ESPN Beats FOX Soccer In Opening Day of Premier League TV Coverage

With no early kick-off on Saturday, the opening day of the 2011-12 Premier League season gave viewers in the United States a good chance to watch the 30-minute pre-game shows on FOX Soccer and ESPN2.

FOX Soccer launched their new name, new branding and new studio on Saturday morning on their Match Day show (previously known as Fox Soccer Match Day). ESPN2, meanwhile, had their 30-minute pre-game show leading up to the kickoff between Fulham and Aston Villa. This was a perfect opportunity to compare both shows side-by-side, as well as the half-time and post-match shows.

ESPN2 pre-game show

ESPN2 began their 9:30am ET broadcast brightly with a shot of Ian Darke standing alongside the River Thames on a sunny Saturday afternoon in west London. Darke immediately put the game into context by mentioning the London riots, but then turning his attention to one of the most picturesque grounds in English football, Craven Cottage. “The drama starts here,” quipped Ian Darke.

After the opening titles, the broadcast showed some footage we don’t usually get to see in other games. Players getting off the bus, and manager Martin Jol pacing back-and-forth beside the cottage. Then the camera zoomed in to Darke and Steve McManaman standing in the gantry at Craven Cottage with the beautiful and historic Johnny Haynes Stand and the famous cottage over their shoulders. Darke and McManaman then spoke about the London riots again and how great it was that the football was on, when it was at great risk of being cancelled.

The suspense and excitement immediately started to build as you could tell it was a live shot of the two of them as you saw the players warming up on the pitch behind them, and the fans streaming in to the ground.

After a brief video montage of what transpired in the Premier League from the end of last season until this weekend, such as transfer signings and players leaving clubs, the duo returned to talk about Robbie Keane possibly on his way to LA Galaxy and which clubs have been the biggest spenders this summer. This was followed by McManaman’s prediction regarding how the top six will finish in the Premier League.

ESPN then superimposed the team lineup for Aston Villa on top of the live footage of players training at Craven Cottage. At the same time, we were able to hear the sounds of the stadium announcer chatting away on the tannoy. This was followed by an exclusive interview with Aston Villa goalkeeper Shay Given walking through a garden as well as an exclusive interview with new Fulham manager Martin Jol, standing in front of the cottage. This was followed by an exclusive interview with Alex McLeish (despite the initial technical difficulties).

Following this, Darke and McManaman had a very detailed analysis of Aston Villa and Fulham — in terms of the players that Villa had lost, as well as how Fulham can push on this season.

After returning from the commercial break, the ESPN2 broadcast then showed the Fulham and Aston Villa players lining up alongside the cottage and preparing for their entrance on to the pitch. ESPN2 stayed with the players all the way on to the pitch so there were no commercial breaks until the end of the first half.

FOX Soccer Match Day

In contrast, FOX Soccer kicked off Match Day with Christian Miles standing on the set of the new studio advising viewers to “sit back and relax. Match Day starts right here and right now,” which then went in directly to a sponsorship announcement from DirecTV.

After some NFL-esque intro music, the cameras zoomed in to Miles and Warren Barton sitting behind a desk on their impressive, sparkling set. FOX Soccer then jumped into a mini-review of the 2011-12 Premier League season featuring highlights from some of the best goals, which was followed by a review of how the Premier League table ended.

Barton then jumped in to analysis of Manchester United, Manchester City, Liverpool, Arsenal and Chelsea — and the changes and signings the clubs have made this summer. Some brief analysis of who Barton thought would win the league was followed by a brief update on the three clubs promoted from the Championship to the Premier League (QPR, Norwich and Swansea).

After coming back from a commercial, FOX Soccer showed highlights of the Community Shield and then continued the conversation about the match as the cameras zoomed in on Barton and Miles who were sitting cross-legged on ugly gray chairs (someone needs to tell Barton to ditch the ugly brown shoes which he also wore for the Champions League Final in May). Barton then began a discussion about the riots and showed footage of the destruction in London.

After 16 minutes of coverage, FOX Soccer Match Day finally began discussing Liverpool against Sunderland. Reporter Simon Crabtree was at Anfield to interview Steve Bruce about the game and what the season has in store.

Returning to the studio, FOX Soccer called up Jamie Trecker to share his analysis regarding the summer transfer signings involving Kun Aguero, Luis Enrique, and Arsenal duo Fabregas and Nasri.

After breaking for another commercial, FOX Soccer returned with the team line-ups for Liverpool and Sunderland before breaking for yet another commercial after only a couple of minutes of analysis. When they returned once again, there was a brief shot of the players in the Liverpool tunnel. Barton then provided some more analysis regarding Sunderland and Liverpool. After only a minute or two of analysis, FOX Soccer yet again broke for another commercial.

When they came back, the players were at the center circle getting ready to kick off. We missed the teams lining up and shaking hands and all of the pre-match activity that we saw on ESPN2 for their coverage of the Fulham against Aston Villa game.

ESPN2 half-time and post-game show

In a welcome return to a feature that they had last season, ESPN2 had a very informative and interesting half-time segment. This time it was focused on what the experience is like for soccer supporters arriving at Putney Bridge Station and making their way through Bishop’s Park, past the Johnny Haynes Stand on Stevenage Road, and a little bit of a history lesson about the famous cottage.

In the post-game show, Darke and McManaman spent ten minutes talking about the results from the other games as well as previewing Monday’s match between Manchester City and Swansea.

FOX Soccer Match Day half-time and post-game show

No surprises here. During the half-time and post-game show, it was the same old story. Showing highlights from the first half and second half, as well as highlights from some of the other games. There was little to no reason to watch either the half-time or post-game show unless you missed some of the game.

Comparing FOX Soccer and ESPN2

Without a doubt, ESPN’s pre-game coverage was far superior to what FOX Soccer provided. For example:

  1. Ian Darke and Steve McManaman will always trump Christian Miles and Warren Barton. Darke and McManaman have a great chemistry together and that comes through the television set. When they’re on-screen, you want to listen to what they have to say — whether it’s the intelligent analysis, jokes or insight about the latest breaking transfer news. Miles and Barton are too scripted and too stiff on set. I’d much prefer to see Eric Wynalda on screen than Miles. At least Wynalda is more charismatic.
  2. Being on-site in England will always trump a studio set in Los Angeles, no matter how pretty or expensive it is. When Darke and McManaman report live from England, it’s instantly authentic. Nothing can beat being at the ground especially when they have a great camera position in the stadium. It’s worth every dollar spent. For FOX Soccer, being in a studio is a cold environment. The studio could be anywhere. There is little to no authenticity.
  3. FOX Soccer has far more commercial breaks. ESPN2 broke for its first commercial 21 minutes into their pre-game coverage. FOX Soccer did it after nine minutes. After that ESPN2 had no commercials until the end of the first half. FOX Soccer had three more before the match kicked off.
  4. ESPN2 has more and better analysis of the pre-game. While FOX Soccer tried to cram so much news and highlights into their 30 minutes, ESPN2 — with the advantage of fewer commercials — spent more time analyzing Aston Villa and Fulham, which helped increase the suspense for the game.
  5. ESPN2 had more interviews. While it obviously helps being on-site, ESPN2 used that to the advantage by having several interviews shown during the pre-game analysis compared to the one Steve Bruce interview that FOX Soccer showed.

To be fair to FOX Soccer, Match Day was not meant to be 30 minutes of Liverpool versus Sunderland analysis leading up to the kick-off. They purposely tried to cover several different topics involving other clubs. ESPN2 preferred to focus more on the game at hand with some analysis of what else was happening in the Premier League.

One of the biggest differences between ESPN’s broadcast and the one done by FOX Soccer is that ESPN’s feels more natural. You can hear and sense the excitement coming out of the voices of McManaman and Darke. Again, their broadcast feels more authentic. The ESPN duo could talk for hours and I wouldn’t get bored. Their conversations seem natural and unscripted.

As for FOX Soccer, I was very disappointed with their broadcast. While the new logo looks great, I found no reason why I should watch Match Day for the rest of the season. And the same goes for their half-time and post-game shows. I didn’t hear or learn one piece of interesting information.

FOX Soccer would be wise to dump Miles and Barton, and make better use of their set and graphics by putting Bobby McMahon and Eric Wynalda in those chairs. At least then you would hear expert analysis that comes from their heart and minds instead of from a teleprompter.

It’s obvious that FOX Soccer has spent a significant amount of money to improve their broadcast for the 2011-12 Premier League season. However, that money will be largely wasted unless they make some dramatic changes to convince viewers why they should tune in before games, at half-time or after games.

With ESPN, they’ve shown a way to make pre-game, half-time and post-match analysis must-see TV.


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