As current and former broadcasters ourselves, we have a soft spot for anyone in the industry. And by the industry, we mean of course, the business. Because there’s NO business like show business. Matt Davies is Executive Producer for the BBC radio show, Sports World. The weekend programme boasts an audience of nearly 50 million listeners. Try that on for size, Don Cherry.
Matt is gay; he’s headed to Sochi, and he’ll be covering hockey (among other sports) at the Winter Games. He was good enough to talk to us about his background, coming out, working in a media environment dominated by straight guys and covering the Games amidst the troubles in Russia. He’s a great guy and a dedicated journalist. We look forward to his coverage from Sochi, and who knows, maybe someday he’ll help us out with cricket.
PuckBuddys: Tell us a little about yourself and your history in the sporting life.
Matt Davies: I am 42 and originally from Gloucester in the UK. I was always massively into sport; particularly football, cricket and water polo. I played all three as a kid but once it became clear I wouldn’t be good enough to do any professionally I thought that being paid to commentate, report and write about them would be a pretty cool way to earn a living. A busted knee in my late teens would have made it impossible anyways.
Most of my earliest sporting memories are of watching the Olympics. The first games I remember were Moscow in 1980 and watching Seb Coe against Steve Ovett (800m finals).
We were on a family holiday at the time and can remember watching on a black and white TV set with an aerial on the roof of the camper van.
PB: Tell us about your background in journalism.
MD: All of my journalism jobs have been at the BBC. I always thought working in sports media would be a great job but didn’t really do anything about it until I left University with a degree in geography in 1993. No, I have never used that since.
I started by doing voluntary work at a local hospital radio station. Many hospitals in the UK have their own radio station staffed by volunteers and funded by charity giving. I used to produce and present a review of the local sports action every Monday evening. I would go out to events over the weekend and record interviews and do commentary into my tape machine. By chance the head of sport at the local BBC station heard the show and invited me along to do some voluntary work for them as well. Everything happened from there really.
It wasn’t until 1996 that I earned my first money from working in the media. Even the BBC didn’t pay me at first. That isn’t allowed at the BBC now. I did various odd jobs at the local petrol station – gas to you – and at the 7-11 – yes we have there here as well – until I was earning enough for the media to make that my full-time career. I have been at the BBC ever since.
PB: To many people, “gay sports fan” seems contradictory. Growing up, how did you square those seemingly opposing facets of your life?
MD: Yes I agree. I still meet gay guys now who seem quite surprised at what I do. I guess it is still not a role you would expect. I don’t know any other openly gay guys in BBC Sport, though it’s a big department and I don’t know everyone. Another gay guy somewhere in the department might say exactly the same. The BBC does have a LGBT social group but I have never met a guy there from sport. So maybe I am right.
Oh, one of the BBC’s top sports presenters Clare Balding is openly gay. I should give her a mention because she is a brilliant presenter. Looking back I think sport might have been my cover for being gay as I didn’t come out until quite late. I was 28. My teenage years and early 20s we spent obsessed with sport. I was either watching or playing it. I didn’t really do the things other boys of my age were doing. It had to be about sport.
PB: What was coming out like for you?
MD: It was late. Would do it earlier if I had my life again but you can’t change things can you ? Family were very supportive. I don’t think they were surprised. I was a bit more cautious at work as by this time I was working in a very male dominated sports-room environment. I wouldn’t say I particularly shout about it now but would be open if asked. I still think there are some people in sports media who have a problem with it but by and large it has not been an issue. I think that is because it is a male dominated environment. That is changing though, and so too attitudes.
PB: Tell us a little about Sports World: What’s your audience, just UK or is it aired globally? What type of stories does the programme like to focus on? Notice how we’re spelling “programme!”
MD: Thanks for the correct spelling of programme but we prefer to call it a show. Sounds more entertaining! Sports World is the weekend sports show on BBC World Service Radio.
It can be heard right around the world, and in the USA on SiriusXM. We think it is the biggest audience for a radio sports show anywhere. Exact numbers are hard to establish but we estimate close to 50 million. Our main focus is the English Premier League as we are rights holders to carry match commentaries. We bill ourselves as big matches, big names and big events. Last weekend we had commentary on Manchester City v Manchester United, an interview with Usain Bolt and the Singapore Grand Prix.
PB: What’s your role as EP at Sports World, both on a day-to-day basis and what will be your duties in Sochi?
MD: I am responsible for the overall sound and direction of the show. I am involved in the recruitment, development and appraisals of the Broadcast Assistants and Assistant Producers. They tend to be involved in the week to week production of the show. My view is more long-term on how we should develop the sound, the events we cover and how we can best use changing technology to connect with the audience. We are taking the show to Sochi for two weekends.
PB: What are the wider BBC coverage plans for Sochi?
MD: BBC Radio coverage of a winter games is very small in comparison to the summer ones. UK Radio will be served by 3 staff. Television is a bigger presence.
One of the two main BBC television channels will carry over 100 hours of live networked coverage but via the website and the red button service on digital television you will be able to watch live action from any venue you wish.
So if you want to watch every minute of every ice hockey match, you can. More of the television production that previous games will be done at the BBC Sport headquarters near Manchester. Only presenters, commentators, reporters and key OB production staff will be in Sochi.
Budgets are tight, especially that the games fall in the same year as two of the biggest sporting events the BBC will ever be involved with – the 2014 World Cup in Brazil and the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow.
PB: What will it be like covering hockey in Sochi, given that the sport isn’t especially popular with traditional BBC audiences?
MD: Well hockey is just of the sports that we will be covering when Sports World is presented from Sochi for the games. I don’t think any of my team are an expert on many of the winter sports. Luckily we have a great team of researchers who will produce a cheats guide to the sports, especially ice hockey. That should enable us to report on any sport with some knowledge although we would leave commentary to the experts. The BBC commentary on hockey in Sochi will be provided by Seth Bennett. It’s his first games and I know he is very excited. I am sure Seth would talk to you guys about hockey all day.
PB: A journalist’s job is to tell a story, but also decide which stories need telling. What are the stories that need to be covered at this Olympic games, and which are a distraction? Is the LGBT issue getting the necessary attention or is it overplayed?
MD: I think the LGBT issue is not going to go away. Remember Russia are also hosting the World Cup in 2018. They also have a terrible record on racism in football. Which makes Russia as a choice of country to stage these massive global events more surprising. It’s a story that will be covered, lead I think by the BBC.
PB: Who can cover the LGBT+ Sochi issue better, the news or sports desk? What strengths and weaknesses does each bring to the table?
MD: We are lucky at BBC Sport that we have a brilliant team of sports news correspondents who sit on that sometimes rather uneasy boundary between news and sport. That leaves our sports presenters and commentators to concentrate on the action and the correspondents on the stories around the games which would include the LGBT issue. It is something that I know they are already preparing for by making contacts with local gay groups and activists in Russia.
PB: What are some media outlets that have been doing a good job covering the issue?
MD: I think the BBC – and the UK media in general – lead the way in several areas of sports coverage and social issues. OK, I am blowing the BBC trumpet here but I don’t have to. It’s not a condition of employment. The BBC has played a massive part in the success of Paralympic sport, increasing the profile of women’s sport and highlighting racism and homophobia in sport. We have not just jumped on this issue because of Sochi. It was the BBC who questioned awarding the 2022 football World Cup to Qatar – a country where being gay is still illegal. It was the British media who questioned Sepp Blatter on this only to be told that gay people would be welcome in Qatar as long as they didn’t have sex. We are not the world’s biggest and most respected public service broadcaster for nothing.
PB: NBC as a US Olympics rights holder is already under pressure from advocates and activists to tell the “full story” during their coverage. Is the BBC seeing similar pressures? Are the journalists insulated from that?
MD: I haven’t heard of the BBC being under pressure like this. What I will say is that while the BBC are proud to be rights holder with the IOC it doesn’t make us cheerleaders. Where a story needs to be told it will be. We don’t shy away from stories just because it might not look good for the IOC. We heaped a load of flack on them in the build up to London where it was justified. I know some commercial broadcasters would never run such stories in case it impacted in their next rights contract. The BBC did a massive expose on FIFA in the week the bidding was announced for 2018 and 2022 World Cup. England lost the bid. Many said that was wrong of the BBC but I would always defend its right to do high quality journalism and not be pressured.
PB: What personal pressures if any do you feel as a gay man covering this story and how do you reconcile (or separate) those and your professional responsibilities?
MD: I keep separate and find it easy to do so. I think if anything I would always be more cautious about such stories as I don’t want to be seen to be this champion of gay rights. Sport is a bigger part of me than being gay. Where a story needs to be told like Sochi I will. We did it on the show a few weeks ago because we had some good material and a strong news line. Whether I am gay or not really doesn’t come in to it. I certainly don’t feel an extra responsibility.
PB: What other stories have you worked on during your career that have touched so close to home like this?
MD: No-one spring to mind. But as you mention career there, I have wondered how much of a scoop it would be for me to get the first interview with the first Premier League player to come out. There are none. This in a country now with the equalisation of consent for same-sex couples, civil partnerships, gay marriage and openly gay players in sports such as cricket, basketball, boxing and hockey. It will happen.
PB: How do you see the Russia LGBT story playing out over the next few months and during the Games?
MD: It won’t go away that’s for sure with the next two World Cups in Russia and Qatar with their appalling issue on gay rights. I think we live in a world of changing times and attitudes. Remember Russia’s awful record on racism as well with players being subjected to monkey chants and bananas thrown at them. I am not sure these countries would get awarded these events today – certainly not in a few years time. The likes of FIFA and the IOC are at the behest their corporate sponsors and they won’t want their brand tarnished. We are not quite there yet – but not far away from issues like equality being a factor in these bids. I think the media do have a role to play in bringing about this change.
PB: Recently, a number of NHL players, Russians included, have been asked about Russian LGBT policy. It’s going to come up with other Sochi athletes as well. What are your thoughts on that?
MD: Yes it’s happening isn’t it? And after Yelena Isinbaeva’s comments at the World Athletics they are going to be asked more. After the massive amount of negative publicity it created, the teams of media and PR people that surround the top sports stars are going to have them fully briefed on what to say. I would be very surprised if any Russian sports star with her profile would come out now and say what she did. So journalists ask away of course but you won’t get the killer line of “we are a normal country with normal people. Boys go with girls and girls go with boys,” like we did from the pole vaulter.
It goes back to the corporate dollar. Can you imagine a Russian player in the NHL saying that and the impact it would have on their club? They are not fools. She was and desperately tried to back-track.