The early ratings for the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil has proved so far that it’s been a hit for both ESPN and Univision. And ESPN in its farewell season until at least 2022 is leaving a legacy that willl be hard to match by Fox when it takes over the World Cup next year.
ESPN’s coverage of the 2010 World Cup in South Africa proved that it could cover an international event with the gravitas and respect that it deserved. Before 2010, ESPN would assign announcers who had little to no experience in calling the sport (see Dave O’Brien in 2006) leading American soccer fans to revolt. But it all changed in 2010 when ESPN brought in respected voices such as Martin Tyler and Ian Darke to call matches and soccer maven Bob Ley to be among the hosts.
It was as if a light had been switched in the Bristol, CT offices and much of the credit goes to ESPN President John Skipper, a soccer aficionado for changing the attitudes.
Skip ahead to 2014 and the Worldwide leader is using the template from 2010 and has actually improved on its coverage. While Tyler was dropped and allowed to call the World Cup for the Australian TV rightsholder, the popular Ian Darke was promoted to “A” announcer.
His ESPN English Premier League partner Steve McManaman has teamed with Darke for two games and their chemistry from the 2011-2013 seasons is as good as ever. Darke challenges Macca every so often and their conversations in the booth lead to some interesting points.
Jon Champion has proved to be a very solid “B” announcer with analyst Stewart Robson. Champion who has worked for ESPN UK on the English Premier League and on the world feed of the EPL has come up with solid lines like “There will be no salvation for Spain in Salvador,” during the Netherlands’ rout of Spain on Friday.
Adrian Healey and Derek Rae, World Cup mainstays for ESPN throughout the years are also solid.
ESPN has assembled an impressive roster of World Cup talent as analysts. From the aforementioned McManaman and Robson to Taylor Twellman, Kasey Keller, Ruud van Nistelrooy, Santiago Solari, Roberto Martinez, Michael Ballack and others, these men all bring good insights to the table. While English is not their first language for many, all are able to get their points across.
The only drawback of the analysts is Alexi Lalas who continues to be as stiff as a wooden door and likes to troll fans, but he serves his role well as the main studio analyst next to Bob Ley, Mike Tirico or Lynsey Hipgrave.
And speaking of Hipgrave, to compare to her to the excellent NBC English Premier League host Rebecca Lowe might be unfair, but she has done well on the World Cup Tonight wrap up shows, but seems to be uncomfortable in the host’s chair. Still, she has some time to get her footing on the set.
ESPN’s World Cup Tonight with a relaxed coffee table set and Tirico/Hipgrave leading the conversation has given a new spin on the postgame program. The analysts are able to give their opinions and rib each other. One feature showing Darke and McManaman traveling to Manaus in the Brazilian jungle was one of the funniest that ESPN has produced in quite some time.
The network has proved that it can provide understated and respectful coverage to an event without going over the top and analysts pouting over airtime.
As Fox Sports watches ESPN cover its last World Cup for at least eight years, it has to know that it will have an extremely tough act to follow. Here’s hoping that it can hire some of ESPN’s voices and even bring in Martin Tyler for 2018. There will be a lot of eyeballs watching to see how Fox covers the beautiful game’s ultimate event and soccer fans will be very militant if they suspect a hint of dumbing down or what they perceive as disrespect.
But overall, ESPN is casting a rather large shadow and a long history of covering international soccer as it prepares to hand the World Cup to a new network and new voices.