By Paul Gardner
Impressive is the word for the panoply of World Cup stuff that ESPN put on show -- briefly -- during a New York press conference earlier this week. We got clips of the promos, peeks at various documentaries, plus all sorts of news about just how seriously ESPN is taking this event. Certainly far more seriously, and far more expensively, than it has ever been taken before in this country.
Most of the stuff I more or less understood. In particular, I like the idea of the documentary featuring the players -- those who are still alive -- who’ve scored a goal in any of the World Cup finals -- the interview with Uruguay’s Alcide Ghiggia, scorer of the winner in 1950, was perfect, and the old black and white footage, primitive indeed, seemed to spring to life. Loved it.
More of that would be perfect. I suppose there will be, but there will also be a lot of stuff that has little or nothing to do with soccer. Which sets me wondering whether ESPN -- and I mean the big executive-type guys -- like executive producer Jed Drake and ESPN’s executive vice president of content John Skipper -- really do believe that soccer can carry its own event, or whether they’re scared that it cannot and feel obliged to throw in all sort of other more showbiz oriented features.
For instance. We were told that ESPN was working with YouTube, which I thought sounded like a good idea (not sure why, but it sounded right, OK?) -- and they proved this by showing us some clips which I didn’t understand until I realized I’d misheard, and it was U2 they were working with. Weren’t they ever -- the usual manic screaming and people leaping about all over the place.
There will also be a documentary called “The Two Escobars” which, on the face of it, seems to link the lives of the notorious drug lord and murderer Pablo Escobar, and the murdered player, Andres Escobar. And, of course, which links the sport of soccer to drugs. I’ll be interested to get a look at that one.
We’ll also get plenty of cultural stuff about South Africa, which has the promise of being intriguing -- though whether it belongs in sports programming, I really don’t know. In short, there will be a great deal of distractingly non-soccer stuff coming your way in between -- maybe even during -- the games. As I said, I wonder about that.
Well, I’m rather sensitive about this sort of thing. I have been to dozens, scores of similar events over the years where we suddenly get non-soccer people involved in the sport, and I have learned to take a dispassionate view of their instant enthusiasm. Am I fair in calling ESPN a “non-soccer” group, then? Not entirely, no. After all, ESPN has been doing MLS and European games for a while now. But, even so ... this is a much bigger commitment, and I couldn’t help feeling that there is some fear among the top brass that Americans are not ready for this.
Early in the conference, John Skipper told us how he’d recently been teaching a journalism class down in North Carolina and, yikes!, he was surprised at the interest the students showed in the World Cup. That anecdote was surely meant to assure everyone (I mean everyone at ESPN) that there are actually people outside New York who follow the sport -- but why on earth would Skipper be surprisedby that?
That can only be because he simply doesn’t know what is going on in this country with soccer. And that’s where I have a problem with ESPN, because despite its soccer telecasts, the sport is still clearly seen in their Bristol, Connecticut fortress as an outcast activity, something to be dragged into the vital SportsCenter program only to be mocked, or to be demeaned by allocating it all of 30 seconds.
Will the World Cup change that mindset? Impossible to say -- especially as the scene has been greatly muddied by the choice of four British play-by-play announcers. Of course there’s history here. Four years ago ESPN suffered a colossal collapse of common sense when it appointed Dave O’Brien as the lead commentator for the 2006 World Cup. A baseball announcer who knew nothing about soccer. A disaster, inevitably.
So, no repeat of an American baseball announcer. In fact, no Americans at all. ESPN, instead of helping to promote American talent, has shoved it brutally aside.
For example: We are asked to believe -- to deal with the matter at the personal level -- that the soccer-experienced American JP Dellacamera is not as good as Ian Darke or Derek Rae or Adrian Healey. I, for one, do not accept that. I think that JP should have had one of those four slots. On merit, not simply because he’s an American, though that fact ought to be taken into consideration.
Who made the decision to go with the British accents? I asked Jed Drake, who reeled off a list of three “production staff” people, names that meant nothing to me. “They’re not soccer people, then?” I asked. Drake explained that he didn’t feel that was necessary for this decision. What were the criteria, I asked. I agreed with most of Drake’s answer because he stressed the importance of announcers who “don’t over-talk the game, who allow it to flow,” -- something that JP apparently cannot do. I’d have to say that Drake did not seem comfortable talking about this topic. His final words were that the verdict on whether ESPN had made a good decision “will be decided by our viewers.” Maybe, though just how many rating points are due to the announcers will be something very difficult to measure.
During this elaborate press conference we saw very little soccer. We saw a lot of culture -- the usual folk-dancing and singing, and that sort of stuff. Here’s hoping that order of priority gets massively reversed once the games start.