The Troon-born Sports Broadcaster Talks Olive & Mabel, McEnroe and The Masters
by Gill Sherry
With 22 years of experience in sports broadcasting it’s no surprise that Andrew Cotter decided to write a book. What is surprising, though, is that his book has nothing to do with sport.
When the world came to a standstill in 2020, like many people, Andrew found himself with time on his hands. As a result, he began to post videos of his dogs online accompanied, of course, by his own unique commentary.
“The offer to write the book came in the darkest days of June 2020. I’d put out three of the Olive and Mabel videos and a publisher, Black & White, asked me if I’d like to write a book about them. This was very early on, but they could see that something strange was happening.”
Indeed it was. The videos had gone viral, the actions of two Labradors combined with Andrew’s quick-witted commentary proving a winning combination.
“I had no other work at the time,” says Andrew, recalling the cancellation of all sporting events, “but I didn’t let them know that! I was very keen for both books to be a platform for hopefully showing that you can write rather than just being given this opportunity to put a book out off the back of some online success. You want it to be appreciated by people who didn’t know anything about the videos.”
With ‘Olive, Mabel & Me’ soon becoming a bestseller, this validation was never in doubt. Hence the follow up, ‘Dog Days’.
“I really enjoyed writing the second book because it was more about life and our experiences through the pandemic with a heavy dose of dogs in there as well.”
Although not entirely surprised by the success of the two books, Andrew admits to being astonished by the worldwide popularity of his dogs. He assures me, however, that they remain blissfully unaware of their celebrity status. That said, no doubt their ears will be burning when Andrew appears at the Boswell Book Festival later this month. Troon born and bred, it’s an ideal opportunity to revisit his home town.
“Boswell is fantastic… a wonderful venue and a great book festival but in terms of an expedition from Troon, it’s even better. I get back as often as I can. My mother and two brothers are all in Troon. I still think of it as home.”
After that, however, it’s back to the day job which means eight weeks solid of tennis, golf and athletics. I make the mistake of asking about The Masters.
“The Masters is a sensitive subject… because for the first time in 22 years I wasn’t there this year.”
I detect humour in his voice which would suggest it wasn’t actually the end of the world but rather, a minor disappointment. With BBC TV not covering the event, Andrew was not invited to commentate but there’s still the World Athletics Championships in Budapest, the Olympics in Paris next year and, a wee bit closer to home, Wimbledon.
“That’s why I was always keen to do as many sports as possible in terms of commentary… to keep as many plates spinning as possible. It’s that variety which is very much the spice of sports broadcasting.”
For Andrew, it all began in local radio back in 1997. He admits to ‘falling into it’ after graduating from Glasgow University, starting in the sports department of Scot FM in Edinburgh. But he puts much of his success down to timing and luck.
“You’ve got to be very lucky in terms of timing and in terms of your face and your voice fitting. I had three years in Edinburgh then went down to London. I was asked to do some golf and rugby commentary and it just went from there.”
Sports commentary, however, is not restricted to 80 minutes of rugby or three sets of tennis.
“You have to have interesting things to tell the viewer. There’s a huge amount of prep involved. You need to be able to tell the stories within the sport because people will only get invested in it if they care about it. It’s theatre but with a different ending to a story every night.
“Sometimes I’m very grateful for tennis because there are only two people on the court at once. But… a men’s singles match at Wimbledon might go to five sets so it might be going for four hours. I’ve got to have lots of information because otherwise I’m going to have nothing to talk about beyond the first set… and John McEnroe is going to start frowning at me.”
Remembering John McEnroe’s court antics, I imagine that’s something his co-commentators would strive to avoid?
“I don’t really get intimidated by anybody but McEnroe came as close as anybody to do that. He doesn’t suffer fools and quite often I tend towards the foolish which is a dangerous combination! I would joke a little bit more with other commentators than I would with him.”
As with most things, sports commentary is about building relationships, not just with your colleagues but with those on the field.
“Being around sports people, you come to have those who are more enjoyable to deal with. People like Rory McIlroy, a great person, a great guy. There are certainly big egos within sport but that’s the part that gets them to where they are… confidence, drive, ambition and selfishness. Quite often it doesn’t make them the most engaging company but it has brought them great success. I’ve never had any unpleasant dealings… but some are chattier than others.”
I’m reluctant to talk about golf again but it’s a hard subject to avoid and seeing as he’s already mentioned Rory McIlroy… is it his favourite sport to commentate on?
“Golf was always my favourite sport to play but to commentate on… they’re all very different. They’ve all got different paces and tones. I really enjoy big rugby matches with 80,000 in the stadium and knowing that millions are watching on TV. Similarly, with athletics, there’s some great races at the Olympics and World Championships. Even the Boat Race, it’s very different.”
How does he handle the impartiality?
“There are certain times you become a fan again, but most of the time you’re quite dispassionate. You’re still really into the drama of it but you’re not looking on them as your favourite player or your favourite side because you have to be that neutral yet passionate and excited voice. And you’re concentrating so hard on the job that you’re no longer that 10-year-old who had a picture of Seve Ballesteros in his room.
You’re thinking, right, what can I tell you about this player, or that player?”
Perfecting that voice and achieving that balance is something that’s really important to Andrew. For him, it’s all about enhancing the viewer’s experience.
“It’s very easy to ruin the experience. You should just have a light hand on the reins and don’t feel that you’re the dominant figure. Commentators aren’t the most important people by a long shot, it’s the people out there on the field. Commentary adds information but sound adds to the experience as well. It needs to sit nicely within the sound of the crowd. You want to be the person who adds something with a nice sound and that little bit extra information and entertainment.”
This reinforces his point about relationships, particularly with co-commentators.
“You don’t want to be the two boring people ruining the viewing experience. You just want to be the person who they would enjoy sitting with as you make the odd interjection, a nice turn of phrase and add a little bit of information that they didn’t know. You’re just adding a little bit of icing to the product.”
Does he ever struggle with pronunciations?
“I’ve always enjoyed foreign languages so pronunciations I don’t find too difficult. If I get a chance, I’ll ask the player how they would like their name to be pronounced. Do they want the anglicised version or do they want it pronounced exactly as they would pronounce it? It’s an interesting little part of commentary.”
Of course, working on live TV, you only really get one chance to get it right. Sometimes, inevitably, things do go badly wrong.
“My worst moment was when I was violently ill during an Italy v Wales game in the Six Nations about 10 years ago. I’m still reminded of it because I had to leave commentary about five minutes into the game. Also, when sports are moving at pace and you’re having to add that information and identify players, if you get some of that wrong, that’s horrible. I did that recently in the Six Nations. I got a player wrong and it’s an awful feeling. It doesn’t happen too often but it does happen. You just have to minimise the mistakes.”
Of course, broadcasting has changed so much since Andrew took his first tentative steps into sports commentary all those years ago.
“Everybody is potentially a broadcaster now,” he observes, “because you have your own YouTube channel, your own social media channel. Everybody can broadcast.”
But not everyone can make it look as easy as Andrew Cotter. He says the same about some of his colleagues.
“There are so many good presenters at the BBC. Presenting is a very difficult job. I’ve done commentary and I’ve done presentation and I’d much rather do commentary. When you’re dealing with live counts, it’s quite a daunting job. I think Clare Balding is the best so for her to be taking over from Sue Barker, it couldn’t be in better hands. I genuinely can’t think of any presenter more talented than Clare.”
I think the respect is mutual. Certainly, Clare refers to Andrews’s first book (‘Olive, Mable & Me’) as ‘warm, funny, touching, uplifting’. The same could be said about this commentary. Thankfully, despite his absence from The Masters in April, we’ll still get to hear his coverage of The Open and The Ryder Cup later this year.
But what about his writing? Is there another book in the offing?
“I’ve written all I can about dogs. I don’t want to be that person that’s ringing the last desperate drop out of something and flogging a not quite dead horse. But I don’t think I’m finished with writing books.”
An auto biography? A John McEnroe biography?
“’I’m trying to write a novel at the moment, which is rather more difficult than non-fiction. I find non-fiction easier because you’re writing about life and observations on various aspects of life and I’ve always quite enjoyed that. Everyone thinks they have a novel in them but I’m not sure they do. I’m not sure I do, but I’ll give it a bash.”
I sense the opportunity of an exclusive, a hint at the plot or an insight into the protagonist, but I’m disappointed.
“I’m not confident enough that it will ever see the light of day,” says Andrew. “The trouble is, my normal job is back into full swing and sports broadcasting takes up a lot of time. When writing is adjunct to your main career, it remains a thing that you try and squeeze in. I think I need incentive… because if I’m doing something just with the slightly nebulous idea that there might be a deal and a book at the end of it, then I’ll absolutely procrastinate till the cows come home.”
One thing’s for sure, Andrew certainly has plenty of inspiration when it comes to ideas for a novel: the places he’s visited, the people he’s met, the experiences he’s enjoyed. He acknowledges this fact in his closing sentence.
“If you’re lucky enough to find something that you enjoy doing and people will give you a small amount of money for it, then you’re very, very fortunate. I have been very fortunate.”
‘Olive, Mabel & Me’ and ‘Dog Days’ are available in both hardback and paperback. And if you’re one of the few people yet to see Andrew’s Olive & Mabel videos, you can view them on YouTube, including my personal favourite, ‘Game of Bones’.