This week on EPL Talk we’ll bring you exclusive interviews from some of the biggest names in English football such as Andrew Cole and Dwight Yorke, as well as an interview with ESPN pundit Shaka Hislop. Our coverage began last Friday with an exclusive interview with ESPN analyst Tommy Smyth. And it continues today with a glimpse of what it was like to spend five days at sea with Cole, Yorke, Hislop, Smyth and the ESPN crew.
Many of you who read EPL Talk regularly will probably know that I’m no fan of American football. It’s not that I hate the NFL. It’s just that I find it mind numbingly boring, which is only made worse by the multitude of TV commercials that permeate each game.
So when I was approached by ESPN last week to go on a 5-day cruise as part of their “Super Bowl At Sea” viewing party, I was hesitant at first until I learned that the cruise would feature two of the greatest strikers ever to grace the English Premier League, Andrew Cole and Dwight Yorke, as well as ESPN pundits Tommy Smyth and Shaka Hislop. How could I pass up a chance of a lifetime opportunity to interview these players and pundits?
The premise of the cruise was to bring together celebrities from both the American and European codes of football to promote ESPN International’s coverage of the Super Bowl, which was televised live to more than 51 million households in 140 countries and territories throughout Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa, the Middle Easr, Israel, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the Pacific Rim and much of Europe.
While on the journey, the ESPN crew recorded several reports for SportsCenter and Press Pass to be aired during the week on ESPN in the Pacific Rim and Latin America.
During the cruise, I had the opportunity to spend quite a lot of time with Tommy Smyth, had lunch with Dwight Yorke, talked football with Andrew Cole and Shaka Hislop and got to know the former NFL players pretty well who were also on board such as Rod Coleman, Carl Pickens and Norris McCleary.
Here are the stories from my adventures on the high seas with ESPN, Yorke and Cole:
Driving down the highway on the Thursday afternoon before the Super Bowl, it seemed a little surreal to be passing the Sun Life Stadium, the site of the Super Bowl where the TV signal would be beamed to approximately 93 million people worldwide. It was almost as if I was trying to find a way to get as far away from the stadium as possible to watch the game on television. The stadium is 43 miles from my house. Cozumel, my destination, was 610 miles away.
After setting sail from Miami aboard Royal Caribbean’s Navigator of the Seas cruise ship, I was immediately surprised at how many vacationers were walking around wearing Arsenal jerseys. In my first hour, I saw three or four. Some of the people wearing the shirts were either ex-pats or people on holiday from England, but one bloke I struck up a conversation with was from Toronto and was a massive Gooner.
That afternoon, I went up to the deck of the ship to meet the ESPN television crew and watched Tommy Smyth record a couple of segments. Wearing a sombrero and holding a pina colada in one hand, Smyth sat down on a deck chair and started talking about the upcoming Super Bowl and the festivities that were happening aboard the ship. No teleprompters, no scripts. Smyth was a natural. He’s a born talker and definitely has the gift of the gab.
As the afternoon rolled into the evening, I was really impressed by Smyth’s work-rate. The Irishman was all over the place. Talking in front of the camera on the deck, signing autographs and shaking hands wherever he walked, and then moving down a few levels in the shop to record another segment, and then later hosting the first of the evening’s shows from the theater on board. The man is a dynamo.
The next day, the Friday before the Super Bowl, I stood in the crowd and watched Smyth host a TV segment which featured the three NFL players to his right, and the three soccer players to his left. It was my first opportunity to see Andrew Cole, Dwight Yorke and Shaka Hislop in person. Smyth was the ideal person to be in the middle of them. Asking questions of the NFL players and getting their insight into the upcoming Super Bowl. And then asking the soccer players about their thoughts on the Super Bowl and soccer-related topics. The most eyeopening discussion for me was Smyth’s questions to both the NFL and soccer athletes when he asked them about what it was really like to be on the field and how much banter players would get into against their opponents.
A theme that arose in the segment that Smyth hosted ran through the entire weekend. And that was the banter between the soccer players and American footballers about which form of football was better. It was all in good taste. But incredibly the banter lasted throughout the weekend from Friday morning all the way through to Sunday night. There was even a scavenger hunt on board the ship the following day pitting “Football Against Football” with teams captained by the soccer players battling against the NFL athletes. But without a doubt, by the time the cruise was over, the NFL athletes had a better appreciation for soccer and the soccer players, and the soccer players and pundits had a better appreciation of NFL. After chatting with McCleary, Coleman and Pickens, I too had a better appreciation for NFL. All three NFL athletes were down-to-earth, well spoken and a pleasure to meet.
The “Football Against Football” theme was a constant throughout the entire weekend in a couple of different ways.
First, whenever there were functions aboard ship such as an opportunity for vacationers to meet and greet the players, the soccer crew were far more in demand than the NFL players. At times, the NFL players hung back in the shadows while the crowds seemed more interested in chatting with the soccer players and pundits.
Second, there was a private function that allowed the crew members to meet both the NFL and soccer stars in one room. ESPN had a box of American footballs and one box of soccer balls. Both were emblazoned with the ESPN logo. And the crew members who walked into the room had a choice of picking either ball and getting it signed by any of the stars in the room. After between 100-200 ecstatic crew members came into the room, the box of soccer balls was soon depleted. But the box of American footballs was nearly empty but still had plenty for crew members to select from, if they wanted. Pretty soon, ESPN had to grab another box of soccer balls.
In that room, it was a very multicultural experience. You had crew members from around the world. There was a soccer fan from the Middle East who asked Shaka Hislop how he could get a visa to become a soccer player in the States. There were plenty of soccer mad fans from Africa and the Caribbean. There were girls from Australia and South Africa, a few Americans and even a lady from Wales, much to my delight. With it being such a multicultural group, it was interesting to see how popular the soccer players were. And yet again, how the NFL athletes drifted into the background but humbly welcomed anyone who approached them for an autograph.
The other constant theme throughout the entire weekend of the cruise was the popularity of Tommy Smyth. More people approached him aboard the ship and in Mexico than Cole, Yorke, Hislop and the NFL athletes combined. There were constantly people coming up to him and introducing themselves and getting their pictures taken with him. Not everyone knew his name, but there were constantly people complementing him and I heard several “Is that Tommy Smyth?!” questions from the crowds I walked through with him. Ever gracious, Smyth took his time and cracked a few jokes and always gave the strangers his full attention.
With Andrew Cole and Dwight Yorke, I had no idea whether they would both be a prima donna or very down to earth. Out of the two, Cole impressed me the most. He was well spoken, very quiet at times but always humble and a perfect English gentleman. In the first couple of days, Yorke was invisible at times. You would see him at the times when he was supposed to be interviewed. But afterwards he drifted away and didn’t seem to hang out with the crew much or participate in all of the activities. As a result, it was harder to get to know Yorke but during the last 24 hours of the cruise, I had the chance to have spend more time with him: at lunch, on the captain’s bridge and during the Super Bowl. As soon as I got to know him better, he opened up more and once you got to know him, he was great.
For both Yorke and Cole, they were able to walk around the cruise ship and stroll down the Promenade without being bothered by the few thousand cruisegoers walking past.
I didn’t get to spend as much time with Shaka Hislop as I would have liked but every time I was near him, he was the perfect gentleman. Jovial, always good natured, he seemed to always be enjoying life and his role as a pundit for ESPN is a perfect role for him after a distinguished career in the Premier League, World Cup and Major League Soccer.
Throughout the weekend, there was plenty of panel discussions among the athletes hosted by Smyth, and joined by Hislop. When the discussions were more NFL-centered, ESPN International side-line commentator Georgina Ruiz-Sandoval joined in.
While aboard the ship I had the chance to watch ESPN International on the TV in my stateroom. The Saturday morning match between Liverpool and Everton was shown live on the channel. The only difference between the broadcast of the match on ESPN International versus ESPN2 was the TV commercials. Instead of the typical Axe and armed forces commercials, ESPN International showed promos for their upcoming programs. Two, in particular, got my notice. The first was one for Serie A, which is shown by ESPN outside the United States. And the second one was for a program called The Legends Of Cricket, which featured lots of black-and-white archived footage.
The final two stories I want to share with you from the cruise are about Tommy Smyth and the climax of the cruise which was the Super Bowl.
I heard a surreal story from Smyth, which was confirmed by an ESPN employee, that Tommy Smyth is big in Nigeria. Yes, Nigeria. So big in fact that Smyth sometimes receives e-mails from the defense minister of Nigeria commentating on his tactical analysis. And most of the fan mail that Smyth gets is from Nigeria. He’s so big in Nigeria that football supporters there often pass around bootlegs of Smyth’s work throughout the country.
All of the events from the weekend culminated in the big game, the Super Bowl. Sitting in a theater that was converted from an ice skating rink to a viewing party, all of the ESPN crew and athletes were present as we sat down to watch the New Orleans Saints take on the Indianapolis Colts. In the first half of the game, it was very one-sided and looked like it was going to be a blow out win for the Colts when they were 10-0 ahead.
During breaks in the game, and there were plenty of them, I had a couple of conversations with Cole and asked him what he thought. His reaction was that he couldn’t believe how many TV breaks there were in the game. For someone who is so used to an almost fluid 90 minutes of non-stop action in soccer, except for half time, the degree to which TV controls American football instead of American football controlling TV is hard to believe. Sure, the TV commercials are often more appealing to many viewers than the actual game itself, but since we were watching the ESPN International feed, there were no commercials. So the game seemed to drag on even more than usual.
Luckily, the Super Bowl came to life in the second half and it ended up being pretty exciting especially since the underdog won. As soon as the game ended, the ESPN crew and athletes moved outside the theater and began singing “When The Saints Go Marching In,” including Yorke who was having in a party spirit.
The five day cruise opened my eyes to ESPN International’s TV coverage around the world. And as Tommy Smyth said to me, he’s commentating just as many Champions League games as he was before but the only difference is that the games aren’t shown on ESPN in the United States any more. It was a pleasure to get to know ESPN better, and they were the perfect hosts. It was also a honor to meet Cole, Yorke, Hislop, Smyth and the NFL athletes. But the star for me that long Super Bowl weekend wasn’t a New Orleans Saints player. It was Tommy Smyth.