue FC, and the Orlando Pride. When she first started talking to someone in production via email, she had “mutually decided” not to return to Sky Blue and thought she was done playing professionally. She said they offered her $300/game, with no travel or lodging costs included.

“And I thought okay, it’s because I’m a rookie, it’s because I’ve never commentated anything professional,” she said. “I’ve done a little bit of collegiate, I’ve done tons of smaller D1 and high school, but I just thought, okay this is what it is because I have no resume. So I was okay with that.”

But then in a bit of a surprise for Stanley, she ended up signing with Orlando for part of the 2017 season, putting her retirement on hold. After she left Orlando, she revisited the idea of commentating a livestream, offering to work any dates that were compatible with her Tulsa schedule. But the pay was the same, still with no travel or lodging included, and with Stanley coming from Tulsa, $300 wouldn’t cover her expenses, let alone pay the bills. She was even willing to drive the two-plus hours from Fort Myers, where she was visiting her boyfriend while he was in spring training. But they wouldn’t budge on the pay, and so Stanley decided the costs outweighed the benefits. Unless Stanley was willing to relocate to Ft. Lauderdale, there was just no way to work enough games to make decent, livable money.

To Vista’s credit, Stanley says they offered to load her up with USL games to make a trip to Ft. Lauderdale financially worth her time. “The problem is that’s not going to be a good product for me,” Stanley said. “I don’t know anything about USL. That’s like saying to the CFL network, why don’t you just come commentate NFL, it’s the same thing, but it’s not.”

Silverman wouldn’t speak to the $300/game Stanley got offered. “I’m not going to get into specific fees for individuals,” he said, “But you have the trade-off of, you can have talent calling games on site and then you have the costs inherent in making that a reality if you have remote production, or obviously you can fly talent from across the country to Florida to be at Vista for those games…. We do think that we are developing some good young talent in the Florida area or folks that can get to Vista, but we are trying to have the highest quality broadcast we can while also being cognizant of costs.”

Silverman pointed out that remote call instead of on-site is not just limited to NWSL. Fox announced that several of its commentary teams will be remote calling the 2018 World Cup from Los Angeles.

“We try to reward the best talent and bring them along calling more games,” said Silverman. “It’s not a static process. It is something that we evaluate the games each week, we offer feedback, we offer training. I would say many of the talent are extremely committed and working on developing as full time play-by-play or analyst.”

When asked in a follow-up email about training the league offers, Silverman answered, “Each pre-season, we have meetings and conference calls where Michael Cohen and/or the Vista team talk through broadcasting protocols for the league. During the season, Michael Cohen and the Senior Producers review the games and provide notes. Michael also has personal calls with talent and producers to review the broadcasts.”

Conklin said the training was, for her, more self-reflection. “In terms of training and so on,” she said, “The best thing to improve - and this is in any level of anything - is looking back at what you did and asking those questions or talking with people.”

Conklin also mentioned review from Cohen, who she says gives good feedback that doesn’t descend into micromanaging her on how to call games.

Even Stanley cited an email she was cc’d in on regarding resources for livestream commentators, in which all talent were strongly urged to prepare better and contact the league’s editorial director, Jen Cooper, with questions about stats. “This is extremely important as every little detail is noted,” the email concluded. Clearly the production team is aware of the criticism.

Doing better

The desire to do better is there. It’s perhaps the league’s resources that are struggling to keep up with the fans’ demand. The $300 per game figure that Stanley cited probably varies across the different commentators based on experience and what each person was able to personally negotiate. Perhaps NWSL is also offering travel and/or accommodations to other commentators, making it hard to even speculate about the commentating budget for streaming this year. For certain, that $300 for an entry-level commentator not only has to cover their work for 90-plus minutes of commentary, but also all the prep Conklin mentioned, which includes a pre-game call with the coaches, game review, and studying the players on each roster. Given the way NWSL games are scheduled, a commentator can probably handle at most two games a day from a logistical standpoint. $600 or even $900 a weekend before expenses is nice, but not livable long term, especially when the season doesn’t run year-round, making NWSL commentary just one of several part-time gigs an analyst probably hustles during the year.

There’s also the matter of training. There’s no guarantee that someone who played the game will be good as a commentator and there are plenty of people in multiple sports who have never laced up a pair of cleats or sneakers or skates but still call games well. Good commentary certainly requires deep knowledge of the game, but it also needs the kind of skills that come from rigorous oratorical practice. Speaking rhythm, timing, logical construction, brevity – these things matter, and often only come with years of practice. NWSL may want more experienced commentators, but its budget may demand that it tries to bring up homegrown talent.

To that extent, some lenience is perhaps necessary. NWSL does not have a bottomless budget, as Silverman alluded to, so not every call is going to be as smooth as Hildreth and Wagner, who are rightly showcased on each Lifetime game of the week. But it’s also fair for fans to expect that a professional league which represents the pinnacle of the sport for women in the United States should have better commentary as part of an overall high level of production value.

Is it fair to ask for that production value level in year six, especially considering where the league is now compared to year one? NWSL launched with no TV deal and every game on Youtube. Quality of commentary varied widely across the league as each club was responsible for in-house game production. You could argue that while the best commentary teams in the pre-go90 era were probably better than the best the go90 streams have to offer today, the worst pre-go90 teams were much worse than the current floor. There is a certain baseline being established, and Silverman is aware that fans want to see that baseline pushed higher and higher with every season.

“We at NWSL Media, the folks at NWSL, we care deeply,” said Silverman. “And we’re working on it to grow the NWSL. It’s frustrating that we can’t accelerate to the level that we would all want to see but we’re getting there.”