John Champion - headshot

From cricket hero to the ESPN booth, the story of Jon Champion's rise up the broadcasting ladder | Charles Boehm

For one set of soccer lovers around the world, he’s the unofficial voice of the English Premier League’s golden era. Others consider him a top commentator in World Cup history, having hosted and called matches at eight editions of that event dating back to 1990. Another demographic remembers him for his voiceovers on the Pro Evolution Soccer video game.

Today he’s the lead play-by-play announcer for ESPN’s MLS broadcasts, including the MLS is Back Tournament Final presented by Wells Fargo between Orlando City and the Portland Timbers on Tuesday night (8:30 pm ET | ESPN, ESPN Deportes; TSN, TVA Sports 2 in Canada).

Strangely enough, it was a cricket game that gave Jon Champion his big break – a cricket game that he himself starred in.

The year was 1984 and a teenage Champion was wrapping up secondary school, eyeing his next move in life, with university not a high priority given what he now calls his “academically fairly hopeless” track record. But he was a decent batsman and had the chance to play for a local team in York, England, not far from where he grew up.

“They were a good side and I had a good day, and I got some runs in this game and I retired to the bar afterwards,” he recalled in a conversation with MLSsoccer.com earlier this year. “And about three beers into my evening of celebration, the telephone rang.

“… It was a local BBC radio station that wanted to interview me about my contributions to the game that day. So I was handed the phone, I was asked various questions, I answered them without a second thought, went back to the bar, had several more pints of beer and thought no more about it.”

As fate would have it, the BBC liked what they heard, and called Champion a few weeks later with an offer to report part-time on soccer and rugby action that winter.

“They'd liked the sound of my voice in that interview, they thought I sounded quite natural on the air, quite fluent,” he explained. “Well, you bet I was fluent after several pints of beer. And would I be interested? I had nothing better to do with my life at that stage, I had no clear idea of what I wanted to do, so I thought, well, why not?”

The iconic broadcasting outlet would eventually hold a position for Champion while he earned his college degree, and he rose through the ranks quickly at a time when British football was entering a new era of global fame and prosperity. His career got another serendipitous boost when he found himself doing radio commentary on a 1995 match between Manchester United and Crystal Palace.

When the great Eric Cantona infamously launched a martial arts-style flying kick at a heckler in the crowd, it also launched Champion’s move into television. Then-BBC Head of Sport Jonathan Martin was listening at home, and soon Champion found himself on the beloved “Match of the Day” show, nimbly vaulting what he calls “the great divide” between the two mediums.

“On radio you're like an artist with a blank canvas and you can paint pictures from scratch. What a luxury,” he said. “When you move to television, it's a bit like putting a straitjacket on because you have to accept that those cameras around the pitch are so much more powerful than your words are ever likely to be. They are the dominant force. And so certainly in my early years at the BBC I was always told that your job is just to caption the picture, to augment rather than impose upon the picture that those cameras are producing.”

The man whose dulcet tones have graced thousands of matches in the world’s biggest competitions is today reveling in a North American adventure, having boldly walked away from soccer’s ancestral home in search of something new.

Champion made his Stateside debut alongside his current partner Taylor Twellman on a quirky US men’s national team friendly vs. Azerbaijan at Candlestick Park in the lead-up to the 2014 World Cup. After years of wooing on ESPN’s part, he was finally lured across the Atlantic full-time in late 2018 to anchor the Worldwide Leader’s US soccer coverage, centered on MLS.

“I made the decision with a degree of trepidation, because I was leaving behind a very successful job and environment in the UK,” said Champion, who took up residence in the Boston area with his wife Anna and their son Will, the youngest of their four children. “But there hasn't been a moment where I've ever regretted it, because it's just given me a new lease of life. It's wonderful to have reason to, I suppose, reevaluate the way that you do a job that you've done for as long as I have.”

He’s struck up an easy friendship and witty on-air rapport with Twellman, who vividly remembers Champion’s voice on many games of PES in his younger days and had long urged him to move Stateside.

“If it’s genuine and real, natural, then I think the viewer can sense that, can feel that. And that's always the way it’s been with Jon,” said Twellman. “You can't force it and you can't manufacture it. I think you can tell during broadcasts. [NFL broadcasters] Pat Summerall and John Madden, you knew they had beers and talked the exact same way they did on the broadcast that they did off air, and it's no different with Jon and I.”

Champion has embraced the challenge of learning a new league and new sports culture and sees parallels between MLS’s current position and the EPL at its dawn.

“I used to work on the old First Division before the Premier League came along, and then this new, glitzy product emerged in 1992, and we weren't quite sure what it was going to entail,” he explained. “It's enjoyed exponential growth to a point now where it's probably hit something of a ceiling. It’s so big, it's not going to get much bigger. Clearly there’s a long way for MLS still to grow, so it’s lovely to be part of that growth process. So that's that's been a big plus of moving to the US, being part of something that's on the move, on the up.”

Conversely, having one of the most beloved voices in the sport on its broadcasts is a feather in MLS’s cap, a touch of Old-World sophistication for one of the planet’s younger top-flight leagues and a fitting foil to the trenchant Twellman. They’ve provided a pleasant accompaniment to the action at MLS is Back, where the physical absence of fans has posed a new wrinkle for their task, and figure to feature heavily as the regular-season slate cranks back up again in the coming weeks.

It’s another set of new experiences for a commentator who compares his craft to that of a waiter or a referee — where understatement counts above all else — yet has become world-famous in the process.

“All of us that have any longevity doing what we're doing — and I'm 36 years and counting — we need to be lucky. And I’ve had an enormous amount of luck at the right times,” said Champion. “Occasionally, in a quiet moment on a long flight, I do reflect and just think, goodness me, I could never have foreseen this happening to me. And I have been and remain extremely fortunate.”

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