The Bridge to Broadcasting... From Playing Days to the Studio
Marc Watts is a Founding Partner at Marc’d Academy: The Broadcast Training Institute in Los Angeles. He's also the former Director of Media Talent & Development at NFL Network. Over a career spanning 25 years, Watts has discovered and shaped the careers of 650 on-air media personalities including more than 100 athletes who he has helped transition to the broadcast booth.
SPORTSPR: Despite the fact many athletes do end up in broadcast careers, there are so many who pursue it and never make it. What would you say are the biggest challenges for athletes who want to make the jump?
MARC WATTS: The biggest challenge most athletes face is that they don’t PREPARE for it. They work out and train hard to become a pro athlete and broadcasting requires a similar discipline and work ethic. You don’t just stop playing pro sports one day and master broadcasting the next. Unfortunately many pro ballers think that is the case.
Retired athletes are smart in that they utilize their celebrity status to get themselves on TV into guest analyst roles, but most of them turnout to be very poor analysts. They don’t work at their craft. They take it for granted and think being successful as a sports analyst means stepping in front of the camera or behind the microphone and simply talking. It’s so much more than that.
There’s something called the TV “curiosity factor” which will draw eyeballs and attract viewers to the person on TV, but it’s largely superficial: the on-air look, the newness of the player sitting in the chair and the hype networks put into promoting the fact the athlete is appearing on their network. That curiosity factor is only a small piece of one’s TV success. That draws people in.
To keep that viewer tuned in coming back for more, an analyst has to impress the viewer/listener with what he/she says and how they say it. That’s the real struggle, and that’s where many athletes fail in crossing over.
Let’s just take a look at a handful of former athletes, who’ve done exceedingly well at broadcasting -- Troy Aikman, Nate Burleson, Chris Collingsworth, Jessica Mendoza, Warren Moon, Kenny Smith, Stephanie Ready and Maria Taylor. They have all put in hard work on the grammar, speaking, presentation, timing, listening and homework asp
SPR: What do you look for in new talent / what indicates that someone has what it takes?
A) Off the wall sick knowledge of the game they played.
B) A willingness to express their opinion.
3) No fear or worry about making a current player mad at you.
D) A willingness to be coached. If an athlete brings those four skills to my training table, I can mold him or her into a quality analyst, reporter, host or anchor.
SPR: Most athletes will readily admit they dislike dealing with the media. When they become members of the media, does that perception shift for them? Do they gain a new appreciation for the role?
MW: Yes on both questions and most of them learn immediately how difficult this work really is. It's a brotherhood, yes, like their playing days, but the seasoned analysts look at the new guy as someone who is coming for their job, so they're reluctant in the beginning to provide the new guy much help. It's part of the rite of passage and survival of the fittest. Many of the newcomers get humbled in the early going, stammering, stuttering, and coming off too green in front of the camera. I launched my broadcast training school to prevent that. The name Marc'd came from a former student of mine who felt he was a finished product and then he said to me after a training session, "I've now been Marc'd". It's kind of self-serving (yes!) but my son said ‘Dad go with it, it's a cool name for your company!’ Many athletes also decide to go into the media because they want to stay in the spotlight. That's the wrong reason. They should desire to become a member of the media because they want to improve the discussion of their respective sports. The goal is to educate, entertain and provoke the audience. And sports media networks rely on the men and women who played sports to improve the coverage of sports.
SPR: You are notorious for being a tough coach and not pulling any punches when it comes to critiquing new talent. How do top tier athletes react to that?
MW: Most top tier talent, because they've been coached and instructed their entire careers, appreciate a touch media coach. Most of them tell me something like this. "Look Marc, throughout my career people told me how good I was. I'm not looking for that from you. I want you to tell me how bad I am, what I'm not doing right and how to fix it! Well---most of them are telling the truth. They welcome the tough love, the tough criticism and they want to be bluntly told what they're doing wrong and how to fix it. I’ve run into problems coming down too hard on a guy on the telephone, having never met him before, or giving him a tough critique via email. When they can't actually see me in person, but am hearing or reading how hard I'm coming down on them, sometimes resentment and frustration on their part can develop. I've learned over the years of having done this work to be gentle on the phone and through email. Get tough in the classroom face to face.
SPR: Who was your favorite athlete to work with at the Network and why?
MW: No single one in particular, but every athlete I've ever worked with, man or woman has been different. Each person's journey from his or her playing days into the broadcast studio is so very different. Former athletes start the transition from not only their own unique playing background, but from their own unique perspective on what the media is. And that's where the real TV work starts, helping those players understand their new roles, defining what type of analysts they want to be and then forging ahead and coming up with a long term plan that will enable them to reach the status of credible analysts. Everyone who tries his hand at this is a TV work-in-progress. You never totally master every one thing. There's so much to teach and so many ways to get better. I really don't have a favorite athlete I've worked with and I very rarely drop names of men and women I've worked with, but I will tell you my very first broadcast student was Warren Moon. That one worked out pretty well for me.
He is currently a Seahawks broadcaster and today, is a gifted public speaker. When he was inducted into the NFL Hall of Fame in 2006, I was seated in the front row in Canton, Ohio and tears streamed down my face. Not because he was the first Black QB ever inducted into the H.O.F. but because I was overcome with emotion listening to the power of his words and the strength of his presentation during his acceptance speech.
Those tears of joy reflect the reward I feel when people step out onto a stage and carry out the work that we've put in during a practice session. Every day, I get those rewards when I watch TV or listen in on the radio. I still feel like a small piece of me is on TV, on all the different networks, when I hear and watch the people I've trained across the media landscape.
This work is like teaching somebody how to swim. It involves a lot of trust. Once the student client learns how to stay afloat on live television, it then becomes a matter of perfecting the stroke. Each person improves at a different rate and I've never worked with anyone who I couldn't teach "how to swim." Sometimes there is smooth water, sometimes there is choppy water. As long as they know their respective sport and are willing to dive in, I can teach him or her how to present it as a TV analyst.
SPR: Is there a current athlete you would love to see pursue an on-air career?
MW: Charles Woodson/Raiders is the most attractive analyst candidate out there. He has a lot of the raw materials that would make a successful NFL analyst. There's a cool factor to him, that certain ‘je ne sais quoi’ that very few broadcasters have. He's accomplished and well spoken with a high football IQ. Peyton Manning and Dwight Freeney too.
Those three fellas come to mind because they're likely going to be available soon and can bring relevancy and new layers of football to the discussion that some of the guys who've been out of the league for a while can't bring. Chris Canty/Ravens, A.J. Hawk/Bengals, John Kuhn/Packers, Steve Smith Sr./Ravens and Benjamin Watson/Saints will be good on TV as well when they hang em' up.
What the NFL world lacks is a guy like Barkley. Often times the truth is not being said, for fear of setting off the wrath of players and certain teams. And that's understandable. All NFL athletes retire leaving many friends behind, and they sometimes tap dance around certain issues and storylines because they don't want to diss their friends still in the league.
That's why I admire Charles Barkley because he's not trying to make friends, nor err on the side of political correctness. He's one-of-a-kind. He speaks his mind, which is often the voice that the guys speak when they're sitting down watching a game together. Three days ago Barkley said, 'Tim Duncan is pretty much done.' Well that's what a lot of sports fans believe already, so how is that opinion of Barkley's wrong. I like a guy like who's willing to credibly step out of the safe lane and speak his mind. Here's another one for you in the NBA: Matt Barnes. I believe he will make a good analyst one day in the NBA world, and he also wants to cross over and do football! The jobs aren't as plentiful in basketball as they are in football, even less in baseball and hockey. As I look across the sports media landscape, there are too many generic sounding mediocre analysts. The audiences are getting smarter so we as the media must give that audience smarter more intelligent sports analysis.