'Sumo' does it for the love of the game
Scotty "Sumo" Stevenson loves his code. Southland Times sports editor Nathan Burdon spoke to the Sky Sport rugby commentator on the eve of the 2013 Super Rugby season and even managed to get a word in here and there.
It's the final of the 1987 Rugby World Cup and a 10-year-old Scotty Stevenson is glued to the television as broadcasting doyen Keith Quinn describes one of New Zealand's great sporting moments.
"I've told Keith this before . . . I knew I'd never be an All Black, but I really thought that one day I'd like to be like Keith Quinn," Stevenson recalls.
"To get that chance 20 years later, I was thrilled, mate. While I don't say ‘I'm Keith Quinn', I'm doing a similar job and that's pretty good really. This is what I always wanted to do. I took a pretty circular route to get here, but . . . from the age of 10 I thought this would be a great job to have. They are pretty uncommon jobs, let's be honest, but it was a childhood dream to commentate a game of footy."
Stevenson is the occasionally irreverent, always enthusiastic, bearly bearded and carefully coiffed figure who fronts much of Sky Sport's rugby coverage.
In a country where rugby is practised like religion, Stevenson glories in his place at the pulpit.
"The thing is that we take the job pretty seriously. I know some people might think I'm a bit of a clown sometimes, but only because I really enjoy the game and I find rugby fun, and you hope that comes across to people at home," Stevenson says.
"Ultimately you are in their living rooms. It's your voice . . . you are trying to make the experience as valuable as you can for those people. Every bloke has got his opinion, has got a viewpoint on things, and they are all just as valuable as ours. It's just that we are very fortunate that someone gave us this job to do. We don't think that we know any more than anyone else, it's just our job to aggregate the information available, to make it relevant."
You can still hear that 10-year-old in the commentary box from time to time. After all, how many commentators could get away with smashing pop culture references into rugby contexts like Stevenson does, ie: "The first rule of fight club is, give the ball to Lelia Masaga."
Stevenson has been with Sky for seven years, made his first-class calling debut in Wairarapa Bush's 2009 Ranfurly Shield challenge against Wellington.
It was a nervous beginning for Stevenson and begs the question, how can you possibly put names to that many faces?
"Mate, Wellington put out a team of very young players and I'd never called a game of Heartland rugby so the entire Wairarapa Bush team were new faces to me. That was a daunting prospect, but I think we got there in the end," Stevenson says.
"It's really important to know these guys. We are all going to make the odd mistake, because we are only human, but I'm really hot on getting people right because there's one group of people who watch every game of rugby - the players' mums. If you get that wrong, the first person you'll hear from is their mother."
The same goes for pronunciation of names, a challenge for any commentator working across a range of cultures.
Stevenson pays particular attention to Afrikaans names, influenced by the fact he spent time in South Africa growing up and his mother is South African, albeit of English heritage.
"There's a big audience watching around the world, it's not just New Zealand. I think in terms of Maori names, Polynesian names, I think we could all be better with those anyway. That's a work-on and again it's about asking people exactly how they say their names, and if you've got any doubts, I'm sure someone will tell you on Twitter." The key, for Stevenson, is preparation.
In the buildup to a game, he will get statistics from a variety of sources. He'll read newspapers and talk to colleagues, but he's also conspicuous for the way he'll haunt the sideline before kickoff.
"I think it's important to talk to some of the players and, if you can, the coaches - just to ask them about game trends and what they are trying to do. That way you can head into a game having an understanding of what a team's trying to achieve. In many cases that helps you to pre-empt certain things or at least have a knowledge base you can share with the people at home.
"Everyone can see the action, but you are trying to give them a bit more information that either they don't have access to or haven't had a chance to get access to."
Laboriously handwritten team sheets are embellished with notes and stats, much of which never makes it to the microphone.
"You use about 2 per cent of it in a game of rugby and that's the brilliant thing, because you never know what's going to happen.
"It's quite different to hosting a pre-game show where you know what your script is, what your talking points are. When you get behind the microphone to commentate a game, it's all about to happen. For the next 80 minutes, all bets are off and I think that's what the great thrill of doing the job is."
Stevenson studied communications at university, worked in advertising and behind a bar before washing up at Sky.
He advises anyone hoping to get their break in broadcasting to work on their writing skills first.
Stevenson's commentary role is the "play-by-play", he talks when the ball is in motion. He'll usually have an expert comments man sitting beside him and another one, the sideline eye, working down at ground level.
"From a commentary point of view, we are just the guys at the end of the chain. There are a hundred guys making this all happen in terms of cablers, cameramen, soundies, engineers, VT ops, producers, floor managers. There's a very large crew on a Super Rugby game and the three of us sit there," he says.
"You want to make it conversational, you want to make it educational, but you've also got to realise that people can see what's happening. We are trying to add those little bits of information which we hope people will find insightful and of course you are looking at how the game is developing."
Stevenson still gets nervous before a game, or before any public speaking, and knows there's no way he will be able to keep everyone happy, although they will be happy to make their opinions known.
"You try to please everyone, because I think that's a good goal. None of us go out there to annoy people, that would be silly.
"I've had a lot of compliments from people and I've had my share of criticism as well.
"A lot of it is constructive, and if someone wants to have a chat about how I do my job, and offer advice on how I could get better, you'd be silly not to take it - but you can't listen to everyone, good or bad.
"If you start to believe everything everyone tells you, you wouldn't sleep at night. You have to be confident you can do the job. If your bosses show confidence in you that you can do the job, that's a pretty good sign and, ultimately, if people like what you are doing that's really important. We work in the television business, so people have to like what we do."
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