Sports has still not quite shut down entirely around the world. In Minsk on March 19, FC Energetik BGU shocked BATE Borisov 3–1 in the opening match of the Belorussian premier league. That remains the last football league standing in Europe. In Australia, Melbourne City won the women’s soccer championship, beating Sydney FC 1–0 last Saturday. And in England, well, this is how rugby play-by-play man Nick Heath described a championship final contested recently.
Heath may be out of work, but he’s not out of material. His impassioned calls of the pups Vanilla and Chocolate, of two guys playing soccer badly, of a dude picking out a shirt in a discount clothing store, of people crossing the street, of women pushing strollers, and of people shopping for vegetables—have gone viral, filling a void in a world without live sports. He spoke about the endeavor, his pandemic life, and about the nature of play-by-play commentary with the hosts of Slate’s sports podcast Hang Up and Listen on Monday’s episode. You can read a portion of their conversation below, which has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Stefan Fatsis: You started posting these videos on Twitter about a week ago with the hashtag #lifecommentary, and they’ve taken off. The dogging finals is closing in on half a million views. Were you just bored? Or was doing play-by-play of people shopping for crudite in a supermarket a lifelong dream?
Nick Heath: Totally. It’s proved to be the very zenith of my career. Yeah, no—it was a sense of seeing basically all of my actual sporting engagements as a play-by-play commentator falling out of the calendar as more and more sport got postponed or canceled. Decided to go for a bit of a walk, filmed a couple of guys playing a bit soccer on the common, and then thought, well, I could just sit here and do a bit of voiceover on this and use a kind of old ham commentary voice that I used to use, sort of, 15 years or so ago as a bit of a joke. Thought basically about five or six of my followers might find it slightly entertaining, and then I’ve gone more viral than coronavirus. So yeah, I’m also actually quite interested, I need to ask you guys on that side of the pond: Do you know what dogging refers to?
Joel Anderson: No, I’m unfamiliar with the term.
Heath: Excellent. I’m going to let you look that up in Urban Dictionary. And obviously it was a nice reference to there being a couple of dogs running around. But to Brits, that word has a slightly different meaning. I thought if it reached an international audience, it would be quite fun for those on the American side of the pond to perhaps not quite know what it’s referring to.
Josh Levin: A research project for all of us. So you’re creeping on people who are just out and about, and then are you recording the commentary afterward when you get home?
Heath: The first couple I did in situ, and then as I was a little closer to people, I thought it might be less acceptable for me to be talking about them or at them or around them. So I took them home and then just whacked out a quick voiceover and stuck them up. Didn’t take too much time over them to be honest. I think part of the nature of wanting it to sound as live and spontaneous as possible is not to sit here scripting it; it’s just to stick it down and away you go.
Although, it’s interesting. As it’s gone more viral, and the demands from people are [increasing]. “We need more; we need more levity in our lives during these unprecedented times!” It’s like, OK, this is good but A) people are going into quarantine and B) people are going to start noticing me standing on street corners just filming them randomly. So there’s a bit of trickery to it that I need to master if I’m going to produce any more material.
Anderson: Yeah. Well Nick, I was curious to know, has anybody noticed themselves in the videos and reached out to you or said, “Hey, that was me, the leggings, that won the race across the street”?
Heath: Yeah, three-time champion. Yeah, no, they haven’t is the answer. I’ve sort of tried to film them in a way that doesn’t really show people’s faces too much, because I think that’s only considerate. Nobody has authorized themselves to be in these videos in a modern release-form world. If anybody had a problem with it, I would quite quickly take the video down. I don’t want to infringe on anybody. But the idea is to just get the backs of people or be slightly further enough away that nobody feels too exposed by what they’re seeing. But that hopefully the film and the cadence of the audio is enough for people to be duped into thinking there’s some kind of real sporting occasion taking place.
Levin: The economics of coronavirus are devastating for people around the world. You’re losing work; you’ve lost work. What is your situation? Do you typically work on a contract basis? Or do you have any kind of income coming in at this point?
Heath: Well, the gig started to go, and I could see the equivalent of, let’s say, four or five months worth of mortgage payment were disappearing from my income, which obviously, it was worrying. I think many of us hoped that this could be a two-, three-, four-week hiatus and then, OK, some things might be canceled or postponed. But most of it would come back straight away. But obviously we’ve seen seasons now been canceled full on. And I think some tournaments and championships might try and resurrect themselves in the summer. But, I think for a lot of them there’s so much uncertainty. We don’t know when the sport’s coming back. And it’s a case of sort of trying to keep the faith. Also the further these life commentary videos go, I don’t know if anyone’s going to ever take me seriously as a commentator again. But it’s a really uncertain time.
What’s been incredibly humbling is that I put a post up just to my PayPal link that said, “Look, if these things have made you laugh, you’re very welcome to stick the equivalent of a price for a cup of coffee or a beer into the pot.” And a lovely amount of people have done; it’s certainly probably put in a couple of months worth of income for me, which has been extraordinary. [So] I found a way to make a bit of revenue. I’ve also done a couple of little online livestream pub quizzes from my YouTube channel. Which I sort of did for family and friends, but the word spread after I did the first one, and about 900 people joined me for the second one. So I’ve sort of, out of nothing, managed to find a way to get a bit of income.
But beyond that, sport and the whole surrounding area is huge. And whether it’s on the production side, whether it’s people in radio and TV and the people who operate the cameras. And then in the sports teams themselves, the people in the social media departments, the marketing, the security—there are so many jobs that rely on sport. And it’s devastating for huge amounts of people who are now locked away, sad at home. And for many of them, in the gig economy, [they] are seeing their livelihoods put on hold.
Fatsis: And as entertainment, it sort of refocuses us all as to how much sports matter to us and what role they play in our lives. And I’m curious a little bit over here in the States: The NBA kicked things off when Rudy Gobert tested positive and the league immediately shut down. England was a little slower with the Premier League and other sports to acknowledge the reality of the spread of the virus and how it was going to impact sports and whether they should continue.
Did you notice a difference over there in terms of how people reacted to the loss of sports? And did they want it to continue despite the news?
Heath: I think there was a bit of a split. You’ve always got a section of people in society around these kinds of things that think they’re impervious to it, that think that they’re bulletproof, and I think you guys have had it over there with the film, with videos that we’ve seen of all the kids out at spring break who seem to be paying no attention to it. We’ve had similar people out in the bars here at times who’ve just said, “Look, this is a bar in the middle of Manchester. There’s no way the virus is in there.” And you just—head in hands. Like, what on Earth are you talking about? This thing needs to be contained, and you’ve got no idea where it is.
Sportswise, my last women’s Six Nations game—the annual rugby union international tournament that takes place in February and March—my third game of the five-game series was, or five weekends series, was towards the end of Feb. 22. I then had a weekend of premiership highlights commentary the week after that. And then my next game was due to be Scotland against France, and there was a Scotland women’s player who tested positive for COVID-19. So that one got wiped. In a very similar time, we started seeing everything else going down as well. So yeah, I think at that stage the fans and most people started to go, “Look, we shouldn’t be going to live sporting events here. We shouldn’t be getting into big crowds.” And I think it did take a few governing bodies a little longer to believe that they had to take that action, probably because ultimately they knew what the financial burden would be. And I think we’re all discovering how hand-to-mouth sport can be despite the revenue, despite the TV money, despite the sponsorship. Actually once you stop having people coming in through the gates, these clubs are struggling to make ends meet.
Levin: What is your philosophy on sports commentary? Because we get the sense that watching these videos, it’s not necessarily the same Nick that we would hear in a rugby union match. But this is just one of the many things in sports that I think we don’t realize how important it is and how much we miss it and how integral it is: a broadcaster. Because I think there’s some school of thought that the commentator is best when he kind of blends into the background and isn’t noticed, and that’s not what you were trying to do in the find-a-brunette-a-seat-with-the-blonde-girls qualifier. But what has this made you think about or realize in terms of your job and how you try to do it?
Heath: Yeah. I think there’s no recent realization. I think I have long seen commentary as being a part of the big picture. I think most of our greatest moments in sport are as great as they are because the right commentators have said the right lines at the right moment. I don’t think that the commentator should be front and center. Certainly he is in the clips I’m doing, because I think he’s bringing the sporting sound and cadence and ambiance to it where there is none. And I think that’s the kind of juxtaposition with the banality that’s making it work.