Wednesday, May 9, 2012

One on One with FOX Soccer's Rob Stone

Article by Luke Lohr

Rob Stone is a veteran of American soccer. His voice has graced many a television tuned in to American soccer. The FOX Soccer analyst was kind enough to lend his time to answer questions across a wide range of topics affecting the American game at present. His credentials speak for themselves when you consider his time with ESPN beginning in 1992 and then sustainably with ESPN from 1997 through January of 2012.

Fans of Major League Soccer will remember Rob’s voice in MLS Primetime Thursday or on Soccer Saturdays. Perhaps they remember Stone quietly correcting Don Garber at the Columbus Crew’s MLS Championship. Fans of collegiate football might even remember a chili pepper incident. Stone was even the voice of Pro Bowling and Professional Darts at certain points. Ultimately though, an argument can be made that he is best known for soccer and for him, soccer is best known. Read on to find out what Stone thinks of MLS, Designated Players and the American broadcasting scene. He also takes a shot at who wins MLS Cup.

MLS Reserves: Rob you’ve had the unique opportunity to view the game as an analyst and sports anchor since before Major League Soccer began. Talk about what it’s like now as you for you as you look at the on field product here in 2012.

Rob Stone: “So many different changes between the names…literally the look of the uniforms, the way sides are presented, the make up of teams and the overall skill level. If you were to stop and look back to where they were when they began to where they are now and see a completely different product between then and now.”

“It has grown from an industry of hope that was based on the youth of America to one that is embracing soccer culture and has been embraced by an American population that is growing in the right dynamic as far as marketers and sales folks. There are people now who are invested in the league that have the money to do so and see return in pure sales and merchandise. It’s not mom and dad bringing their kids to the game and hoping they sit still until the next cotton candy arrives…. Real soccer fans are here now, including those young kids because they’re now coming with educated parents.”

“I mean what an amazing difference. It says a lot for how far American soccer has progressed, even if there is still a long ways to go. You know, the technical ability of the players coming out of the college and high school ranks is much improved. MLS has figured out the type of guy to go out and get from overseas. The uniforms haha, they’re much cleaner and sharper.”

“I’ve always been a guy who thought ‘if you see the gear out there, you’re doing something right’. I was at a Target in Los Angeles a few weeks ago and there were Seattle Sounders shirts on sale. I bought two! I was ecstatic! To me that’s awesome, I was embracing it.”

MLS Reserves: Saying that players are coming into MLS from the college game more prepared is almost in direct contrast to a few years back when we thought “you know, this next crop of players just doesn’t have it…” and then we see someone like Darrius Barnes play every minute in his first season. Players are now coming out of the college game able to contribute more than ever, why do you think that is?

Rob Stone: “Well, they’re contributing and playing more because they’ve grown up playing more. They’ve grown up with better coaching and they’re playing this sport  multiple times a week rather than being distracted by dad trying to put them in football gear because that’s what he grew up with.”

“A team does not consist of one highly paid European player. Right? You’ve got to have role players. I don’t care what sport or in what league you tell me, you have got to have role players! And these guys are coming in and doing what they’re told…that’s why you’re seeing the American players make a bigger impact. Do we still need more [number] 10’s and goal scorers? Absolutely. But we’re seeing more outside defenders and central defenders and defensive midfielders…now we’re starting to see more attacking players come up through the ranks.”

Barnes played every minute in his rookie year for the Revolution
“You know, I’m very defensive of the college game. Not everyone at that age is ready to go pro. People mature at a different rate and some guys need more time to develop before they go pro. You know, not every Major League Baseball star out there was not drafted when he was a senior in high school! A lot of those guys went to college and became much better players and are now able to contribute in the Bigs. So I don’t buy it that the college game doesn’t help.”
MLS Reserves: You’ve mentioned before that DP’s have a responsibility to talk to the media and many would agree. Yet multiple times this year, we’ve seen players like Thierry Henry, David Beckham and Robbie Keane blow off the media. We’ve also seen them get away with what appears to be a large amount of dissent on the field. Can you expand on your original thought and whether DPs are given too much leeway?

Rob Stone: “For me, I’ve always seen Designated Players or high priced European talent coming over, to be given a responsibility to help the game here in this league and this country. You know, that’s a lot to shoulder but they’re being paid to do it.”

“That responsibility includes being a good teammate, educating your younger American teammates on the finer points of the game that you’ve been blessed to learn. It requires selling tickets and part of doing that is talking to the media, talking to the fan base and being accessible. Just as much as that young American player who sees one tenth of your playing time and one one-hundredth of your salary going out there and busting it every day. That is your responsibility to spread the gospel in our country. If you don’t do those things, then your club should act!”

David Beckham, again upset with a call.

“There should be clauses in these guys contracts and a deep discussion so there is an understanding that says number one: you are a player so help us win. Number two: you need to do A, B, C and D to help our product, help our players and help our league. That should be a non-discussion. If you can’t do that, then we are not interested in you.”

“Look at some of the guys that have done that. Peter Nowak when he was with the Fire. He really took Dema Kovalenko and DeMarcus  Beasley under his wing, as did [Hristo] Stoichkov. That is their responsibility! As is talking to the media! It’s like, your club paid a ton of money for you to be here and if you cant sit for twenty seconds and talk to the media and a national TV audience, then you’re failing in my eyes.”
Stone does place some of the onus on us. By us it is clear he means those who view the American game. It’s the fans who can be heard best now with social media, but Stone says it must go further than that. It must go to those directly in charge.

“Some of that failure is on us. It’s on the clubs, the PR directors, the GM’s and the commissioner even. They need to say ‘Guys, I don’t care what your reason or issue is. This is something you are doing. If they don’t, fine them. Fine them, fine the team, whatever. Hit them where it hurts and do whatever it takes! This is their job! Obviously this is something I feel very strongly about.”

“The officials…they take some of the blame because you’re right. Not much, but some because you’re right, it does seem like their ears are tuned away from some of the comments and criticism from some of these players versus others. This is a problem in MLS overall: a lack of respect for the officials overall. It’s one thing if it’s the captain but if someone else is in your face and barking at ya? There is no home for that. It teaches our kids a bad lesson and we need to kick it in the butt now. Crack down on it.”

MLS Reserves: You touched on the DP’s needing to be role models, but we see Thierry Henry obviously frustrated on the field with his squad. We hear Rafa Marquez last year talking about how he’s on another level. Is that more in the same vein as what you’re saying?

Rob Stone: “Yes! Absolutely! The problem is some of the folks behind the scenes say the same things and it does no good for anybody. All it does is divide the team. Again, I’m not the one writing the checks or paying for these clubs but I’ve seen enough to know that if I was in full control I’d say: ‘We’re done with ya. That’s not what we paid for.  I’ll chew some salary and ship you to another league but you are not helping our team with that attitude. And you’re essentially stealing money from our league.’ You know, that stuff makes me sick.”
A bit of a fun memory here for many. Rob Stone calling a 2003 MLS bout between Bob Bradley's then New York MetroStars and DC United:

MLS Reserves: Switch gears for me a bit. Talk about the challenges a broadcaster faces when covering a sport where the domestic game is sometimes ignored in favor of oversees competition.

Rob Stone: “You hit on a couple issues in my eyes. Number one, I’ve been fortunate enough to work a couple different sports from different angles and without a doubt soccer is the most challenging sport to call and really properly document. Without the time outs, without the breaks, where do you go? I think that’s why you see so many commentators either fail or make the decision to move away from the game. They really get into it and realize they miss the basketball and the time outs or the football with the breaks…I mean, it is a tough sport to call!”

“It’s even more challenging when the expectations of so many are unrealistic. It is impossible to compare Major League Baseball to a baseball league in Germany or England. It’s just not fair. To compare Major League Soccer right now to the Premiership or La Liga, it’s not fair to MLS! MLS is a child compared to these other leagues around the world. To judge them and hold that judgement against them is wrong. That makes it challenging for us in the media.”

“When everyone is wanting the Messi’s and the Ronaldo’s of the world it’s tough. They see Messi beat five guys to score and say ‘well that guy only beat one guy to score’ it’s a challenge…but it’s also a reality. What are you going to do about it? Complain. No. It’s a blend of saying how good we can be out there and how good we are now.”

MLS Reserves:  Lastly, we’ve seen a change in the spectrum of color analysts and play by play announcers is the past year. Guys like Taylor Twellman and Alexi Lalas are finding themselves alongside the accents of Ian Darke and Arlo White. Is there significance in this? Do we need to have European accents calling games to attract fans or is it just a matter of who is better?

Here there is obvious frustration in Stone's voice. He's had this discussion before and his answer was ripe with passion. Without a doubt this is an issue that sticks close to home.

Rob Stone: “No. Do we need the foreign accent? Absolutely not. Many times I find it disrespectful to the sport here in the United States. Is that a knock on those announcers? Not at all. Are they all very talented and qualified? Absolutely. But, I think we are not giving the American voice its true opportunity at some times and that is frustrating.”

“I think there need to be more progress made in nurturing some American voices because…we are in America! That’s the part that annoys me! If you hear an accent, there are bosses out there that think ‘Well that’s just perfect!’ just because there’s an accent. That’s not across the board because I love the Adrians [Healey] the Arlos [White] and the Ians of the world and I mean that. I have a high level of respect for them…I just feel like there are some American voices that are being overlooked at times and that frustrates me.”

Rob Stone and Eric Wynalda, American voices now with FOX Soccer
Rob goes on to continue explaining that while he is very serious about American talent in the booth, he has the utmost respect for those European voices now. In particular he points out Warren Barton, who he has gotten to know quite well in his time at Fox.

Most interestingly is that our conversation echoes the words I’ve had with guys like Allen Hopkins or Alexi Lalas. Each say that those European accents are fine and well respected but that at some point, emphasis must be put on finding an American voice to define the American game.

To close out, I put Rob on the spot.

MLS Reserves: It’s week ten so it’s early, but who wins MLS Cup?

Rob Stone: “Uhh…let’s go with Sporting Kansas City…? Haha, I’m a sucker for offense. I love the speed, I love the stadium and having said that I’d like to see them continue their success and I think they can. Also, I love that the home team hosts MLS Cup…can you imagine….”

There you have it. Rob Stone’s veteran knowledge and wisdom says that Sporting takes it home this year.

In all seriousness we thank Rob for his time. It was clear throughout the conversation how passionate he is for his craft and for the game in this country. His experiences have molded his viewpoints and after having covered the game for so long, his opinions should be taken to heart. Stone now works as an analyst and anchor for Fox Soccer alongside Warren Barton and Eric Wynalda.

1 comment:

  1. Really good interview! I've only been following MLS since 2009 when the Sounders came in, and didn't follow anything before that.

    I've been playing for a while though. Having said that, what the hell rules was MLS playing with in 2003? I knew about the shootouts. But a bunch of 5 minutes period's, etc...?? I never played with rules like that in any league I played in, although I didn't play when I was a kid.

    Jeez. That put's a lot into perspective. :)

    Keep it up Luke!