10 Questions with Kevin Calabro

Let’s meet the voice of Sounders FC, Kevin Calabro. After 21 years of calling Sonics action, he’s moving from the hardwood to the land of headers, from flying chickens in the barnyard to soccer, the beautiful game.

Let’s meet the voice of Sounders FC, Kevin Calabro. After 21 years of calling Sonics action, he’s moving from the hardwood to the land of headers, from flying chickens in the barnyard to soccer, the beautiful game. Good-golly, Miss Molly, we’ve got ourselves one of the most recognizable baritones (and, yes, dome) in Seattle sports history. Calabro is still more than six months away from calling his first match, but he’s already preparing his pipes for the opening night of MLS in Seattle.

The announcement of you coming aboard and Belo becoming the broadcast partner was made last Monday, and you gave every indication that you planned to dive in right away.
I’ve been watching Fox Soccer Channel for a couple years, following the MLS and the international game. Over the weekend we were watching a replay of West Ham versus Manchester United from last January. It was fascinating to see this game played at such a high level on such a muddy pitch on an obviously cold, drizzly evening. I’m starting to get hooked on it. These guys were going after one other, just plain getting after it. It was a very entertaining 1-1 tie. I listened to the announcers carefully, how they broadcast the game, how they presented it. I like challenges, and this is a challenge to learn the nuances of a new sport, and then present it to an audience. We have an audience that’s very knowledgeable and then an audience that’s more casual to soccer, and hopefully I can help bring them to the sport.

In the NBA, it’s an 82-game schedule. In MLS, it’s 30 matches. As both a broadcaster and a family man with a wife and four kids, tell me how that makes a difference.
Without question, it will be different. Last year, our longest road trip was 15 days, and sometimes there are four games in five nights. I approach every game as if it were special. But it’s hard when you’re playing or coaching and broadcasting that fourth game in five nights, to find the same kind of energy and enthusiasm that you would if there was one game per week. It will really be interesting to see how all that comes together. It also quickly became apparent to me that there wouldn’t be the same wear and tear. I’m 52 years old and family considerations figure into it because the kids are getting older and in the NBA you’re gone a minimum of 100 days. So you’re out of their lives one-third of the year, and you can’t make up for lost time. As you get older, you come to that realization. My family, they’ve been very understanding. But there was a certain amount of relief that it’s over. So, after 21 years, I am getting involved in a brand new project, in a sport where I don’t have expertise. But the soccer community has been just outstanding in welcoming me into the fellowship, and inviting me to share in it and help me in the process.

As you said, one door closes and others open. Any reflection on the coincidence of the Sonics leaving and the MLS arriving in Seattle?
It’s fascinating the way this unfolded. The way the Sounders have conducted business has been exemplary. To take on the name Sounders, to have already signed a player and to have perhaps 6-7 current Sounders players with the kind of talent to join the new team. That speaks well of what Adrian’s doing. It’s impressive to have an executive with the depth of experience and the global contacts of Gary Wright. To have the kind of ownership group we have, very diversified, all these guys in the entertainment business, and that’s what we’re all about, entertaining. To have a world-class facility like Qwest Field, one of the jewels in this city, one of the great markets and venues in the world. I can’t think of a better way to start. To think that a few months ago I didn’t see it, and now all these doors have opened. It’s like, ‘Wow! Welcome to the party! C’mon in!’

In watching matches, whether it be MLS or the Euro or Premiership, do you have opinions on what style of announcing is best for this game?
I’ve noticed with the English announcers, they don’t clutter the broadcast with a lot of observations. They allow the color announcer to make a quick observation, then back off and just let the play establish itself. Let things breathe, let the crowd be heard. Now it’s going to be different here than in Europe, but you still want to tap-in to that energy and allow that ambient sound come into the broadcast. The play-by-play announcer has to let-up on the gas a little bit and realize that you’re not doing radio play-by-play. But when they get to the 18 or final third of the field, I’ve noticed that’s where the play-by-play guy takes over. Call the plays, who’s making the pass, who’s going to get the shot or who makes the defensive challenge. Slowly I’m starting to pick-up some of the language of the game. It’s interesting, it’s a much different language from basketball and hockey, but in my mind there are a lot of similarities between those three sports. Between the [18-yard] lines is when you get your analyst involved. Television has always been an analyst’s medium because the play-by-play guy doesn’t need to describe what the audience has already seen. However, he does need to convey that passion and that electricity and excitement when the critical play comes.

A lot of the bond between the fans and a broadcaster is trust. What are the qualities which you hope come through to the audience?
I’m going to have passion for the job. I’m going to approach it by punching in early and leaving late. I’m going to be at practices and involved with the team. I’m going to be learning as much as I possibly can from other people in the league. Believe me, I understand they have the same or more passion for the sport that I have, and if they have more it’s simply because they have a background in it. They’ve been playing and watching it for a number of years. I hope to catch up quickly and earn their respect. People hopefully respect that I have a long track record of 21 years with the Sonics. I wouldn’t consider myself a homer. I think I’m fairly objective while broadcasting for the hometown team. I let the inflection of my voice reveal how I feel about the game instead of constantly waving the pompons for the home time. You sometimes find yourself in dangerous territory when you do that. If the play is good, great. If the play is bad, hopefully there’s a diplomatic way to convey that as well. There’s no easy way to convince the fans that they should have confidence in you. You don’t get that respect immediately; that respect must be earned.

You’ve lived in Seattle for 21 years. You’ve traveled around the NBA and its cities. Is there anything that makes this area distinct, and does that translate to the way they support their teams?
I think there’s obviously a great tradition going back to the Sonics being the first professional team in 1967, but even before that to Husky football, which started in something like 1908. There’s always been a great tradition of supporting athletics in the area. It’s interesting that Seattle is so diverse in terms of nationalities but also in the number of sports those people bring to the market. For instance, there are 4-5 cricket matches at Marymoor Park on a given weekend, and a lot of people play rugby and lacrosse. And there’s snow skiing, water skiing, cycling, sailing, fishing, mountain climbing. Where else do you find that kind of diversity? Not only do you have good fans, but these are people who want to participate. They are not content with sitting and watching, they want to perform themselves. That’s what makes them so unique. Like most fans, when the teams are winning, man, they’re on board. When teams are not doing well, the fans are just as passionate. They may be negatively dispossessed, but still very passionate and very vocal. They’ll let you know what they think.

You mentioned that your first professional play-by-play assignment was with hockey, a sport had not previously called. How do you prepare for the unknown?
You watch as many games as you possibly can. In hockey, before the first season I did play-by-play to the videos, then simulated broadcasts during training camp. I did a hundred games that first year and you learn as you go along. With soccer, because you do so few games, it may be Year 2 or Year 3 before I really pick up those nuances to the game. That’s where the analyst comes in. He will already have that experience. From Day 1, fans will be able to clue-in to the analyst. Basically, I will be directing the game from the air. I’ll have an understanding of the rules, certainly, and the language of the game. But I won’t have a command of the nuances. You only get that doing game after game after game. You will have stories you store to memory banks, and so after 120 games I’ll be able to tell those stories. But there’s no way to have those kind of anecdotes in Year 1. However, as we go along I’ll have a better handle and be able to relate those stories, those minute intricacies. For now, I’m working on what I can, the mechanics of the game, rules, general understanding of the game, and how to remove my ego from the game, to sit back and let the analyst be our guy. I’ll follow along and hopefully ask the questions that the casual fan might have, but one that the purist already knows the answer to. I know, the purists are going to say, ‘Uh-oh. He’s talking about offside.’ But I’ll tell you this, I already understand offside now, better than I understood the NBA illegal defense after 21 years.

You’ve described the similarities between basketball and soccer. What are they?
All good players see angles, be it basketball or hockey or soccer. Soccer players talk about slots, football players talk about going across the grain. They’re trying to find a gap, some space to operate. I see soccer the same way, and the players see it the same way. By drawing the defense to them, someone else is bound to be open and the best way to advance the ball is by passing. Very few guys in basketball can split a defense on the dribble and I’m sure the same is true for soccer. You see a lot of guys who are fluid on the dribble, but very few can break down a defense alone. That’s what I mean by a game of angles.

The fact that all league games will be on KING or KONG means that the next wave of fans could come to know soccer and the Sounders through you, right?
People can become passionate about those games because their broadcasters are passion about it. {Seatle P-I columnist] Art Thiel told me once that, early on, fans loved and followed the Sonics because if a decent guy like Bob Blackburn was passionate about it, then by-golly, you should jump on board as well. You’re the eyes and ears of a lot it. Obviously, we’re trying to appeal to the casual fan, and not be too wordy, nor too elemental fan that you bore the hardcore fan. The hardcore fan, you might as well entertain them a little bit. They don’t need me, the play-by-play guy. But the color guy can provide knowledge to the hardcore fan. Our crowd is going to be consisting of a lot of folks who haven’t sat down to watch a match, and get them to stay with it for 90 minutes.

In soccer, sometimes the spectacle–the big picture of all that’s happening in the stadium–is the show. Any ideas of how to best capture all that’s going on?
I watched the MLS All-Star game on ESPN, and there were any number of crowd shots. You don’t want to miss play, obviously, but as you say, the crowd is part of the spectacle of the game. They are loud, they are painting their faces, they’re wearing the colors, and it becomes a huge social event. There are so few of these home games, the crowds are really going to come out and really have a good time, and you want to convey that, not necessarily with words, but pictures. We’ll have an experienced production crew that have done soccer before, with a pretty good understanding of what to show and at the appropriate time. It’s all part of the presentation. Letting in breathe. It doesn’t need to be wordy. Let’s hear the crowd, the chant, the cowbell or whatever. It’s all part of a good broadcast.