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Take a trip inside the minds of Mike Watts and Devon Kerr

By NICHOLAS MURRAY -, 02/28/24, 10:46AM EST


Entering their seventh season calling the USL Championship’s national broadcasts, an in-depth conversation on broadcasting, life, and the league

Devon Kerr (left) and Mike Watts (right) will enter their seventh season as the national broadcast team for the USL this season, and have forged a strong friendship away from the field while supporting each other's careers. | Photo courtesy United Soccer

When Mike Watts and Devon Kerr welcome fans to Lynn Family Stadium for the clash between Louisville City FC and Indy Eleven on Saturday, April 6 – the first USL Championship game to air on an over-the-air network television in league history – it will mark the start of their seventh season together calling the USL’s national broadcast games.

In that time, they have become among the best-known voices in American soccer. In addition to their work on the USL Championship, Watts and Kerr have been in the booth for broadcasts of – among others – the Concacaf Gold Cup and Champions Cup, the National Women’s Soccer League, Major League Soccer, and the NCAA College Cup.

Last week, the duo kicked off the new season of USL All Access, which airs every Tuesday night on SiriusXM FC (Ch. 157).

Ahead of the announcement of the renewal of the league’s partnership with ESPN – which combined with the agreement with CBS Sports will see 35 games air on national television this season – and the release of the national broadcast schedule for the year ahead, we caught up with Watts and Kerr for an in-depth discussion on their broadcast partnership, their friendship away from the cameras, and the storylines that are front and center as the new season prepares to kick off.

Note: Some answers have been edited for clarity and length.

Q: This is going to be your seventh season together in the booth for USL national television broadcasts. What has that journey together been like?

MIKE WATTS: Go for it, Dev.

DEVON KERR: I regret every moment of it! All jokes aside, I think there are a couple of different angles that you have to look at. Number one is the opportunity for us both. I know that Mike started before I did, but since 2018 when I came in, and just because we're talking about the pairing together, the amount of growth that the league has seen, the growth that we’ve seen as well – both as individuals and as a team.

The opportunity that was put there for us where we’re going from four games on national television to regularly being featured, and now on multiple networks, 30-plus games, it’s a pipe dream, but we knew we could achieve it, and now we've done it together. And I know obviously I’m referencing the league there, but for Mike and I in ‘18, I look back and I think about the momentum I gained as a broadcaster and could I carry that? We’ve been fortunate enough that we've been able to do that every single year.

WATTS: It’s difficult to comprehend that it’s been seven years just because it’s gone by so fast. There are a lot of partnerships that exist that don’t carry off-air the way ours does, and I think you can feel it on-air or when you’re around us in production meetings that we're talking every week whether there’s a game or not. We’re talking a lot of days, every week, whether there's a game or not. You know, for Devon, this was the first opportunity that he had at a national level, and it all rolled so quickly because of the extent to which he desired to do this all the time, he went from three or four national TV games to picking up the ESPN package, to picking up College Cup, to picking up MLS. He has the fastest ascent of any broadcaster I've ever seen in this country. As opposed to you know, I started with this league. It was the first game ESPN had ever used me. And the jumping off point that we both got from it is unbelievable.

KERR: In my opinion, I think he and I just drive each other so many different places. both good and bad, and the bad comes with good, it makes you uncomfortable. So, you work your ass off and you try and find a way to get opportunities and then when they come to you, you're so tired from trying to push to get there that the other person almost seemingly just gives you that boost. Sometimes, it’s not even a game that we’re on together. Mike and I share so many stories and calls together where he'll be out on the road and running himself ragged. And you know, we’ve got a game on the weekend and it's just like motivation to push each other.

WATTS: This has been the anchor to everything else that we’ve done, since we got into the field. But our off-air relationship is one of the most special sorts of friendships that I have. We’ve gone through a lot of ups and downs together, personally, and the fact that we’ve been able to push each other professionally but be so committed to helping each other through those difficult moments. Ultimately, that’s why this partnership has been successful and had the longevity that it has.

Q: What are the keys to becoming a good broadcast partnership. Is it just something that happens and you find the right person that you just click with?

WATTS: I think that’s a unique question because there is an element where it just clicks but you both have to want it to click. I know that sounds obvious, but a good broadcast partnership mirrors a good marriage and a lot of ways you have to communicate. You have to be willing to cede time and space to the other. There’s got to be a willingness to sacrifice and ultimately succeed together. I think Devon could probably speak to this as well as anybody because he played the game, I've just watched it, but the idea of being a team is the thing I enjoy most about this. I never got to do it professionally, but I certainly understand it. Over the course of my life, the idea of being a team or being a family and those same principles that have to guide us to being successful for this long. If you’re not fully committed to each other's success, ultimately you can only go so far.

KERR: I think that the team side of it, you nailed dude. I’ve used that analogy before where I stepped away from the game and all facets of it for a while after I retired. Some of that is for me to know and some of that was my body being broken down, things like that, mental stuff, but I’ve never felt closer to getting on the field or the competition aspect than being in the booth because, to Mike’s point, it doesn't matter how good you are as an announcer. Play-by-play, color, sideline, it doesn’t matter how good you are. Sure, you’re going to have moments, but if you don't have the right team, you’re never going to be that good. It’s our producer [Sharni Yerke] and our play-by-play and replay and knowing each other’s natures.

WATTS: Devon tactically is the most astute broadcaster I’ve ever been around, he watches more film than any announcer, any person I've ever met, coaches included. So, I know where I can get the best of him because we’ve been around each other long enough. And he knows there's certain areas of storytelling that appeal to me that he can give to me while exploring other avenues of that subset. There’s the sacrifice and communication that comes like a good marriage and then there is an element of wanting each other’s success and being able to play to each other's strengths and actively work to do that.

KERR: I don't know a better storyteller in the game than Mike and his ability to interweave it into the field of play. Mike and I have times where it’s much like being injured in a game and as a player it’s like, ‘Oh, hey, I’m carrying a knock here. I'm going to need some help.’ When Mike’s on Concacaf and USL and Open Cup and maybe I just had the one MLS game and Mike’s on 10 games in a week and I’m on two or three, he knows that he can come towards me. Whether it’s his voice or information, we can lean on each other a little bit. Conversely, that’s been the other way. Like, Mike has seen me fly through the night [to get to a game].

True story, I did a game in Phoenix, walked off the field went to my hotel, grabbed my bags, and I flew from Phoenix to Chicago through the night, then Chicago to Indianapolis, met Mike at the hotel, we then drove to Bloomington an hour-and-a-half away to go to a college game. I’m on no sleep, exhausted beyond belief. Even though that was a couple of years ago, I knew already that I was going to be fine, because my brother was with me.

WATTS: I feel like any commentary on our partnership, it’s funny, because am I wrong Dev in saying this is kind of a trio anyways and having [producer] Sharni [Yerke] along the way has been really valuable?

KERR: You're not wrong.

WATTS: To have the three of us mind-meld around games makes this a lot easier, as well.

Devon Kerr (left) and Mike Watts (right) have taken weekly SiriusXM FC show USL All Access on the road to the USL Summer Showcase each of the past two years. | Photo courtesy Clay Benjamin / United Soccer League

Q: The new season is coming up soon. What are the storylines from this offseason that stood out?

KERR: Vegas. New ownership group, new coach, I think there’s been so much. I think Vegas had become a mockery, unfortunately. The ideas to try and promote it, I get it. As a business owner, I get what they were trying to do, but it wasn’t for the benefit of the game or the league. So, Vegas and the new ownership group, José Bautista coming in, head coach, players – I mean, when you and I texted back and forth it seems like they’re getting their [stuff] together.

Brendan Burke taking Colorado Springs to Hartford, basically. (Editor’s note: seven former Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC players are now with Hartford Athletic.) Juan Guerra leaving Phoenix, right? I mean, you can’t really knock the opportunity. Second year for Ben Pirmann in Charleston, that’s going to be a big one for sure. What are the new Rowdies going to look like? Is Indy ever going to stop opening their checkbook and actually, you know, get the pen off the paper and put results together because they've got a star-studded roster that has everything money can buy, but can they produce results?

WATTS: Rhode Island from the beginning has decided they’re taking the Phoenix approach that [Chairman] Brent Johnson knew, and went out and got a brilliant coach that knows that region really well. I think Khano Smith knows the league well enough to know how to succeed from Day 1. I’m super intrigued by what Khano is going to do, in part because I don't get the feeling that they’re approaching things the same way they did in Birmingham. That’s not a knock on Tommy Soehn, it just seems like they want to go fly from the beginning in a way where Birmingham’s a little more constructed.

The arrival of José Bautista as the new owner of Las Vegas Lights FC is one of the major storylines of the offseason in the USL Championship. | Photo courtesy Las Vegas Lights FC

KERR: Eric Quill in New Mexico.

WATTS: Oh, no doubt.

KERR: I’m very excited to see them. I think he did an incredible job, and they are going to be vastly different than what we’ve seen in seasons past.

WATTS: Yeah, and I think Danny [Cruz] in Louisville, that generational shift is happening. They talked about this for, like, four years going back to [John Hackworth]. The generational shift is occurring right now. [Tyler] Gibson out, [Paolo] DelPiccolo out, Oscar Jimenez out.

KERR: [Cam] Lancaster out.

WATTS: Yeah. I mean, they talked about it and 2019 – how do we balance continuing to win and recognizing that there aren't a lot of footballers in their mid-30s that are able to succeed at this level at this sort of transitional pace? And now they’re fully into it. So yeah, the teams I can’t wait to watch are Phoenix and see what they are, Rhode Island and Louisville.

I guess there’s also the fact that there’s very few teams that I’m sure I know what they are. I can count on one hand the number of teams where I’m sure I know what they are. I have not been as excited about seeing a league season play out in my close to a decade around the league.

Q: There are those roster rebuilds that are going on but at the same time, it feels like there’s never been more stability in terms of players where you're seeing 50-60 percent of players coming back to Tampa Bay, Louisville, Monterey Bay, even places like Indy and Pittsburgh. What does that say to you about where the league is now in terms of the players and having a little higher level of stability for players who want to play in the same place for a while?

WATTS: Yeah, when I started, and I just said close to a decade. This is my 10th year. Wow. Braden Cloutier told me in 2017 when he first started in Orange County that the standards just weren't there. And the idea of dedicated training facilities, or a Collective Bargaining Agreement that sets a floor around the league, but also causes everyone by having a floor to push the ceiling to be competitive, has utterly and completely change this league for the better.

You have to compete to get good players now and that means having a better training environment, it means having some money, being able to pay a good wage to bring in players, having more foreign players come over here and enjoy their experience. So, the fact that the league has gotten to a point where guys want to come to one place and stay there is something that in 2015 it was not developed enough to reach that point.

KERR: It didn't exist five years ago.

WATTS: Yeah. It’s also something where the only teams that really changed that much changed their coach, and then you’re looking for your own style and your own players. But in terms of the teams, they kept their guys. Everyone wants to build a core because that's how you’re successful in any sport at any level. Continuity matters. Louisville’s proven it, Tampa Bay's proven it, San Antonio to an extent, Phoenix to an extent. So, everyone’s trying to follow the leader. And even the teams where it’s not continuity of the organization, you’ll see coaches show up and look for continuity off their own previous history. It’s huge, and it’s going to make the league better for the full 34 games.

2022 USL Championship Goalkeeper of the Year Jordan Farr's offseason acquisition by the Tampa Bay Rowdies is among the major transfers the league has seen this offseason. | Photo courtesy Tampa Bay Rowdies

Q: We’ve seen that evolution as well in the transfer market, not just with players getting moved up, but also internal movement. How positive is that from a league perspective?

KERR: I think it goes hand in hand with what we were just talking about because it's like, player retention is one thing, right? But the ability to get outside the box, as they would say, like player identification, scouting, to me comes down to moving outside of the league. And that goes hand-in-hand with the ambition of ownership groups, because respectfully, although some of the old guard, if you will – the Charleston Battery are a great example of that – they found some success as the years went on, but the model changed and they didn’t until recently, and you have to.

So you get teams that are going, ‘Hey, you know, we don't need to go on this Ferris wheel, round and round with every single player in the league who goes from Tulsa to Phoenix to Hartford to Vegas’ – and I’m just using a couple of clubs as an example, not that those have actually done it in that way – but teams have figured out, ‘we can go and get the big name player, a Connor Maloney, right?’ Or whoever it may be, Aaron Molloy in the midfield – I’m giving very small examples – of like, ‘We’re going to go get this guy, and that's going to be our key piece. And yes, we're going to pay for him.’

The value is there, but they're not just looking within the league, they’re looking beyond that. And you have to, that’s why the diversification of the league has gotten to the stability aspect because the depth is now there. You’re pushing the envelope of where the talent is coming from. What are we going to pay them, how do we keep them here? Let’s go chase a title.

And so, you bridge everything together. That’s why the depth is there. That's why Mike said there’s really only a handful maybe that I can pick and look at a team and go I know what they're going to be because Rhode Island could be absolutely incredible this year. They could also fall flat on their face. Now, I don’t think they’re going to fall flat on their face, but you know. The Rowdies have got the people there. Is that the right coach? We don’t really know. These questions could go from team-to-team and you don't really know, and that’s a good thing.

United States youth international Matthew Corcoran of Birmingham Legion FC has emerged as one of the next top young talents in the USL Championship over the past year. | Photo courtesy Chris Cowger / Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC

Q: Fidel Barajas has moved on from Charleston, one of those outgoing transfers, which young players do you have your eye on as the next potential big thing?

WATTS: Yeah, not without looking at a whole list but I mean you're starting to see some 18-, 19-year-olds that the end of last year like Matthew Corcoran in Birmingham, Carlos Moguel in Louisville, Nate Worth in Tulsa where they’re playing substantial minutes in a man's league in a man's position. I’m intrigued by seeing them maybe take the next step this year. They both saw a lot of starts, especially at the end of last year and the movements that the teams made were that they're going to be the starter this year, when you allow certain veterans to leave. So it’s time to spread your wings and show it.

KERR: I’m going to stay with the young player, but not the academy route, because I think it’s an interesting shift – not a seismic one just yet – but I like the kid from Clemson, Pape Mar Boye that signed with Phoenix. Seeing all the college players last year, there's not a doubt in my mind that he was one of the best defenders in the country as a freshman. So, he played his entire freshman collegiate season at 19 years of age, has one-on-one capability, physical size, speed, breaking down the game, I think he's an incredible talent and the fact that he bypassed the Generation adidas contract with MLS to go directly to USL, I think it showcases the stability in the league and, more importantly, on the financial side that a player can say, ‘You know what, I'm not going to take guaranteed money for three years with MLS. I’m going to take a solid contract that’s going to give me the ability to play, develop as a player and a person and go to USL’ I think that's a huge piece that you could see start to have a ripple effect in the league.

Q: We have the new television agreements in place, including over-the-air broadcasts on CBS for the first time. For fans that haven’t checked out the USL Championship before, what should they know about this league?

WATTS: This league is a lot of fun. This league is unpredictable. The stylistic shifts that you see match the extent to which the geography and the demographics change from city to city. There are so many different approaches in this league being successful, that no matter what game you're tuning into, it’s not going to feel homogenous. It’s always going to have some level of unique quality to it. There’s an element of that, but also it’s going to showcase the fact that there are a lot of cities in America that have grown their soccer communities so quickly.

This league is so young by comparison to most leagues on the planet, and yet, you’re going to watch a game in Louisville on April 6 and see 15,000 people there. It's going to be really electric. We’re excited to showcase it because a lot of these cities have long wanted to have the opportunity to show just how much they love this game.

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