The retirement of Sir Alex Ferguson last week and the subsequent extensive coverage reminded me just how far soccer has come here in the States. Since I began following soccer as a teenager some eight years ago, the sport wasn’t anywhere near the consciousness of the typical sports fan. Other than myself, there were only a few kids who played FIFA or even knew who someone like Alex Ferguson was. How things have changed. Today many Americans were abuzz with discussions on Fergie’s reign and United’s uncertain future.
But above all the other coverage the story received, it was the attention that ESPN’s SportsCenter gave it that really struck me. Here is the nation’s most important sports program, on its most important network, kicking off their hour of highlights and catchphrases by talking about the end of the tenure of a man whose presence the conscious of the typical American sports fan has only been cemented in the last five years.
Of course, none of this should come as that big of a shock. Sir Alex is not only the manager of the most famous name in the sport but also one of the greatest coaches of all-time. But everything aside, the coverage still brought a smile to my face when I realized that even the “Worldwide Leader in Sports” sees a world soccer story as noteworthy enough to feature on its signature show.
The sight of Gabriele Marcotti being interviewed by Hannah Storm also reminded me of a fact that gave me a more somber feeling: We are at the end of ESPN’s Premier League coverage (when it comes to live broadcasts). The network’s coverage of the league is much more than just what you see on TV, with writers like Marcotti giving American soccer fans insight you wouldn’t normally see. But it’s their on-air productions that have inspired considerable and deserving praise.
When ESPN got Premier League rights just before the 2009-10 season began, it was as if a dream was realized: finally, the biggest name in American sports media was making a huge investment in the game so many of us love. I don’t think I missed a game ESPN broadcasted that season, mainly due to the fact that their matches were shown in HD whereas FOX Soccer had yet to step into that vital medium.
Although ESPN’s magnificent 2010 World Cup coverage probably did more for the sport in the States than can be put into writing, the most important outcome of that summer was arguably the emergence of America’s soccer commentator, Ian Darke.
Darke’s broadcasts were excellent across the board, and his status as fan favorite was guaranteed because thanks to his call of Landon Donovan’s goal against Algeria alone. He then became ESPN’s leading man on the microphone during EPL coverage, and once they hired the affable Steve McManaman the nation’s best commentary team was born.
Both seemed to know exactly how to approach the job of explaining the game they knew so well to an audience that included both novices and self-proclaimed experts. Darke always explained situations in great detail without ever coming across as condescending, while McManaman delivered formidable insights as a man who had seen and won almost everything, all paired with an unmistakable Merseyside accent.
But don’t take it from me. The duo has inspired fake Twitter accounts, nicknames, essentially their own cult, all because of the splendor of their broadcasts. The adoration the two men have received has grown even further in the wake of the consistently negative press FOX’s Gus Johnson experiment has received.
Darke will still be on American televisions to cover US men’s national team games and the 2014 World Cup, but nothing will be able to compare to these past three years when we’d wake up early on Saturday mornings to watch matches that – however dull they might have been – became compulsory viewing due to the voices of two Englishmen.
Who knows, maybe ESPN will acquire the next batch of Premier League rights, and the dream team of Darke and McManaman will return. Today though, their wonderful run is over, and thanks especially to a hilarious compilation that ESPN put together after Sunday’s game, memories of their time as talking heads are guaranteed to be delightful nostalgia.
So, I for one would like to thank Messrs. Darke and McManaman for making the beautiful game a sight not only to behold, but one to hear. Here’s to hoping that NBC’s coverage can live up to one of its predecessors, and that we’ll be seeing Ian and Macca together on our screens sooner rather than later. In the meantime, bye for now.