Raj Mathai has won two Emmy Awards and an Associated Press award for Outstanding Sports Segment. As sports director for NBC Bay Area, Raj anchors nightly sportscasts and is among the Bay Area’s most well-known television personalities. He is a part of the San Francisco Giants broadcast team, joining Jon Miller and Mike Krukow when the Giants are on NBC Bay Area. He hosts the top-rated “Sports Sunday” program, which airs weekly and attracts the Bay Area’s highest-profile sports figures
Raj has reported on location from the Olympics in Italy, Greece, and Salt Lake City. He has run the Olympic Torch three times (1996, 2002, and 2008). Born into a family of journalists in Trivandrum, India, Raj moved to the U.S.—to the Bay Area—at the age of seven. He went on to graduate from San Diego State University with majors in journalism and political science.
A popular emcee and speaker, Raj emcees the annual ATP Tour tennis tournament in San Jose that has featured Andre Agassi and Andy Roddick.
Raj and his wife, Sonia, contribute to the Stanford Cancer Center, Juvenile Diabetes Research Fund, College Track, India Community Center, East Palo Alto Boys & Girls Club, and various other Bay Area charities.
When did you first know that you wanted to be a sportscaster?
When I moved to America, I was seven years old, and I saw Monday Night Football for the first time. And I remember thinking, wow, these guys are just having so much fun! Not the players, but the broadcasters! I decided right then that I wanted to be on television talking about sports.
And you never wavered from that?
No. Now people sometimes comment on how quickly I’ve achieved what I’ve achieved, and I tell them not really … I’ve been working on it since I was seven. It’s taken me decades!
What is it like watching a pro football game from the sidelines, as opposed to from the stands?
From the sidelines, you feel it, you smell it, you can hear the helmets crack. It’s a completely different experience. I can say the same thing about baseball. During the Giants games, I’m actually in the dugout—I’m the in-game dugout reporter.
The main thing about being in the dugout is that I get to hear all the conversations among the players and coaches. Sometimes, you’ll hear the commentators speculating as to why a guy made a great play or a bonehead play. I’m in the dugout listening to the player’s conversation as to why or how he did it.
Sometimes I’ll relay that to the guys in the booth and the viewers.
When you’re in the dugout, are you hearing the guys in the booth?
Yes. Through my earpiece I’m hearing Jon and Mike in the booth—the same audio that the viewers at home are hearing—and through the earpiece I’m also hearing our producer talking intermittently to all three of us. And, of course, I’m hearing the players and coaches talking because I’m right there with them. So I’m listening to all three sources of information at once.
That sounds like a real exercise in focus!
(laughs) It’s good practice for being married.
At San Diego State, you majored in both journalism and political science. Why political science?
Almost as much as I love sports, I love politics. In the morning I have to watch ESPN and CNN.
Growing up, what sportscasters did you admire?
I always loved Bob Costas, and I still do. He’s not a yeller or screamer, he doesn’t make up nicknames, he doesn’t have any gimmicks. He covers sports the same way that a great journalist would cover politics and news. His stories are well-researched and he presents them in a straightforward and intelligent manner.
Have you gotten to meet him or work with him?
No. Even though I’ve been with NBC [Bob Costas’s network] for all these years, and covered some of the same events he’s covered, still our paths have never crossed. I hope that they will.
You’ve been an Olympic torchbearer three times. The 2008 (Beijing Olympics) torch-bearing in San Francisco was an adventure with a lot of protestors. What was that like?
(laughs) It was a wild scene. There were protestors, supporters, the international media, and it was kind of like the O.J. Simpson car chase years ago. A true spectacle. They kept shuttling the torchbearers to different locations in San Francisco on a secret basis. So we were shuttled around on the bus for hours, not knowing where we were going. And there were some pretty high-profile people on the bus. The commissioner of the NBA, the former mayor of San Francisco, all sorts of past Olympic stars, community leaders. We finally got to run the torch amidst all the protestors and supporters, and I’ll never forget it. I don’t think anybody from the Bay Area will ever forget it.
What do you enjoy about covering the Olympics?
The magnitude of the story. When you’re covering the Olympics, the whole world is watching.
What are some of your favorite Olympic stories you’ve covered?
Of course there are the huge stories that everybody knows. But I really remember some of the more obscure stories.
There was a table tennis player from San Jose who trained for years and made it to Athens, and then lost in the first round. It was so emotional, his whole family was there, and he did not do well. But after he lost, he was smiling, and his family was so proud that he’d made it to the Olympics.
And then there was Natalie Coughlin, a swimmer from the Bay Area, who won several gold medals, also in Athens. And yes, she was thrilled to win all these medals, but when I spoke with her all she could talk about was the fact that it was her birthday and her parents had given her a small pair of diamond earrings (laughs). That’s what I love about the Olympics; the individual stories that are more about the human being than the sport.
I’ve always wanted to ask this question of a sports broadcaster, and I’ve never gotten to until now: Have you ever watched a sporting event on television, and turned the volume all the way down, and called the event yourself?
(laughs) Yes! It’s a great way to practice! And you can test out your voice, your pacing, your style …
Did you do that when you were a kid?
Yes, and in those days I’d make my own fake microphone out of stuff from the house, and call the games into the microphone. I even sometimes did this when there was no game even going on. I’d just imagine a game and make the calls.
How did your family react to this?
I have two sisters and five step-siblings, so you can imagine—they always found it quite humorous. But when I finally got into the business, it suddenly became less funny, and they would say things like, “Oh yeah, he’s been doing this since he was seven.”
I understand you have an interesting story from your first day on the air in Yuma, Arizona.
Yeah, I was 23 and in the middle of Arizona and about to make my live TV debut. The camera operator said, “Okay Raj, here we go, in five, four, three, two,” then she pointed at me for one and then right at zero I realized that I was chewing gum. This fluorescent green gum. And with it being my first night ever on the air, I was really nervous. So instead of calmly swallowing the gum or putting it in the side of my mouth, I panicked and looked at the camera and then looked to the side and just spit out the gum.
You could see the trajectory of the gum as it left my mouth and flew across the screen right as the telecast was beginning.
How did the crew react?
(laughs) They just put their heads down in their hands, as if to say, oh my gosh, this guy is an absolute idiot.
Actually I thought it was impressive that I recovered and did the whole four-minute sportscast, rather than crying and running off the set.
That night, I went home to my condo in Yuma. I figured, okay, I’m getting fired tomorrow, so I’m just going to relax and not talk to anybody tonight. So I went down to the condo hot-tub area, and there were some older ladies there. Well, they could tell I was down, and they were nice and said, “Young man, what’s the problem?” And I told them I’d had a rough day at the office. And they said, “Don’t worry, it couldn’t be as bad as this sportscaster we saw on NBC tonight. He spit out his gum during the newscast!”
They had no idea that I was that sports caster!
Did you break the news to them?
No, that made me feel even less like talking. I just left and went back to my condo.
The next day, though, was great. The news director bought a bulk pack of 500 packs of gum and put the whole thing on my desk. And when I walked in, everybody in the newsroom started clapping. And they told me, things can only get better. So they turned the whole thing into a positive.
Did you do any sports broadcasting at San Diego State?
No, I was solely a sports writer for the Daily Aztec, the school newspaper. And I still consider myself a writer first. I’m now a writer who also does television.
You emcee the annual the ATP tennis tournament in San Jose. What does emceeing a tennis tournament entail?
Every night, I do the introduction of the players over the PA system. Then, after a match, right on the court, I interview the players, and the interview is played over the PA system and fed to the television coverage as well.
Do you play tennis yourself?
Yes, but I’m not very good. But I’m a big fan, so it’s a thrill to get to interview world-class players.
What were your Emmys for?
One was for overall coverage of the Athens Olympics. The other was for a feature story about a Little League baseball team, the Fresno Giants. I compared this team of seven-year-olds with the San Francisco Giants: the practice habits, salaries, lifestyles, and so on.
You are involved in several charities.
I grew up in the Bay Area, so this is my community. It’s very important to me to give back to the community. In addition, NBC is very proactive in terms of having its employees give back.
Do you have personal connections with any of these causes?
Stanford Cancer Center is one of my primary causes. Both my mother and aunt passed away from cancer. East Palo Alto Boys and Girls Club is another favorite cause, because we live just a few miles from there. The Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation and the India Community Center just do a lot of great work.
Do you have any idea what you’d like to be doing several years from now?
I’d like to branch out into news coverage in addition to my work in sports. Kind of like Bob Costas does. Also, I’ve always had in the back of my head that someday I would enjoy doing a stint as a foreign journalist—maybe in India, or London.
I come from a family of journalists. My father ran a magazine in Bombay. My uncle still writes and edits for the Indian Express out of Bangalore. Journalism is in my blood.
Ranjit Souri (rjsouri [at] gmail [dot] com) teaches classes in improvisation, comedy writing, and creative non-fiction in Chicago.
|Ranjit Souri (rjsouri [at] gmail [dot] com) teaches classes in improvisation, comedy writing, and creative non-fiction in Chicago.|