ESPN Africa announced brand collaboration with Bob O’ Connor

News 21 January 2021

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ESPN Africa announced brand collaboration with Bob O’ Connor

Why is that American sports ball shaped like a rugby ball if they claim to be playing football? What’s the difference between a quarterback, a fullback and a running back, and which one is best for attracting women? Why do all these armoured men worship a Superb Owl and do battle to please it?

Many of us have many silly questions about American sports and now, at last, here with the significantly less silly and much funnier answers is international special correspondent extraordinaire Bob O’Connor. Bob, the alter ego of actor Tyson Ngubeni, has teamed up with ESPN to demystify the Upper 90 and the like. He’ll be uniting his American upbringing and his experiences on the ground in South Africa since 2018 to translate what the American sports commentators on ESPN (DStv 218) and ESPN2 (DStv 219) are saying into South African terms with wit, flair and humour.

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Bob will be helping local sports fans make connections between the iconic leagues featured on ESPN and ESPN2, and South Africa’s own sporting leagues. And he’ll sprinkle in some of his observations about our country, our people and some of those subtle South African cultural nuances that he has picked up – to hilarious effect.

You can catch Bob’s on-air campaign across both ESPN channels, as well as National Geographic (DStv 181), National Geographic Wild (DStv 182) and Fox (DStv 125). Fans can also connect to @ESPNAfrica across Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to keep up to date with the latest from our man Bob.

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“This local brand collaboration with Bob O’Connor will walk side-by-side with fans as we kick off an action-packed year for sport on the ESPN channels in 2021. His self-deprecating humour and signature comedy style are a treat to watch, while also being invaluable in explaining American sporting leagues to viewers and fans across the continent,” says Evert van der Veer, Vice-President, Media Networks, The Walt Disney Company Africa.

Who is this brave man? Meet Bob

Hi Bob, please tell us about yourself.

Bob: I’m Bob O’Connor. I worked as a special correspondent. I’ve been freelancing for some time. I’ve been based in South Africa since December 2018. I was born in Madison, Wisconsin. I went to Randall Elementary. I went to high school at Middleton High. I went to prom with Paula Jenkins back in 1990. It was beautiful. I’ve had an interesting career. I wanted to serve my country. So I joined the CIA and served in Thailand undercover for about 16 years. It was great. Then when I left the agency, I decided that my information skills would be great in the news. I started freelancing from Asia. I connected with a couple of news agencies back home. And I’ve been travelling the world since, telling stories about culture and people and it’s been fantastic.

So you’re a freelance sports reporter. Well, news reporter? 

Bob: I’m a freelance reporter, generally. I go wherever the story takes me. Sometimes you’re in a place and there’s a major cultural event. We could talk about that and explain it to the global audience, or should I say, the Western audience. And sometimes it’s a major sports event or maybe a kind of sport that people don’t understand. Well, sometimes I do that too. So it’s wherever the story takes me.

Fantastic. And why did you come to South Africa?

Bob: December of 2018 was when I first landed in South Africa. Well, I wanted to do a story about the people in the culture and try to understand an interesting phenomenon that happens in the South Africa transport sector. You see, taxis in South Africa aren’t what people in the West are used to. It’s a minibus and people who sit in the front seat of that minibus are usually entrusted with counting the money. But an interesting phenomenon happens sometimes where your mathematical faculties just disintegrate. I wanted to try and understand that. So that was the documentary that brought me here to South Africa. And then well, it took a long time, travelling across different areas and different cities, trying to put this documentary together, understand the people. When lockdown struck, I was in Soweto and then it started being about “What’s the cultural story that we can tell here?” And that’s when I discovered that in South Africa, they don’t call it a wall. It’s called a “stop nonsense” and it’s a South African engineering phenomenon. I’ve been focusing on that cultural and people aspect ever since the lockdown.

They don’t call it a wall. They call it a …?

Bob: A “stop nonsense”.

Stop nonsense?

Bob: That’s correct. You see, it basically means that on the other side of that structure is nonsense… a burglar, nonsense. Your neighbour’s snot-nosed kid throwing the ball over the wall, that’s nonsense too. And that structure keeps it out. Well, it’s a fantastic phenomenon and I think it’s made out of anti-nonsense compounds found only in the southern parts of Africa. And well, yes.

So tell us, what is your favourite sport?

Bob: It’s got to be football, our football. And I also love tennis. Football and tennis. Those are my top two, and also close to my heart has got to be the other football. Well, I’ve got to say ever since I started travelling the world, I fell in love with soccer, of course. But some people here call it football.

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What is the big deal with American football? How does it work? People talk of men in motorbike helmets and shoulder pads. 

Bob: That’s right.

What’s this about? How does American football work?

Bob: It’s quite interesting. Football, to put it simply… you’ve got two teams and well, there’s a whole wide football field and both teams are essentially trying to get forward as much as possible to reach the other team’s end zone. If you get there, then you can have what’s called a touchdown. You can also score a field goal through the posts on the edge of the field. It’s a contact sport like no other. I know there’ve been comparisons here in South Africa to rugby, of course, but you’ve got to be padded up. You’ve got to have a helmet and take all the safety precautions and it’s a fantastic advertisement for American sports, American grit, American culture. It’s fantastic.

It’s the biggest sport in America, right?

Bob: It’s absolutely massive, and you get the regular season and it all builds up and culminates towards the Super Bowl, which is the final game of the season. The two teams who have made it through all of that fight it out for the Vince Lombardi trophy.

So if we were brought up in an American home, would we automatically support the team that our parents support?

Bob: It’s not uncommon for little kids to be surrounded with all the memorabilia and paraphernalia of whatever team your family supports. It would be a family tradition passed down from one generation to the next. Of course, in high school as well. A big part of American football culture starts very young, and you could start playing as young as middle school and high school and just do your best to try and make a game of it.

What about baseball? Rumour has it that some of the shops even close when there’s a big game on. How does that work? The bat is very thin compared to a cricket bat. How are you supposed to hit the ball with that?

Bob: That’s true. Hand-eye coordination. We’re leaders in a lot of departments as Americans. And I think hand-eye coordination is right up there as well. You rarely need to know exactly what you’re doing to strike that baseball. Of course, we’ve had great players over the years. One that comes to mind is A-Rod, Alex Rodriguez, who was, of course, an all-star with the Yankees. But it’s a fantastic sport. There are similarities, I suppose, in terms of terminologies and people in cricket, but there are differences as well. So cricket players play on a pitch, and in baseball, you’re a pitcher and you’re pitching. Well, with cricket, you’ve got umpires. We’ve got that, too. You’ve got innings. We’ve got that, too. With cricket, you’re on strike. We have strike calls. So if you get enough strikes, then you’re out. And it can bring an entire city, an entire family, an entire home, to a standstill in the World Series, of course. And well, Major League Baseball is a massive part of the American culture and a massive part of who we are.

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And then there are also little league baseball teams? 

Bob: That’s where I started. Little league back in Madison. My coach used to tell us that sometimes you’ve got to be a potato. By that he meant that whatever they put you through, you’ll come out tasting great. When the heat is on in the furnace of that field, or that pitch, you just turn it into a roasted potato situation. If they try to squeeze the life out of you, mashed potatoes are an all-time, top-five dish. He was a fantastic coach, Coach Tucker. A great man.

You are a self-professed sports star, but we believe that an injury got in the way? 

Bob: You know, it’s quite a sad story. I could have been a pro athlete, but I stubbed my big toe at my high school graduation. Listen, it was a great night. I was there with Paula Jenkins. It was a Friday. Then, when I was going up the steps, I stubbed my big toe. I spent the rest of my graduation limping. That’s when I knew. Listen, at the end of the night, I tried breakdancing. I used to try that a little bit. When I couldn’t pull off that one move, I just knew my football career would just be over. It hit the rocks. I had pain for a couple of weeks and I didn’t want to risk anything life-threatening. It took a lot of courage, but I decided, you know what? I’ll serve my country in other ways. So I stepped away from the game.

Okay, Now what is the big deal with hockey? We have hockey. But I know you have hockey and you have ice hockey. Is this a big thing? How does that work?

Bob: It’s massive. I suppose bigger in Canada than in America, of course. Some of the greatest hockey players and hockey teams are Canadian. But ice hockey, of course, is a big deal. I know in South Africa it’s played on a different kind of turf, green turf, but it’s on ice. And again, you’ve got to have balance because, of course, you’re on the ice and you’re doing the best you can to stay afloat and really rough the other team up and get them off the puck and take that puck and try to score goals. We’ve had some fantastic players over the years. One who I like watching closely is Jonathan Taffe. He’s fantastic. He’s with the Chicago Blackhawks. But it’s also a contact sport, very physical. It gets, some people would say, over the top from time to time, where the game has to be stopped and it breaks off into a bit of a scuffle. But it is one of those sports where you’ve got to be at your absolute best to stay afloat and stay on that ice.

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What’s up with the NBA?

Bob: The NBA is, of course, the foremost basketball league in the world. Of course, because of the COVID pandemic, everything came to a standstill, the NBA included. So to finish off the season, they decided, “You know what? We’re going to take all of the players, all of the referees, the coaches, everybody. We’re going to put them in a bubble. We’re going to isolate them and have constant screening and testing to make sure that everyone’s safe regarding the pandemic." They just did their best to keep everyone safe so that when the testing was complete and everyone was cleared, they could resume what was left of the playoffs. Because I think the pandemic hit just as we were building up to the playoffs, the end-of-season playoffs. And well, LeBron and the Lakers, they did fantastic of course, winning the championship for the first time in a long time. LeBron is, of course, one of the greatest players ever with a fantastic ring once again to his collection.

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Why do you think sport brings us together?

Bob: That’s a good question. It brings together so many elements of humanity. There’s rivalry, there’s community there. If we support a team, well, we come together and form a community around that team, supporting the sports team or watching sports if it’s at home. That of course, is all about family and community in that sense too. But on a basic level, if you’re a sports person, especially in team sports, it’s about collaboration and again, bringing people together to make things work. There’s a lot of really incredible lessons that we learn from sports. The discipline that it would take to become a pro athlete is the same discipline that I took to be able to breakdance while wearing a Santa suit. It takes a lot, of course, of focus and years of dedication to be able to pull that off. But whatever it is you dedicate yourself to is something we end up coming to admire as people who watch sports. So it unifies people, there are rivalries involved. It’s the best of humanity.

Let’s speak about what you’ve come to love in South Africa. Favourite local food?

Bob: South African food has got to be in my all-time top-five. Well, there was a potjiekos. I think that it’s cooked on a black pot over a fire. There’s sometimes chicken in there. There are vegetables. There is meaty goodness. Oh my gosh. it’s flavourful. It’s spicy. It’s absolutely fantastic. I think that embodies a lot of what South Africa is: a mishmash of people coming together and tasting great in the end. Well, I’ve also sampled, I think they call it a gwinya or a vetkoek.

A vetkoek?

Bob: That’s it. And to be clear, it has nothing to do with an animal doctor in the kitchen, but it is fantastic. It’s deep-fried. You could have it with mince. You could have it, of course depending on where you are, with processed meats. Then there is something that I think is called mangola or bologna and that spicy mango kind of an achar. It’s fantastic. I’ve also sampled the kotya, k-o-y-t-a, it’s great. It’s one of the most popular foods in the township. It’s a quarter loaf of bread hollowed out, and you can take your pick of what to put in there; fries, polony or a Russian sausage as I think it’s called here. It’s incredible. Sometimes a quarter loaf of bread is hollowed out. In Durban, they call it “bunny chow”. It’s got nothing to do with rabbits, I’m told. But it’s fantastic. It’s one of the best things you could sample. I’m also investigating something called Amakipkip. It looks like popcorn, but it’s in different colours. If you took popcorn and dipped it in a rainbow, I think that would be the result. Some people call it “Ouma tande” which I think translates to “grandma’s teeth”. It’s fantastic. South African food is full of colour, full of flavour. Fantastic.

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If a South African friend asked you for a recommendation on an American sport to watch, what would you recommend? Which is an easy one to get into? What is the most exciting one?

Bob: For a South African friend, well, maybe because of the similarities in terms of how the field is laid out and how they play, probably football. You’ve got to start with the NFL, start learning what that is, understand what the end zone is, what the different roles are, quarterback, running back and all of that. I think it wouldn’t be too much of a shift in terms of sports that you enjoy. So go from rugby and try a little football. The NBA is huge, no matter where you are in the world. Of course, one of the most recognisable stars is LeBron James. Who doesn’t want to know exactly what LeBron is doing on the court? So I’d recommend the NBA. And we’ve got so many iconic baseball movies. You may as well start to understand that. So those would be my top three, definitely.

Thank you, Bob.

ESPN, 2021

ESPN’s 2021 slate is packed with action from the American, European and other premium international sports leagues. Along with sports coverage, fans will also be able to catch the latest sports-themed movies, series, news, talk shows and highlights from ESPN’s sports documentaries and studio programming throughout the year.

January is crunch time in American football’s NFL (National Football League) as the regular season is coming to its grand finale. It’s high-stakes football with the Wild Card Round, Divisional Round and Conference Finals to follow. Which teams will compete for the Lombardi Trophy? Who will compete in the Super Bowl final event which will take place on Monday, 8 February, on ESPN (DStv 218) at 01:30? And what will happen in the popular half-time show when The Weeknd performs?

The NBA (National Basketball Association) is also now back in business. LeBron James and the Lakers are looking to restore their honour and take back the Larry O’Brien NBA Championship Trophy. The rest of the league, of course, will be the Pokémon Team Rocket to the Lakers’ Ash and Pikachu.

See? This is why we need Bob.

Catch Bob O’Connor this month on ESPN (DStv 218), ESPN2 (DStv 219), National Geographic (DStv 181), National Geographic Wild (DStv 182), and Fox (DStv 125), and on social media @ESPNAfrica

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