Nick Mullins has been a leading rugby broadcaster for more than 20 years, so how did he make it in the business and what has he learnt along the way?
By Graham Jenkins
Welcome to The Forward Pass, a series of conversations with leading rugby union journalists, broadcasters, presenters and photographers who will offer the next generation of media professionals – and fans – an insight into how they cover the sport.
The first industry veteran to join host Graham Jenkins to reflect on his career journey, discuss the key decisions he has made along the way and share how he approaches his job is journalist and commentator Nick Mullins.
A familiar voice to many in the UK through his extensive work on TV and radio, Mullins will once again be the lead commentator for BT Sport’s coverage of the Aviva Premiership and Champions Cup before taking the microphone for ITV’s share of the Six Nations later this season.
Read some extracts from the podcast and listen to the complete conversation below.
Where did you get your first break?
“That first break comes from how much you put into it and even as a 13 or 14 year old I was thinking about where I could get experience that might give me a bit of an edge. So my first job was in the summer holidays on the Loughborough and Coalville Trader which was a wonderful free sheet before gradating to the Loughborough Echo. I have always thought you get as much experience as you can early on by offering to work for free, to make the tea, shuffle paper around…I learnt so much by giving up my own time but working alongside those who were doing the job full time.
Why did you initially opt for a career in radio?
“I did a degree in media studies when media studies was not a particularly popular degree to do. I know now there is a proliferation of them and I have mixed views. If there was one thing that I might change given the option of doing a more general degree in say English at the University of East Anglia, if I hadn’t been so driven towards a career in journalism I might have taken a more general degree.
“But from my point of view media studies was great – it introduced me to an area of journalism I had never thought of before and that was radio. I had always imagined I would be a print media journalist hopefully on a big national one day, I then came across this medium called radio and in terms of sport it was that much more immediate.”
The BBC was clearly a huge factor in your career?
“The best thing about the BBC and there a million brilliant things about the BBC and I will forever be grateful, but the best thing about the BBC, for those who do work for it or have worked for it, because it is so big, you get that many more avenues of opportunity within the same organization. If you look at my career path within the BBC that began as 17 year old doing what I did for nothing at Radio Leicester, leading to Radio Kent where I worked for four years, you learn on the job, it is an apprenticeship and for some people hose lucky enough to work there all their lives it can last your entire career.
“I had four years at Radio Kent and then around the time Radio 5 was launching they needed producers so it was an easy link from a BBC local station to a national station, and a whole slew of us came through then, pretty much anyone who is doing what I do now on national radio or TV came through that generation of Radio 5 producers or commentators.
“And I was at Radio 5 when Bill McLaren was thinking of retiring and they had a bunch of journalists there as options…like Miles Harrison, Jon Champion, Peter Drury, Mark Pougatch, there was literally dozens of us coming through.
“The BBC was finding that more and more of their commentators needed replacing and the obvious place to look for those replacements was Radio 5 as that had been well received and was the perfect training ground.”
Did luck play a part in your career to date?
“I spent two years working unpaid at Radio Leicester every weekend, eventually commentating on Leicester City, so when the job as a sports reporter came up at Radio Kent it was not something that fazed me, it was something I knew I could do. Opportunities occur, but what you can do is make sure you are best qualified to make the most of them.”
Are you a harsh critic of yourself?
“The thing you have to realise is that you will never give the perfect commentary. I used to spend years and years in the earl today fretting about giving the perfect commentary that doesn’t exist. Over the course of 80 minutes, no matter what context you are in whether you are with a mate down the pub or commenting on a World Cup Final talk cogently for 80 minutes and in hindsight use every single word perfectly and at the perfect moment. As long as you identify most of he players correctly, don’t misidentify the try scorer, you don’t get the score wrong, you don’t swear and you don’t upset too many people you have to accept that as a reasonable commentary but you will never be perfect and it is pointless trying.”
You seem to enjoy your job?
“You can only be yourself broadcasting, if you’re not yourself then you won’t last long and you won’t get a great deal of satisfaction out of it because every time you go on air you are trying to be somebody else. People on Twitter occasionally say that I wish you wouldn’t laugh so much, stop joking around with each other but that’s how we are. We love what we do and love the sport, and as long as were not disrespecting the players and losing sight of what the players are trying to do then I think there is room for that.
“If there’s no personality coming through then there is a danger that it can become dull. But that’s not to say we’re aware you can over do it at times, in the big matches, at the big moments, I’m aware of the need to rein it in because what you never want to do as broadcaster is make the event about you. If you start to fall into the trap that you are as important as the thing you are commentating on then you really are in a deep hole.”
Nick Mullins’ top tips:
Work hard: “The first break comes from how much you put into it”
Get your foot in the door: “I have always thought you get as much experience as you can early on by offering to work for free, to make the tea, shuffle paper around.”
Soak it all in: “I learnt so much by giving up my own time but working alongside those who were doing the job full time.”
Get it right: “If you are writing up a wedding report for a newspaper and you get the name of the bride’s father’s uncle wrong you can guarantee the editor will be getting a call. I still remember those days and the terror that I might have got someone’s name wrong in a wedding photo.”
Be prepared: “Opportunities occur, but what you can do is make sure you are best qualified to make the most of them.”
Crucial contacts: “I could ring a Premiership Rugby coach and say I need to come and watch you train on the Tuesday and they will trust you to come in and watch that session without spilling the beans about a lineout play or a backs move they have been practising that week.”
Capturing history: “If you have not thought about that [moment] then you are not doing your job, you don’t need to have written it down, but you have got to think of something that will highlight that shot we are seeing.”
Twitter caution: “If you are going to use it then you need a thick enough skin or a good enough sense of humour to understand that not everyone will loved you as much as your mum does.”
Don’t beat yourself up: “The thing you have to realise is that you will never give the perfect commentary…As long as you identify most of he players correctly, don’t misidentify the try scorer, you don’t get the score wrong, you don’t swear and you don’t upset too many people you have to accept that as a reasonable commentary but you will never be perfect and it is pointless trying.”