UWM alum creates a business interpreting in sign language for pro sports teams

What is Giannis Antetokounmpo in American Sign Language?

All you have to do is fingerspell “Giannis” and everybody understands that you mean the world-famous Milwaukee Bucks player, Brice Christianson says. Because ASL can be a fluid language, some might use the signs for Greek and basketball, but Christianson prefers the more classic approach as understandable to more people who are Deaf and hard of hearing.

Christianson is an alumnus of UWM’s Interpreter Training Program in the School of Education who has made a business out of sports and entertainment interpreting. He launched P-X-P (which stands for “play by play”) two years ago. He’s a professional sign language interpreter and the founder and CEO of the business.

He has interpreted news conferences and ceremonies for the Milwaukee Bucks, and last year he interpreted the state of the league address for National Hockey League commissioner Gary Bettman before the Stanley Cup finals. That was the first time the NHL used an ASL interpreter for the event.

Brice Christianson interprets as Milwaukee Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer talks with media after a recent game. (Screenshot via NBA.com)

“Brice has been and continues to be an incredible resource to the Deaf community,” said Barry Baum, chief communications officer of the Milwaukee Bucks and Fiserv Forum. “Fans in the Deaf community have shown incredible appreciation of having him sign our press conferences for the coach and players, pre-game and post-game.”

Christianson’s career grew out of his family background, though it wasn’t a straight and easy path. Growing up in Appleton, ASL was his first language because both of his parents were Deaf. He remembers going to sporting events with his dad and “interpreting” for him – Christianson puts the quote marks around interpreting because “I had limited language at the time. Whatever I heard, I had to parse together and think of what was important for my dad.”

He initially planned to become a nurse and started school at Western Technical College in La Crosse, but soon found that wasn’t the right career choice for him. But, when he was working as a phlebotomist at Gunderson Lutheran Hospital, he connected with a Deaf patient and discovered a new path.

Brice Christianson interprets as National Hockey League commissioner Gary Bettman talks before the Stanley Cup finals in June. (Photo courtesy of Brice Christianson)

He applied to an ASL Interpreting program in Oregon. However, he needed a letter of recommendation from a certified ASL Interpreter, so he asked a woman who had been his mother’s consistent interpreter in the community. She was a UWM alum, and said she’d write the letter -– if he also applied to UWM.

There was only one problem, Christianson said: “My grades sucked.” He was initially turned down at UWM but wrote a one-page letter of appeal, explaining how passionate he was about becoming an interpreter.

His appeal worked.

“Whoever read my appeal believed in my passion and what I had to say. I never met this person, but when I came here to school, there was always this obligation to make sure that person made the right choice. I was going to get good grades, be on honors and succeed. Everything really started with that person who approved that appeal. I am still grateful for that opportunity.”

Podcast sparks interest

His interest in sports interpreting initially grew out of a podcast he started about the Green Bay Packers five years ago. A good friend, who is now his business partner, is Deaf. That friend suggested he provide interpreting for the podcast to make it accessible for the Deaf community.

“That’s when it clicked. I thought about my dad growing up and then I thought, ‘Yeah, you’re right.’” He started recording video to go with the podcast, adding ASL interpreting. That podcast attracted media attention. “From there I really started looking at the inaccessibility of sports within the Deaf community, but I just didn’t know where to begin.”

He was working as an ASL interpreter when a friend who was a box office manager at the Pabst Theater Group asked if he could help them overhaul their interpreting services. That pro bono effort led to a recommendation when the Fiserv Forum opened and was looking for help with interpreting services. Through that connection he met Kieran Nulty, then vice president of arena experience for the Bucks. Over lunch one day, Christianson suggested the idea of adding ASL interpreting to the Bucks’ fan experience, specifically Coach Mike Budenholzer’s postgame press conference.

While closed captioning is accessible, Christianson said, providing Deaf and hard of hearing fans access to their own visual language conveys more of the emotion, inflection and tone of what is being said.

Profiled in New York Times

Bucks management and Budenholzer liked the idea, and Christianson began interpreting Budenholzer’s postgame news conferences at the start of the 2019 season. Christianson and the Bucks, who were having an amazing season, were profiled in the New York Times.

Then the pandemic changed everything. The NBA shut down in March 2020, then resumed in a bubble at Walt Disney World in Orlando in July, open only to players, coaches and a limited number of staffers.

Christianson had to quickly learn some new skills, so he could continue providing access for the Milwaukee Bucks.

“When the Bucks transitioned to the NBA bubble, I did everything remotely. Everything had been in person before.”

He learned how to do online editing and picture-in-picture videos, which lets the user watch a video in a small window pinned to the corner of the screen. About that time, people began to reach out, “saying what you’re doing is pretty neat,” suggesting he start his own business.

Business expands

P-X-P recently celebrated its second anniversary. In addition to doing sports-related interpreting for the NHL and hockey teams like the Seattle Kraken, the company is involved with other events and entertainment. Christianson works with collaborators Jason Altmann, chief operating officer, and Carly Zimmerman, chief communications officer.

P-X-P has expanded its work with the NHL as well as providing consulting when requested for the Bucks. Christianson continues to interpret the postgame shows with the coach and others. For Fiserv Forum, the firm coordinates all the requests for interpreting services and provides interpreting and consulting services as requested for all the music and entertainment-related shows.

“Things are going well,” Christianson said. “It’s very rewarding and humbling to run your own business.”

‘An easy decision’ for the Bucks

Peter Feigin, president of the Bucks and Fiserv Forum, hired Christianson. Christianson explained so well and eloquently how important this was to Deaf fans, that “it was an easy decision we made to bring him on,” Baum said.

The Bucks were the first NBA team to hire an American Sign Language interpreter, and his work is seen internationally through the team’s social media.

“We hope more teams hire him for his services because it’s very meaningful to a huge community in Milwaukee and beyond,” Baum said. “We hope the work he’s doing with us is noticed by teams all over the country because he is excellent at what he does. We’re thrilled to have him.”

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