One day, the Gippslandia Sport Department Chief was tending to his property with a brushcutter, his headphones in to listen to his favourite podcast, The Howie Games with Mark Howard. To be frank, with nearly nine editions of Gippslandia under his belt, he was feeling pretty chuffed at his self-appointed status as Tyers’ Best Sports Journalist, especially as the small town outside of Traralgon is more known for its arts than sport. The dream was shattered as the upbeat voice in his headphones spoke of his Tyers upbringing.
Writing this edition’s column required our subject to put himself on unfamiliar ground as now he was the centre of attention: we have the podcast host answering questions, rather than him soliciting responses from star guests. In the end, if there were any nerves or pressure, he certainly never showed it.
Mark Howard, or Howie as he’s better known, has become one of the nation’s leading sports commentators, working with Network 10 on the Big Bash since its inception, commentating the AFL for TripleM and hosting a range of motorsport gigs. After chatting to him, Howie’s industrious attitude resonated with me.
He never set out to get on TV, he’s just a regular bloke who’s taken the opportunities as they’ve come along. Howie first moved to Tyers midway through grade six, and it was a far cry from the Sydney lifestyle he’d been accustomed to. He landed in Gippsland after his father, who worked for Australian Paper, received a new posting here, and in those formative teenage years the region had a profound impact on him. Finding himself in the middle of nowhere, having to wear a blazer and socks to his knees, it was his father’s promise of riding a motorbike that was the carrot to make life bearable. Mind you, the motorbike never eventuated.
Soon he was catching the bus up to Gippsland Grammar (STAGGS) in Sale and spending all of his spare time with best mate, Wil Anderson (yep, the funny bloke we interviewed in our sixth edition). At Wil’s dad’s dairy farm there was more than enough room for a good cricket wicket, and with Howie’s old boy coming to the party with a large stretch of felt from the paper mill it was as good a backyard deck as
you could imagine. It was at this age that Howie really developed his love for sports, particularly cricket. As he recalls “I loved it. It was Friday nights and Saturday mornings in the juniors, then I got to play with the old blokes on Saturday afternoons. If it was raining on the way home from school on a Friday night, I’d be so flat, a weekend ruined before it began”.
While still at such an impressionable age, Howie recalls his parents allowing him to play senior cricket and mix in with the older men, knowing full well that he was learning some valuable life lessons along the way. “If you took a wicket and carried on, they’d pull you into line pretty quick”, Howie remembers. The post-game session would be back at the local establishment, Ryan’s Hotel, Traralgon, where the stories would flow as he’d sit in the corner enjoying a lemonade. Perhaps this was the beginning of his love for a good story?
Once high school was done, Howie was off to Melbourne to further his education. While his mate Wil was off to Canberra for a journalism degree, Howie focused on a business degree in sports management. Although, he reveals that, “If I learnt anything at uni, it was how to surf”.
For many people, completing your degree simply marks the beginning of your career, but this adventurous young man only wanted to travel. So he and Tim Harris, a mate from Dumbulk North, took off around the world for a couple of years.
His first real job opportunity came when he returned home, taking on a six-week events-based role with the Australian Grand Prix Corporation, the result of the work he’d done (well, he’d listed it on his CV) with the Calgary Stampede (he’d visited Calgary, at least, and knew they had a stampede). Over the course of the six weeks, he had a problem to solve: a life of travelling and not a lot of work meant that he had no money, but his travel partner, Tim, had fallen in love and was to marry in Argentina. Howie needed to find a way to get there. After quite a few faxes and a lot of begging, the racing broadcasters said, “If you can get to São Paulo, Brazil, for the next race, you can work there as a rigger for us”. Howie pulled it off. The work in São Paulo allowed him to get to Argentina, where he was Tim’s best man and the only Australian at the wedding before he resumed his travels once more.
One afternoon while in Colombia, Howie realised that he was yet to be paid. While calling to follow this up, Howie was told that if he could get to Monaco in just four days he could have some full-time work. In four days, Howie managed to get from Colombia to Melbourne, firstly, where he told his parents he was off to the wealthy European city, and it was here a career began.
In the years following, Howie went from a cable runner to taking care of replays and on-screen graphics, to becoming a producer. The turning point came when he was sent to an unveiling by Ferrari. An opportunity arose where he was able to ask World Champion Formula One driver Michael Schumacher the first couple of questions in front of the world’s media. Michael’s answer to Howie’s initial question was, “I’m sorry, I don’t understand your accent”. Michael’s answer to the second question was exactly the same as the first, and just like that Howie’s interview was done, but he’d developed a taste for more.
After four seasons in motorsport, Howie took on an opportunity to be at the Sydney Olympics with Channel Seven Sport. They saw him as a producer rather than a presenter, but after much begging he was finally given a chance to present his own story, capturing a piece on World Champion surfer Kelly Slater. This small spot helped him land a role with Channel 10 where he began doing a range of things, from quirky news stories to commentating the V8 Supercars.
Some of us are fortunate to meet someone that spots qualities in us that we may not see ourselves, and then support us all the way. For Howie, David Barham, Channel Ten’s Head of Sport, was just this person. When the station landed the Big Bash cricket league (a huge deal for the network at the time), Howie hoped that he’d get to play a small role. But when David asked if he could call the cricket, Howie quickly responded, “Of course I can!”.
From being with the Big Bash since the beginning, Howie has also graduated from being an AFL boundary rider to one of Triple M’s footy commentary panel, all while maintaining his work with the Melbourne Grand Prix. Again motorsport sparked his next venture. “I’d just sat down with Lewis Hamilton for a five-minute interview, which lasted 25 minutes. We had a great chat, but by the time we went to air only six minutes of that interview was aired in our 30 hours of [Grand Prix] coverage that weekend”.
Howie was shattered. There was so much more to Hamilton’s story that he wanted to share. The producer suggested that he should do a podcast. “What’s a podcast?” replied Howie. He did the research, went for a surf and The Howie Games was born. “I remember when we did the first episode on Adam Gilchrist. In ten days, 100 people had downloaded it. I was thinking, ‘How good is this?!’. Today, two years since that first podcast, The Howie Games podcasts have had 13.5 million downloads.
If you haven’t listened to The Howie Games then you should, as he has a way of engaging with guests that allows you to get to know the people behind the stories. He’s explored surfer Mick Fanning’s journey, Jason McCartney’s big return to football following the 2002 Bali bombings and chatted with Gippsland’s own, cricketer Peter Siddle, capturing their stories in such a way that it allows you to connect with the person, not the athlete.
When asking Howie to pick a favourite interviewee, he struggles to find the words, “It’s like choosing between your children”, he says (which are the Big Penguin and the Pickle, as fans would know). He explains that interviewing Greg Norman was a huge moment for him, given the legendary reputation and busy schedule of the golfer. World War Two veteran and Essendon footballer (1946–54) Jack Jones, although different to his regular guests, is the greatest man he’s ever hosted, which is saying something given it’s Australia’s top-rated sports podcast.
Looking back on his years at Tyers, Howie was both surprised and disappointed to learn that the Tyers Cricket Club, a place that played such a significant role in his upbringing, no longer exists. “It’s disappointing. So many of the issues in today’s society don’t happen when people have a place they belong, be that a book club or a sporting club. These places offer a sense of community and support”.
Although he doesn’t get back to Gippsland these days, those early years of cricket, friends he made at school, and canoeing in the Latrobe River with his father are memories that’ll last forever.
Many of us may look on in awe at these great sporting talents, all he sees are normal people who are exceptional at what they do. As a fan of Howie’s podcast and having had the pleasure of chatting with him, I’d say he’s exceptional, both as a person and in what he does. If I’m to be the second-best sporting journo from Tyers, then second place behind this guy isn’t too bad!
Note: If all the other talented sporting journalists from Tyers could please refrain from making themselves known to me, it’d be much appreciated!