This year, football is ready to become more inclusive of the deaf community as BT Sport make two new signings with the support of EE.
In January 2023, Damaris Cooke and Rolf Choutan were announced as the two winners of BT Sport and EE’s New Signing initiative which will provide British Sign Language (BSL) presentation to a range of live televised sport throughout 2023. This will include the UEFA Champions League Final in June.
Damaris and Rolf were amongst 10 finalists, selected from a pool of submissions after the initiative was announced last year. All 10 finalists had the chance to show their charisma and skills during a vigorous casting day in December 2022 in front of a panel of experts. The panel was made up of Kevin Evans, executive producer at BT Sport; Christian Cotter, producer at BT Sport; Lesley McGilp, head of signing for access services at Red Bee Media; and Sean Noone, head of competitions at England Deaf Football.
The chosen duo are both lifelong football fans: Rolf is a recreational player and a Crystal Palace season ticket holder who couldn’t pass up the opportunity to be part of the action, and Damaris has captained both the GB Women’s Football and England Women’s Football teams.
The launch of the initiative is just part of the work going on a BT Sport and EE to make the world’s favourite game more accessible, but this particular step forward will see commentary become more inclusive for the deaf community.
Damaris and Rolf will learn the ropes from commentating veterans like Darren Fletcher as a documentary series follows their journey, debuting on BT Sport 1 and EE platforms on 4 February.
As Fulham successfully took on Chelsea on Thursday 12 January, the two new presenters got the chance to meet BT pundits like Darren Fletcher, Jake Humphrey, Joe Cole, Peter Crouch and Gary Cahill, and Enable’s editor Emma got the chance to catch up with Damaris, Rolf and Darren to find out more about the process, what they’re most excited for and why this is such an important step forward.
As Damaris and Rolf met for the first time, their chemistry was undeniable – the pair is sure to impress audiences when they make their TV debut. While they explored Fulham FC and met some of BT Sport’s best presenters, they gave Enable readers an insight into what it’s like to be the broadcaster’s two new signings. On the day, they had the chance to see behind the scenes at Fulham FC, aka Craven Cottage, meet the BT presenters, watch the Fulham vs Chelsea game and conduct a post-match interview with a player, all while being followed by a production crew.
You both have a lifelong love of football, what was it like when you first heard about this opportunity?
I’ve grown up with two brothers and really loved football from a young age and I was always fascinated with sport in general along with my brothers, first thing you’d see the yellow ping from the BBC Sport app so then you’d know that I’m getting those notifications and that’s been something from very early on. I also played football for GB England deaf woman’s teams and I retired at the age of 32 but still madly in love with football and madly in love with sport, so when the competition came up all of my friends, everyone in my life, I got more than 30 texts telling me that I had to apply, everyone wanted me to apply and I think it was a role made for me if I’m honest, I can’t believe that there’s such a fantastic role where I get to talk about football and just experience a different side of the game as well so that was the impetus to apply and then here I am.
I think my story isn’t quite so glitzy and glamorous as Damaris’ but I got involved in deaf football but not at the level that Damaris has played the game, but when I saw the opportunity come up I thought it would be silly not to apply, I went in with very very low expectations and just thought I’m going to send my video in proudly in a Crystal Palace shirt, sent it in and I was invited to the casting day and I thought well if this is as far as I go then I’ve made the final 10 and that’s impressive. I just went there to experience the day and they gave me a sense of what it would be like commentating on a live football game and seeing what my BSL was like and if I was confident in front of a panel of 4 and after that audition I think I dared to hope and started to think that this was going to potentially happen for me but I tried not to think about it too much, ‘til I joined the zoom call and they told me that I’d got the role and it was amazing, it was wonderful.
Damaris, you have done some BSL work on TV before, do you think this benefitted you going into the finalist interviews?
I have worked in TV before but never interviewed into it, I’ve always been in informal settings. I was the first person on the day and it was raining and a really cold day, the nerves were going and I was waiting for a good 45 minutes as well with my thoughts racing. When it’s an interview I like to get it done, get it out the way. I did not expect the studio to be so huge, I was expecting to see a little room, a table with a small panel, but there was a long walk through the door, into the studio and I was just telling myself don’t trip because I was wearing heels that day. I just keep thinking keep smiling, don’t fall over, but I think actually it was fine because Lesley McGill was on the panel and she’s someone that I’ve worked with before so I was comfortable with her there.
That helped calm me down but when they asked me to commentate on the section of the live game and there was one clip that I’d seen beforehand and one that I didn’t see, but fortunately I knew the players and I tried my best. I wasn’t sure what they were looking for so I thought just try my best and let my personality shine and there we go.
Rolf, before this you worked in finance. What was the interview experience like for you?
For me it was a similar experience, before I went in there was the previous candidate Coco who I knew really well and she said you’ll feel like a bug that’s how small you are in comparison to the room and I thought no I’m a big boy, but she was absolutely right. They said to stand on the white cross to make sure I was captured on the camera but I was so over-excited that I kept moving off it and they kept telling me to stand back in position. My left leg just wouldn’t stop shaking, I felt completely fine but my left leg had other thoughts like it was trying to say something else and I was just thinking let’s hope they don’t notice. I enjoyed the questions they asked, in some ways my lack of media experience played to my advantage because I didn’t have much to lose. I work in finance, if I don’t get it I’m alright, I’m fine, if I had previous experience then I might have had pre-conceived expectations to meet but I went in with a blank slate.
You both found out you’d been chosen on a video call with the BT Sport and EE team, what was it like?
I was actually in Germany at my wife’s parents house so I said to my wife you’re going to need to leave the room, I’m going to need to set everything up and make sure I’m ready. I had a good feeling but I was still nervous. I thought they wouldn’t really get these people on the call to say I hadn’t gotten it. As I went through the call, I could see the way they were phrasing things and that they were building up to something and I just thought ‘don’t smile too much Damaris’. Inside I was like bouncing around but on the outside, I was just saying thank you and that I was so happy. As soon as the call ended I went mad, running around and all the way downstairs to tell everyone. It was amazing and then we had a few drinks that night to celebrate.
For me, I was due to go into the office that day. I had said no just email me if you’re telling me no, why would you do a video call to tell me no, let’s just save both of our time, but the person I was liaising with said no I think you better join this Zoom, so at that point I was like ‘oh wow I might have done this’. I got on the call and there were 30 people on it but only three cameras on, I felt a bit like I was being interviewed behind a two-way mirror, but then they told me. I came off the call and I was so excited, I called my brother, my girlfriend and then I had to just get on with my day. I also allowed myself a pint that night.
This is a big step in making football more inclusive, why is this such an important initiative?
I mean football has always been accessible but now its achieving more of that. It’s not just for hearing people, it’s for deaf people too and there’s representation there and the acknowledgement that we’re valued and that we are actually included which I think is so important.
Lots of deaf people’s football knowledge it’s from what we see and what we’re told by hearing people because by having that commentary they’re getting that extra flavour and I think in terms of deaf people’s enjoyment of the game, it’s not going to change, but having the punditry, the commentary, it’s just going to add that extra dimension of information and those informed conversations and a bit of added spice to the game.
We can watch football with subtitles and it’s those subtitles that tell you more about the game and give you an understanding of players with injuries and all that kind of stuff, but having that in BSL is just going to enable that extra level of engagement in the game.
I mean it’s an exciting opportunity but there’s a responsibility there and we need to be mindful of the privileges that we’ve been given and we’ve got to make the most of this. It’s going to be fun but it’s a serious opportunity and there’s a lot of work to do. From our conversation with Darren Fletcher there’s a lot of research you have to do, so I guess we have a lot of football to watch Damaris.
What are you both most nervous and most excited about?
Well, I would say I was most nervous about meeting the BT pundits, but actually I feel so at ease with them, they’ve made me feel so welcome and so I didn’t feel nervous at all meeting them. In terms of what to expect and what we’re looking forward to, I don’t know. I think as soon as we’ve arrived all of our preconceptions have gone out the window. For me personally this is my first time in Craven Cottage, my first time seeing a different side of the stadium in this way so I’m just excited for what’s coming.
For me, the most exciting thing is it’s so different from all of my previous career and life experience, I’m coming into a completely brand-new world and that’s just pure fire. Having that camera on us today, being aware that we’re representing the deaf community, we want to give them the best we can. I’m worried about making a mistake and I don’t want to do that, I want to take this opportunity seriously.
I think the first game that we commentate on there’s definitely going to be nerves, the first one we’re giving punditry on, but I’m sure once we’ve gotten that out the way it will be like we’re old hands at it.
Now, Damaris and Rolf will get the chance to observe current commentators and build their skills before going live, and Darren Fletcher will be there to support them every step of the way.
“I think it’s amazing,” enthuses Darren. “Everyone should have the ability to enjoy football in a way that a lot of us take for granted. The fact that it’s been thought about and actioned and these guys are going to have the opportunity to do it, so many people will benefit from that as well, I think it’s wonderful.”
Darren first started presenting in 1993, working for his local radio stations in Nottingham and then went on to join BBC Radio Five Live before commentating on some of the biggest games about including two World cups and a European Championship. Now, he’s ready to share his knowledge with Damaris and Rolf.
“I’m with them every step of the way because I remember when I first got the opportunity to do it I was so excited and I know that’s exactly how they’re feeling,” explains Darren. “They’re going to be nervous but it’s going to be such an unbelievable journey that they’re going to go on, I mean what could be better than the Champions League final? It’s the best game in the world.
“It’s a difficult place to start but what a place to start as well. I just think it’s wonderful the fact that we’re always looking at new ways to be more inclusive, to make sure that everybody can enjoy it. We’ve called it the world’s game for so long when it didn’t necessarily apply, the more strides that we take, that becomes a more realistic sentiment and I think that’s great for everybody.”
With 30 years of broadcasting under his belt, Darren also has some solid advice for the duo.
“When I first started ages ago, somebody said to me: ‘you’re going to make mistakes, you can’t not make mistakes, so make your mistakes with confidence because then people don’t notice they’re mistakes’,” he remembers. “The biggest piece of advice is just enjoy it because we can get too serious about what we do, but at the end of the day everybody watches football to enjoy it, its entertainment, and if you’re enjoying it then everybody else is probably enjoying it.
“I think if you can broadcast with a smile on your face and a spring in your step and you’re happy to be there, then it gives you a great chance to do a good job, so I just hope that they can enjoy it as much as I’ll be enjoying it with them. If they can do that then that’s a great thing.”
Follow Damaris and Rolf from 4 February on BT Sport 1 and EE platforms as they enter their new roles.