Tuesday, June 07, 2016

Interview with ESPN Announcer Ian Toner

Ian Toner is a familiar name and voice for ultimate broadcasts. Ian just made his ESPN debut with coverage of the semifinals and finals at USA Ultimate's 2016 College Nationals (May 29 - May 30). He survived sharing the booth with Evan Leper and even answered the unorthodox question of whether he likes the sound of his own voice.

Read below for our exclusive interview with Ian Toner.

SLUDGE: Give some insight how you prepared for the Division I college ultimate event.
Ian Toner: ​To be honest, it was kind of like cramming for an exam. I had known since early in the year that I would be supporting USAU's coverage efforts in some capacity (at the least, writing about the men's division), but the broadcast decision came down roughly two weeks before that event. So I started doing everything I could to soak up information about my greatest areas of weakness: namely, many of the women's teams and some of the men's contenders about which I knew ​comparatively little. I watched lots of tape from the Ultiworld video store and reached out to team coaches and captains from both divisions for phone chats and email Q&As. And I had some great conversations with Evan about broadcasting best practices. I'm really grateful that everyone I spoke with was so willing and eager to help - says a lot about our community.

That's quite a cram session. But, did you also get a haircut before the event?
Ian: Well, yes. I usually get a haircut once a month and I think I got one a week before flying to Raleigh.

For just 4 games on the schedule, Sunday's semifinals was a super long day. What was your schedule like?
Ian: Sunday was pretty exhausting. I got to the fields around 8:30 to start watching the quarterfinal round, and I focused on the UBC/Whitman and UVA/Dartmouth match ups. In the break between quarters and that first Whitman/UVA semi, Evan and I walked around the park and spoke with coaches from as many semifinals coaches as we could.​ In the hour before we went live, we started pre-recording as much content as we could (billboard intros, semifinal intro, etc.).

Once the semifinal games started, we were in the booth the whole time, with a few breaks at halftime and between rounds. Between rounds, we tried to sneak out and follow up (sometimes repeatedly) with coaches on the field to get any last minute team perspective and updates. I never drink caffeine, especially not at work, but I needed some to power me through the final game between Minnesota and Pitt. Thanks to Bryan Jones for delivering coffee and Red Bull.

After wrapping everything up with the production team, I don't think I got back to my hotel room until 1:30 or 2AM. And then some of the production crew was still working into the wee hours of the morning editing the full games down into the broadcast-ready versions.

Much longer day than I realized. Are you at liberty to say whether you're paid by the game or by the hour?
Ian: ​I'm paid a flat fee for the weekend. I'm sure that could be broken down into a per-game calculation, but this flat fee has been in place for years, based on my understanding.​

Is a headset comfortable to wear?
Ian: It's not heavy on the head if positioned appropriately. Oddly, if you don't adjust the tension appropriately, it can squeeze your ears and cause some soreness in ear muscles you never knew you had.​

That is odd, yet good to know. What do you if you have to sneeze or cough while on-air?
Ian: There's literally a button labeled "cough" on our panel/box that we can press to completely mute our mics.

Do you have any pre-broadcast rituals?
Ian: I don't have any rituals, but I do like to practice some phrases and organize my thoughts. It's also highly dependent on my role in the broadcast.

For instance, on NGN and Ditch broadcasts, I was always the primary host and play-by-play announcer. That role requires quicker reaction, increased excitement and more versatility. So there were days in Manila where Tyler Kinley and I would sit in a scorching locker room and we would imagine sequences unfolding on the field. From there, I would try to narrate them with as much excitement and creativity as possible. There are only so many verbs and phrases to describe actions that occur repeatedly (skys, break throws, layout blocks, etc.)...I wish I had Doc Emrick's ability to invent verbs (e.g. waffleboarded).

The analyst or color commentator role gives you more time to digest, react and respond to your host. To prepare for that, I review the broader historical and strategic points worth noting in my mind.

Evan Lepler is known as "The Voice of Ultimate." Have you ever considered singing your coverage to earn "The Intoner of Ultimate" label?
​Ian: I see where you're going, but haven't heard that one yet.

And Evan deserves that title, by the way. I can't ​tell you how professional and supportive he was throughout the entire weekend. His relentless preparation, expertise and on-air adaptability are second to none.

Do you like the sound of your own voice?
Ian: Not always. There are certain sounds and pronunciations that irk me when I get a chance to hear them.

Such as?
Ian: It's hard for me to describe, but there are times when my "s" pronunciation comes out awkwardly - sounds like I'm swallowing it in my mouth, and it doesn't sound like everyone's normal "s" sound.

​Also, I have a habit of sometimes letting lack of energy or exhaustion creep into the commentary (later in a game or a day). I don't like when I sound tired, and I think that does all viewers a disservice.

For the record I like your voice. During the broadcast, you seemed to really enjoy the opportunity to listen in on when there was a call. What gives?
Ian: ​Absolutely true, and I hope people didn't think I felt otherwise! More often than not, as an ultimate spectator, you're making educated guesses about the exact call on the field. But the mics/amplified conversations removed any guess work and helped us understand exactly what was being called and how it was being resolved. We even heard observers whispering to each other sometimes before issuing a ruling! Where else do you get that kind of access? Access to some of those in-game insights are what make sports programming like NHL 24/7 and NFL Hard Knocks so intriguing.

What impressed you most at the college tourney?
​Ian: I'm keeping this answer focused to on-field play​.

The obvious answer is [Harvard Red Line] John Stubbs' all-around performance. I wasn't surprised by his effectiveness, having played with and against him for years and seen his impact and growth. But his endurance and ability to make impact plays point after point, late into the tournament was, for lack of a better phrase, extremely impressive.

On the other end of the spectrum, Minnesota Grey Duck's depth was remarkable. Stars and key role players dropped left and right, but they always had another player or combination of players ready to answer the bell. That's a testament to the MGD program and Tallis Boyd's coaching and in-game management.

Shayla Harris [Stanford Superfly] jumped off the screen, if you will, at me. In the tape I watched before the tournament, I hadn't seen many/any players able to keep up with the Shofners of the division. But this young player matched the athleticism of elite, experienced players and performed with poise beyond her years.

I knew Claire Revere [Whitman Sweets] was a big name in the women's division with a lot of club and international experience. But she was so fearless on the field, and her raw honesty in the post-semis interview (something along the lines of, "actually, I still do get nervous before big games!") was really refreshing.

Did you have any favorite moment(s) of the broadcast?
Ian: ​At one po​int, Evan made an Emilio Estevez/Mighty Ducks reference. I then made a comparison between Ryan Osgar and Adam Banks (coming back from injury for the big game)...I was kind of proud of that one.

Trent's speech gave me chills and Evan's comments afterward were on point. Props to the crew for capturing that moment.

Did you learn anything new about ultimate?
Ian: ​I've been in huddles in big games before, but I've always wondered what other coaches and captains have said t​o their teams in similar high-pressure situations. For the most part, their messages were broad and simple. I suspected that most leaders kept that kind of focus, but this was a new lens (no pun intended) into those moments/confirmation of that thought.

How did the ESPN3 broadcast compare to your other ultimate broadcast gigs?
​Ian: Nothing will compare to the camaraderie of the NGN and Ditch teams. You're traveling, eating, sleeping and hanging out with the entire crew 24/7. In that scenario, it's just more natural for you to build stronger bonds with the whole team. Kevin, Vinh, Xuny and the gang are the best, and they obviously have an intimate understanding of the game and their craft.

​This weekend's broadcasts had the advantage of leveraging an army of support staff and the capabilities of a multi-million dollar production truck.​ They can build packages and graphics more quickly / during the broadcast. There are more specialists with more precise responsibilities, whereas the NGN/Ditch crew members need to wear many hats. I also have a learning curve with regard to ESPN3/production company's practices and processes.

Okay, gotta ask...what's the story behind your Twitter avatar? It looks like an, um, interesting moment with Tyler Kinley during a Ditch broadcast.
Ian: That's exactly right - it came from Ditch. On the morning of the Japan game, Tyler Kinley and I got to the stadium relatively early, and the whole production crew helped us pre-record our broadcast intro.​

It was absurdly hot in Manila, and despite the efforts of window AC units, it was still quite warm in the locker rooms. The cameramen and directors decided that we just needed a shot from the chest up for the intro, so we thought not putting pants on would help us stay as cool as possible.

Thanks for your time, Ian. Looking forward to hearing you at USAU's U.S. Open coverage in July.

[Profile photo via]

1 comment:

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