Alvaro Martin was there. And if he says it was more than a game, you know that it was. On October 2, 2005, over 100,000 fans crammed into the Estadio Azteca in Mexico City and cheered the Arizona Cardinals to a 31 – 14 victory over the San Francisco 49ers. It was the first NFL regular season game played outside of the United States.
The memory, for the ESPN Deportes play-by-by announcer, is indelible, a rare professional experience that awakened in him the magic of watching Roberto Clemente play winter baseball when Martin was a youth in San Juan, Puerto Rico.
It was a historical moment challenging the assumed geographical and ethnic borders of sport. And the years since have been marked by an ever-increasing interest by professional leagues toward both Hispanic and other ethnic markets.
Martin is convinced the future of sport is both multilingual and multinational. “Think about it,” he says, “Think About It.” And clearly Martin has. Eventually, he says any league that considers itself international will broadcast every single game in a bevy of languages, everything from Spanish to Mandarin.
The only real obstacle, Martin concedes, is space. “Most stadiums,” he says, “most press rows and most broadcast positions were not built for multiple language broadcasting. The clearest example of that is an NBA Final or Super Bowl when you have literally dozens of broadcasters from around the world perched in every nook and cranny of a stadium that wasn’t meant for that purpose.”
Nevertheless, he argues, viewership growth for the professional leagues will occur over seas and in a different language as the leagues begin to realize that a Spanish broadcast could reach a million people, or a Mandarin broadcast tens of millions.
He is also confidant that outreach from the NFL and NBA to ethnic and foreign markets has shown a monetary return. So much so, he envisions a near future where leagues actively develop their own media in foreign languages, “you know, their own 24 hour radio channel, or 24 hour video or television channel that does nothing but talk about their sport in that language.”
ESPN Deportes, he maintains, has been a driving force in the industry. “I think that it’s like dropping a stone in a still lake. You know the ripples have had an effect. I will tell you that there has been a lot of competition that has arisen because of ESPN Deportes. Several channels, several sports channels, even traditional media, even English language broadcasters are adding SAP broadcasts to their English calls of the game.”
He points to ESPN Deportes broadcasts of Mexican soccer, arguing that geographical borders don’t matter anymore and that sports with traditional local awareness can expand into new markets. He also describes the channel as a “Godsend” for native speakers who were never aware of the NBA or NFL and the rules governing their respective games.
Social media plays a significant and helpful role. He describes the Hispanic sports market as a mosaic that is incredibly segmented by language and the level of proficiency with a given sport. “In our NBA broadcast for example, the type of questions that we get through social media tell us that a lot of fans are watching us for the first time. They ask about very basic rules, and we adapt our broadcast to make sure they feel comfortable. So we tend to explain certain rules that are not apparent in just about every broadcast ‘cause we know for a fact that we have people coming in from the cold into our sport. Same thing for the NFL.”
Repeatedly dealing with game basics can be tricky, however, especially because there’s a large segment of savvy fans. In the end, it’s about creating a compelling broadcast narrative, a team process that begins with a show’s producer.
Some producers, Martin says, have a very clear idea of what they want to show, of what they believe is going to make a good broadcast. In some cases this aligns with what the announcers think and in some cases it doesn’t. At other times producers do ask for input from the announcers and oftentimes that input actually becomes the show.
More than anything, Martin stresses, announcers need to be flexible and prepared as each sport presents its own dynamics and challenges. “In basketball,” Martin says, “you have to be pitch perfect. You have to be in the flow. You want to inform; you want to cover the physical action of the game; you want to entertain; and those three things are sometimes in conflict given what happens so quickly in that game.” Announcers have to recognize when to come in and out, knowing when to pivot quickly because something significant just happened in the game.
Martin calls football the most spectacular sport there is. As a football announcer he looks to enhance the sport by becoming part of the game. “You should not overwhelm the game with either facts or stories or your voice,” he maintains. The trick, he says, is in knowing how to support the game without getting in its way.
Martin says the biggest challenge in calling baseball is figuring out exactly what to say at every moment. “If I call a baseball game I am exhausted at the end of it in a way that I am not exhausted with the other two.” The games are a little bit longer, and require more talking, focus and memory.
“You have to focus on every single pitch,” Martin says, “and in some cases remember a number of those pitches and the sequence in which they were thrown. So if you want to be on top of your game in baseball you have to pay a lot of attention and have great memory and be able to have a sense of what is the best thing that I can say in the next 25 seconds.”
Despite his love of football, Martin is hesitant to call any particular sport the absolute best, or to single out any locale as the best sports town in America. “Who am I to say that one is better than the other? I will simply say that it amazes me to see passion for a team and a uniform.”
It never gets old, Martin concludes. Esperemos que siempre sea así.