FRISCO - As the 2018 FIFA World Cup kicks off this week, the representation on-the-field for FC Dallas might be limited, but fans around the U.S. will be guided through the sport’s ultimate stage by a very familiar voice for those in Dallas.
Mark Followill’s quick ascent in the American soccer broadcast landscape and his role as FCD’s lead play-by-play voice, though, is one rooted in a somber fate that brought his deep history with the club full circle.
The Guy Who’s Doing the Lineups
Long before his local rise to fame as the voice of the Dallas Mavericks, Followill broke into the Dallas pro sports landscape on the airwaves of SportsRadio 1310 The Ticket.
When MLS came onto the scene in 1996, jumped at the opportunity to combine his on-air role and his passion for soccer.
“I was a guy that was willing to go out to training in order to get soundbites so we could have some stories,” Followill said. “I remember very vividly coming out to practice and talking to Dave Dir and Brandon Pollard and Alain Sutter and Ted Eck and names like that who were noteworthy - Jason Kreis, of course - in the early years of the franchise.”
After a few seasons, the club’s first public address announcer, Victor Villalba, now the Spanish radio voice of both the Mavs and the Dallas Cowboys, moved to Los Angeles and Followill, because of his time around the team early on, was soon asked to fill in on the mic at the Cotton Bowl.
“It was a labor of love, of soccer love, of Dallas Burn love because it wasn’t a high-paying job, I’ll put it that way. But that was okay because I enjoyed it.”
His passion for the role, though, was undeniable from the very start.
“I was from the school where everything was always high energy. I walked into the booth [that first night] and nobody told me what to do.
“It was time to announce the starting lineups and, first of all, the mascot, Islamico the horse - whenever it was time to announce Islamico, I was going nuts about freaking Islamico,” Followill said with a laugh reminiscing.
“I think I kind of surprised everybody when it was time to say ‘IT’S TIME TO ANNOUNCE THE STARTING LINEUP FOR YOUR DALLAS BURN!’ It was a lot of ‘BOBBY RHIIIINE!’, ‘JOSELITO VACAAAA!’ and ARIEL GRAAAZIANI!’ It was just a lot of theatrics and over-the-top histrionics and going crazy with it. Everyone in the booth I think was going, ‘What is this guy doing?’”
(It's impossible to replicate Followill's call in text, but listen for yourself in the audio clip below, starting at 2:38)
In those days, the spot to be after Burn matches was the Old Mill Inn restaurant in Fair Park. Fans would make the short trek from the Cotton Bowl after the final whistle, followed soon after by some of the gameday staff. It was commonplace to see players mingling with their loyal supporters.
Just a few games into his budding soccer PA career, it was there that Followill first met one Bobby Rhine.
“Michael Grant, who still works for the team to this day, was the gameday producer and introduced me to Bobby as someone who was doing the PA lately,” Followill recalled. “Bobby said, ‘You’re the guy who’s doing the lineups like real loud and crazy, aren’t you?’ I said, ‘Yeah that’s me.’ And he told me ‘Hey man, the players down on the field, we love it. We dig it.’”
“It was very cool that he said that, very genuine. We know that was just the kind of man that he was.”
Carrying on a Legacy
Followill continued to bring his energy to the speakers at the Cotton Bowl for several years, as time allowed, until the club decided to move in a different direction in-stadium.
In 2001, he took over as the play-by-play radio voice of the Mavericks and then, in 2005, made the jump to the same role on television - a position he has held since.
In that same time, Bobby Rhine would continue to cement his legacy on the field for the Dallas Burn, and then FC Dallas, until the end of the 2008 season, when he made the seamless transition to the TV booth. Bobby brought the same passion he played with on the field - a similar passion he appreciated being replicated from a young Followill - to the club in his post-playing career.
In September 2011, Rhine untimely passed away at the age of 35 during his third season as the voice of his longtime club. The rest of that season, colleagues from around MLS who both loved and respected Rhine served as guest broadcasters.
That next season, the one-time PA announcer who Rhine once applauded at the Old Mill Inn, was asked to try and fill the enormous shoes left behind.
“All the time,” Followill quickly responded when asked about the crossing paths of his roles with the club and Bobby’s legacy. “It’s heavy stuff to think about because it is strange how fate led us all to this point. I hope that I am continuing on a legacy that he would respect and be proud of, and I like to think so because of how much he loved the club. He loved the sport and I know he was someone who was tailor made for being an ambassador for the club. I hope that I have followed in those footsteps in a way that he, along with everyone else, appreciates.”
Becoming a National Voice
When he took over the broadcasting duties on a part-time basis in 2012, Followill had never called a soccer game in his life. But it was his passion for the game, the same one that started his love affair with the club in ’96, that many in the Dallas front office were hedging their bets on.
“They knew I knew the game and they knew I was a good broadcaster," he said. “They knew I would work really hard on it and was going to be very into it, not just form a broadcast standpoint, from the passion and enthusiasm for the sport standpoint.”
His first season, though, was quite an adjustment. Followill said without former MLS defender and five-year broadcaster Brian Dunseth alongside him those first few games, his soccer career would’ve had a whole different story.
“It could’ve been a lot bumpier road for me in the beginning than it was,” he said. “Dunny has done just about every job there is to do in soccer and worked for every team and worked for every network that covered the teams. He was really, really instrumental [in my success], being somebody that helped and showed me a lot of the ropes and different aspects of things.”
That first season, he also called games with Ian Joy, fresh off his playing career and stepping into the booth for the first time as well. Six years later, Joy is one of Fox’s leading voices for Bundesliga coverage and the duo will be working alongside each other this summer surrounding the World Cup - a long way from their humble beginnings in Frisco.
Followill is his own self-proclaimed biggest critic. There were countless hours, especially early on, watching back the broadcast when he got home and soliciting advice or tweaks to his calls from those who had been around the game much longer than he.
“Obviously I had a familiarity with broadcasting and TV, but to present soccer the way it needs to be done, there are certain aspects of it that I hadn’t done before,” he said. “It was just a lot of studying and a lot of listening to myself and listening to other people. I was seeking feedback and making all of that work. That’s kind of the road that it was for me: be very, very self-critical, always go back and listen to your work and do a lot of practice.
“Believe me, there are a lot of times, to this day, that if there’s a team that I hadn’t done before, and I’m learning the players. There’s a lot of sitting in front of a laptop and doing some form of practice in play-by-play. You’ve got to do the work.”
The ultimate professional, Followill goes to great lengths to be a part of every Dallas broadcast he can, even though his role with the Mavericks makes for heavy travel and near-sleepless nights when the basketball and soccer seasons overlap in the spring and fall.
It’s not uncommon that he flies back to Dallas the day of an FCD game from whatever city the Mavs have an off day in and call the game at Toyota Stadium before booking it back to the airport after the final whistle for a red-eye flight back to his NBA duties.
His tireless work and dedication gained attention from those outside Dallas and in 2014, when Fox Sports was awarded the broadcast rights to the next pair of Men’s and Women’s World Cups, Followill decided to make a little bit of his own luck.
He reached out to Fox, somewhat out of the blue, to gauge their interest.
“I reached out to someone and said I was a soccer guy, showed him my work and I actually got a call back pretty quickly. They told me I knew what I was doing and wanted me to come out and have a tryout. It took some patience and persistence to stay with it.”
Over the next few years, the booming voice that fans in Dallas had come to know and love, could be heard on the U-17 and U-20 World Cups, UEFA Europa League and Bundesliga coverage and the 2017 Concacaf Gold Cup.
No opportunity helped bolster his soccer resume and cement his place as a top voice for Fox like Copa America Centenario did in 2016.
“I got the chance to do a U.S. friendly against Puerto Rico before the tournament started and I got the chance to do some big games during the tournament that opened up a lot of eyes,” he said. “That was a tryout for this 2018 thing back then. If you did it well, you were going to likely go down and work with the team for 2018…That was a key moment for me and Fox to break through and earn their trust and be a part of a World Cup broadcast team.”
The World’s Stage
Since being named to Fox’s 23-person broadcast team for the tournament in late April, it’s been all business for the 47-year-old to get ready for the nine group stage matches he and broadcast partner Warren Barton are slated to call.
With just a day between games in most cases, every minute of spare time Followill has had in the weeks leading up to the tournament has been consumed with extensive research on all 16 teams and every player on their rosters - some 360 names.
Between his Mavs and FC Dallas duties, Followill and Barton have called several MLS games for Fox to help build their on-air chemistry for the sport’s biggest stage.
“Every day I’m consuming information and working on it, but in terms of what it’s going to be like [to be calling the World Cup], the preparation has been pretty intense,” he said. “I haven’t thought of it other than it being a massive assignment with a lot of work and responsibility. I think that’s where my head is about it right now. I haven’t had to the time to sit back and think about it. I don’t sit there and think about what my first line is going to be for my first game of the World Cup.”
He might not let himself think about it too much right now, but at the end of the experience, it’ll be the pinnacle of a short and still promising career in American soccer.
“It’s amazing to be a part of it. Not a day goes by where I don’t realize it, but my head is just focused on the work that needs to be done before then and I have other things to handle as well,” he said. “I’m very proud of it and really looking forward to it. I can promise you that.”
Mark Followill's World Cup Group Stage Schedule
|June 15||7:00 AM||Egypt vs. Uruguay||FS1|
|June 18||10:00 AM||Belgium vs. Panama||FS1|
|June 20||1:00 PM||Spain vs. Iran||FOX|
|June 21||7:00 AM||Denmark vs. Australia||FS1|
|June 22||7:00 AM||Brazil vs. Costa Rica||FS1|
|June 24||10:00 AM||Japan vs. Senegal||FOX|
|June 25||1:00 PM||Spain vs, Morocco||FS1|
|June 27||9:00 AM||Germany vs. Korea||FS1|
|June 28||9:00 AM||Poland vs. Japan||FS1|