The English Commentator Invasion Of American Soccer
Today, NBC confirmed reports that they have hired Arlo White as their primary play-by-play voice for their brand-new Major League Soccer and U.S. Soccer coverage. As many of you know, White has been the voice of Seattle Sounders FC, and with the new gig will come the end of his affiliation with the Sounders.
This acquisition seals up the play-by-play positions for the two national networks for Major League Soccer, ESPN and NBC. White completes a trio of British announcers, joining ESPN’s Ian Darke and Adrian Healey. It has truly evolved into a new British Invasion.
It seems that the networks have decided that the successful formula for domestic soccer coverage is coupling a British voice with American color commentators. ESPN has enjoyed good ratings pairing Darke and Healey with John Harkes and Taylor Twellman. As we reported before Thanksgiving, Harkes will not return to ESPN as his contract has expired, and Twellman has been promoted.
It’s tough to compare FOX Soccer by numbers to ESPN because their distribution to households is less pervasive. J.P. Dellacamera is a well-respected voice, but Kyle Martino wasn’t the right fit. According to reports, Dellacamera is still under contract with FOX Soccer and had no desire to leave.
If there’s another team that adds credence to pairing a Brit with a Yank, it would be GolTV’s primary coverage team. Phil Schoen has covered soccer for many years, and his English color partner, Ray Hudson, may actually be the best pairing on American television. Hudson’s flair for the dramatic is somewhat polarizing, but there is no doubt that they know the sport and are pros at entertaining. There were some who hoped that Schoen and Hudson could make their way onto the NBC networks, given their individual histories with MLS (Schoen as announcer of the first 4 MLS Cups, Hudson as a Coach for two different franchises).
In the short term I think this move towards British announcers fits the current landscape of those who watch the sport. Major League Soccer has thrived as they’ve adopted European strategies, whether it be catering to independently-organized Supporters Groups, building soccer-specific stadiums, or allowing big spending on foreign talent in certain cases. If there is any concern about Darke’s analysis, it’s a lack of knowledge of American players and the league. Arlo White, as with Healey, has become well-acquainted with the American game, both the talent as well as the style. The vernacular of course is different, but as Premier League and Champions League fixtures have grown in popularity, the target audience for soccer has learned to interpret the British slang.
What I do find unfortunate is that our country seems to have no other domestic talent worthy of the top billing for MLS broadcasts. We’ve seen Rob Stone as a third option at ESPN, but I do not have enough evidence to proclaim my thoughts on his abilities. Obviously Dellacamera and Schoen are top-notch, but guys like Max Bretos and Mark Rogandino haven’t earned high marks yet. Perhaps we’re at the point where some new blood needs to be groomed.
Here’s what I’d like to see: ESPN should realize that MLS isn’t a good fit for Darke. He doesn’t know the league well enough, and that leads to unimpressive commentary. It’s not his fault, he is used to covering a stronger league, and thus the lower quality in MLS matches misses the mark for him. Darke should be reserved for English Premier League and USMNT matches, which plays directly to his strengths. I would focus Darke on European friendlies, the CONCACAF Hexagonal, and the time before and during the 2014 World Cup – basically matches that would be in Darke’s wheelhouse. Adrian Healey is much stronger at covering MLS, and should be the primary MLS voice for ESPN. To supplement the Healey/Twellman partnership, ESPN and/or NBC should begin to develop a younger American play-by-play voice on a second team. Whether it’s Stone or another younger announcer, they need to look to the future.
My conclusion is that, in the short-term, the English flavor in national MLS coverage will be successful and the best course. But soccer is growing in this country, and the domestic sport needs some highly skilled, knowledgeable American voices to be developed – just like our on-field talent. It’s not about being exclusionary, but rather growing our own soccer culture. There’s no doubt that Darke, White, and Healey are great at their craft. Devoting resources to finding the next J.P. Dellacamera may deliver the preeminent voice of American soccer for the generations to come.