Americans want to see the best. We don’t really care where it comes from, but we prefer it be from here. However, we’re not beneath seeing what the rest of the world has to offer, as long as we have the distinct impression that what we’re watching is the best in the world.
The Olympics are a prime example. We don’t necessarily care about figure skating, or field hockey, or track and field, but we want the chance to watch it at its best, and when it means the most. NBC presents it as such, and adds a pageantry to it that lets you know — whether its via the Costas-ian gravitas, the hummable theme song, or the endless self-mythologizing — that what you are watching is important.
That’s not to say that soccer is like figure skating or track and field. Soccer is a team sport with fervent pockets of support in this country, and those pockets are overfilling. Big league soccer (EPL, La Liga, Bundesliga) and world class soccer (World Cup, Euro, Champions League) are big business in this country.
However, the World Cup leads the way, and a rising tide lifts all boats. Unless you play it or are nurtured into it by family, the World Cup is your best chance at laying a foundation of soccer in your life. The tournament is soccer for dummies, every country’s best 11 going at it for a month to determine who gets to taunt the rest of the world. Sure, the leagues are the sport’s lifeblood, but the World Cup is what ignites the passion for many.
So now we look back at 20 years of ESPN covering the World Cup, and more purposefully, the two tournaments they spent taking it seriously. Why did the coverage turn into such a success when the network turned away from the typical American voices, trading them in instead for a cadre of usually British commentators, with some Americans and former players from various countries mixed in?
That’s because ESPN started to choose the people who could best elaborate as to what made this tournament so beloved. You might remember that Bob Ley didn’t work on ESPN’s coverage of the 2002 or 2006 World Cups, but reinstating him as their man wearing the captain’s armband was the easiest decision on earth. Yes, he’s American, but he contains an unequaled knowledge of not only American soccer, but world soccer, and those working around him. Ley knows all of his panelists, and knows what to ask each of them, which is huge for a studio host.
He and Mike Tirico were the perfect people to host this tournament. Ley has credibility with the hardcore soccer fan, while Tirico has credibility with the American sports fan, and his energetic approach more than made up for what he lacked in pure knowledge. They presented this, much like how NBC presents the Olympics, as a travelogue (hello, Wright Thompson essays!), a festival, one big party happening in one of the biggest party countries on earth (that ESPN perhaps under covered the unrest in Brazil is certainly worth bringing up, but mostly, they did the best they could considering).
The rest of the cast is mostly just the best people ESPN could find for the job, which I think explains why they catch on here. Not only are Ian Darke, Jon Champion, Efan Ekoku, Derek Rae and Stewart Robson entertaining, but there’s an inherent belief that they have a credibility on the sport. Taylor Twellman has credibility on U.S. soccer, and certainly was the (unfortunately) perfect person to have commenting on the concussion problems of this tournament. Everyone involved was there for a reason beyond just having the right accent and some knowledge of the sport.
Americans clearly want to see what’s best, and they want to see it presented the best. No offense to Americans in the past who have tried to make it their own (though I will go to the grave saying that Jack Edwards had potential as an American soccer voice), but it just hasn’t worked yet. We haven’t quite developed our own style of soccer commentating. So far, it’s either been mimicry of the English style or a foolish meshing of half-soccer/half-kind of hockey announcing (That said, among the American soccer announcers we have, NBC voice John Strong, MSG’s Steve Cangialosi, and of course JP Delacamera have formed a style that isn’t either).
Sure, it’s not like Matt Vasgersian is an expert in ski jumping, but soccer is inherently different. Soccer has a language, and the people broadcasting these games — be they British in the booth or American or German or Dutch or Argentinian in the studio — have unlocked it and mastered it like Rosetta’s Stone. It is their job to pass it on to the younger generations. That’s where our great soccer voices will come from. But for now, we’re okay taking our cues from the best the beautiful game has to offer.
ESPN was not taking a huge risk doing what they did with the World Cup. $100 million in rights fees comes down to $50 million per tournament, much less than what they’d spend on many of the “big four” leagues. They knew they could probably depend on a certain rating, so if they kept on that path and, to use soccer terminology, parked the bus, it would at least be fine from a business sense.
However, the Worldwide Leader chose a different path, and it very likely changed the face of soccer in this country. No longer was the status quo acceptable, no longer were American soccer fans to be condescended to or flat out ignored. You could argue ESPN is directly responsible for what NBC ended up doing with the English Premier League. Whatever Fox does with the World Cup next will either (hopefully) be hugely influenced by ESPN, or a direct reaction to it.
Soccer is here, and it’s not going away. There will be Gold Cups next year and in 2017, a Confederations Cup that the United States will have a great shot at participating in in 2017. Copa America comes to the United States in 2016, and will run concurrently with Euro 2016 (ESPN’s lone international football left aside from select USMNT qualifiers). Champions League and MLS and EPL and Bundesliga will all be on extremely accessible television stations. Just a little further down the dial, La Liga is, too.
You can see the roots of all that in the decisions of Bristol, to present this event like it probably always should have been. Yes, as a tribute to the hardcore soccer fan, but also as something that could hook even the most casual of observer. This is the most popular event on earth, so why not just give it to Americans the way its given to the people who love it? It took some novel thinking, apparently, but it paid off dearly for ESPN and soccer fans in the end.