With sport having come to a standstill all around the world over the last couple of months, it has left a lot of people at a loose end.
Fans have been starved of entertainment, athletes have been forced to sit and wait, and many members of the media covering sport have been completely sidelined. After shutting down in the UK in the middle of March, it is only now that plans are being formalised to return to action in the coming weeks.
For some, the goal in recent weeks has been to fill some time. For others, it has been more about finding a way to maintain a form of income. For rugby union commentator and journalist Nick Heath, it has been a mixture of both.
Heath’s Life Commentaries have gone viral since lockdown came into effect, picking up over 10 millions views across social media, and along with his multiple pub quizzes every week they have brought him to a whole new audience.
It has been a valuable project in a period of uncertainty, even if its success did take Heath somewhat by surprise, and it has given him the different experience of being on the other side of the microphone as interest in his work grew.
“If anything, it has been a test to see if I can be the person as the interviewee that I want all of my interviewees to be,” he explained.
“You sometimes think ‘come on, you can do better than this’, and now it has been like ‘well you do it then’. It’s good practice, there was a time when I was doing about three or four a day over the course of a week or two, and that was getting pretty exhausting. Basically everyone was getting exactly the same interview, because you’re just in the habit. I must have said ‘I went more viral than the virus’ about 20 times.
“The commentaries weren’t a pre-conceived idea really, it was more about recalling a silly voice I used to do and seeing an opportunity to film a couple of guys in the park. It was for my own entertainment, and maybe for the entertainment of a few of my followers, and it went from there. I did about three or four to begin with, they all went up, and then I saw the 60,000 viewers or whatever it was over a few hours, and thought people seem to like this kind of stuff, maybe I’ll do a little bit more.
“It has been pretty mental, I didn’t expect anything to really happen, that’s for sure. It’s catching people’s imagination I think, and I’ve been grateful for it. It’s giving me a distraction and keeping me creative, keeping my hand in on the microphone as well.
“It’s to keep my busy, but also to bring in an income. People have been very kind. While in challenging times, you do often see the best of people, and I think there have been those that have struggled but ultimately are also going ‘well, I’m willing to donate to charity’ or ‘I’m willing to contribute to this guy who’s entertaining me’. On the PayPal link that I put up, people have dropped in a few quid from wherever they are in the world, and that has been really touching.
“I’ve felt the warmth of people. One of my friends called it the busker rule – if you stop long enough to be entertained then you’ve got to drop a bit of money in the hat. I’m putting it out there just to say if you can, great, but if you can’t, no worries, and that has prompted an awful lot of people to do so.
“I can get to the end of the month and look at the accrued funds in the PayPal and say that is actually going to go a decent way to helping me pay the mortgage this month. I’m pleased I had the foresight to put it out there, but doubly pleased that people have actually contributed. From the commentary stuff and the twice-weekly pub quizzes, it has kept me in a job. I haven’t had to claim anything on the government furlough scheme because I’m effectively earning through the work that I’m putting out.”
As a commentator, Heath has voiced World Cup, Six Nations and Premiership matches among many others in the men’s and women’s games.
But one thing that has had no bearing on his commentary is his sexuality. That is not to say it has had no impact throughout his career at all, as there always comes a point when the decision of when, whether and how to come out to colleagues off the air has to be addressed.
Rugby is one of the most inclusive sports, as seen by popular referee Nigel Owens and Welsh legend Gareth Thomas both being openly gay, which is particularly rare in men’s team sports. Sexuality, gender, race – none of it matters, and Heath suspects that is because of the bonds created by combative nature of the game.
“One of the things that straight people don’t ever really have to think about is being in a new setting, or a new environment, at any stage – socially or professionally – where assumptions are being made that you need to challenge or change,” Heath reasoned.
“The majority of the world is a heterosexual one, I do think it’s changing but there have been and will continue to be assumptions that you have or are looking for a girlfriend or wife. It’s just social chit-chat, there’s nothing wrong with it, but at some point you’re going to have to say actually, I’m gay, or I’m bi, or I’m pansexual, whatever might be relevant to the time and the conversation.
“It is a moment that heterosexual people out there don’t really realise is something that we constantly have to check in on. Is it something that I’m going to bring up with my new work teams that I’m moving to in another part of the country? If I bring it up too soon, are they going to say ‘alright mate, no need to ram it down our throats’? But at the same time if I don’t tell someone that I develop a close working relationship with, do they think negatively of you for not sharing something like that? There’s a lot of grey areas, and a lot of right and wrong ways people can be about this kind of thing.
“My experience was existing within the rugby journalistic fraternity for a while and it not really being out there. To begin with, I didn’t quite know how to deal with it. I had told one particular journalist that was absolutely fine with it.
“I think we were in New Zealand at the World Cup in 2011, and I had gone for a couple of drinks with some guys that I managed to message locally online. I got spotted by the main group of the UK press pack who were on a bit of a bar crawl on their night off, and one of them spotted me and said ‘looks like Nick Heath’s one of the first guys to pull on tour’. There was sort of gentle confusion, and then word got around. When I then walked up to the bar in the same place, a few of them gathered around me and said they didn’t know, well done, congratulations. I hadn’t won a competition! As much as I can take the mickey out of that, I’m incredibly grateful really for the fact that it happened.
“It’s not the fault of these middle class, middle-aged white men that they don’t know how to react and didn’t know quite what to say. The fact that what they wanted to say was warm and friendly is all that matters ultimately. That was a funny moment, but actually it then meant I was fair game, it was out in the open and we could have our jokes at each other’s expense.
“There’s something about the combative nature of the game on the field, and how fair game it is compared to then having a beer in the sheds afterwards that I think translates through a lot of areas of acceptance.
“You might be the big, fat, hairy bloke who’s going to push as hard as he can on the field, you might be the big strong back-rower who’s going to smash someone to the floor, the nippy winger who’s going to step round everybody and make them look stupid before scoring the try, but afterwards you’re all just blokes and girls in the sheds and you’re just going to have a beer and talk about battles won and lost.
“I think there’s an element of that that says whatever you do in one area of your life doesn’t necessarily mean I’m going to treat you any differently in another. On the whole, people are ready to say it’s whether you’re getting them a beer that they’re worried about, not their sexuality, and I’m happy with that.”
As much as Heath loves being on the microphone, he is just as fascinated by the process behind a commentator’s work.
That led to the creation of his podcast, Cue Commentator. The series sees Heath sit down with some of the most famous names in sports broadcasting to pick their brains about the discipline of commentary. Even for someone as reputable and experienced as Heath, he finds that there are always lessons to be learned from the greats of the microphone.
“I have always sat and thought about the art of commentary, and how much I love it,” Heath said.
“Although a lot of people have celebrated the big lines and the big moments that come through some of the biggest commentators and the things that we know, I have always wanted to ask how much that was thought about before, what they were doing, what they were doing in the two hours before, how much they had thought about this, how much they knew about that.
“It was a case of having the most amount of personal passion for something. I always thought that I might not be into the details of how a death metal band writes their music or their lyrics, but if I was sat next to someone who did that and that was their most passionate and exciting thing, I daresay I could get into it and understand it and go on their journey with them a little bit. I thought actually, maybe this is my thing and what I want to explore. To be able to do it with people who we have all admired or idolised to a degree, I thought that was definitely worth doing.
“There are probably lessons in there that I’m less conscious that I have learned. The discussions on silence and when to shut up as a commentator have been valuable, maybe hearing as much of that from different people allows you to trust that feeling a little more. Silence can feel like a very long time in broadcasting terms, even if it’s only a second or two long.
“It has been really interesting hearing the various tales of different people, and actually the moments of insecurity people have had and decisions that they made, the reasons behind certain things. That’s just reassuring in a general sense, you will have a moment where you’re concerned whether you’ve done this right, whether the decisions you’ve taken are right, but it’s a life thing as well isn’t? You’ve got to go and trust yourself, and get on with it. I think being reminded to do a bit more of that has stood me in good stead.
“At the minute it’s very much an unfinished project, I’ve allowed it to drift far too far, but I’ve got a few other names that I need to get through before I can allow it to rest at least as a semi-completed, or a complete, bit of work.”
Click here for part two of my interview with Nick, which looks at his route into rugby commentary, the people and moments he holds in high regard, and the lessons he has learned in his time as a sports broadcaster.