As the official education partner of the Colorado Rapids, the UCCS Soccer Management Program gives students the opportunity to go behind-the-scenes with the Rapids organization. Connor Pabich and Sam Statton sat down with Rapids Senior Director of Broadcasting and Play-by-Play Announcer Richard Fleming in the midst of his fifth season with the club to discuss how he brings fans closer to the game.
Q: How has your experience covering sports events across the world factored into your ability to engage with Rapids fans?
First and foremost, I’m a sports fan like everybody else. I’m not just a play-by-play guy. I’ve got a passion for sport, opinions on sport, I have favorite sports teams and individuals. Throughout my career, I have always tried to see myself as nothing more than a glorified fan that is privileged to be in a job where I get to report on big sporting events. So, I hope what that’s allowed me to do is look at sport through a fan’s eyes and be able to relate and relay that on a level that fans understand. There are colleagues of mine that do – and colleagues of mine that try to – overcomplicate sport. At the end of the day, it’s entertainment and so I hope my approach to being a fan first and a play-by-play second helps me to relate to the fans on a level that we all understand, without patronizing. My experience is kind of a byproduct of a career I’ve taken whether it’s broadcast, whether it’s Olympic Games, whatever it is and wherever it is. I think it’s maybe more my approach than it is my experience that has allowed me to look at it from a fans’ perspective.
Q: As awareness of the Rapids - and MLS as a whole - grows year after year, what are some ways you hope to increase the overall fan engagement?
That’s a tough one to answer. There are so many different elements that go into that fan engagement. I think that television is obviously a big factor. Social media is now huge. There is probably more engagement on social media on a daily basis than there is on a weekend for simply the games. The fans want to feel a part of the club every day, and that comes back to the social media interaction. It’s not just the 90 minutes on a Saturday night. I think part of that overall engagement is how I interact with fans, or how players interact with fans seven days a week, 365 days a year. I think that credibility is a factor, which MLS has had to fight in the past. Certainly in the early days there was too much assuming on the part of the sports executives, thinking it was like all the other ‘American’ sports. So, as a consequence, you've got people that shouldn’t have been anywhere near soccer production. They didn’t understand the game. I covered MLS as far back as 2004 and it was clear that the fans’ knowledge far outreached the knowledge of most of the sports media. What we found was that the sports crowd was being patronized, as the media tried to accommodate the general sports fan. There was a credibility factor. What I hope is that by me coming in and others coming in over the last few years, the bar has been raised. I think fans are more likely to trust the product because it’s a more credible product. I think raising the product on the field, raising the experience, and bringing the fans closer on social media are also huge factors. I am a very small part of a much bigger whole. It starts with the product on the field, though.
Q: You have been very active in engaging with the fans on social media. How important is it to develop that connection with them?
It’s huge. I was talking to someone yesterday, it’s kind of a paradox within sport where recently Neymar had joined PSG (Paris Saint-Germain F.C.) from Barcelona for 222 million Euro with 30 million Euro/year after tax, so as the sports stars become more distant from the common fan, the more celebrity, the more superstars, it takes them further away from the common man. Let’s not forget soccer, certainly where I come from, it's a blue-collar sport. It was set up in industrial heartlands in the UK. Look at it now and there are multi-millionaire players that are kind of out of touch. What social media has done has brought them back into the fold, and allowed fans to engage with players on a certain level. I think it’s part about communication, it’s part about back and forth, it’s part about creating a community. Again, it’s not elevating my role or my knowledge above a fan and that’s vitally important. A fan’s voice needs to be heard, a fan’s voice deserves to be heard. Fans now have a platform. It is an extension of the club’s channels of communication for fans where they can voice frustration, or to sing the praises of players. I think engaging with fans that pay to come through the gates on a Saturday is absolutely vital. I see it as part of my role and part of my responsibility.
Q: If you have a game that is lacking in action, how do you maintain the audience's interest?
It’s game-by-game. Sometimes I don’t do a good job of that. Sometimes you can get wrapped up in what you see. I have been known in the past to be candid and to be honest, sometimes too honest. I’ve got good guys alongside me, whether it's Marcelo Balboa or whoever is in the booth with me. We have enough knowledge and experience to look at the nuances and look at how the game is going to go, and where the game needs to improve. Part of the responsibility that I have is giving a balanced view. If the Rapids are playing well, I say they are playing well. I think I try to give a balance to the viewers and not just focus on the Rapids players on the show, although we are highlighting them. But if Seattle are winning, then we look to showcase an element of their game to the wider audience. If the game itself is not too exciting, we have touch points and go-to points. I prepare as if I’m going into an exam. I over prepare just for these very moments. I have had it said to me before that soccer is boring, it’s dull. Then you look at the sports background that these people have come from; it might be hockey, basketball, or American football which are quick, active, and explosive. Basketball and hockey are in smaller arenas so it’s very much end-to-end. Football at the snap is explosive for that 15-20 seconds, whereas in soccer we have long periods where the ball is in the middle third and not much is happening. That is part of the sport itself so during those times you must have other topics to lean back on. Whether it’s news around the league, or games coming up, there is something we can lean on, but that all lends itself to the preparation and making sure we don’t dry up when the game is not as enjoyable.
Q: How many hours do you normally spend researching the opposing teams, and preparing for each specific broadcast?
My preparation is ongoing. On Monday morning, that day after the weekend matches, I’ve got my spreadsheets where I go in and update the player bios across the league, team lineups for every team that is in the league that is still to play against the Rapids, and then I keep note of bits and pieces throughout the week leading up, and ratchet it up on Thursday and Friday before the game. I do a lot early in the week. In terms of hours for a four-hour broadcast, which is what we will do on game-day I will prepare probably a day and a half. That is talking to producers, speaking to directors about shots that we might be taking, cramming for the upcoming match. I have a responsibility to know the opposition players as much, if not more, than I know the Rapids. I know it’s more than just Rapids fans watching. In terms of a professional courtesy, knowing their players, knowing the run their team is on, knowing the matches they have coming up, knowing their quirks, knowing their style of play, knowing the strengths the individuals will bring. Identifying their numbers so I can pick them out very quickly in a game. With the Rapids it’s much easier. Even if I don’t see their numbers I can pretty much tell the Rapids apart by how they run and how they move. I can pick just by the way they trap the ball or their body moves. That is all part of the preparation, planning a storyline as well as engaging with other analysts. It’s a bit of a process and it is like cramming for an exam because by Sunday morning most of the information has seeped out and its gone. It’s kind of a small snapshot. I get that information, retain it, and we are on to the next one.
Q: Would you say that your knowledge of the sport and a balanced approach is your primary focus as a broadcaster?
Accuracy. Obviously that all slides in with having the knowledge of the other team. It’s about getting it right. Again, everyone is different, but I do know colleagues that script certain goal calls and you might hear a very clever goal call and fans think ‘wow, wow has that just come off the top of their head?’ More often than not it hasn’t. Sometimes they will over prepare for the big moments, the goal calls. For me it is getting things right, being accurate, being honest, being balanced, and being fair. The knowledge of the other players plays a part in that but my priority is to be as accurate as I can possibly be. Again, that is built into the preparation side of things. I try to look back at some games, and I will be critical of my performance. That’s a responsibility that I have. I need to improve, even though I have been in this game for 25-26 years, it is a responsibility of mine to improve. I will never have a perfect game but all that preparation is a part of that understanding and responsibility to get that perfect game or looking to get as close as I possibly can. My priority is accuracy, honesty, and fairness.