Sunday night’s DC United – New England Revolution MLS match (7:30 p.m. EDT on FS1) will feature history. For the first time ever in a men’s professional soccer match, the broadcast crew will consist entirely of women.
Lisa Byington, who made history last fall by becoming the first woman to narrate play-by-play of a football game on the Big Ten Network in the Bowling Green State University-Northwestern University contest, will handle the play-by-play commentary.
She’ll be joined by Danielle Slaton, an alumna of the United States Women’s National Team on analysis, and Katie Witham, a former in-game reporter of local Cleveland Indians telecasts on SportsTime Ohio and current FS1 MLS broadcaster, will handle the sideline duties.
In college, Witham also played as a defender on the Capital University women’s soccer team in Columbus, Ohio.
Witham, who is in her second full season on FS1’s MLS broadcasts, said Friday evening via telephone interview that she’s thrilled to take part in this historic telecast.
“I’m very excited,” Witham said. “I’m also nervous, which I think is a good thing because I used to get nervous back in my playing days, and that always meant that it was an important game. I’m excited, I’m nervous, I’m humbled and I’m honored to be able to work with both Danielle and Lisa.”
Witham said that she wasn’t sure how this historic broadcast came to be, but she noted that it’s been in the works for some time. “It was even discussed last season,” she said, “but FOX gave it the go this year, and I believe that Shaw Brown, our FOX Sports producer on everything soccer, who produced everything you saw for the World Cup in Russia and does all of our national Major League Soccer games, was the one that really forced the issue.”
Every week, Witham opens up her telecast with a brief pregame show. She discussed the challenges of squeezing in the pertinent details of the day’s contest in a short window and hosting it solo.
“It’s a unique hosting role, opening the show solo on the sideline,” she said. “Typically, when you see a pregame, you have a host and he’s got company, that’s the key word. So, there’s typically someone always sitting next to you that you could kind of lean on, so I really enjoy the challenge and I’m flattered that they wanted me to do that, starting last season, but you’re right. Fitting an enormous amount of information in a small time slot, it’s tough, but I do a lot of prep work and I want to make sure I get it right every single week.”
Witham said it was difficult pinpointing the impact players in Sunday’s match for DC United.
“I hate predictions in terms of who’s going to win,” she said. “The fun part about soccer in general and this league, with Major League Soccer, is you truly never know from week to week. That’s what makes it fun, but if recent history tells us anything, I think Wayne Rooney is going to have another big part in what happens on Sunday. The little one-two punch between himself and Luciano Acosta has been so much fun to watch, so I’m expecting the two of them to have another big game on Sunday for DC United.”
She then zeroed in on the Revolution’s recent form. “New England is kind of trending in the opposite direction,” she said. “They started off really hot and streaked at the beginning of the season. Now they’re in the middle of a skid. I worked with [former Tottenham Hotspur goalkeeper] Brad Friedel, their head coach, who was with FOX Sports, so I think the most interesting part about doing this game is, instead of being my co-worker, he’s now going to be a coach that I’m going to be listening into on the sideline. It’ll be interesting to see how he reacts to me throwing some questions at him, but he’s a good friend of mine. I’m looking forward to it.”
Witham went on to mention the Revolution’s impact player in the match. “I’ve always been a big fan of Teal Bunbury,” she said. “It’s gone in spurts of the starting minutes he gets, and sometimes they like to use him as kind of a super sub role coming in off the bench to give them energy, but when he is on the field, he makes an impact in certain ways. His dad was a former professional player. He comes from a long line of good soccer teams, and you can see them when he’s out there. I expect in some way, whether he comes off the bench for New England or he does start, he’ll have an impact.”
The MLS community was rocked last fall when Columbus Crew SC owner Anthony Precourt revealed plans to possibly relocate the charter franchise from Ohio to Austin, TX.
Witham, who began her sports television career in Columbus as the Crew’s sideline reporter for the now-defunct Ohio News Network, offered her opinion on the scenario.
“You know how tough it is to convince someone to give you a shot,” she said. “When you’re a kid fresh out of college, it’s tough to get somebody to give you a chance because everyone’s looking for someone that has experience. So, when you finally get hold of a person that’s going to give you that first opportunity that’s going to lead you to taking the steps up the ladder, you’re so grateful. For me, the Columbus Crew essentially was that. They were my first internship in sports television broadcasting, and they were like, ‘Sure, we’d love to have her be our first sideline reporter’, like had no problem throwing a college kid out there who was a broadcasting major and soccer player.”
“Every time I go back, they’re warm and welcoming,” she continued. “The human element and the sentimental part of me, I’m very sentimental, it kind of breaks my heart thinking that there could no longer be a Columbus Crew SC. I get it. This is the sports industry. It’s ruthless, sometimes. In Major League Soccer, we don’t move organizations that often, but it’s not like it’s never happened before. It has happened before. This one hurts because Columbus is a charter team, and it’s a team that was really important in 1996, and it’s a stadium that is quirky, but it was the first soccer specific stadium in the United States. There are so many little things that make this one heartbreaking. Ultimately, I think what has to be done is what’s best for Major League Soccer. If and when it really does come, that time when everything is signed on the dotted line and they officially are moving, a little piece of my heart’s going to break.”
Witham gave a pitch to potential viewers of Sunday’s telecast.
“You can watch us on FS1,” she said. “Soccer’s becoming more popular each and every year in the United States. While it hurt us tremendously that the US was not involved in Russia this year, it was an incredible tournament with results that no one saw coming, which gathers even more interest around the sport and more buzz, and I think with the way DC United has been playing and the fact that they brought in a star the magnitude of Wayne Rooney also, not only that they brought him in, but also that he’s executed flashy moments on the field these last couple of games, why not tune in? Who knows what you’re going to miss? There’s been so much hype because we are making history, having the first all-female on-air crew for a men’s professional sporting event in the US.”
She then discussed her thoughts on whether or not soccer would eventually eclipse hockey in popularity.
“I think that’s tough to say, just because I personally do not watch a ton of hockey, so I’m not up-to-date on that,” she said. “I think that people who know the game of soccer appreciate watching it on television. More and more people are coming out to the stadiums to watch it and we are fortunate here in the US to have some of the best stadiums in the world now, LAFC being the most recent one to bring in Banc of California Stadium right in downtown Los Angeles, and it is just state-of-the-art, gorgeous, perfect on the field. I definitely think it has the potential and I’m hopeful that with another World Cup and then in 2026 with the World Cup in the United States, Mexico and Canada, with the primary portion of those games actually being in the United States, I definitely think that soccer can jump into that fourth spot and maybe even push into the third spot.”
Witham recently called quarterfinal matches for the FIFA Under-20 Women’s World Cup for FS2 off of a TV monitor in the Los Angeles studio, relying upon the international TV feed for her narration.
“You’re not working with the crew that’s calling the shots,” she said of the challenge. “You’re not working with the director that’s choosing to cut to that camera to show a close-up of that girl, or the producer choosing to go to that specific replay. You’re kind of at the mercy of the world feed and you’re reacting to that, so I have so much more respect for play-by-plays and what they do in terms of calling a game off the monitor, which, sadly in our business is becoming more of the reality with budget cuts and trying to save money.”
“Maybe they will ask me to do MLS play-by-play in the future,” she continued. “It was a great experience doing the U-20 Women’s World Cup, but it was also kind of a stressful one, because it was me doing something completely out of my comfort zone, which I’m grateful for the opportunity and it’s good to do that every now and then, but I really enjoy hosting on the sidelines. I’m happy to kind of stay in my lane and stay there for now.”
Humbled, proud, + excited to be apart of this with 2 broadcast pro’s that I admire * respect immensely. And a big thank you to all of you that instantly embraced this idea + have been nothing but supportive. I can’t wait to repay the favor + root you on! #LetsDoThis #MLS #DCvNE https://t.co/yiNnwsDgvB
— Katie Witham (@Katie_Witham) August 17, 2018
Katie Witham is a sportscaster for FS1, BTN and host of the ACC Blitz pregame show. Follow her on Twitter at @Katie_Witham.