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  • Writer's pictureRichard Fleming

It took a while but after a bumpy start we were able to achieve what we'd set out to do

This week marks 11 years since I arrived in Colorado. What follows is my version of those first few days, months, and years, which were among the most stressful, frustrating, challenging, but ultimately rewarding of my entire life.

We decided as a family that when the surprise and sudden opportunity came to switch our lives in England for an adventure in the United States, we would embrace it whole heartedly, preferring to regret something we did rather than regret something we didn’t do.

My first contract was for three years, taking me to the end of the 2015 season. I would sign an additional three-year deal, moving across to Altitude TV from 2019-2022.

Firstly, not one part of what I was able to achieve would have been possible were it not for the unwavering support and love of my wife, Nicky, and children, Jessica, Charlotte, and James.

When the delayed flight from London-Heathrow touched down in Denver, it was late on the night of March 13, 2013. My first match as the new TV commentator of the Colorado Rapids of Major League Soccer (MLS) was three days away and would be at Real Salt Lake.

The Doubletree Hotel on Quebec, just south of DICK’S Sporting Goods Park would be my home for the next couple of weeks, and it was from here that I was collected that first morning by the club president, Tim Hinchey, the man who had made it his mission to invest in the broadcast and storytelling arena, areas which – as I would later discover – had been struggling for some time.

My first full day involved attending the Rapids’ training session, while also arranging company IDs, filling out all the fun paperwork. Unfortunately, as an immigration officer had incorrectly put the wrong visa status in my passport, the next few weeks would bring additional red tape and bureaucracy as I first discovered and then tried to fix the mistake, delaying my ability to get a drivers’ license or open a bank account!

Anyway, I had more pressing matters, with my first match and first television appearance just a couple of days away. My social media account had been quite active, with fans explaining how vital this contest was so far as local bragging rights were concerned.

In advance of my arrival, I had been given some idea of the format of the live show, but it was not until Friday lunchtime that I met Marcelo Balboa and the production crew for the very first time, as we shared some thoughts over a meal. I could instantly tell that the decision to hire me had not been an Altitude TV one, or they were certainly not fully on board. After all, here was this British guy who they knew nothing about and he had come in and taken a job from their friend and colleague.

It also became clear in those first few conversations that the relationship between the club and the TV network was not healthy. And here I was stuck in the middle, being paid by the club and yet expected to build a relationship with people who resented me being there.

The first match on Saturday, March 16, 2013 was in the studios of Altitude TV in Centennial. I don’t recall too much, aside from the scoreline being 1-1, goalkeeper Matt Pickens sustaining a double fracture of his arm, Clint Irwin making his MLS debut and me being told afterwards to never have my suit jacket unbuttoned! From a production standpoint, they tried to keep things relatively simple, being that I had arrived in the country 72 hours earlier.

The reaction from viewers was mostly positive, though I do recall one suggesting I would be better served working as a weatherman or on the Golf Channel.

As for Marcelo and I, I think it’s fair to say we didn’t hit it off straight away. Like many of the others, he was stand-offish, courteous but cold. I would later discover that they were all wary of being too open around me for fear of it being reported back to the club, such was the relationship.

From the club’s point of view, they didn’t feel the network took their sport seriously and didn’t afford them equal treatment when compared to the Denver Nuggets and Colorado Avalanche, from the NBA and NHL respectively. And they had a point.

With the first match out of the way, I set about getting ready for game two, another road contest, this time at LA Galaxy. It had become clear that few of the production crew had any knowledge of the sport, the team, the storylines or the league, and that working Rapids games was a chore they had to endure as they were part of the family.

The week leading up to my first home game, against Portland Timbers on March 30, 2013, I found myself wandering the corridors of Altitude TV, hovering around the edit suites helping prepare content for the weekend’s broadcast. (At that stage, my ability to influence was minimal. I remained the new guy. I also remained the guy who had taken somebody else’s job. I was also still the guy they felt would snitch to the Rapids if anything untoward was said. And, so, I was more an observer, still learning the format of the show, the personalities, the relationships and trying to get along).

During my walk-about, a guy spotted me from one of the edit suites and came out to introduce himself, explaining that he would be my sideline reporter for the match against the Timbers. He followed that up with, “I’m hoping you can give me some guidance as I know nothing about soccer.”

I smiled, turned, and caught up with the show’s producer, hurriedly asking, “He’s kidding, right?”

The response was the first red flag, “Nope. He’s deadly serious.”

“Then what the heck is he doing anywhere near the show?” I replied, the incredulity in my tone perhaps indicating how outrageous I felt the situation was.

It turned out that the sideline reporter role was a rotating gig, and some were a little more obvious with their feelings. To them, it was a chore but one they only had to do once in a while, so it was a case of getting through it.

Those first few weeks were stressful enough. In a new country, visa issues ongoing, having moved from a hotel to an apartment and then – once the rest of the family arrived – moving into a rental, getting our two daughters into school, taking our driving test, buying a car, opening a bank account (the first financial institution, a credit union, wouldn’t issue a debit card to my wife as she didn’t have a job), figuring out health insurance and how much that would eat into my salary (we ended up dipping into savings and having to borrow money from friends). My salary was a little more than I was on at the BBC, but healthcare costs and my wife being unable to work meant we were treading financial water.

In those early weeks there were errors. There were production slip-ups. There were mistakes in the lineup graphics, and other graphics. I didn’t feel any of it was being done on purpose but here I was being brought in to raise the standards, having worked at one of the world’s most respected broadcast organizations in the BBC, and I was faced with a dilemma very early on in my American adventure.

You see, within a few weeks, the man who had lured me to America with the hope that I could improve things, had also seen the mistakes and wanted answers. I felt like a pawn in a power game between the club and the network.

Around this time, I was called into the office of one of Altitude executives, who – in trying to justify the poor production – insisted things would improve once the Nuggets and Avs seasons had finished, as this would allow them to put all of their energies into the Rapids.

This person also wondered whether it would be better for much of the audience – who were ‘not soccer aficionados’ – if we took their level of knowledge of the sport into account when broadcasting.

In other words, this US Soccer Hall of Famer, national legend, who had appeared at three World Cup, had more than 100 caps for his country and was now working with a sports broadcaster of 25 years who had lived and breathed the sport, working World Cup, Premier League, UEFA Champions League, Africa Cup of Nations, European Championship, FIFA Confederations Cup and at every level of the sport in England were being asked to dumb things down a little.

No, was my answer. Otherwise, they may as well have got anybody in off the street if they wanted us to pander to the masses. That’s a sure-fire way of alienating the knowledgeable fanbase and patronizing those wanting to learn.

I’m stubborn and determined and driven, but also loyal and patient and understanding. That said, the first few months were rough.

While seeking to improve the coverage on Altitude TV, I was also looking to bring more coverage to the Rapids social media platforms. This meant video interviews, written content and the introduction of the club’s first-ever podcast. For the first time, the club and the TV network had a soccer guy as their voice, but the infrastructure simply wasn’t in place and those overseeing match coverage just didn’t share my passion for the sport, and that often showed itself on air. The executives also didn’t seem to embrace a product which was going out on their network as much as I had hoped, and that was why the relationship between club and network was often strained … and I remained the man in the middle.

Looking back, I ruffled feathers. Part of that was my determination to make this a success. Part of it was also a disbelief that things could be this bad. Part of it was a lack of appreciation on my part. I had come from a country where soccer was the number one sport, and from a media giant where we had editorial freedom to do and say what we wanted (within the boundaries of libel). I would learn, often the hard way, that being part of a soccer club had its limitations in that latter area.

For this to be a success, I needed buy-in. I also needed to build relationships and friendships. I needed people to enjoy covering the Rapids, whether it be their sport or not. I wanted them to understand that every time they worked on a show, it was their body of work on display, and to put every ounce they had into every sport they did, whether it was their passion or not.

The transformation took time, but the improvements were real. One producer who truly helped, and became something of an expert in Rapids matters, was a guy called Mike Rigg. Others would drop in, and they would ultimately give it everything, but Mike was the main man. He was invested. He realized I wasn’t the a-hole he may have been expecting, that I too was learning (and would make many mistakes) but that between us all we could turn this thing around.

And then there was the relationship with Marcelo. Others would occasionally stand in for him when he was away working major tournaments or doing work for Univision, but he and I were the team to take coverage of this team forward. He, Mike and I would talk regularly in between matches. We built in safety mechanisms to try and cut down on errors such as graphics or soundbites, where I would go into the truck (for home games) or booth (for road games) and check over every single pre-built element for the pre-game show.

The three of us became great friends, despite those early bumps, where I know I had the approach of a bull in a China shop. We looked forward to matchday, irrespective of how the team was doing. It eventually became a product we were all proud to be associated with, and that was certainly not the case for the first couple of years.

Also, after a number of executives had come and gone, we had a guy called Ken Miller (now at Amazon Prime). He was fair and he was loyal, and he saw the value in the Rapids and soccer, albeit restricted by budget constraints, which meant we never got to call away games in the stadiums and we didn’t have many of the fancy gadgets and gizmos which would have elevated the product even more. But he trusted us and he backed us.

During all this time, we had a crop of sideline reporters who we would have to coach and guide and support. I would share my many days of research with them. I would mentor them and make sure they were as prepared as they could be, knowing that if they fell short, we all fell short.

My role also involved bringing through other broadcast talent, some of whom remain with the club to this day. I saw it as my responsibility to help those wanting to break into this industry, as I had been helped when starting out. I coached them, again shared my knowledge, notes and time with them.

Two former colleagues had this to say about me during my final days at Altitude TV as the voice of the Rapids.

One told my TV boss, “I loved working with Richard because you couldn’t help but feed off his passion.”

Another told a colleague, “The thing that you’ll note when working with Richard is he’s all about making things better.”

Marcelo and I got off to a wobbly start but have long since been the best of friends. When I was his TV partner my wife suggested I spoke to him more than I spoke with her, which was probably fair. We still chat most weeks and text most days, and we still stumble out on a weekend for old man’s soccer.

When I arrived in Colorado on March 13, 2013, my aim was to help this MLS club be taken seriously in the broadcast arena. They were a laughing stock when I arrived, mocked relentlessly on social media, and looked down upon by others around the league. Over more than 300 games and in 10 seasons, myself, Mike, Marcelo, and others transformed the broadcasts where they became credible, entertaining, insightful and respected. By the time the curtain came down at the end of 2022, one MLS insider tweeted that we were among the top three MLS broadcast teams in the league. Sadly, that kind endorsement was not enough for me to be kept on by either the league or the club, and that still saddens me.

But, for someone who initially came to Colorado for three years with the intention of raising the bar, I stayed a little longer and left with my head held high, having raised the bar and set a standard. I’d say that’s mission accomplished.

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