ESPN’s announcement yesterday to appoint Ian Darke as lead commentator for the 2014 FIFA World Cup over Martin Tyler was a landmark decision by the self-acclaimed Worldwide Leader In Sports.
Both Darke and Tyler are accomplished commentators who have a wealth of experience announcing top-level matches. While Tyler is the senior of the two, having announced matches since the 1970s, Darke has been commentating since the 1980s. Both men have worked together in the past. Tyler was the lead commentator for Sky Sports when the satellite company launched its Premier League TV coverage in 1992. Darke was the number two announcer. And, judging by yesterday’s comment by Tyler in the press release, there’s a mutual respect between both professionals.
But that’s where the similarities end. Both commentators have dramatically different styles. Tyler is undoubtedly the world’s best commentator, offering a quieter delivery that builds until the climax of a goal is scored. Tyler uses his words carefully, and sometimes sounds like a poet delivering his lines, except it’s off the cuff as the live action unfolds. Tyler’s commentary is a fine art.
Darke is a more charismatic commentator, offering a style of announcing that feels more intimate and emotional. He talks a lot, and often spins in stories of British tabloid transfer rumors when the action on the pitch begins to stall. He’s more enthusiastic than Tyler. To me, Darke is more of a storyteller, telling you spellbinding stories and keeping you engaged throughout the 90 minutes of the match.
To be frank, ESPN was spoilt for choice. They had the option of choosing Tyler or Darke for their World Cup 2014 lead commentator, but chose the latter. From a business perspective, the appointment of Darke makes perfect sense. He’s loved by soccer fans in the United States. They’ve watched him fondly on Saturday mornings commentating Premier League matches when ESPN had the rights. He will forever be in US soccer folklore for his most famous call (Stateside, at least); see video below.
Plus, ESPN has been featuring Darke in many commentaries for US Men’s National Team games, leading up through qualification for the World Cup 2014 tournament. So there’s a built-in loyalty among US soccer fans toward Darke that is missing from Tyler, who we hear on commentaries in the United States once every two weeks if we’re fortunate.
For ESPN advertising sales and publicity, Darke sells soccer. He’s emotional. He’s effervescent. America has a love affair with Darke, where Darke has become more of a celebrity than a commentator, while Tyler can be dull particularly if matches drag on.
For everything that is perfect about Darke, and he’s certainly an excellent commentator, he’s too much of a cheerleader. He’s the type of commentator who will play to the audience rather than trying to give a more impartial, unbiased commentary like Tyler would (especially if it’s on a world feed). Darke thrives when the USMNT does well, which is one of the reasons why ESPN has selected Darke over Tyler. Darke will attract the USMNT fans and the EPL fans who loved watching games on Saturday mornings on ESPN. But, more importantly, Darke is more likely to attract new sports fans or casual sports fans, pulling them into the game and boosting TV ratings. And that’s what the bottom line is for ESPN. Deliver quality production and content, yes. But the TV ratings will need to hit the goals, to pacify advertisers and generate the revenue to thrive.
Ian Darke is the modern soccer commentator, who has a style that keeps attention-deficit viewers hooked, while knowing how to deliver exactly what ESPN wants, even if being a cheerleader for USMNT is going to unnerve the minority of the viewers who may be cheering for the other team.
While the Darke from a business perspective makes total sense for ESPN, my concern is what happens if the US Men’s National Team and England don’t reach the knockout stage of the World Cup 2014 tournament. I’d argue that a tournament without England and the US Men’s National Team in the Round of 16 and beyond favors Martin Tyler as a commentator over Ian Darke. Darke is very knowledgeable about England and the USMNT, but take him out of that equation, and Tyler is by far the more knowledgeable and gifted announcer. One of Darke’s frustrating traits is that he always pulls in references of the Premier League into his commentary even if neither team has little or nothing to do with England’s top flight league.
Not only was ESPN spoilt for choice between Tyler and Darke, but the US TV viewers who will be watching the World Cup this summer will be spoilt by Ian Darke behind the mic. As I said previously, he’s an accomplished commentator and will do well. But ultimately, as a hardcore soccer fan, I’m disappointed that ESPN has favored TV ratings in its decision making to select Darke instead of Tyler. As a business, I completely understand the decision. But as an art form, I’m envious of whichever media giant hires Tyler to be their lead commentator for this summer’s World Cup.