Will ESPN keep its eye on the ball?

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 surprised by 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.

7 comments about "Will ESPN keep its eye on the ball?".
  1. Brian Herbert, April 16, 2010 at 9:17 a.m.

    I'm glad you are asking ESPN questions and providing critical feedback to them. As an "all sports" network, unlike GOLTV or Fox Soccer Channel, they sometimes do struggle when they get outside their comfort zone of football, basketball, and baseball. A good example is their NASCAR coverage - a sport like soccer that has a core of very passionate fans who are looking for experienced, knowledgeable commentary. They have a split season with TNT and FOX also carrying a portion of the race season, and the consensus among fans that I see on blogs and comments seems to be Fox is best, TNT second, and ESPN third. They have improved their race coverage, but at first it was very weak - which is a concern because with the World Cup they will not get a chance for a mulligan - it needs to be a tested and proven coverage format.
    ESPN when covering a sport outside their core (and I'd even say they've struggled with hockey as well) they come across as "OK, and now that the race (or soccer match, or whatever) is over, let's get back to the sports we really care about." Fox seems to be much better at connecting with the passionate fan no matter what sport it is they are covering. I've heard no mention of in depth profiles of the U.S. squad, or our history in the World Cup, that is huge in connecting with both passionate and casual soccer viewers. I would suggest also doing some sidebars on the Mexican and Honduran teams, as I'm sure there will be many viewers here with affiliation with those countries.

  2. Austin Gomez, April 16, 2010 at 10:04 a.m.

    ESPN and its accompanying affiliates will do a splendid job of editing, promoting, and producing all the World Cup Games in South Africa, 2010.

    PROFESSIONALISM is one of their hallmarks at ESPN. Who are we to question their sporting performance & achievement? At the least, there are showing all the WC Games, which has not been true in the past for American Sports Networks!

    Ave atque Vale, ESPN!

  3. Ted Westervelt, April 16, 2010 at 10:55 a.m.

    Paul, you know the American sports establishment has always responded with feigned surprise to the depth and breadth of interest in the game. It happened in 1926, when a Vienna club played a friendly v the New York Soccer Giants before a sold out Polo Grounds. It happened again in 1966, when American World Cup TV audiences dwarfed expectations. It happened in 1984, when the LA Colosseum sold out for almost every Olympic match. The soccer shock that graces the faces of the American sports establishment has a longer history than the NFL.

    The connection to ESPN soccer coverage has always been a tightrope walk, and the incapability of the American sports establishment to reconcile the long record of popularity of the game with a domestic sports model that can't cash in on it.

    On ONE hand, the number of US supporters has been growing exponentially, the market forces continue to mount and ESPN is trying to posture themselves as a global leader in sports. Their ABC are surely behind this, as they coined the phrase in the 1960s "Wide World of Sports" lead in. More importantly, they are excited about the marketing potential of the next couple of Olympic games.

    On the OTHER hand, we have the multi- billion dollar domestic sports establishment, whose marketing arm has guided ESPN coverage. Soccer, they believe, must be carefully cut to fit into the mozaic of American pro sports. Look no further than MLS for a preview. With USSF blessings, they have carefully constructed a tight niche for the sport whose edges fit nicely with establishment needs. They define the size and control the scope of the potential soccer market, and give fellow establishment investors single entity soccer lockbox into which to deposit their money. It not only perpetuates the closed league monopoly in which they are used to being coddled, it also allows them define the size and scope of the American club game.

    Through this lens, you can see the outlines of ESPN World Cup coverage. Tightly controlled, niche focused, with a foreign accent. An American voice for play-by-play? No. Any mention of the deep and wide history of the game beyond the Gaetjens goal - and not the fact that it was a deflected shot by the father of two NFL kickers? Doubtful. A hyped feature on the Escobars is safer. U2 - not Bruce Springsteen. And all of it as a dry run for the Olympic gold they are really after.

    It's not that ESPN doesn't get soccer, it's that as the leading voice for the closed league American pro sports hierarchy, they don't want to look like they do. They'll play to their ABC globalist parents by placing it in a folksy, quirky international niche, and placate their American sports minders by keeping it there.

  4. Julio Vargas, April 16, 2010 at 11:22 a.m.

    ESPN needs to put the right people as commentators. Meaning, people that knows and have the passion for the game should be the only ones talking before, during and after the games.
    I agree on the comment that ESPN needs to move outside of their comfort zone and put all the effort and time that is needed to broadcast the World Cup successfully. How many viewers ESPN had on the last game between Barcelona and Real Madrid? A game that was not even a championship game, it was just one more game in La Liga. I do not know if it's just me that I am around soccer fans (to include whites, blacks, browns, yellows and greens) or ESPN is having hard time seeing outside of their own bubble. Any world cup game where USA, Mexico, Honduras, Argentina, Uruguay, Brazil, France, Italy, England or Spain would be playing, I think would be a big success. ESPN does not need to separate the viewers by adding British accent, or European Americans, or African Americans or Latinos...they need to consolidate the fans in one bucket as a whole… name “Fútbol, Soccer, Football” Fans. As long as the commentator knows what the hell he is saying…soccer fans and newbies will love it…

  5. Sara Blake, April 16, 2010 at 4:38 p.m.

    At least ESPN knows it has to cover all the games and not just the ones with Americans as the Olympics used to be covered. I disagree with you regarding Dellacamera. For all his experience covering soccer he still can't believe that we know what we are watching. I had to endure him in the MetroStars/RedBull games for too many years. If he would watch and THEN make a comment maybe two things would happen. It would be pertinent and it would be correct. I am looking forward to the English commentators because they know how to describe a game to knowledgeable viewers and not throw a thousand useless and meaningless statistics in because the do it in American Baseball and Throwball.

    I am excited to see these games in HD and I just hope they don't emulate FSC in camera work!

  6. Scott Nelson, April 16, 2010 at 6:07 p.m.

    The U2 connection is less tenuous than you might think. Back in the 80's Bono & U2 were very outspoken activists in the anti-apartheid movement. They participated in the all star "Sun City" protest song and wrote their own songs on the subject such as "Silver & Gold" from the Rattle & Hum albumn. Once apartheid ended, Bono & Mandela had many photo ops together. So there may be no soccer connection with U2, but there is a South Africa connection.

  7. Scott Nelson, April 16, 2010 at 6:14 p.m.

    P.S. I don't mind these sideshows as long as the soccer doesn't get diluted or ""dumbed down" for a casual audience. As far as the announcers go, I'd rather have Ian Darke's spare and straightforward commentary (more in line with Martin Tyler's kind of style) than to listen to an ex US National teamer ignore an important piece of action or even a goal while they prattle on with some story of the time they scored two goals in a friendly with Moldova back in '91. During the last world cup I only lasted three games on ESPN before switching over to Setanta's less distracting German language coverage. I'd be fine with some US announcers, if they'd try to emulate Martin Tyler!

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