Rising Star Went From KWVA DJ to NBC Announcer in Five Years
(Photo: Craig Mitchelldyer)
The fact that Oregonians love soccer is news to nobody.
Football and fútbol are spoken in equal measure, and sports fans who know the names Messi, Ronaldo, and Dempsey as well as they know the names Manning, Brady, and Mariota are just as likely to be seen wearing the jerseys of Barcelona or Liverpool as they are the Ducks. The Portland Timbers have sold out every match at Providence Park since joining the MLS in 2011, and the Timbers Army—with its green smoke and passionate singing—is legendary among MLS fans. This summer’s MLS All-Star Game in Portland against 2013 UEFA Champions League winners Bayern Munich sold out quickly, and tickets are being resold for more than $2,000 apiece.
And one of the most well-known and respected voices in American soccer is a very familiar one to Duck sports fans, having once been the host of “Quack Smack” on KWVA and the play-by-play announcer for the UO soccer, softball, and lacrosse teams.
John Strong ’07 is the lead Major League Soccer play-by-play announcer on NBC, and the former voice of the Portland Timbers. While the FIFA World Cup presents rare time off for him—the league takes a break during the group games—NBC and the NBC Sports Network will broadcast 40 MLS regular season matches in 2014, many of which will feature Strong on the microphone.
Strong, a UOAA member who still lives in Oregon, comes from a large family of UO fans, and it was the only university he applied to attend after graduating from high school. After launching his high school’s sports broadcasting station—first over the internet and then over the radio airwaves—he wanted to continue sportscasting at the UO, but found few opportunities upon his arrival on campus.
“I wanted to do campus radio, and I was interested in sports broadcasting,” Strong said. “KWVA had done women’s basketball games, but by the time I was there the only show was a Friday half-hour show called “Quack Smack.” I did three-minute-long, NPR-style updates on the softball team. I took over “Quack Smack” with my friend Eric, who I did high school radio games with, during my sophomore year. By the end it had been moved to a full hour on Mondays, and we used to have athletes in the studio for interviews.”
Having launched a high school sports radio station and then expanded the Ducks’ collegiate radio presence, Strong set about doing live broadcasts of UO games, and got his first break with the lacrosse team.
“The lacrosse coach Jen Beck’s recruiting promise was that we’d do internet broadcasts of games,” Strong said. “In the fall of ’04, a note was stuck under the door of the campus station [looking for announcers for lacrosse games]. Charlotte, our general manager, gave me the note and I ended up on goducks.com for the first three seasons. They asked me to do softball, and I also did soccer.”
By this point, Strong was already a big soccer fan. His parents attended Timbers matches in the 1970s, and the combined impact of the 1994 FIFA World Cup and the 1996 launch of MLS, with the emergence of the FIFA video game, all contributed to Strong getting hooked on what many fans call “the beautiful game.”
“By the time I got to Oregon, I loved all sports but soccer was my passion,” he said. “For the 2006 World Cup, at the end of my junior year, I arranged to take an econ final early to get it finished before a US game. I went to Taylor’s, and Taylor’s was already overflowing. Rennie’s was overflowing too.”
In 2006, Andy McNamara—now the University of Oregon’s assistant athletic director and director of athletic communications—was the voice of the United Soccer League’s Timbers, and helped Strong get an internship with the Portland team. The following year, Strong graduated from the School of Journalism and Communication, and just as he had in high school and college, went from strength to strength on the airwaves with the Timbers.
“I eventually did halftime reporting, and then filled in on play-by-play,” Strong said. “It started to snowball, and in 2009 the radio station in Portland that aired Timbers games thought the team would go to MLS. In 2010 I tried out on TV and didn’t stink, so I did TV games in 2010.”
By the time the team joined MLS in 2011, he was firmly entrenched as their play-by-play commentator for TV broadcasts. That season, he won Major League Soccer’s Broadcast Call of the Year award for his call of a Darlington Nagbe goal against Sporting Kansas City, and it wasn’t long before he got his shot at national exposure.
“After the 2011 season and going into 2012, NBC had Arlo White to be the lead voice,” said Strong. “He and I got along well—he’s from Seattle, so we knew each other from games—and when NBC asked Arlo for a name for someone else to hire, he gave them my name. They tried me out on a Friday night game. I had a sense that they were trying to find young Americans to groom and develop. I got a chance during the Olympics of 2012, and filled in while Arlo was in London. In December 2012, NBC won the Premier League rights and got Arlo back to London, and asked if I’d be interested in taking over with the MLS. I haven’t come down yet.”
One of the most respected American broadcasters in the world’s most popular sport—both Sports Illustrated and popular soccer site World Soccer Talk have called for Fox Sports to hire Strong to improve its broadcasting talent for the 2018 FIFA World Cup, and World Soccer Talk is also lobbying for NBC to use Strong on its Premier League broadcasts—Strong considers his wife, and not his voice, to be his greatest strength.
In 2012, Strong married Nicole Wilcox, who played collegiately for the Washington State University Cougars and in 2011 led the Women’s Premier Soccer League in goals scored with 15 for the Portland Rain. A former assistant coach of the Oregon Ducks soccer team, Nicole’s tactical knowledge informs John’s commentary on a frequent basis.
“My wife helped me to learn the game and get a lot better,” he said. “Whenever I say something that makes me sound like I know the Xs and Os, it’s all credit to her.”*
* the University of Oregon is credited with an assist on the play.