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2010 World Cup: Assessing ESPN's Coverage

After Dave O’Brien’s devastating combination of ignorance and high-school Spanish made people apoplectic in Germany, ESPN focused on professionalism for 2010.  They treated soccer like a mature sport.  They sent their best studio hosts.  They paid to bring in the consensus best English language commentators and pundits.  They even reigned in most of the sarcasm about having to cover the highlights.  No one can fault ESPN’s effort preparing for the 2010 World Cup.  The only lingering question is where are the Americans?

I don’t think ESPN has an anti-American conspiracy.  They tried to put on the best show possible, but the foreign presence does send a message.  Soccer is the world’s game, but it’s also an American game.  It’s a game Americans play.  It’s a game Americans watch.  It’s a game Americans think and write about, sometimes intelligently.  The issue should not be making Americans more international, but making soccer more American.

In general, I think the coverage has been quite good.  A few minor points.  I think ESPN is weakened by not having an American-based soccer site in sync with their home page.  Not that Soccernet is a bad website, but it does not fuel the TV coverage the way ESPN.com does.  ESPN doesn’t have a “Buster Olney” or “Adam Schefter” for soccer to jump in and add context with the latest scuttlebutt.  It’s an element I feel they are lacking.  The coverage team is in South Africa, but they could have put on the same show from Bristol.

I also think there are too many dudes.  ESPN, could you have brought one female studio host?  Maybe a sideline reporter besides Rob Stone?  Someone female?  I picture bikini posters on the wall with the faint scent of ammonia and stale beer.  A little feminine presence goes a long way.

Here are some thoughts on individuals.  TBL gets the fame, the fortune and the regular type.  My humble musings are in italics.

Alexi Lalas, analyst: He’s a divisive figure, and we don’t always agree with what he has to say, but so far, we’ve really liked his commentary. (Through the first weekend, his analysis has been similar to what Jay Bilas offers on college hoops.) Lalas is notorious for pushing the envelope, but in our opinion, has reigned himself in when necessary so far. As others have noted, while some former players/coaches on ESPN pull punches because they’re attempting to get back into the sport, Lalas is brutally honest. We should point out he definitely has his detractors. We’d grade him out at a B+ so far.

Duffy: A lot of the hardcore soccer set aren’t Lalas fans.  He’s too much of a homer for my taste.  He has personality and his strength is picking out the little things mid-match.  It seems he would be better utilized in the booth than the studio, perhaps swapping places with Harkes?

Ian Darke & Martin Tyler, play-by-play guys: Lumping them together for two reasons – 1) We’re not familiar enough with them yet to tell them apart, and 2) We can’t find a bloody schedule of what matches they’re calling. At any rate, these two guys are brilliant. They’re erudite, quick-witted, and come off as smarter than the majority of play-by-play announcers we hear in MLB/NBA/NFL. They possess the ability to make a mundane play sound breathtaking. We often find ourselves laughing at how good their banter is; this occasionally happens when we’re listening to the likes of Vin Scully, Bob Costas and Marv Albert.

Duffy: I thought JP Dellacamera should have gotten a chance, but it’s hard to argue with getting the best English language announcers in the sport.  Not American enough is a more tolerable criticism than unprofessional.  I think they have struck an excellent balance between being informative for a casual audience and insightful for a seasoned  audience.  If you are someone with the energy to get worked up over them using their natural term “football,” you need more strife in your life.

Mike Tirico, Chris Fowler, Bob Ley, studio hosts: It’s fairly evident that Ley is a lifelong soccer guy with a deep knowledge of the game and Tirico and Fowler have done their homework. No issues with this group so far.

Duffy: I agree with Jason.  You can tell this was a dream assignment for Bob Ley.  His energy and enthusiasm is palpable and infectious.  Fowler and Tirico are both well researched, seamless and professional.

Ruud Gullit & Roberto Martinez & Steve McManaman & Jurgen Klinsmann, studio analysts: As we see it, the only real weakness in the coverage. Gullit seems to only speak in cliches. And everything he says is painfully obvious, even to non-dire hard soccer fans. Martinez, too, is Captain Obvious. We can’t recall if it was Martinez or Gulli, but after France tied Uruguay, one of them said, “France really misses Zidane.” Well no shit! He’s one of the best players in the country’s history!

McManaman has been the best. His rant after the US tied England should be on Youtube. The minor quibble (from a journalistic point of view, anyway) has been the use of “we” and “our” by Gullit and McManaman. Yes, we understand they once played for Netherlands and England, respectively, but it’s not like you hear Jon Gruden using “we” when talking about the Bucs or John Kruk saying “we” when talking about the Phillies or Cris Collinsworth saying “our” when referencing the Bengals. Once, this seemed to irk Bob Ley; Gullit said something along the lines of “what we have to do” when talking about the Netherlands and Ley made a comment. It didn’t seem to have any impact.

Duffy: I disagree with Jason, here.  Klinsmann and Martinez have been charming and spectacular in my opinion.  McManaman and Gullit are both experienced on television.  I think the cliches with Ruud is mostly an English as a second language issue.  It’s hard to articulate yourself on TV in your first language.  It’s a crutch many non-native speakers (and native-speaking NFL analysts) use.  I don’t have a problem with “we” usage.  If they were using “we” for clubs I could see the criticism, but it’s their countries.  Moreover, they were both international players who played for their country.  Lalas hasn’t used “we” yet homerism has a greater impact on his analysis.

[Photo via Getty]

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