By Kevin Koczwara
Bill LiIttlefield has been talking sports on his weekly radio show Only a Game on WBUR and NPR since 1993. Since Only a Game’s inception, Littlefield and his team of producers/reporters have brought a special perspective to sports and sports news and commentary.
Only a Game doesn’t take the easy way out. It doesn’t report on the easy or hot-button stories every week. Instead, Littlefield and company work at finding different angles to over reported and over hyped stories, to finding gems hidden beneath the footprints other journalists leave while forgetting the value of digging deeper and seeing stories in another light. Only a Gamei’s a radio program dedicated to exploring and discovering.
One thing Littlefield has reported on that other major media outlets have ignored over the years is soccer. Only a Game doesn’t mock or look at soccer like an outsider. In fact, unlike many other major sports shows, the radio show treats the game like any other American sport. It pays attention to the details of soccer. Littlefield reports the hell out of the game. He has prominent voices in the soccer world on for interviews. And he knows the game, inside and out.
My love of the radio show has grown the last few years. Since graduating from college, I have looked for places to watch matches at early hours of the morning. I found those places in Boston, 40 minutes away from where I live in the beautiful city of Worcester. While driving to Boston, I listen to Littlefield on WBUR — Saturdays at 7:00 a.m. EST. I grew to love waking up and driving to watch a match. So much so that when I stay home to watch Saturday morning games, I listen to Littlefield as I prepare coffee on my iPhone, streaming it.
Some of my favorite reporting and commentary on the domestic game of soccer has come from Littlefield. His report on the status of magicJack (more on that in the interview) really settled in the pit of my stomach. His work on Steve Ralston’s retirement from the New England Revolution was heart-warming. I can still see myself sitting in my car in front of a Panera before work, listening to the report on Morning Edition and thinking, “this is real reporting and commentary.”
A few weeks ago I got up the nerve to ask Littlefield for an interview. Here’s what we talked about. Well, the soccer stuff anyways.
The Soccer Guys: What was your first story for NPR
Bill Littlefield: Al Nipper, who was pitching for the Red Sox at that time, had an opportunity to pitch against Tom Seaver, who was at the end of his career and at that point was pitching for the White Sox. Nipper told the story that he use to sneak into the stadium at St. Louis to watch Tom Seaver pitch when the Mets came in to play against the Cardinals. And Seaver was his idol. Nipper was telling everybody how thrilled he was to pitch against the man that had been his idol and at one point he said, “I have a copy of his book in my locker and I’m going to go over and see if he’ll sign it,” which struck me as extremely funny at the level of the major leagues and a lot of people did the story, but I did it for NPR. I actually did it for WBUR and then Morning Edition re-ran it.
SG: What was your first soccer story for NPR?
BL: It was probably 1991 when the [U.S.] Women’s National Team was in Cambridge. They played a two game series against the Norwegian team. It was sponsored by the New England Sports Museum.
I went over the the hotel where the players were staying and got to know some of them and Anson Dorrance, who was the coach — I spent a fair amount of time talking with him. And then I took my kids to see the game — one of the two games was at Turfts and the other down in Connecticut — and was absolutely thrilled with that. I think that was the first soccer story I did for Public Radio.
SG: How have you seen the Women’s game grow since then? How have you seen it develop?
BL: I don’t know. That’s a tough question to answer because it’s tough to know week to week what the health of the pro league is. We watched one pro league come and go after only three years and we’ve seen the current pro league really struggle to get the kind of national sponsors that they need, even operating at the lower level of compensation, the model they’ve now assumed. So it’s kind of hard to tell. It’s fun to watch. The players are great fun to interview. And when my kids were younger I’d take them to a game. It was the first season ticket I ever bought. I split the season ticket to the Breakers in their first season with a neighbor down the street. So, I went to about six home games with my kids and we had a great time.
I wish it the best. It’s a tough time to try and sustain something like that.
BL: No. I wasn’t. I would have been astonished if they hadn’t kicked that guy out of the league.
SG: When you were reporting that, I how did people respond?
BL: We heard from both. There were a lot of people who e-mailed and said, “This guy’s a disgrace and the sooner they get him out of the league the better.” And there were other people who felt we kind of piled on because other people had reported his excesses.
I got a very strange e-mail from the owner himself because we said we tried to reach him and he hadn’t got back to us. He said, “if you couldn’t reach me and tried to reach me you must be a dumbass because I’m easy to reach.” We used all the contacts we were given. We used contacts a reporter in Florida had given us, a phone number and e-mail, and he didn’t respond to anything that we used. So, we couldn’t include him in the story.
He’s the only owner of a sports franchise that has personally called me a dumbass. I’m sure any number of them might agree, but he’s the only one who actually said it.
SG: You seem like one of the few sports personalities in mainstream media who makes a conscious effort to report on soccer and the teams for your show “Only a Game.” What’s made you want to do that over the years?
BL: Part of it is personal. When I went to Barcelona years ago and got to see FC Barcelona play at home, it was an amazing experience — 110,000 people cheering and waving banners, families, absolutely no hostility in the crowd, just everybody out to have a good time, and of course the soccer exhibition was phenomenally good. It wasn’t nearly as good as Barcelona is today, but they were still brilliant.
I got an opportunity close to the beginning of the women’s national team to see them play and meet some of the women and meet Anson Dorenth. Then when the Revolution started they were incredibly accessible. At the draft to put the team together I sat between Mike Burns and Alexi Lalas and they were commenting on the guy that the Revolution drafted — ‘yeah I played against that guy in Michigan in a tournament five years ago,’ that kind of thing.
It’s partly that the access has been so great and partly because I like the game. If you give me the opportunity to go to any sports event, any type-flight competition, I’ll take the World Cup or Women’s World Cup anytime. So, that’s certainly part of it.
The other thing is that this show has made a commitment to not restrict ourselves to the major leagues or other sports events that others cover so exhaustively.
SG: Do you ever get listener e-mails complaining about it?
BL: Yes. We get listener e-mails saying, “how come you do so much soccer stuff? I don’t care about soccer.” We also get e-mails saying, “thanks for doing soccer. The only other time we hear soccer mentioned on sports programs is when people think it’s smart to mock it.” So we hear from both sides.
SG: What was your experience in Barcelona?
BL: WBUR use to have this program called “Citizen’s of the World Tour” and different people who worked here at the station would go off on trips with listeners of the station to different countries. They came to me and said, “we want to put you on one of these Citizen of the World Tours, where would you like to go?” I said I would like to go to Spain. So off we went.
We went Barcelona and to Seville and spent about two weeks there. My favorite part of the trip was the first night when we went to see Barcelona play Racing Santander. It wasn’t much of a game, Barcelona was much the better side, but it was a fantastic experience.
I wasn’t a big soccer fan at that point. I read about Barcelona and I ended up doing a story about their history and the fact that they were the team Franco wished would go away because it was such a hot bed of resistance. It was just a joy to watch a game in that stadium.
SG: When you meet someone what’s your favorite sporting event, is that what comes up?
BL: Yeah, that and the opportunity to go see things like the Women’s World Cup games with my kids and Breakers games with my kids.
More recently, my older daughter had an internship with the LA Times a couple of years ago after she got out of college and I went out to LA and we went to see the Women’s League Championship game at the Home Depot Center. It was great fun.
SG: How do you explain to someone, maybe another journalist, why you love this game so much?
BL: I don’t think I’ve ever had to explain it. I guess my feeling is people make their own choices.
Mine have changed over the years. Up until probably 15 years ago, maybe a little more than that, if someone had said to me, “what’s your favorite sport?” I would have said baseball. “And if you can go to any championship, which one would you go to?” I would have said the World Series. But from coaching my own kids and as I said going to games, meeting players, meeting coaches — I got to get to know Steve Nicol a little bit the years he was coaching the Revolution and he was just a smart funny guy.
I think the other thing that happened was that because the press box during a friendly for the national team or an exhibition game or during a Revolution game, it’s not such a cluby place as the press box at Fenway Park for example. So I would often sit next to Frank Dell’Apa and Gus Martins, when he was working for the Herald, and they would talk to me about the game. And I would say, “it looks like such and such and so and so.” And they would say, “well, you haven’t got that quite right. Let me explain to you what’s really going on out there.” So I had some great teachers and tutors.
One of them was Greg Lalas before he was working as a broadcaster. I sat next to him one day in the upper press box and he was sort of explaining to me the geography and geometry the players were trying to create on the field and it was fascinating. Of course, he had been a player with the Revolution and played at a high level. You can learn a lot sitting next to someone like that at a game.
SG: What do you think of the New England Revolution hiring Jay Heaps as its new manager?
BL: I don’t know him. I knew him as a player a little bit. It’s a risky move to hire somebody who has no coaching experience, but he certainly has experience within the organization and I would imagine that the level of respect he has from other players is pretty significant. He has one huge advantage and that is he is coming into a team that has underperformed. If he can even get them to the playoffs next year people will say he did a good job. He has that going for him. But who knows. We’ll see.
SG: Favorite Soccer Book that you read?
BL: I really liked “Fever Pitch”. I thought it was terrific. And I just finished another book and interviewed the author, Simon Kuper, “Soccer Men”. It’s essays that he’s written over probably the last 15 years and I don’t really follow the Premiership, I don’t really follow the Italian league, I do follow La Liga a little bit, but he had wonderful stories about players I didn’t know very much about and he’s such a good writer, so tongue and cheek, so entertaining.
Kevin Koczwara can be reached at email@example.com.