Here’s Part II of our interview with Christopher Harris, aka The Gaffer of EPL Talk. In case you missed Part I, you can check it out here with a lot of great insights on sports blogging and the impact of the blogosphere. In the final part of our interview, The Gaffer talks to AA about soccer coverage in the United States. Specifically, his thoughts on ESPN’s World Cup coverage including their major mistake in South Africa, Ian Darke, Major League Soccer’s viability against the Premier League, and where he sees soccer going in the next five years.
Q: Looking back with more time and perspective, do you think ESPN’s World Cup coverage was a high water mark for soccer coverage in the US?
A: I’d actually be surprised if ESPN made money out of that World Cup. They hired the best talent in the world and created an All-Star cast of the best commentators and pundits in the world. Without any shadow of a doubt, that was the pinnacle, the high point of the best soccer coverage ever experienced in the United States. It may be the best ever, we may never get back to that. I was absolutely amazed by what they did. It wasn’t perfect, there were some mistakes made, but overall it was amazing. Having grown up in the UK till I was 14 and experiencing the best of BBC, ITV, etc. I think this was probably without a doubt the best in the United States, but probably one of the best covered events of soccer anywhere, anytime in the history of the sport.
Q: Ian Darke gained almost a cult following during the World Cup. What are your thoughts on ESPN’s move to hire him full-time? Is that the right move, or should ESPN do more to get an American soccer voice out there?
A: The number one mistake ESPN made during the World Cup was that they had no US born lead commentator that most Americans could connect with. The casual observer probably felt strange, why does ESPN have all these British accents commentating the games?
Ian is actually probably more American in the way he broadcasts games than say Martin Tyler. Martin Tyler is more like a poet – quiet, reserved, but he knows timing. His commentary ebbs and flows and it’s more laid back, more old school. A lot of Darke’s commentating is helped by his boxing commentary, but it’s more American – it’s more exciting, there’s more passion in his voice. For an American audience, they connect to that better. The Donovan goal was a perfect example of Ian Darke calling something and really being biased in favor of the United States and going crazy.
As far as the future goes with Ian Darke being ESPN’s lead commentator for the EPL, and I understand he’ll be doing some MLS games, it’s an extension of the World Cup and his cult following. For the MLS, it’s interesting too because they are looking for a bridge. How can we take a lot of these Premier League fans that watch ESPN at 4:45 PT and get them to watching MLS? Maybe Ian Darke can consciously or subconsciously bring people over to the MLS side.
(On former ESPN announcer JP Dellacamera)
In all of this I think JP got the raw end of the deal. He would have been perfect as a lead commentator for the World Cup and has the quality to be a main focus. Now, I think with him going to Fox Soccer Channel, leading up their coverage of MLS, that says to me behind the scenes maybe he felt wronged or let down by ESPN. I understand where ESPN is coming from, but I think that was one mistake they did make.
Q: Are there other ways for ESPN and FSC to build on their EPL success and help MLS?
A: It’s interesting because I would have thought that after the World Cup there would have been more of a bump for MLS. The bump in terms of viewers and ratings went to the Premier League. It’s almost like watching movies… Some people like foreign films, independent films, mainstream films, but at the end of the day, they’re buying or renting based on quality. I think the same thing applies to soccer. We only have so many hours in a weekend. At the end of the day you’re going to decide on quality. Even though MLS has made strides, the Premier League is basically an All-Star league. For the most part, we’re watching it because of talent on the field, and that is All-Star talent. So, it’s tough business for MLS to compete against the Premier League and I don’t think you win that battle. They need to focus on local markets and get people in the seats and do the best they can on television, but unfortunately it’s a tough challenge.
Q: What are your overall impressions of Fox Soccer Channel?
A: At the end of the day it’s tough for Fox Soccer Channel. To put it lightly, without them we’re screwed as fans of the Premier League in the United States because of the games they provide. For the longest time, Fox has been buying those rights and paying all that money to broadcast the Premier League. When it comes to production value and the sets, they try to run that more cost efficiently. So, it’s not going to be like the WC 2010 set with ESPN where they custom created something on top of a mountain. They don’t have the money for that, so they try to do the best they can with what they have.
ESPN on the other side is fortunate with Fox buying all these rights. ESPN goes to Fox and asks to sublicense those rights. With that, ESPN doesn’t have the pressure, or spending all those millions when they cover the games. In some ways, it’s fortunate because they don’t have to worry about that expense.
One of the most exciting things with Fox is their coverage of games online. They’ve taken the Fox Soccer TV product and made improvements to that. It’s 100% reliable and the amazing thing to me is I can go on there and watch basically any EPL game live on my mobile phone, laptop, and also have another game on television at the same time… FSC tries hard and tries their best, but there is room for improvement. ESPN is fortunate because it’s easier to spend more time and focus to get the few games they do show as top quality.
Q: Where do you see the sport of soccer going in the next five years in the United States? Do you see more commitment to soccer coverage and growth?
A: Without a doubt I see it growing. More commitment and better quality in products. I think we will see more things online with ESPN3 and the number of games they show there. We can see up to four games at once for the Premier League and the functionality they provide is a different mosaic. I can watch games on my computer or my iPhone that I maybe can’t watch on channels like Fox Soccer Plus, that aren’t available on cable. HD has also transformed the game and made it a much better experience. I see it growing in more importance, coverage getting better, and I think over the next few years there will be more and more people coming to soccer in the United States.
Thanks to Chris Harris, one of the absolute best in the blogosphere, for taking the time to talk to AA. Hope you’ve enjoyed his insights on sports blogging and soccer media in the United States. Go check out EPL Talk and the network of sites that cover a variety of leagues around the globe, including Major League Soccer for more great content.