You may recognize Curt Menefee from the studios of the Fox NFL Sunday each week during the NFL season. He also handles play-by-play duties for the Seattle Seahawks in the preseason. But his passion for sports doesn’t stop on the gridiron. In the last few years, he has also provided commentary on Fox’s coverage of the UEFA Champions League final and talked with SoundersFC.com this week about his passion for the world’s game.
Q: How did the NFL on Fox host end up being a soccer fan?
Menefee: For me, it really goes up to my childhood growing up in Atlanta. I was an Atlanta Chiefs fan back in the old NASL. I was probably 11 or 12 years old when Pele and the New York Cosmos came. It became a big deal sports-wise. As a kid, I was fascinated by all sports, so when I heard about Pele and soccer, I started following it for a couple of years, then the NASL disappeared and so did my passion for soccer. Then I started doing NFL Europe for Fox in 1997 and every summer I would go over to Europe and it seemed like every two years was the World Cup and the Euro Cup. I went there for ten straight years and I got into it. When you’re in Germany, you would watch Germany. When you’re in Spain, you watch Spain. It really became a passion because you were there with people with so much passion for their national sport watching major world events. I was in Greece when they made the quarterfinal for the Euro Cup. I was in Athens and everybody was going crazy, horns were honking – it was the whole city. We asked a policeman as we were driving by if they had won that night. He said, “No, they lost, but they went through anyway and it’s the first time they’ve been in in 50 years and everybody went crazy.” It was fun, that teaches you the passion. When I came back to the states I started buying the pay-per-view and watching it a lot of different places and my passion for it grew just by traveling, really.
Q: Is there one club that you follow?
Menefee: Right now, I tell everybody I’m a huge Barcelona fan. But I know that’s like picking the Yankees. They have the best player in the world, maybe the best player of all-time in Messi. And I don’t think there’s anybody on their level right now – not even close. When I was in Europe, I spent a lot of time in Barcelona, so to me FC Barcelona represents the whole Catalan lifestyle and the culture there and the memories I have. I’m a Barcelona fan and I’ve been a Liverpool fan, but I just enjoy watching the sport. Once I started spending more time in Barcelona though, I’ve fallen in love with them and obviously in the last two or three years, that’s been pretty easy. It’s amazing, though, the only people that don’t like them are people that call themselves “purists.” They don’t think they’re tough enough or they fall down too much. That’s the way the game is played. And they play it successfully. I don’t think they take a lot of cheap penalties either. I look at Messi – that guy could fall down. He’s the biggest star in the world, but he fights through things and refuses to go down. I think he’s as tough a scorer as there is.
Q: Did you go to a lot of games when you were in Europe with NFL Europe?
Menefee: I’ve been to great soccer matches all over the world. I’ve been to matches in Spain and Germany, South America, I’ve been to the World Cup. I’ve seen matches in a lot of different places and that catches your imagination. Someone asked me the other day on Twitter if I would prefer to cover a Champions League final or a Super Bowl. Professionally, being in the United States, the Super Bowl is it. But as a fan, there is nothing that compares to a Champions League final, unless it’s the World Cup. And those are both soccer events. When you’re there and you’re with a crowd of 90-100,000 people, the passion and the enthusiasm – I haven’t been able to see it matched anywhere. Not even at college sports. Rarely do you get the passion from both sides. Then as soon as it’s over, they get together and have a drink and have fun. I don’t think you’ll see that with the Yankees and Red Sox.
Q: You have a long off-season, so that’s what fills it up. How much fun has that been for you?
Menefee: That’s why I take advantage of it. Whether it’s in South America or Europe, I watch soccer. When I go to Australia or New Zealand I watch Rugby. I’ve seen cricket. I’m just a sports fan. Wherever I go, I just try to take in whatever is going on there. It’s been fun for me because of the atmosphere at some of these places, but also because of some of the history. You hear about Boca Juniors and you go to Buenos Aires and watch them play River Plate … there’s nothing else like it. I’ve heard about that rivalry or that venue even though I don’t follow the teams. To go to Wembley for the Champions League final and see Manchester United and FC Barcelona … it’s just such a fascinating thing for me. Even though it’s not our national sport, we know about how special these iconic places are, so if you get a chance to see it, obviously it has a huge impact.
Q: What are your favorite places you’ve been?
Menefee: Wembley, for one. Even though it’s the new Wembley, there’s still something special about it. A lot like the new Yankee Stadium. When I went to Rio, I went to Maracana and that’s a place where Pele played and scored his record-breaking goals. The history and the tradition that goes along with that, it’s again like Yankee Stadium and you think of Babe Ruth. You can go there and you can hear the ghosts whispering and you can see all the great people that have played there and all the great fans that have been there. Those are the two top places that absolutely stick out, but if you go to the Bernebau or any of the other great stadiums where they are not just stadiums. They are part of the history to the city or country that you’re in. And they are shrines too. You just see the trophy rooms and the landmarks and you can tell that it means a lot more than just sports.
Q: How have you seen the sport growing in America?
Menefee: Two things – look at US Soccer from a big picture standpoint. It’s continuing to grow because of the television exposure, not just of the MLS games, but Fox and ESPN are doing the English Premier League and you can tune in and see big international matches that don’t involve the United States. You didn’t see that 5-10 years ago. From a numbers standpoint, it may never rival football or baseball or basketball. People are realizing that we’ve gotten to the point now where people are getting comfortable with it. Either they play it, or their children play it, or their nieces and nephews play it. It’s not a foreign sport anymore. They feel like it’s more of a sport that they or their family grew up playing. And from a numbers standpoint, at the Champions League final on Fox last year, we had 2.5 million viewers, which was a record for any soccer match in the United States. Ten years ago, we had 250,000 viewers. So it’s increased ten times in less than ten years. It’s a sport that people are treating like a normal sport and not a niche sport.
Q: What do you think of MLS? Is it just a matter of getting more stars in the game?
Menefee: That’s part of it. The understanding of the international game helps. People realize that the MLS game isn’t at the caliber of those teams, but it’s getting closer. People are able to see those teams now and they see that. Even though those teams are huge and special and there’s nothing like it, the gap isn’t as wide as it used to be 4-5 years ago. Some of those players are starting to come over here, but also some of the best American players are staying over here or coming back. They are choosing to stay and that’s raising the level of play in the states.
Q: There’s a bit of a perception that the football guys clash with soccer, but I understand that’s not the case with the guys who went to NFL Europe, is it?
Menefee: I don’t know that there is a divide. Everybody that I know of that went over to do NFL Europe – the announcers, the producers, the players, the officials – got into soccer while they were over there. The more they watched, the more they understood. So they became fans. Then you look at a lot of the guys in the NFL. Obviously Chad Ochocinco is a big fan. A lot of the kickers grew up playing soccer. I don’t think it’s as much of a divide as people may think it is.
Watch Menefee alongside Warren Moon on the Seahawks final preseason game Friday night at 7:30 pm on KING 5.