ESPN’s EPL Coverage At Its Best When It Stays Out of the Way

When ESPN won the rights to show Premier League matches in the U.S., the biggest worry for most football fans in America was that the “Worldwide Leader” would somehow ruin the presentation of the game with subpar announcers and other bells and whistles that often make MLS matches annoying to watch.

If today’s Wigan v. Manchester United broadcast is any indication, however, that won’t be the case. ESPN has wisely chosen to leave the match broadcasting itself to the Premier League’s direct feed and presenters the same way Fox Soccer Channel does, rather than shoving Derek Rae and Tommy Smyth into the infamous “Bristol broom closet,” as they did during EURO 2008 and UEFA Champions League broadcasts. ESPN only intruded during the match itself with a handful of graphics; the infamous “Bottom Line” showed up only twice briefly in the second half to show scores — it stays up the entire time during MLS and U.S. National Team matches — and a graphic stating the colors of the kits popped up twice in each half but took nothing away from the broadcast. The few satellite drops ESPN had early on were gone by halftime.

That said, ESPN has a few kinks to work out in its studio presentation.

The studio team of Georgie Bingham and Robbie Mustoe won’t make anyone forget about Setanta Sports’ Paul Dempsey and Pat Dolan, though even Dempsey would admit that Bingham is easier on the eyes than he is. In her first attempt as studio host, though, Bingham appeared a bit less self-assured than she usually is in her reports on ESPN SoccerNet. Several times she seemed to struggle with the timing of the broadcast, misreading a couple of score reports and looking unsure about when to send the broadcast back to the DW Stadium — which, at one point, she called “The WD Stadium.”

To be fair, that might have been more of a problem with direction than with Bingham herself. This was ESPN’s first use of a studio broadcast in conjunction with the EPL feed, and it’s possible that the studio director didn’t have the timing down just yet. This sort of thing made such transitions feel unnecessarily hurried.

As for Mustoe, he’s certainly no worse than Warren Barton as a studio analyst, and he’s a vast improvement over, say, Alexi Lalas or Marcelo Balboa. His biggest flaw might be that he’s a little vanilla. His commentary lacks the sort of penetrating insight that Dolan provides on a regular basis. He’ll explain things well enough, but little that he said made me feel like I was learning something new about the tactics and strategy of the game — the sort of thing that ESPN probably should be giving its viewers in advance of the World Cup.

Perhaps Mustoe was chosen here simply for his EPL experience and his accent. After all, those British accents sure sound a lot more authoritative. I can’t help but wonder, though, if Mustoe would work better with another analyst to play off of him. Having dual studio analysts works well for ESPN’s college basketball broadcasts. (Incidentally, I hear Kenny Hassan is available.)

For the most part, though, these issues are fixable with time and experience. Bingham and Mustoe seem certain to improve as they get more comfortable with the timing of the broadcast, and they only have a small role to play. So long as ESPN leaves the rest of the match presentation to the experts, it will do just fine. Plus, we can be thankful that ESPN actually promoted EPL matches on non-ESPN channels. Usually, the WWL keeps it in the family, but ESPN clearly wants to grow its soccer audience in advance of the World Cup, and it recognizes that a rising tide floats their boat, too. That’s a big plus for everyone.

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