CenturyLink Field on Occidental Avenue in downtown Seattle is one of the most lively places you'll ever experience. The booming, thunderous cries and chants of fans all gets channeled to create a near-deafening environment, in which the home side always feels the advantage.
How is all that energy and passion of 50,000 Seattle sports fanatics stimulated into a monotonous and ear-splitting buzz that affects players and spectators alike?
Start with PA announcer James Woollard. Woollard calls all starting lineups, substitutions, match events, and announcements for Sounders matches at CenturyLink, and the way he does his job certainly affects what the crowd is able to do in terms of creating an advantage, or as Seattleites like to call it, the 12th man. He constantly is in touch with Sounders faithful over social media to ensure that the fans will be satisfied and energized as always.
Believe it or not, this whole announcing and voice acting spiel is just a fun little hobby for Woollard, whose primary career is in education.
James decided to answer a vast array of questions for a feature here at VAVEL, so without further ado, here is the full interview, conducted by Zach Drapkin.
Drap: How has it been, announcing American soccer over your native British football?
James: I was never a football announcer in the UK. This was something I got into when I came to the USA.
Drap: What led you to choosing to be a sports announcer as a career path?
James: My main career is actually in education. I was a teacher for 17 years and have been a school administrator for the last nine. Sports announcing and voiceover work is a fun sideline gig.
Drap: How were you taught or how did you prepare to become a professional announcer?
James: I received some voice training when I first came to live in the USA (early 2000s), in the hope that I might one day get into the radio/TV voice-over industry (some people had previously complimented me on my voice so I thought I would give it a shot). I did some research and found one of the best people in the business in Seattle (Veronica Weikel). I did some group and 1-1 training, cut a demo CD and acquired an agent to represent me. I also purchased some basic equipment that would enable me to record auditions from home. I have got a few jobs over the years (see past work), but my voice (British accent) is quite ‘nichey’ and there’s not a huge demand for it. Every now and again, though, I get an audition request specifically looking for a British voice.
It was one of my first voice-over gigs that really opened up doors to the Sounders, though I didn’t realize it at the time. I filmed a Victory Studios (Seattle-based video production company) commercial for Pacific Cod back in 2007. It involved 6 British guys sitting in a Seattle pub made to look like a British pub, discussing the demise of Atlantic cod and the relative attraction of Pacific cod. Two years later, the Sounders, then in a business partnership with Seahawks, joined MLS and it just so happened that Victory Studios was the go-to recording studio for the Seahawks. The Sounders went to Victory and asked them if they could recommend someone with a good voice to become their stadium announcer and I was contacted at the beginning of 2009 and asked to come in for an audition. I had ZERO experience in professional broadcasting or announcing. All I had going for me was a decent-sounding, deep voice and a British accent. Nobody has ever explicitly said they were looking for a British accent, but methinks that was one of their criteria, judging by the number of Brits they’ve employed! To cut a long story short, someone else got the job and served as stadium announcer from 2009-10, but I was asked to do pre-recorded gate scripts and stayed in touch with the organization. I filled in for the announcer in September 2009, but did no other games the first 2 years. Then, at the start of 2011, Sounders contacted me and asked if I’d like to try out again for the main job. Of course, I said yes and ended up announcing the opening game of the 2011 season against LA Galaxy. And the rest is history, as they say. In the last 4 ½ years, I have announced well over 100 MLS, MLS Reserve League, CONCACAF, USOC and international friendly games.
Drap: How do you do your part in energizing CenturyLink Field and the Sounders' 12th man, one of the best fan bases of any sport around the world?
James: There’s a definite synergy in the stadium. We feed off each other’s energy and enthusiasm and, together, create something special. The two highlights for me, in any game, are announcing the Starting Eleven and calling Sounders goals. In both instances, it’s my job to really pump up the crowd and I try to do that by injecting a lot of energy and enthusiasm into my voice while maintaining a deep, “Voice of God” sound. When the crowd chants back the player’s last name (or in Thomás’ case, just his first name ), it inspires and energizes me more. There are times, Marco Pappa’s Supporters’ Shield-winning goals for example, when it feels like the whole stadium is about to erupt with excitement and I think it’s at those times that you really see how a PA and the crowd can work together to create an amazing in-game atmosphere. I should also add that I am just one small piece of the game-day production team. There are a whole bunch of folks who are working with me behind the scenes to help create what has become known as the Sounders game-day experience. I want to give a particular shout-out to Karri Delony, who is my script-feeder and cue. Without her, I would have messed up on the job countless times. She keeps me on track and for that I am very grateful.
Drap: What is your relationship with the Seattle fan base? How are you able to please the supporters?
James: I have gotten to know a lot of the fans, informally, on Twitter (@BritVoxUS) and, through that relationship, I joined ECS and Gorilla FC. Aside from meeting some great people, virtually and in person, being on Twitter has helped me get to know the fan base a lot more and understand what makes them ‘tick’. I feel like it’s helped me be a better announcer because I understand the supporters and the club a bit better. Other than that, I don’t have a direct relationship and I am not in formal communication with fan groups. However, I know that leaders of the different supporters’ groups as well as the Alliance Council have more formal ways to communicate their opinions to the club and some of their suggestions and ideas make their way into game-day presentation.
Drap: What impact does the crowd seem to make on the outcome and form of a match at CenturyLink?
James: The crowd has a huge impact, I feel. I think we’ve only ever lost one game in MLS at the Clink when the crowd has been above 50,000. That indicates the power of a big crowd. From a player’s perspective, I am sure it’s very encouraging to see and hear a crowd of that size, knowing that the vast majority are behind you and rooting for you.
Drap: What are your thoughts on Sounders FC's current form and success?
James: If you’d asked me two weeks ago, I would have said I’m feeling very optimistic. Post-US Open Cup, with injuries and Dempsey suspended, I am less hopeful. But “this too shall pass” and I trust we will soon get back on the winning track. We’re definitely missing our DPs. In my opinion, Oba is one of the most talented players in MLS and his absence is particularly telling. He and Dempsey also sync up so well together. To have both out is very hard on the team.
Drap: Will Seattle win the Supporters' Shield in 2015?
James: I think we stand a very good chance, but we need to get back to our winning ways and that means getting players fit, healthy and ready.
Drap: Do you still follow English football? What club are you faithful towards?
James: I follow English football, but I am a casual fan. I try to watch Premier League games in season on NBC Sports, but I don’t feel overly loyal to any particular ream, except maybe Aston Villa since I used to live in Birmingham for 10 years.
Drap: What are some non-soccer times your voice has been featured?
James: I have done a few non-soccer voice jobs for TV, radio, and internet, working with Microsoft, Washington’s Lottery, Delta Dental, WSU, Seattle International Film Festival, Motorola, International Olympic Committee, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and Women’s Enterprises International.
Drap: What has been your funniest moment as an announcer and voice actor?
James: I once starred in the most crazy, surreal video advertising Kerflights, a type of lamp design. The video was called 'Revenge of the Scorpion' and I played a British, James Bond-style spy.
Drap: Who was your favorite person to work with, either as part of an organization or doing a voiceover or acting job for?
James: I once had the privilege of working with Bill Gates on a very humorous video written by Richard Curtis (script writer for Black Adder). I played a BBC Director who got to boss Bill around. It was quite surreal telling the richest man in the world what to do. I also got a chance to make a commercial with David Beckham, although sadly we never met face-to-face.
Drap: Do you have any advice for younger ones to become sports announcers or commentators?
James: As an announcer, you have to have a decent-sounding voice. A PA’s voice is the basic raw material for the job. I am fortunate to have a deep, booming voice and it just so happens that, for the Sounders, having a British accent added to the appeal. If you think you have what it takes (chances are if you sound like Sam Elliott in the Dodge Ram commercials, someone has already told you that you have a great voice), I highly recommend getting professional voice training to help you learn how to use your voice better. There’s a technical way to speak that I learned partly through earlier voice-over training and partly just by listening to good announcers. When I got the job with the Sounders, I reached out to Randy Rowland, the Seahawks PA guy. We met up for lunch and have since become good friends. I have worked with him as a spotter at [Sea]Hawks games and just listening to the way he announces helped me tremendously. You need to vary the tone of your sentences and sound interesting, for example. I have also grown a lot “on the job” and I think I have improved over time. I never like it when I make mistakes, but I am not afraid if things go wrong – mistakes are life’s greatest learning opportunities. Finally, I have to say that what may have helped me most was being “in the right place at the right time”. Doing the job with Victory Studios was my “in”. So I have learned never to turn down a reasonable job offer and always maintain connections with people because you never know when that will pay off. Network on LinkedIn (I have tons of contacts) and use social media to “sell” yourself, but not in an obnoxious way. Honestly, I sometimes feel a bit guilty that I basically got my PA job without even training to be an announcer or a broadcaster. I have met lots of people who have gone to college to study broadcast journalism, but never got the opportunity to do what I do. Some would say I was lucky, but I like to feel that I am just blessed. It’s definitely a privilege to be the Sounders stadium (PA) announcer and something I never take for granted.
There it is, folks. Pretty interesting stuff from James Woollard. You can find James on Twitter with the handle @BritVoxUS and listen to him at every home Sounders match at CenturyLink. Thanks to Mr. Woollard for agreeing to participate in this interview.