ESPN Continues to Improve Its Premier League Production for US Viewers

ESPN's Ian Darke

It’s been a joy so far watching how ESPN’s broadcast of the Premier League on Saturday mornings has evolved. It’s grown, in such a short amount of time, to more of a Premier League show than just a soccer match. Today’s broadcast of the Bolton Wanderers versus Tottenham Hotspur was a perfect example of that.

Consider the pre-match analysis and team line-ups broadcast live directly to viewers in the United States. In the build-up to the game, we had a chance for the excitement to build up ’til the kick-off as opposed to Fox Soccer Channel which often throws you suddenly into a match without a chance to analyze or show the team-lineups and who’s actually playing.

And when the Bolton versus Spurs match began, we had Ian Darke and Efan Ekoku commentating on the match and enjoying a jovial banter between the two. At times, some of the things they said for the American audience seemed a bit too forced, but overall the sincerity shone through and you can see and hear that they’re trying to bring the game into American homes in a quality fashion rather than talking down to the audience.

At half-time during a very entertaining game, we then had Rebecca Lowe give us a great behind-the-scenes peek at the hotel which is connected to the Reebok Stadium so you can see how some of the bedroom windows overlook the pitch itself. It was short, informative but definitely something you don’t normally see, which I appreciated.

After the thoroughly entertaining match ended, the show wasn’t over. Darke introduced us to his interview with Clint Dempsey. While the interview wasn’t hard-hitting, we did learn a few things about the personal side of Dempsey as well as the revelation that he doesn’t follow Major League Soccer much from his home in England and has lost touch with what’s going on in the US domestic league.

Darke and Ekoku also enjoyed a discussion of the controversial Nani goal from last weekend and featured analysis from former referee Steve Bennett as he shared his insight on who made mistakes regarding the incident.

All in all it was a brilliant production and shows a wonderful glimpse of what ESPN does best, which is to attract viewers and keep them loyal. What I find particularly interesting is the way that ESPN shows these Premier League matches feels as American as Major League Soccer games are that are shown on the same network. In fact, if anything, the Premier League matches feel more American. It feels like I’m watching the 2010 World Cup again with the world-class commentators such as Darke and Ekoku in action. The soccer shown is just as entertaining and at a high level like the World Cup. And the way that the familiar voice of Darke brings the game into your home feels very comforting and natural.

However, not everything is smelling like roses for viewers watching soccer games on ESPN. One advantage of the Bolton against Tottenham match for viewers in the United States was that it was the early kick-off. And more importantly there were no other matches played at the same time. What ESPN2 does best is the early Saturday morning kickoff. But when they televise Premier League matches that are being played at the same time as others, as they do on some Saturdays and some weekdays, the experience is ruined. Darke has the annoying habit of mentioning scores from other games. Plus the ticker runs across the bottom revealing scores of other matches, and the whole ritual of enjoying the Premier League experience, one game at a time, is wrecked.

What that tactic ends up doing is ruining the TV ratings for Fox Soccer Channel and Fox Soccer Plus. When soccer fans know what the score is of a match that is being shown (and probably recorded by that soccer fan) on Fox, chances are they may not watch it or they may fast forward to the end to see the goals. But how would ESPN like it if the tables were turned and Fox Soccer Channel told viewers what the score was of the ESPN2 match? ESPN’s TV ratings would take a hit.

I don’t believe ESPN is doing what they do to intentionally hurt Fox Soccer Channel. I’m sure they believe that Americans would prefer to know what’s happening in the other matches being played simultaneously rather than pretend that they’re not happening. But for the vast majority of die-hard soccer fans who prefer to tape games and watch them in their entirety, ESPN ruins that experience. Luckily, for the most part, ESPN2 shows Premier League matches when no other games are being played, so the damage is limited. But just wait til Wednesday’s Manchester derby on ESPN2 when Ian Darke will probably reveal the scores from the other matches that are being played at the same time. Games such as Chelsea against Fulham and Wigan versus Liverpool.

Overall, though, ESPN has been doing a stellar job with presenting Premier League soccer to an American audience. With a few important tweaks they can be as flawless as they were in the 2010 World Cup. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that they’ll see the light and make the necessary changes in the coming weeks.


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